Past lingers on in crumbled ruins of Canyon de Chelly

East of Grand Canyon and southwest of Mesa Verde lies the much less visited Canyon de Chelly (de shay). A national monument since 1931, this area combines sculptured beauty with a living past.

The 130 square miles making up the Canyon de Chelly- Canyon del Muerto Park are leased from the Navajo tribe. And members who shun technology still farm the canyon floor, entering each spring to plant corn, melons, and squash, to tend peach trees, and graze sheep and goats. In the fall an exodus to the rim occurs, for winter months bring subzero temperatures. Because this remains private land, access to the canyon floor -- with one brief eighth-of-a-mile exception -- is possible only with an authorized guide.

Many visitors, therefore, choose a canyon tour (available, weather permitting , April 1-Oct 31). Half- or full-day trips originate at Justin's Thunderbird Lodge at the monument entrance.

Perched on the open bed of a 1950s six-wheel-drive Army truck, tour participants pass signs reinforcing permission restrictions and hear the reminder that pictures of the Navajo people may not be taken.

There's a sudden turn as the truck lurches, seeking the stream bed that serves as a road, and the canyon presents to viewers -- gripping their bench seats -- a collage of time's continuum. Red sandstone walls (dating back nearly 230 million years), stained with darker streaks of manganese and ore, house more than 100 major ruins -- symbols, like cast-off shells, of man's passing.

In mute syllables, crumbling rubble speaks of days 1,300 years before Columbus spotted America, for in approximately AD 200 seminomadic people settled here. Termed by scientists "basketmakers," in honor of their weaving skill, these people constructed game nets of yucca fiber and human hair which measured 200 feet in length.

More permanent quarters appeared around AD 450, fragments of which still exist. The most famous is Mummy Cave, which was used continuously for more than 1,000 years. During the ensuing Pueblo Period, apartment rows built of stone masonry were created in recesses of perpendicular walls along the canyon. Such high locations undoubtedly discouraged enemy attack, conserved farming space, and avoided flash floods.

The Great Pueblo Period added tall, towerlike structures (the purpose of which is unclear) in the cliff dwellings. Then, as the 14th century dawned, the inhabitants began leaving, perhaps because of the increase in marauding Indian bands, forerunners of the Apache and Navajo, or of drought, or both. This paved the way for the next chapter, the dramatic saga of the Navajo Nation -- an unfinished tale, palpable throughout the geological splendor and the poignant mystique of the ruins, which convey a fragility reminiscent of temporary sand castles.

Such a feeling intensifies at First Ruin, the initial tour stop. A 10-room compound boasting two kivas (circular chambers important in religious ceremonies featuring a symbolic entrance to the underworld), this ruin poses in hornet-nest fashion a sixth of the way up the 600-foot canyon side.

And then truck changes gears, bouncing and rocking over a suspicious patch of sand which grabs at the tires. Freed, the vehicle guns past hogans and murmuring cottonwoods (set out in the 1930s), by horses and foals and fields staked out in neat precision, past an absence of sophisticated intrusion -- no running water, no TV antennas -- to another stop.

The guide's arm sweeps toward a towering wall to indicate petroglyphs (designs carved into the rocks) and pictographs painted in the early 1800s. These records tell of local concern and of far-reaching effects -- such as the procession of Spanish conquistadors and priests prominent against a rust-colored background.

And two of these vivid decorations have given names to popular spots -- Standing Cow Ruin and Antelope House. At Antelope House, distinguished by a colorful antelope designed more than 150 years ago, the truck halts, and travelers may inspect an excavated 40-room village on the canyon floor. Protected from the weather by an overhanging cliff, it is also protected from souvenir hunters by a fence. But serving as an hors d'oeuvre, Antelope House merely whets the appetite for the treat awaiting at White House -- the single ruin to which an unescorted public may hike along a mile-long trail from the rim to a one-eighth- mile boundary marked on the floor.

As the truck approaches White House, the inaccessible upper ledge of the two-story edifice delights the eye with its innocence. Its bright white-plastered wall, erected nine centuries ago, still shines with a pristine glow. The driver brakes, and those who jump from the truck may wander through the jagged landscape. And if it seems difficult to visualize those first people who walked upon this ground, possibly a more recent past is easier to imagine, for within these walls the Navajos sought sanctuary.

By the mid-1700s, the Navajos (given the name the Apache de Navajo, or "Strangers of the Cultivated Fields," by Spanish explorers) began occupying the canyon and its tributaries. They knew this canyon as "tsegi," a word the Spanish pronounced "day shay-yee."

The warlike Navajos raided other Indian villages and Spanish settlements, which led to reprisals and the famous story of Massacre Cave, a site pointed out by the guide. In the winter of 1804-05 Spanish soldiers trained guns upon the Navajos, who hid in a high indented shelter armed only with bows and arrows. Although reports vary as to the number of Indians killed, the outrage of this slaughter still seeps through the retelling.

As Americans ventured into the South- west, military campaigns to subdue the Indians increased. And in 1864, Kit Carson, leading a detachment of US Cavalry, broke the Navajo power. In the spring of that year, the Indians embarked on "the Long Week," 300 miles to the Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Summer, N.M. Throughout a long period of inadequate food and care, the population dwindled from an original 8,500. Finally in 1868, after signing peace treaty, the survivors started home -- to Canyon de Chelly.

Fact mingles with legend in tales that illustrate antagonism between Navajo and Hopi, though admitting the Hopis' contribution in introducing fruit trees to the riverbank soil, in etching kachinas on the walls. And legends grow in the recounting to gullible tourists. One fictionalized version maintains that at famous Spider Rock, Navajo parents threatened their children with Spider Woman, who lived atop the soaring spire of sandstone that juts 800 feet above the canyon floor.

At the bottom of Spider Rock two lookout points -- one neatly fitted into the angle formed at the base -- suggest scenes from another era, for such lookouts, always at strategic places, were probably used since the Navajos claimed the canyon.

As the truck swings away from this monolith, other rocks assume additional meaning. As sunlight shifts, creating early shadows (possibly why most caves containing major ruins face south), colors deepen, the strata reveal faces, and whittled pockets hint at animal forms.

As an addendum to the canyon tour, or for those unable to take it, a 22-mile drive around the rim offers unique perspectives. South Rim, almost always passable, has five overlook points. With binoculars, pages from this region's narrative can be examined. North Rim furnishes four more overlooks as well as a chance to gaze down undisturbed upon hogans and loosely thatched summer shelters , practical for hot desert nights.

For an in-depth study of possessions left by cliff dwellers, the Visitor Center provides artifacts and history (not yet definitive) of excavations commenced almost a century ago when the Smithsonian Institution sent a party as far as Mummy Cave in Canyon del Muerto ("Canyon of the Dead").

Near the Visitor Center lies the 94-unit Cottonwood Campground, open all year. Designated a Class A facility by the US Department of the Interior, this area (in a grove of tall cottonwood trees at the mouth of the canyon) offers fireplaces, tables, and restrooms. For additional information write to Canyon de Chelly National Monument Box 588, Chinles, AZ86503.

Within the park, Justin's Thunderbird Lodge (whose cafeteria served as a trading post until 1969) provides the only accommodations.

Gas, food, and lodging are available in the nearby town of Chinle, a Navajo-dominated community on Arizona Highway 63.

Meanwhile, the past lingers in tangible patterns still subject to evolution. Someday the wind and rain that nibble at the rocks and create a strange terrain may alter the current Canyon de Chelly. But until then, the canyon opens its pages, underlining paragraphs of history, and hands up its message for modern man's interpretation.

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