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Canyon de Chelly

Before we headed out to see the sights of Canyon de Chelly, we set camp among a swarm of grasshoppers at the national monument campground. It was like a plague. The insects covered the campground and surrounding area. Syd and I both set to shooing the bugs from a spot big enough for our tent. There would be no sleeping out that night. There were too many people and nine-year-old Syd wasn’t ready to expose herself to strangers that way. Finally, after we freed enough ground for the tent, we moved quickly to put down the ground cloth. Then, we had to sweep grasshoppers from the tarp to set up the tent. Regardless of our efforts, we heard the scratching of insects through the bottom of our shelter.

Thus secured, we attended a demonstration in which a native women weaved a Navajo rug, one which would have cost hundreds of dollars. Syd wanted one.

“You can just buy the carpet from her. It’s so beautiful,” she said. She tried to put a little spin on her entreaty. “Virginia would like it.”

“Babe, we don’t have that kind of money.”

“But you have your credit card,” she said. “That will pay for it.”

“Syd, then I’ll have to pay the credit card company and I still don’t have that kind of money.”

She muffed around a while until we came across a group of Navajo men with a small herd of saddled ponies.

“Dad, dad, dad, can we take a pony ride? Pleeeease. I really want to ride a pony.”

“No, Syd, we don’t have the money.”

“You always say that.”

She began to cry. The kid really wanted a pony ride and I don’t blame her. I walked over and asked one of the men how much a horse tour of the canyon was. He said it cost 25 dollars for a two-hour tour. It was the only way outsiders could get into the bottom of the canyon, where people actually lived off of peach orchards and corn they raised in the river bottoms. The man said he would even take us into his hogan and show us how he lived.

That was $50 and I felt the squeeze. I considered our funds for the next days. We’d decided the night before at our picnic table in Hovenweep National Monument that we would make Grand Canyon our final destination before heading home. We’d need admission to the park, money for food, and campground fees. I decided that, no, we weren’t going to take a pony ride.

Sydney wouldn’t stop bugging me about ponies and finally I told her to get in the car. We would see the canyon since we were here, I said. She wasn’t happy about it, but what could I do?

We drove to the many outlooks that gave us views into the canyon. It struck awe into us, and we had already seen wonders. The Navajo hogans and farms on the sandy bottom of the canyon looked so small and insignificant among the great rock faces and wide river bottom. Syd wondered what it would be like to live there. I imagined, I said, that it would be quiet.

We decided to walk along the rim of the canyon to get a better feel of the place. We headed out from Tsegi Outlook. It was two miles to the Junction Outlook. I figured it would take us two or two an a half hours to make the round trip. I secured the water bottles and we took off, following a trail along the canyon rim. We didn’t move very fast and I tried to keep things easy on Syd. We sat often and took pictures. I always felt we were walking too close to the edge of the canyon, but try as we might, we couldn’t pull away from the rim. There was too much to see, the canyon and its eerie draw pulling us to the edge.

She went to stand after one of our pauses and stumbled. I thought she would pitch back over the edge and into the canyon. I darted to her and caught her and felt that life would be so different without her. I didn’t know what the newspaper would say after a guy let his kid fall into the canyon. I thought about all the negative things. But once I caught her, I thought of all the wonderful things too. As I looked out over the canyon with her in my arms, a great wave of gratitude overcame me. We were on this trip. She would remember some of it. It might even make her adventurous in her future. Maybe, if we took the risk, the payoff would be greater than the cost.

We made the round and I didn’t have to cajole Syd too much, though she did begin to complain when we left Junction Overlook to head back to the car. Just a little farther I told her, and then we can go back to the campground and take it easy. She seemed to respond to the encouragement, thought I could tell that she was still steaming about the ponies.

That night, we attended a ranger talk. The Navajo woman told us about the ways the Indians lived in the canyon long ago, and the similarities to the ways they lived today. Sydney asked me if we could ever live that way, without electricity and far from other people. I said I’d like to try and I imagined it would be fun at first. For me, I could get used to not having people around, having friends I’d see only every now and then, during harvest times or on special trips across the canyon.

“I would like it,” she said. “We could grow our own food and make our own stuff. I would make a carpet for the floor.”

What about friends?

“I would miss them,” she said. “But they could come visit any time they wanted. We would have plenty of room in our hogan for them to stay overnight for a while.”

I thought about that and smiled. It would be a long time before she really understood just how difficult life could be away from society.

That night, I put Syd to bed just after dark and sat out with the lantern at the picnic table, writing in my journal and listening to the campground wind down and become quiet. I smoked a cheap cigar and wrote about living in a hogan without electricity, growing my own corn and harvesting peaches. I thought about what kind of life Syd and I would have in the future.

What I didn’t know then was the difficulty I was having with being a father would abate over time. When I was sitting at that picnic table, I didn’t think about Syd growing up or maturing, developing her own interests and seeing the world on her own. I could only grasp that minute, and in that moment, I thought about all the great things we had seen and done, even if Syd fought back and demurred and resisted. She would thank me someday, I thought. It turns out that she did and does.

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