Horse Camping in the Canyon de Chelly

Stars, Stories and Howls Help Define Arizona's National Monument
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In spite of a dry spring, the desert was in full bloom with the purple tamarisk bushes, white datura, the blossoms that O'Keeffe often painted, and prickly-pear cactus flowers in warm yellow, rose and orange.

On a mid-June morning, about three dozen of us gathered at a Chinle, Ariz., stable to saddle up for a six-day, five-night horseback/camping trip into Northeastern Arizona's Canyon de Chelly National Monument. We planned to cover about 100 miles on horseback, viewing some of the estimated 600 to 800 archaeological sites in the national monument's three main branches: Canyon de Chelly, Monument Canyon and Canyon del Muerto.

We were a mixed group, ranging in age from 10 to 67, from members of a Laredo high school art students league to a top New York radio reporter, from people who owned their own horses to those who have never been near one before. The Navajos' horses assigned to us were smaller and leaner than most horses I've ridden, making them easy to mount and comfortable to straddle. For the most part, they're sure-footed, mannerly and familiar with the terrain. Each of us was encouraged to find our own riding comfort level and set our own pace as we set our course walking and trotting toward the canyon at Chinle Wash where we would find Spider Rock, our first campsite.

Our group had four guides riding with us. We spread out over more than a quarter mile. One guide brought up the rear to ensure no one was left behind. Stories abound with that guide and many of us hung out with him to take part in the storytelling. One swift whistle from him was enough to trigger our horses into a brisk trot to close the quickly widening gap between us and the riders up ahead.

Evidence of the people who had made the canyon their home over the centuries quickly emerged from our path like 1,000-year-old Anasazi geometric petroglyphs side by side with detailed hunting scenes rendered after the Spanish introduced horses into the canyon in the 17th century. Dark desert varnish, dramatic black stripes of manganese and lichen streaked the canyon, often ending at alcoves high in the rocks.

Perhaps it was my endorphins kicking in from hours of saddle time, or maybe I was just unwinding, but early on our first day in the canyon, I began to feel very high and happy. Everything I saw adn felt contributed to a state of total relaxation. There was no sense of urgency, no feeling I might miss some detail. Our leisurely riding pace gave us time to literally stop and smell the sagebrush.

A Celestial Feast

The White House ruin, about a half day's ride from Chinle, is among the most striking of the ancient buildings. There is a warren of a dozen or more rooms at ground level. Some of the crumbling walls are several stories tall, with traces of the finishing coats of adobe and whitewash. Another group of buildings is tucked into a niche directly above ? there's a handful of one and two-story structures, and a small storage shed. One of the whitewashed walls bears 19th century graffiti,"J.V Conway, Santa Fe, Sept. 24, 1873. "A crude human figure, a duck, some geometric symbols in red and white adorn the canyon wall between the two sets of ruins.

After a lunch break at the White House, we rode out toward our Spider Rock mini camp. I'll never forget my first glimpse of Spider Rock. We rounded a corner and suddenly had a breathtaking view of the majestic, ruddy-hued sandstone formation, towering roughly as high as the Empire State Building.

When we arrived at camp, I couldn't wait to get out my air mattress and sleeping bag, lie down for a few minutes and stare at this natural wonder. Worn out from the day's ride, I was fast asleep before the sun went down.

The only thing better than sleeping under the stars in Canyon de Chelly is waking under them. Far from urban light pollution, planets, constellations, flickering satellites, and milky, swirling belts of distant stars seem almost within reach. In the middle of our first night out, I awakened to see the Big Dipper directly over Spider Rock, looming more than 800 feet above the desert floor. This glorious sky must have been what Edgar Allen Poe had in mind when he said,"the stars that oversprinkle all the heavens seem to twinkle with a crystalline delight."

It seemed a waste to close my eyes to such a celestial feast. However, I was still weary from eight hours on horseback, and I realized I'd be in the saddle at least that long the next day ? a good reason to get some rest.

When I awoke next, the stars were just fading. This time, there was something to stimulate virtually every sense; coyotes' howls echoed in the canyon along with the sound of the horses beginning to stir in the corral. I could see remnants of the stars, soaring hawks, and the silhouette of a camper practicing tai chi at cliff's edge, saluting the rising sun. And I felt the burn of my aching muscles. I was still too fuzzy from sleep to know what hit me, but I was awestruck by it all.

Just when I had decided that I could happily spend the rest of my life sitting right there in the shadow of Spider Rock, another sense awakened ? smell. The fragrance of frying bacon and brewing coffee was so intense I could practically taste them. The aroma motivated me right out of my sleeping bag.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 20 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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