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Old 05-04-2015, 02:39 PM   #1
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Time travel thru Indian country...

I am not a voracious reader by any means but it was good fortune that our travels over the course of about 10 days spanned a period of time of about 80 years covered by two books I happened to read the past couple of years: "Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West” and “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”. We had decided to leave a choice dry camping spot between Newspaper Rock and Church Rock off Utah Route 211 and explore Indian country in AZ and NM after a short stay at Lake Powell. We pulled into the Cottonwood campground at the Canyon de Chelley National Monument in Arizona under darkness. While entering the small adjacent town of Chinle I had managed to dodge a late model Datsun pickup that had veered across the middle dividing line by pulling our Airstream onto a dirt shoulder and just avoiding a length-long sideswipe. So with the memory of that unsettling miss, we set up our trailer quickly in the dark and felt like this would be a short stay. We thought we’d take a quick drive in the morning along the canyon rim and be on our way.

Cottonwood campground is decent but struggles a bit with weeds and location amongst nearby maintenance buildings and a motel; maybe we were spoiled having just left our isolated dry camping spot with no one visible as far as we could see in all directions. It’s also the only campground in the vicinity. We got into the truck and headed for the first look out along the southern rim - Tunnel Overlook. We stepped out and walked out to the edge of the rim, looked out and down, and saw evidence of a life at the bottom. We immediately could picture an existence eked out by the Navajo, or Dine (pronounced de-nay after being counseled by a local artist vendor; according to the young man ’Navajo’ in Spanish means ’thief’ - is that right?). The sheer cliffs were about 1,000 feet in height with a flowing stream and grasses on the bottom. We were so blown away by the view we decided immediately to go back to the campground and pay for another night.

The second overlook, Junction Overlook, stood above a split in the canyon: Canyon de Chelley to the south and Canyon Muerto to the north. We were told one could visit the bottom and a ruin without a guide by hiking down 600 feet in elevation on the White House trail. We decided to hike that trail early the next morning to avoid a midday sun and visit the north rim instead that day. We checked out the Antelope House, Mummy Cave, and Massacre Cave Overlooks located in Canyon Muerto. The next morning we hiked down to the bottom on the White House trail. It’s relatively easy going down and not too bad going up with plenty of places to stop or sit and rest. The hiking takes about 70 to 120 minutes round trip. You can walk up to the White House ruin at the bottom but have to remain behind a fence at a distance. As you look at the availability of running water, the vegetation, and some expanse of open grazing land at the bottom, one could understand why the Dine defended their home almost to the last man and woman before surrendering to Kit Carson and the US Army. When you visit Indian country, it’s a bit tough to learn of the hardships of those on the losing end of war and near genocide; for instance the 300 miles covered during The Long Walk to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. But when you look at the human history of this area, you learn it once belonged to the Pueblo and Hopi before the Dine; some of the changes were due to conflict, in addition to drought and disease. When you have a good thing, relatively speaking, sooner or later throughout human history someone else is going to either want to share or take over.

At the bottom, we met another Dine artist vendor - Betsy. She talked with us for about 45 minutes, recounting her childhood on the canyon floor with her grandparents. She described a life of cooking fried bread over a fire in the heat of summer, herding sheep and collecting water from the canyon streams while a little girl. Life was spent both at the canyon bottom and on the rim with the changing seasons. She was very proud of herself, enduring the hardships of traditional Dine life but felt she was the better for it while observing the pitfalls of some of today’s Dine generation’s choices. Betsy's husband is a noted local artist and they managed to put their three kids through college. Others were not as fortunate or hard working; we saw evidence of life below the poverty line along the rim and wondered what would be preferred: a life lived in the old minimalist ways or a life with abandoned modern appliances and tools and still sniffing at the edge of middle class.

We left Canyon de Chelley and travelled along an interstate highway (Hwy 40) for the first time in a long time. We left Highway 40 at Thoreau and drove north on State Highway 371 and turned east onto Indian Route 9. This intersection reminded me of that great scene in North by Northwest where Cary Grant in the middle of nowhere. We turned onto State Highway 57 - 19 miles of washboard gravel road that ends up at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Gallo campground. At the end of this section, we found that we had broken several of our Ikea ceramic dishes and bowls (initiating the conversion to plastic), emptied out our spice rack shelves, loosened our overhead cabinet screws from the roof, and shaken off the top pivot point of our shower door. I was on the receiving end of many an evil eye shot my way by my wife while bouncing along the washboard and wondered at the end how many Pueblo or Navajo husbands got the same treatment upon finding several precious pottery broken after a trek. If at all possible, drive to Chaco from the north - it’s a bit shorter of a washboard gravel road off US Highway 550.

We met the very nice camp hosts Marisa and Don at Gallo campground a mile or so past the visitor center and got the last remaining non-reservable site. It’s a nice but windswept campground (it has a sewage dump but the drinking water is at the visitor center) and the reason for building the local Indian structures with rock was in evidence. We’ve missed our REI Basecamp4 tent and admire those that tent in the wild but there are times when the tinted Airstream windows not only keep the sun’s glare outside but also keep the owners’ smugness in high winds inside. We watched about seven different tenters try and fail to erect and maintain their tents in the 50 mph wind gusts before heading home and missing out on the Easter weekend. We visited the great houses in the park and the trails allow you to walk among the ruins and get a good look at the workmanship of the builders. The largest of the great houses is Pueblo Bonito, which is estimated to have been four stories high and capable of housing over 600 rooms.

