May 8, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
We’d gone barely 25 yards when there was a feeling of the woods dissolving around us, and then we were hanging our toes over a bare rock ledge where the world dropped away. From 20 miles out Black Mesa appeared to float in space like a long dark cloud bisected by a pillar of dust rising half a mile into the desert sky. George watched me for some time before he spoke.
“Magnificent,” I assured him.
We descended to a narrow ledge for a closer look at the arch hundreds of feet below through which swallows passed almost quicker than the eye could follow; somewhere, the wind-down call of a canyon wren sounded. Then we began to work along the cliff face after Shane, who had disappeared. We found him ten minutes later seated on an outcrop of sandstone rock hugging his bare knees with his wrists and wearing his cap pulled over his eyes. When we sat beside him, he pushed back the cap and gave me a challenging look.
What do you think of this country?” Shane demanded.
“Beautiful,” I said.
“I think it’s boring,” he replied, and commenced staring into the empyrean.
George unwrapped a granola bar he’d taken from the pack, broke it in two pieces, and offered me one.
“What are you looking at?” he asked the boy.
“My sheep,” Shane answered, without moving his eyes.
“Where are they? I don’t see any sheep.”
Through fieldglasses I scanned the plain below for sheep and finally found them, so far out they were nearly invisible.
“That guy,” Shane said darkly, “don’t know nothing. Otherwise he wouldn’t have taken sheep where there ain’t no graze.”
“Where do you take them?”
“Somewhere where there’s something for them to graze.”
George pointed out for me his mother-in-law’s ranch, directly ahead of us and 1,500 vertical feet below. It was a small house and barn with a couple of big cottonwoods for shade.
“Lena says you’ve had a lot of snakes out here this summer.”
Shane nodded, and indicated something apparently far in the distance.
“It’s the witchcrafters’ doing,” he said.
When George made no response to this, I asked him, “What witchcrafters?”
“Those out there.”
I followed his extended finger and made out a ranch adjacent to his grandmother’s property.
“They make the snakes come to us.”
In the past week he’d killed three or four he’d found in the house after finishing his afternoon nap, all of them good-sized rattlers. When I mentioned that I am fond of snakes, even rattlers, Shane told me sternly that Navajos are not allowed to handle, eat, or even look at a snake when it is possible to ignore it.
The three of us stood and began to traverse the rim rock again, gazing down as we went into the side canyons where hawks soared on the thermals above the interlacing trails the deer had made on their way to water. The deepest cañon cut through the cliff into the yellow plain below, where it formed a crevasse that Shane said was the home of a giant crab who’d lived there for many years. All you saw was the huge claw reaching out from the ravine to grab a sheep, or a man. Shane wanted to climb down and investigate the crevasse but George put him off, saying that the country was too flat and uninteresting, also too hot, on the plain.
“I know something else you’d enjoy seeing,” he told me suddenly. “That is, assuming we can find it. I’ve never seen it, myself.”
We descended White Mesa on its gentler western edge following the curving road down to Kaibito, past men on horseback moving in and out among the juniper trees, women pushing sheep (now, as for the past 400 years, woman’s work in the land of the Navajos) on foot, and windmills revolving like silver pinwheels above the waterwells where rights-holders loaded the big water cans into pickup trucks. As we drove Shane talked about his horses and how until the livestock-reduction program was implemented to reduce overgrazing on the reservation the family had owned 400 sheep and how he wanted to live in Phoenix after he finished his summertime work, which was branding cattle around the reservation.
North of the mesa we came to a general store with a gas pump in front where two roads intersected. George got out and asked directions from an old Indian standing beside a flatbed truck loaded with hay. The hosteen, or elder, repeated the word “roo-un” several times slowly around the stalk he’d been chewing but finally shook his head, so George called Shane from the pickup to interpret. At sight of the boy the old man assumed a warmer expression, the skin around his eyes wrinkling further in a slow smile as he listened to him speak. Then he answered briefly in Navajo.
“He doesn’t know,” Shane translated proudly.
“He knows, all right,” George said as he started the engine, “but he doesn’t want to corrupt an innocent boy like the Dude here.” When Lena was pregnant with Christopher she’d asked her husband to suspend his archaeological explorations until after the baby was born.
“I don’t know why anybody would want to live out here,” Shane observed. “It’s totally boring.”
Inside the store two Indian boys about 17 years old were flirting with the pretty girl who managed the video desk. They had some English, and George asked them if they’d be willing to guide us to the turnoff to Inscription House Ruin and direct us from there. We followed the boys in their red sports car on the newly paved road that terminates at the Indian boarding school at Navajo Mountain, past the new medical center built in total isolation in a juniper and cedar forest. Shane was impressed by the car and wondered how the boys had obtained such a splendid machine. Nobody in his family, he said, would ever buy him a car. His grandfather let him have the truck keys sometimes but only when he was drunk.
Two or three miles north of the store the boys turned onto a paved apron from which a rutted dirt road moved off among low tree-covered hills. We pulled in behind them and the boys came back and began giving us directions to the ruin, but their English was so bad George asked them to jump in the bed of the truck. They climbed up and hung tight over the rough canted road, until the one on the left side yelled “Stop!” through the driver’s window. From here, they made us understand, we would have to walk. They were vague about the direction, and finally George told them to get up in the truck again and drove them out to the highway, where he made an impression by giving them six dollars.
“They’re going back to the store to buy their little honey a pop,” George said, as we watched the car disappear into a curve. “There’s no mutton gut on that Indian, that’s for damn sure. Eh, Dude?”
