Saturday May 22, Canyon de Chelly
We leave Hovenweep National Monument this morning. The stunning stone towers of Little Ruin Canyon are astounding - guarding over the springs and narrow canyon access. The holes in the walls of the ruined towers are at many different angles and archeologists are not sure of they were viewing ports for spying intruders, for making astronomical observatories (to better anticipate the coming of the spring, summer, fall, and winter solstices, or to support some part of the interior architecture that has since collapsed.
This canyon sits within the larger Cajon Mesa, a sage strewn bit of high land over 5,000 feet above sea level and 500 square miles in bredth. The Mesa, in turn sits within the even larger Great Sage Plain that dominates the bulk of this part of the Navajo reservation. Over 700 years ago, this area had a thriving system of settlements all within a days walk of one another. But now, they are all deserted - except for the scattered Navajo family settlements up on the mesa tops where oil pumping, sheep, cattle, and horse ranching still occur in the open range land.
The wind had subsided briefly in the wee hours of the morning, but it has returned with some punch this morning. WE are hoping that below the rim of Canyon de Chelly we may find some relieve in a few hours.
We push southward through a driving sandstorm on weathered two-lane roads with rounded and crumbling shoulders across the reservation. No real "towns" per se here except for the occasional gas station at a cross roads.. People live primarily in scattered family groups, often multi-generational with one house structure per family, plus a shared hogan for ceremonial and healing purposes, a coral built from native materials and a scattering of abandoned locomotive technology. The road traverses open range land for horses, cows, and sheep. No one family "owns" the land they are using - the land is all owned by the Indian Corporation, but family groups have long standing territorial claims to the resources in one area or another and these are rarely challenged.
A strong win blows all day and kicks up a dust cloud that stretches from horizon to horizon. At times the roadway is completely obscured by the brown penetrating haze and we must slow to a crawl to continue forward progress. We fire up the emergency flashers and hope whomever is behind us is not so foolhardy as to pay any attention to the speed limit signs. Drifting sand begins to encroach on the roadway in places, seeping in from the shoulders and leaving residual wisps behind. The heavier gusts are not just felt by the sudden pressure on the side of the camper, but seen as well as a visual wave of sand races by - thicker and darker than the surrounding haze at 50 mph. The camper rocks and bucks, but ultimately keeps its feet well adhered to the roadway and we keep moving. At some point today the windshield cracks just below the windshield wipers under the withering disparate pressures of blazing heat, pumping air conditioning, and pounding pressure from the wind that at times must double our virtual velocity pressure. Yesterday a decorative plastic side panel 3' x 5' blew off as Diane was careening down a mountainside. I looked back and saw the part cart-wheeling backwards across the roadway before it came to a sliding halt in the middle of the road. We pulled over and recovered our severed payload imaging al the while where on earth we would stow it on board until we could determine what else to do. Now that side of the camper sports an ugly gash of black rubbery construction adhesive applied in sloppy bands where previously a sporty textured panel had been installed. We hop back inside, tossing the ungainly panel into the galley and slam the side door before more sand blows in, and keep moving.
At last we've reached Canyon de Chelly, the original stimulus for our entire journey. After watching the visitor center video (very informative), taking the south rim dirve and stopping a all the look-outs, and hiking down and back out again from the white house ruin, we have camped at a primitive site in the Spider Rock campground near the end of the south rim road. ($10 per night). Even tucked up tight along side of a sturdy spreading juniper tree on the windward side, our snug camper sings a variety of tunes depending on the wind strength. A fine patina of dust has settled on all the surfaces and underfoot and our skin and eyes feel gritty - like how you feel after a day at the beach. There is the general roar as gusts howl overhead and around the tree, and the hiss of wind of varying frequency as it passes over and around the galley vent - even though we have it snugged down to reduce dust intrusion at the moment.
The sky to windward is a brown haze but even now at 8:00 pm to leeward the sky is showing shades of blue - perhaps there is hope after all for tomorrow's excursions.
The campsite's office is a dirt floored covered porch attached to a ramshackle plywood structure that is the proprietor's house. A similarly unfinished structure sits adjacent and across the covered breezeway offering solar showers for $2.00. A marine style wind power generator is turning frantically in the wind, even though it's mast has fallen over and is tipped 45 degrees and leaning up against the house. A sign says $2.00 internet 6-9 pm and I see a computer on a small table in the corner of the room. We'll live without that for now.
A deeply tanned woman transplanted from Washington state in a sun-dress and flip-flops with matching ringed Navajo tattoos on each upper arm offers to help us as we wander about looking for the campground host. She gives us a brief orientation, tells us about a local Indian who will stop by in the morning and offer guide services to anyone interested. She apologizes for Howard, the campground's proprietor absence, and informs us he is preparing for a "sweat" just now and won't be out of the hogan for a few more hours. We retreat to our camp site behind the juniper tress and prepare a simple dinner.
We take shelter in the camper as if its raining outside to make a respite from the relentless wind and biting flying sand. The juniper sways with the gusts and the western sky turns bright yellow, then orange, then brown as the distant sun settles below the horizon.