A reason not to despair: three days with fourteen people, most of them strangers, camping in the depths of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.
There was a time in my life when I would have turned down the opportunity, dreading dealing with outhouses (or worse), fearing being so cold at night I wouldn’t be able to sleep, and fearing most of all the inevitable rubbing of personalities that happens when people spend time together.
I don’t even spend that much time with my friends.
Three trips down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon changed my perspective. The bucket behind a thin shade of trees was no obstacle; nights spent herded together on narrow sandy beaches were companionable rather than suffocating; people I might never have chosen to be my friends were strangely compatible. Those trips did have one drawback, though: the machismo of some of the paddling guides (one ended in the river over Lava Falls for his sins), and the noise and thoughtlessness attendant on drinking liquor.
But I knew after those three trips that time in the wilderness is essential to my soul. When I discovered an organization called Earthwalks, I found my solution.
Much of the success of all enterprises is laid down to leaders. In this case, our leader, Doug Conwell, exercised his gifted leadership most importantly when he selected the fourteen people for this trip. Highly intuitive, his choices were not based on the obvious benchmarks but on an unspoken sense of who can meld together most smoothly. This doesn’t mean a bunch of sheep, but a bunch of egos so finely honed by life that a display of sharp edges is no longer necessary. Or a set of demands. Good manners, by which I mean the ability to feel the needs of others—for an extra hug, a trail bar, a story or a tune played on a flute—are what matter in this selection.
Or for a knife to spread the peanut butter.
We set off last Friday in a caravan, driving through the mountains west of Abiquiú, then through a succession of plains and forested mountains before descending to the rim of the vast cleavage in the desert which is Canyon de Chelly. Met by the family of our Navajo guides, whom Doug has known for thirty years, we hiked down a rocky trail several hundred feet to the canyon bottom. This is land sacred to the Navajo; visitors can’t enter without a native guide. It is also the area where the Navajo made their last stand against Kit Carson, who murdered all he could, burned their hogans and orchards, and herded the remainder on the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico, in winter, a trek which cost the lives of elders and the young.
There they remained prisoners for more than a decade before persuading their captors to let them walk back to their ancestral lands. Dressed in the long white gowns prescribed by the Christian missionaries, they frightened the people who had remained behind who thought they were ghosts.
Carson has his apologists. I am not one of them. That he was a tool of Manifest Destiny, pushing white power further West, no more excuses him than the “scientific” experiments performed in the concentration camps excuse the Nazi doctors.
This story enrages me. It does not appear to enrage the descendants of the massacre. One of the Navajo beliefs is that we must always move on. Carson’s men gave the surviving Navajos in the canyon four seeds: apple, pear, peach and apricot, to replant their burned orchards. And that is just what they did. I saw a row of small trees that grew from those seeds on the other side of the field where we camped.
That field was walled by tall sandstone cliffs that changed in color according to the level of the sun, from pale grey at dawn to apricot at ten AM to a fierce orange in the middle of the day before fading again as the light failed. The faces of these cliffs are broken with curiously shaped outcroppings or marked with pictographs left by the Anasazi, mysterious depictions of deer, in white with staring eyes, or lines of human figures sporting traditional hairstyles—buns at each ear and one on top of the head—or tiny circles with dots. Most are so high up on the cliff faces it seems impossible that a human more than a thousand years ago could have climbed up. But these Ancient Ones had skills we have long forgotten: their cliff houses, the “little houses dreaming in the sun” Willa Cather described in her novel The Professor’s House, are tucked into tiny slits high up in the cliff faces. Ladders were used, often the single pole with notches up which inhabitants climbed fifty or a hundred feet. The little houses were safe from attack, their corn stored in granaries, their heat baked into the sun-facing rock faces themselves.
Walking, looking, listening to the wisdom of our guides, we who began as a disparate group of strangers began to be transformed into a unit. Each member found her or his place. Several sprang to wash up after the evening meal; others were on hand to make sandwiches for our lunches; help was always available to set up a tent (I am defeated by all those stakes and flaps), others sitting quietly by the campfire exuded peace. Everyone seemed glad to be woken by the flute at 5:30, to crawl out of tents in the cold dawn dark and take part in morning prayers. We were already on time to leave to hike to Spider Rock, or to scatter for our times alone (I spent mine sleeping on an ant hill), or to gather and pack up when it was time to leave the canyon.
Earthwalks trips always include a day of community service. Yesterday we drove to a Navajo farm on the edge of the canyon to shovel sand away from a fence so the sheep wouldn’t climb on it and jump over, or to bring in firewood. We shared lunch with our hostess who told us about her son the surgeon, her daughter-in-law the pharmacist, and her younger son serving in Afghanistan. In all the wars this country launches, the people who have been so badly treated are the first to volunteer.
Finally it was time to leave. We separated for the drive, some going further, others returning to Santa Fe. I took away a hope I haven’t felt in a long time: that we flawed humans do know how to work together and in doing so are the hope of our troubled world.