I scribbled my trip as follows:
Day 1: Arrive
Day 2: Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley (est. 7 hours drive RT)
Day 3: Grand Canyon +/- Meteor Crater (est. 6 hours drive RT, sites included)
Day 4: Sedona, AZ, and Phoenix, AZ arrival (est. 5 hrs drive, sites included)
Day 5: Tombstone, AZ and Saguaro National Park (est. 7hrs drive, RT)
Day 6: Phoenix, AZ and South Mountain (est. 2hrs drive RT)
Day 7: Return
(*Note: Some of the coolest stuff to shoot in Arizona is closed/inaccessible in the winter and or without prior authorization. Don’t be like me. Plan ahead)
It wasn’t until I went outside in the morning light that I realized that I was, in fact, on a mountain and that, while my hosts had taken some liberties with the home description, they didn’t take many. I like to cook on the road and being close to a grocery store, this go-round, was a net asset, not an annoyance. My breath was visible in the dawn air. My hosts had told me it would be chilly, but I wasn’t as prepared to deal with 20-degree weather as I thought I was, considering my previous year in the frigid Midwest. Allowing myself to acclimate to the cold, I grabbed my equipment, got focused, and made my trip up to Canyon de Chelly.
Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley Meteor Crater
Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument that lies to the Southeast of Arizona near the “4-Points” (Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado) deep in the Navajo Nation. From Flagstaff, it’s a solid 3-hour drive so gas up completely and set your course before you leave as you’ll likely lose reception unless you have one of the preferred mobile carriers of the Navajo Nation (link). I wanted to see a place I had saw online called “Spider Rock” which was the most notable of Canyon de Chelly’s historic sites. Along the way, I got to see the gorgeous mountains and valleys of the Navajo Nation. There were colossal terracotta buttes that commanded the horizon along with a seemingly infinite number of rocky foothills, granite crags, blue sky, and desaturated lime-green, saguaro cactus. I was also able to take a more subtle mental note at how sparse the living seemed to be of the land’s inhabitants. I couldn’t properly tell if the distance, not only of the homes but also of the social infrastructure (grocery stores, schools, community centers, etc…) were intentionally so sparse for cultural reasons or because of communal access to wealth. Driving through the Navajo Nation was both an incredibly humbling experience, but also smacked of a sort of melancholy that was always on the edge of the mountains, just before the occasional trailer in disrepair or apparent lack of…everything. I couldn’t help but think about how their people got this land. I mean that with the fullness and gravity of the words. America’s history with its indigenous people is ugly, full stop. The atrocities they underwent compared to the coordination and daftness of their people to negotiate some of it back and the communial attempt was astonishing to take in.
In the Navajo Nation, I saw lots of horses roaming about freely. They had age to them but seemed happy, wild.
In a complete show of how plugged in I am, I probably went slack-jaw when I saw a Circle K and a Burger King come upon on a critical round-a-bout turn on the way up to Canyon de Chelly. It’s like I wanted to see it; it’s like I didn’t want to see it. I’m sure the native people might have this same sort of cognitive gripe. Gas is necessary, for sure but it looks odd set against such beautiful land. Nonetheless, I was a little before a half-tank, but I wasn’t going to risk driving without a sense of when I’d come across a gas station again. I filled up, got refreshed, and continued on my trek.
About an hour later, I came into a small town called Chinle, the town where Canyon de Chelly and Spider Rock is located in Apache County. Chinle is relatively nondescript, but comparatively has far more infrastructure and dense living than anything I had seen in the proceeding 3 hours. I noted the Subway Restaurant with “free wifi”, a random Church’s Chicken, a few hotels and places of worship, and all of the other amenities you’d expect in a small town, all of the historical relevance most small towns could never have.
The Canyon de Chelly Welcome Center in Chinle, AZ
Even though I wanted to enjoy, no, savor my time at Canyon de Chelly, I knew I had to move quickly in order to make the additional hour or so up to Monument Valley, an iconic park notable for its deep red butte rocks that are likely some of the first images most people conjure up of old Western films, just past the Arizona border and into Utah. Time in mind, I stopped into the park service station and got some quick and very helpful information on how to make it to Spider Rock.
From the station, Chinle transforms into Canyon de Chelly. It was the first place on my trips that I was able to get a sense of about how high up I was, at least 6000ft at last check. Canyon de Chelly has a northern and southern route. Spider Rock, the most famous of its attractions is the last site of the southern route, an approximately 25min trip each way. When I arrived, I saw two guys chatting amongst themselves. Passing them, we exchanged pleasantries. One was an Asian guy in his mid-20s named Dave that was traveling on his own from Pasadena to Chicago. He had a gypsy vibe about him and a cat print on the back of his hoodie. Like me, he was there to see Spider Rock and it was his first time. The other guy was coming into his gray, Indigenous, and familiar with the area. He just seemed to be chilling out, leisurely chatting up strangers. He had no stress in his eyes. Before going out to see Spider Rock, upon learning I was from New Orleans, shouted “Who What!” in apparent admiration for the Saints. I corrected him with a roaring “Who Dat!” and he joined me for a quick chant. Laughing, he shooed me away to enjoy the site and said that the only two teams he roots for are the Saints and the Vikings. Unexpected to say the least.