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Naturally Navajo

Going off-road--way off-road--on horseback into hidden canyons and around rugged ruins, camping in wind-parched desert wilderness

September 10, 2000|RIDGELY OCHS | Ridgely Ochs is a staff writer for Newsday

PAGE, Ariz. — We were lying around on rocks like lizards in the desert sun, listening as our Navajo Indian guide described the ancient rites of his people. None of us spoke.

Our horses rested, too, tied to pinyon and juniper trees and whatever scrub bushes can grow in the forbidding terrain of Navajo Mountain, a 10,000-foot dome on the Utah side of the Arizona-Utah border. They'd had a hard morning's work, picking their way around rocks up and through the steep, dry canyons.

In fact, they'd had a hard week of work. It was the seventh day of our eight-day camping and horseback riding trek on the Navajo Indian Reservation in northern Arizona and southern Utah. The first part of the trip had taken us down steep slopes into Canyon de Chelly, site of ancient Anasazi ruins. The second part had been through wind-swept Monument Valley.

Now we were on Navajo Mountain, having lunch at Hawkeye Arch, a natural bridge formed from eons of terrible winds pounding at the red sandstone cliffs. I was sure we were in a spot that few bilagaana (the Navajo word for white people) ever get to see: It's inaccessible by car and a tough climb for hikers, with no water nearby.

The Navajo word for the mountain is Naatsisaan, the Head of the Earth. Actually, I felt all week as though I was at the head of the Earth, or maybe the end of the Earth.

As we rested, our guide, Leo Manheim, told us more about the Dine (pronounced dee-nay), "the People," as the Navajo call themselves. The night before, his wife had shared a bit of their culture by cooking fry bread, a Navajo staple, at our communal dining tent.

Of our three Navajo guides on the trip--the first took us through Canyon de Chelly, the second through Monument Valley--Leo was the least comfortable on a horse. But he seemed the most at ease with us.

Our group of nine was a motley crew--a veterinarian renowned for his research, and his wife, from Kansas; an administrator for a California-based nonprofit group; a bright Boston businesswoman taking her mother from Nantucket on vacation; a professional comedian and his wife-to-be, moving from Chicago to Las Vegas; and my tent mate, a funny, smart Texas judge who made former Gov. Ann Richards seem downright du-uhlll.

We had a love of riding in common. (The outfitter recommends this trip only for strong intermediate riders or better--people who ride regularly and are comfortable in the saddle at least six hours a day.) But even after a week, Leo's culture still seemed remote, exotic and ultimately impenetrable to me. It had been shaped by an extreme, forbidding and beautiful landscape and, in the last century, a terrible history of betrayal at the hands of white Americans. I was an outsider.

Leo finished his story. Into the silence came the faraway sounds of birds--hawks? I wondered. Nothing moved. The spring sun was intense but not yet the inferno it would be in the summer. Lying against a rock, shielding my eyes with my cowboy hat, I stared at the turquoise-blue sky and the red sandstone bridge. I yearned for nothing. I was where I wanted to be. Perfect peace.

Only days before in Monument Valley, about 120 circuitous miles east, it had been perfect, terrifying mayhem.

Our first two days of the trip started out calmly enough. After the group assembled in Page, a van took us to a Navajo ranch near Canyon de Chelly. In the morning, our first ride took us into the national monument. Sheer red cliffs loomed on either side of us. Anasazi pueblo ruins dating back to the 8th century were tucked into ledges high above the canyon floor.

For all its beauty, I wasn't sad to leave Canyon de Chelly. Although it was hardly overrun with tourists, we still had to share the area with open Jeeps--"shake and bakes"--that carried visitors led by guides lecturing on loudspeakers.

We broke camp the next morning in the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto and rode up steep, narrow switchbacks, the horses scrambling to get a foothold on the sheer rocks. I didn't know quite where to sit on my little chestnut, Rusty, to help him as he wheezed and sweated his way up. Rusty, with his mane and ears flopping any which way, was of nondescript breeding, but I had quickly grown to admire his willing disposition and fortitude.

Loading the horses on a van, we drove north 25 miles or so to Monument Valley.

That night we set up camp under the looming shadow of three spiky buttes called the Three Sisters.

The next morning we left any signs of a road--few cars would mar our view pretty much for the rest of the trip--and headed west across the desert with our new Navajo guide, Harry Black.

The area, with its huge, oddly shaped buttes and grand red mesas, looked like every western I've ever seen. Of course, many westerns were shot here.

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