Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Canyon de Chelly

By Kathleen Hinton-BraatenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 1983

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Ariz.

The silence is immense. The cliffs are here red, there bleached almost white; in places, they are streaked with black, as if some enormous paint bucket was tipped over at the edge of the earth. Only at the canyon floor level can you appreciate the immense height of the walls, extending 30 feet at the mouth to almost 1,000 feet at Spider Rock.

Skip to next paragraph

But there is a human scale here, too. Dusty cottonwood trees shelter summer Navajo hogans, while groups of donkeys wait watchfully behind fences enclosing privately owned land. Pairs of stallions and mares run wild, nervously starting and stopping as you do the same.

The Canyon de Chelly National Monument is in northeastern Arizona, in the Four Corners area where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado have arbitrarily sliced out separate territories from a geologically unified region: the Colorado Plateau.

During the last Ice Age, water was shaping this natural work of art. This area was subjected to unimaginable rains and floods - waters thick with abrasive sand and stone, all twisting, grinding, whipping the solid rock as if it were mere clay or dough. ''Accelerated erosion,'' the experts call it.

The violent process of wearing down continued until it had reached the depths of sandstone and shale laid in the early Permian Period - around 230 million years ago. The result: bulging overhangs sheltering pueblo-occupied caves, knife-cut slices of stone, chunky blocks waiting to tumble - sand it all once was and sand it will no doubt become again.

Water, flowing over the cliff's edge above, has dissolved the manganese in the characteristic sandstone of the area and produced the blue-black markings, which are then polished to a gleam by wind-blown sand.

If the streaks but reached to the very floor of the canyon, there would perhaps be thousands of petroglyphs - rock-carved designs - to memorialize almost 1,800 years of human occupation. There are indeed petroglyphs - and more than 800 historic and prehistoric Indian village sites. But they are far outnumbered by the designs and figures executed by painting with mineral or vegetable pigments.

Petroglyphs require a darkened background and the laborious task of cutting and gouging the rock until the desired image appears. Painting, on the other hand, was both the easier and almost the only alternative in these Arizona canyons. A reward for the traveler who ventures into the canyons on foot or on horseback is the pleasure of very closely examining these messages of bygone peoples.

When I entered the canyons on a chilly morning in March, however, I was less interested in geological formations than in staying reasonably warm. The cold almost stung, and the purity of the light outlined all objects as if scraped with a clean blade. In early spring, Chinle Wash - at the mouth of the main canyon - is a thick swath of clayey mud, whipped into abstract forms by the aftermath of the winter's snow.

In this shifting wintry sea of mud, sand, quicksand, and, sometimes, ice, there is no place for the trucks that cruise the canyons during the hot dry summers, when the canyon floor has lost its appetite for swallowing vehicles that venture there before wisdom recommends it.

But the North and South Rim drives overlooking both the Canyon del Muerto and the main canyon are open year-round. At least one such overview ought to be mandatory on any itinerary and, coupled with a foray into the canyon on foot, on horseback or by jeep, will give you a keen sense of the scope and variety of shapes and colors of this sandstone masterwork.

The entire Canyon de Chelly National Monument is part of the huge Navajo reservation. Although Navajo history here has been significant, fiercely dramatic and tragic as well, the Navajos are relative latecomers to the canyons. To your eye, as you move from cliff dwellings to hogan to petroglyph - perhaps dazed by the deepness of the blue in the sky or startled by the sudden chill as winds abruptly begin to churn and the sun is obscured by cottony clouds - history may seem a mixed affair. You might as well have some guidelines for what has happened here.

In prehistoric times, the Four Corners region was the home territory for the Anasazi. Their descendants are among the best known of Southwestern Pueblo Indians - the Hopi in the mesa region west of Canyon de Chelly, the Zunis south of Gallup in New Mexico, and the various linguistic groups settled in the Rio Grande Pueblos - many near Santa Fe.