George locked the truck at the trailhead. We slipped water bottles into the daypacks and walked to the edge of the reticulated maze of slickrock canyon. The view was a panoramic 180 degrees from White Mesa low on the southwest horizon to the Vermilion Cliffs in the northwest: a maze of deeply carved purple, red, and orange rock that appeared from the surface plateau as a vast, slightly rolling forest of juniper and piñon pine stretching like a blue mat to the edge of the world where the late afternoon sun, an incandescent ball, tilted. George looked at his watch. “Let’s go for it,” he said, and nodded at Shane. “We can count on our genu-wine Indian guide to get us back to the truck before dark.”
The genu-wine Indian guide went leaping on ahead of us over the rocks like a mountain goat. For an instant he stood poised in silhouette on the hump of a petrified sand dune, and then he was gone. George called out to him. There was no answer. No discernible trail was in sight and we walked about for a while among the hummocks of red dust grown thinly with grass, prickly pear, and Mormon tea, searching for a way down. From the farther reaches of the park an owl called and was answered by another owl. The opposite wall of the canyon was a sequence of hanging gardens set in tiers: terraces of piñon, juniper, and wildflowers.
“I’d have a bad time explaining at home if I lose Shane,” George remarked.
“He isn’t lost,” I told him. “He’s an Indian.”
“Well, if we can’t get off this cliff I guess he can’t either.”
We walked on and discovered a row of cairns that marked a trail descending to the floor of a secondary cañon but spied no ruins there. Cutting across a peninsula of rock we came to a collapsing hogan built of pine logs, and beyond it a clearly defined footpath. We followed the path and were hailed after a hundred yards by Shane, seated on an elevation of rock with his legs stretched out and pressing his hands between his knees. At risk of losing his clients, the genu-wine Indian guide had picked up the trail before he was five minutes from the truck and started along it.
The trail down was blocked by a balky whiteface cow who stood chewing the cud before turning reluctantly and trotting on ahead of us, her bag swinging below her belly. A hogan surrounded by a brush corral stood in tall grass at the head of the cañon beneath ancient cottonwoods that boiled slowly on a breeze easing between the livid rock walls against which the foliage showed an amazing green.
Navajo Creek in this season of the year was several inches of brackish water idling between loose banks 15 to 20 feet tall on its way to rendezvous with the Colorado River at Glen Canyon, 60 or 70 miles distant by line of sight. The trail followed through tall sagebrush above the creek, allowing us a forced march across the sand beneath cottonwood groves piled like emerald thunderheads into the stark blue sky that made a perfectly fitted roof over Navajo Canyon. Side cañons ran in from left and right. We found horses, a mule, and a donkey at the mouth of one of these, but no ruins. Shane departed on a tangent to investigate the condition of these lonely specimens of “those that men live by,” and caught up with us to report that they appeared well fed and healthy.
Evening was near. We had just agreed to turn back at the next cañon when George and I saw it simultaneously: a line of fitted wall a hundred or more feet above the cañon floor, unmistakably the work of human hands though isolated in a wilderness of desert rock. We moved forward again at an increased pace in the lengthening shades of the great cottonwoods. The trail led steeply down into the creek and up the far bank to the base of a tall red cliff, where it clung precariously for another hundred yards before dead-heading at a holed chickenwire fence with a sign hung on it that said KEEP OUT.
We squeezed through the largest hole, climbed up 30 or 40 feet hand over hand, and stood breathing hard on the floor of one of those spectral villages with which the Spanish explorers had almost no contact and that were hardly known by white men before the Macom Expedition of 1859 and those of John Wesley Powell in 1869 and 1871 reported having seen strange rock structures built by humans in humanly inaccessible places. Probably the majority of these, with their troves of relics, are undiscovered to this day. The pictographs and the petroglyphs tapped or scraped into the desert varnish on remote cañon walls are undomesticated ghosts. To you–and to you only, perhaps–they make their first, possibly last, apparition.
Carbon from ancient smokes blackened the ceiling of the cave in patches where the rock surface had not flaked with time, and on the walls above the low simple buildings white prints left by shy hands gave mute greeting across the centuries. To the left of the sequence of footholds cut into the rock and just within the overhang, Shane discovered two potholes that George guessed might have served as a water source for the pueblo. We crossed the circle of flat rock in which postholes had been carefully cut that made the floor of the kiva and walked the narrow space between the house fronts and the rocky lip above a potsherd accumulation of anciently flung houseware. The houses themselves were built of adobe brick reinforced by brush sticks and roofed with thicker sticks supported by poles.
I picked up one of the loose bricks to examine it. Although that brick had been baked about the time that Dante was writing The Divine Comedy, the grass used in its construction looked no older than last year’s straw. Around the houses and inside tiny corncobs lay scattered, harvested seven or eight centuries before by the Basketmakers as the Anasazi are also called: sophisticated agriculturalists for their day, and accomplished masons and designers.
“Let’s go now,” Shane suggested nervously. “I don’t want to be haunted.”
We reached the truck at dark and sat on the tailgate to drink the last of the water and watch Venus arise in the pale ecliptic of the vanished sun.
“Are you going out with the sheep in the morning?” George asked.
“Not if I can help it,” Shane told him.
“I suppose you’re going to need a ceremony to purify you of where you’ve been today.”
“I don’t need no ceremony.” Shane’s voice in the darkness was scornful.
“Why don’t you?”
“Because I’m modern,” Shane answered serenely.
(This story first appeared in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)