Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "d'shay") National Monument is a maze of rock-walled canyons located in northeastern Arizona. The name is a Spanish corruption of the Navajo word "tsegi," which means "canyon." The area is made up of over 130 square miles of land owned by the Navajo Nation. Each visitor to the park becomes a guest of the Navajo people who have called this place home for many centuries.
For the past 15 years, Jeep Jamboree USA has been holding this event, bringing together families from all over the country for a great weekend of wheeling and a little native history as well. This was our first trip to Chinle, Arizona, but will definitely not be our last.
With our coolers packed and camera batteries charged, we headed out to meet up with the rest of the group at the trailhead located at the mouth of the canyon. There were over 150 vehicles in attendance for this year's event, which may be small compared to some of the other Jeep Jamboree USA events, but it kept the canyon's traffic relatively light all day. There are a number of laws that any guest or group must obey in order to travel through the canyon: no alcohol is permitted on Navajo land at any time, do not remove any rocks or vegetation from the native land, and you must travel with a Navajo guide at all times. Canyon de Chelly is not only home to many of the Navajo in the area, but it is packed with the history of their people, and the only way to preserve that is by making sure guests show respect.
As we traveled into the canyon over a sandy wash, we knew that today would surely tell tales of what once was. The canyon walls are de Chelly sandstone, formed about 230 million years ago. The first people to live in the canyon were the Anasazi (Navajo for "the ancient ones"). They left no written language, only ruins, pottery, baskets, tools, weapons, jewelry, and paintings and pictographs on the canyon walls.
Our guide, Sylvia Watchman, has lived in Canyon de Chelly for her entire life, and her family has lived there for much longer. She explained to us the significance of everything we would pass throughout our journey with a sense of pride punctuating every story. The Navajo are proud of their heritage, proud of their land, and most of all, proud of their people and beliefs.
If you booked a ticket to this event in the past, then you know this trip is all about an adventure through history, not hard-core wheeling. If you are looking for axle-snapping fun, check out other Jeep Jamboree USA events, which happen all over the country.
Our first overwhelming vista came no later than 10 minutes into our trip. We quickly became surrounded by massive monolithic walls, reminding us that nature is in charge out here. Pulling out our telephoto lens, we noticed the small homes once occupied by the Anasazi people built several hundred feet up the rock walls. The Anasazi built their homes high above the flood plains to conserve the bottom lands for farming and cotton cultivation as well as a defensive tactic against enemies. The climate was also 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the canyon floor. It was simply amazing that even some of these primitive hogans (Navajo for "homes") were still standing despite the threats of dramatic weather conditions and vandalism. This is another testament to how much pride the Navajo Nation takes in keeping the history of this land alive.
Pictographs and petroglyphs covered many of the rock walls as our group made its way to the next rest stop. One of the most commonly found pictographs depicts the Flute Player, called Lahlanhoya by the Hopi Tribe. According to the traditions of the Flute Clan of the Navajo and the Hopi, it represents a clan symbol. Clan members would leave this drawing on the walls to mark the route taken on their long migration. Many people confuse the Flute Player with Kokopelli, but Kokopelli, a deity of the Asa Clan, rarely appears in rock art and was never depicted with a flute.
Along our tour, we ran into a number of local animals, including sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, and cattle. Some of these animals belong to the canyon inhabitants and provide necessary food for survival. Another rule our guide informed us of is that you are not allowed to take any pictures of the native people or their homes without permission. There were a number of great native settings we would have loved to show our readers, but unfortunately we couldn't locate someone to ask their permission.
Our first major stop for the day was at the White House Ruin. If you have even an ounce of appreciation for the history of this country, you will want to see this in person. This ruin was home to a great number of Anasazi families for many years. A good portion of the original foundation still exists. You really have to admire the persistence and perseverance it took to build structures like this by hand with only primitive tools.
Our final stop of the day brought us to Spider Rock. Spider Rock was home to Spider Woman, the subject of a Navajo legend. Nobody could see her, but they felt her presence. Sylvia told us a story about a man and his two sons who wanted very much to see Spider Woman and how the man would tell his sons that if they were good Spider Woman would bring them plentiful harvests as well as weapons to defend themselves. The holy people of the area said they would see her traveling on a rainbow from canyon to canyon. It has proven to be the most spiritual place in Canyon de Chelly.
After posing for a spectacular group shot, we all made our way back to the trailhead, stopping by one more location called Newspaper Rock. The pictographs were numerous, ranging from handprints, flutes, snakes and other creatures, to holy images, people, and fire. It seemed everywhere we turned there was a piece of history. At the end of the day, we can only suggest you sign up and participate in this event next year and visit the canyon for yourself. It is truly something you will never forget. We want to thank Jeep for having us, as well as Nancy Jenkins for clearing out her backseat.