It took only a day of travel to leave Indian history and get to a modern city - Santa Fe. We fell in love with Santa Fe and all the stores and markets we left in southern California (e.g., REI, Whole Foods, Trader Joes) and several very good eateries. The treat for me was visiting the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and seeing some of her work in person. She left a life of comfort and celebrity in New York City for the open landscapes of Santa Fe and was one of the most celebrated women of the first half of the 20th century. After one night at a local Walmart, we spent a couple nights at the well-managed campground at Cochiti Lake. We went the cheaper route and stayed at a non-hookup site, but enjoyed the very clean hot showers. We were really looking forward to camping in a forested area with much less people and found it at Hyde Memorial State Park - a small campground that had electrical hookups (for just $10/night!) for about eight sites lined up along a short loop adjacent to Highway 475. The campground is located northeast and above Santa Fe proper. We were following our Garmin and managed to get through the single lane city streets before getting on the road that heads up into the mountains.

I wanted to complete the time travel route by visiting Los Alamos - home of the Manhattan Project during WWII. The book about Richard Feynman was very interesting and of course covered the chapter of his life that centered around Los Alamos. If you’re a history and wartime buff, this town is the place for you! The Bradbury science museum did a really good job covering both sides of the moral issues regarding the use of the bomb. I couldn’t help but notice that within a span of about two days of travel and about 80 years in time, we observed a location where Kit Carson and the US Army conquered the Navajo within the walls of their beloved Canyon de Chelley and another where the creation of a bomb helped stopped the warring Japanese and Germans; in either case, war is definitely a b***h to say the least.

While in the Los Alamos area, we stayed at the Juniper campground ($12/night) located at the Bandelier National Monument. It has three loops with only a handful of drive-thrus suitable for an Airstream over 25 feet. There are no hookups but there is drinking water and a sewage dump. The season is still somewhere between winter and spring and we had almost the whole campground to ourselves. Bandelier also has the Long House ruin which can be hiked down to by trail right from the campground. If you travel westward a few miles along State Highway 4, you can observe one of the newest national preserves - Valles Caldera, a huge volcanic basin. Los Alamos is a curious small town with a very nice library, a Starbucks, a post office, and the nicest Smiths Grocery Market we’ve ever seen. I think I saw a traffic sign reminding drivers to drive with kindness and EVERYONE takes it to heart - everybody stopped for me to use the crosswalks! Los Alamos also has the 4th highest income per capita due to the great number of scientists and technicians that work at the Los Alamos Laboratory. I believed the stat when I observed the number of people walking in town during lunch hour that looked the nerdy, brainy type. I felt my relative IQ quotient drop about 25 points while walking among these tech types.

We feel our travels through AZ and NM satisfied our Indian exploration for now and as we wait out the colder temperatures but Colorado beckons up the road...

Photos: Canyon de Chelley and Highway 371 and Indian Route 9 intersection.
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Old 05-04-2015, 03:01 PM   #2
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Photos:
On the road to Chaco and the Chaco ruins
Conchiti Lake campground
Hyde Park State Park campground
Georgia O'Keefe museum, Santa Fe
Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos
Valles Caldera National Preserve
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Old 05-04-2015, 03:04 PM   #3
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What a journey you're having!

Indian ruins are mind-boggling, to me.

Maybe Photobum will offer a thought or two here, as he has spent a lot of time in Chaco Canyon and has a deep knowledge of all things there......

Colorado is breathtakingly beautiful. Mind the snow in the higher elevations til July or so, tho.

Travel safe,


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Old 05-04-2015, 03:06 PM   #4
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Nice write up! Hope to make it to the southwest one of these years, and will refer back to this when we do. First we need to retrace the trail of tears from GA to OK in deference to my wife's family.
I guess, though, that no matter where you travel in the USA, you are exploring Indian country. It's fascinating stuff.
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Old 05-05-2015, 11:36 AM   #5
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Nice travels....the roads into Chaco are interesting, my first time was a disaster, but the place is magical. I recommend that you read House of Rain by Craig Childs. Then you will want to go the museum in Monticello and visit Bluff....
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Old 05-05-2015, 12:20 PM   #6
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Visit my website to see some images of Chaco, and a few other places.

Valles Caldera had about 300 elk in it the last time I passed through, stunning.
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Old 05-05-2015, 12:25 PM   #7
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That is very nice travel information and super photographs. Thank you so much.

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Old 05-05-2015, 01:08 PM   #8
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Might be an interesting place to have a rally.

Those who have been and know can help educate, inform and enlighten those that have not.





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Old 05-05-2015, 05:23 PM   #9
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Thanks for taking time to write up!
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Old 05-19-2015, 09:29 AM   #10
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Westcoastas, Thank you for your posts and pictures. My wife and I will be leaving Cape Cod for a 12-15 mos tour of Canada and the US. Your post is VERY inspiring!
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Old 05-19-2015, 09:58 AM   #11
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Thanks for the write up

You said, "Cottonwood campground is decent but struggles a bit with weeds"

My brother said that there are no weeds in the desert, anything green is a plant. Kinda funny but kinda true.
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Old 05-19-2015, 03:03 PM   #12
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Hey mandolindave, you're right - even weeds need a place in the sun!
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Old 01-13-2016, 02:38 PM   #13
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I lived in Chinle and Chilchinbito for years married to a Dine. Ladron means thief in Spanish. The rez is no place for an Airstream rally under any circumstances. The most spectacular campground on earth is in Monument Valley. However, never wander around out there outside the campground. It's a dangerous area and most Dine will not go out to MV at night.
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Old 01-13-2016, 03:14 PM   #14
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Thanks Jane for the info. Chinle looked like a tough town and was largely dark at night except for individual property lights. It appeared a bit depressed but maybe I read it wrong. Looked like a tough road for young people with limited opportunities. Still, to walk along the canyon bottom was a memorable opportunity for us.
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