I’m staying in a high school dormitory tonight. Yes, I am. It used to be a boarding school, and now it’s an inn run by the students at Many Farms High School so the reservation kids can learn the tourism trade.
I’m running out of steam. This is by far the longest I have ever been on the road. I’m going back to Navajo National Monument tomorrow for an all-day hike to the Keet Seel ruins (8 miles to get there-yikes). I called today and signed up, so I’ll finish Indian Country with a big flourish.
I’ve been toodling around Indian country doing this and that. Yesterday morning found me at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado. Ganado is the home of the Ganado Red style of Navajo rugs, and I finally made a purchase of one: my gift to my brother and his wife to decorate their home. The trading post is run by the National Parks and their local nonprofit cooperating organization. I took a tour of the Hubbell house and a little of the grounds. The ranger who led me around was new to the area from San Francisco. We had a pretty long conversation. As usual, we know someone in common. I commented that I would like to work in one of the western parks, but since I’m single the isolation of some of these places might bother me. She agreed; her boyfriend lives in Page, Arizona (probably about 3 hours driving) and they don’t see each other much. I related my impossible overseas relationship to her.
There’s not much more than a couple hours worth of stuff to see at Hubbell (usually there’s a Navajo weaver working in the visitor center but this morning the lady was just rolling up a ball of yarn), so I drove back out to Hopiland to see the cultural center in Shungopavi. The museum there is pretty good, in a shabby kind of way; with better presentation (i.e. more money) some of the stuff would be pretty smashing. The Hopi are a little more outgoing than the Navajo, and the docent answered a lot of my questions. He suggested I drive out to Walpi, one of the ancient stone villages still inhabited.
First I ate at the restaurant next door (all of the tourist facilities, except the many craft stores, are concentrated in the Hopi Cultural Center complex). I noticed the Indians here don’t add any kind of seasoning whatsoever to their food. The Hopi dish I had (can’t recall the name) was pinto beans, hominy, a whole roasted green chile, and a couple of fry breads aside.
On fry bread. I’ve had this a few times now. The Indians are not on the low-carb bandwagon. It’s a big, fluffy, zeppole without the sugar, and tastes a little like a fried wonton. My first sample was at Twin Rocks Cafe in Bluff when I ordered a Navajo taco. If you’ve ever had a chalupa at Taco Bell, that is a Navajo taco. Anyway, sometimes fry bread comes in one massive serving, a clue to the weight problem among Indians. Though not nearly as fat as your average Mississippian, they’re certainly wider than the average Coloradan or Utahazoid. All the women are a little chubby.
Anyway, I drove out (up) to Sichimovi. You can’t drive all the way to Walpi, even though the three villages on top of First Mesa are right next to each other. There’s a little visitor center/community house, and a sign reminding you to not take pictures of anything, anywhere. I hired a guide (bring small bills to Indian country: nobody ever has change) to escort me up to Walpi. While I was waiting for the guide, Loretta, to scare up some small bills, I looked at the crafts for sale by local artists. I stopped in one potter’s shop. He was working on his masterpiece, a ceramic vessel with the Hopi creation story in relief. He showed me the pigments he used (they use a lot of traditional natural pigments) and told me a little about his career. He told me up front he is becoming better known, and his stuff was pretty steep. Even his daughter’s work for sale there was expensive, a few hundred dollars a piece.
Loretta walked me up to Walpi. It’s separted from Sichimovi only by a narrow road; on either side of it is a sheer cliff. The village built a stone s
taircase down the side of the mesa to the canyon floor where the small farms are. Walpi is at the very end of the mesa, fortresslike. It’s a stone pueblo directly descended from the ruins I’ve been visiting. Electricity and water only came to the mesa-top villages in the 1990s, but Walpi stills has none of that. As a result it’s only partly inhabited and some of the rooms are used only for special occasions. Walpi dates back to the 17th century, and it’s not the oldest either– Old Oraibi, on nearby Third Mesa, is nine hundred years old.
Loretta was very nice. I asked a lot about the local economy and how the stone pueblos are designed and used. I avoided asking particular details about religious rituals, since they won’t divulge that sort of thing. Lots of people come through Indian Country during the warmer months, and I bet they get their share of condescending tourist from all over. She asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. I wonder if the seashore seems as far away and exotic to people in the desert as the desert seems to me.
Since the Hopi don’t allow photography (they don’t want their culture exploited) I have none of my short trip to Walpi. The day before, I surreptiously took a photo of the canyon from my car while I waited for a road crew flagman to wave me down the mesa. I don’t believe they can stop me from taking photos. Even on Indian reservations, I still have rights. How do they deal with the press? But as a guest I’ll respect their cultural privacy.
On my way to the inn in the evening I did something I never do: I picked up hitchhikers. People hitchhike a lot in Navajoland. They also walk a lot; I see people walking along the highway in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Unlike the Hopi, the Navajo seem to live in very scattered communities, though there are a few towns. I was stopped at a gas station in Chinle checking my Lonely Planet guide for motels when an old man asked me for a ride. He was with two people. Why did I say yes? I don’t know, maybe I wanted to end the trip hacked into a million pieces. Buy people had been very nice to me during this trip, and this was a rural community, so I said yes. I figured I’d build up some credit with the universe. So these three older folks (sixtyish- two men, one woman) got in the car and asked me in heavily accented English to drive them to church on the other side of town. I didn’t understand a lot of what they said, but they told me the hotel at the other end of town was the only good one. They were quite nice, however, my leftover Hopi food was crushed by one man’s boot.
That was all yesterday. Today, I visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument. It wasn’t the National Park Experience I’d been having at the other places. Someone once told me he thought Canyon de Chelly was a great place to visit. He must have stayed in a $100 hotel rooms in Chinle and paid a guide to show him around. Because I was really disappointed in the place. Chinle, the town where the monument is, is kind of grungy and ugly. The three hotels are all significantly more expensive than everywhere else I’ve visited here (I ended up driving up to Many Farms last night, 15 miles away). You have to hire a Navajo guide to see the canyon, something I, as a National Park ranger, am adverse and averse to. It smacks of privatization of public services and of outsourcing of my profession and livelihood. I don’t mind it at a tribal park, but this is a National Monument. It’s mine as much as theirs. So I didn’t hire a guide (they hang out at the visitor center on a rotating basis- very Third World). There’s one trail you can walk down the canyon on your own, the White House Trail. It’s a wide developed trail. The canyon bottom is heavily trod by horses and four-wheel drives. People still live in the canyon- it’s owned by the Navajo Reservation and managed and preserved by the Park Service. Even the access road isn’t very scenic, it’s just a local road with homes and signs on it.
I will say this: when I got close to the canyon floor, I was looking down at a sheep pen on a farm. A little old lady walked out to it, opened up the gate, and all these sheep ran out. I might have been in Slovakia or Uzbekistan or some other pastoral country. How nice that such quaint, old-fashioned lifestyles still exist for my benefit. This is the sort of thing Freeman Tilden (an obscure naturalist now worshipped by National Park interpreters) used to write about. Besides that, the White House Ruins in the canyon were behind a six-foot chicken-wire fence, and I was in the company of this Canadian family with their eight loud teenagers. By the women’s clothes I judged them religious kooks to boot.
So was this just a disappointing experience or just travel fatigue? Can I really expect to be blown away every day for two weeks. Clearly not. Even “Star Trek: The Next Generation” experienced diminishing returns and was cancelled. It’s time to head back to Denver.