Canyon de Chelly

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.

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.

It is still a question as to when the Anasazi first settled in Canyon de Chelly and its linking canyons, but ruins have been dated as far back as AD 350 and extending up to about 1300. The 200 years preceding their only partly explained exodus from Canyon de Chelly is called by archaeologists the era of the Great Pueblos. It was in this time that the Anasazi constructed the Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, the 200-room Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, and the multistory adobe and stone masonry dwellings in the White House, Mummy Cave, and Antelope House ruins in Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto.

The Navajo Indians probably arrived in the Southwest between the 13th and 16 th centuries, along with the linguistically related Apaches. It was not until the 1750s that the Navajos settled in the Canyon de Chelly area in a permanent fashion.

By that decade, the Spanish had been in the Southwest for more than two centuries. As the Navajos became increasingly aware of the Spaniards' limited ability to control and protect the territory they had claimed, they began raiding settlements. After the Mexican War and the American occupation of the Southwest, they became the enemies of the Americans as well.

This evolution of events led to one tragedy after another. Massacre Cave was the setting for one Spanish attempt, in 1805, to bring the Navajos to their knees. Though seemingly in a perfect hiding place - a cave 600 feet from the canyon floor with unscalable cliffs above, with steep slopes and sheer cliff below - the presence of the Navajos was betrayed by one of their own. Their way to the cave was then discovered and all but one were massacred.

In 1863-64, the Navajos were brought into submission to American authority by Kit Carson's campaign against them. The Navajos were forced out of Canyon de Chelly and marched off to Bosque Redondo - 300 miles away in New Mexico. This was the Long Walk, a still painful and bitter memory to the Navajo people.

Though the idea of the Bosque Redondo resettlement may not have been intended as an entirely ignoble one, it was completely alien to the needs and spirit of the Navajos and was executed with brutal destruction of livestock and thousands of canyon peach trees and homes.

When the relocation project proved a total failure, the Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland, by then designated a ''reservation'' - of more than 3 million acres. Today that reservation is close to 18 million acres.

These canyons of rich, deep, and tragic history doubly tug at you because of the stirring beauty of the place. It is very easy indeed to imagine the heart-hold this spot must have had on its occupants - and must still have. ? Practical information

Early spring finds the Canyon de Chelly area destitute of travelers. But summer is the peak tourist season, and accommodations in the area are limited to the Canyon de Chelly Motel, Justin's Thunderbird Lodge, and the Cottonwood Campground, near the Canyon de Chelly National Monument Headquarters.

Half- and full-day vehicle tours into the canyon can be arranged at Thunderbird Lodge until the end of October, while horses and guides can be found at Justin's Horse Rental near the mouth of the canyon. Remember that visitors can enter the canyon - except on the hiking trail to White House Ruin - only with a permit and with an authorized guide. If you have your own 4-wheel drive vehicle, you may drive into the canyons if, again, you acquire a permit and arrange for an official guide.

By all means, visit the monument headquarters. Besides displays explaining the geological and human history of the canyons, there is a fine selection of books and pamphlets and a helpful staff of park rangers.

From the East Coast, fly into Albuquerque, N.M. (Eastern, American, TWA, and Delta have flights), and rent a car. Take Interstate 40 west to the wild town of Gallup. From Gallup, go north or Route 666, west on Route 264 to Ganado, and north of Route 191 to Chinle.

If you fly into Phoenix, Ariz., fly Sky West Airlines to Flagstaff (a super view from a smooth-flying Swearingen 18-seater), rent a car, and drive east on Interstate 40 to Route 77, on the other side of Holbrook. Drive north to Route 15 and continue to Ganado and Route 191 to Chinle.

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