We had gone barely 25 yards when I had a feeling of
the woods dissolving around us, and then we were hanging our toes over
a bare rock ledge at which the world dropped away. From 20 miles out
Black Mesa appeared to float in space like a long dark cloud bisected
by a pillar of dust rising half a mile into the desert sky. George
watched me for some time before he spoke.
"Magnificent," I assured him.
We descended to a narrow ledge for a closer look at
the arch hundreds of feet below through which swallows passed almost
quicker than the eye could follow; somewhere the wind-down call of a
canyon wren sounded. Then we began to work along the cliff face after
Shane, who had disappeared. We found him ten minutes later seated on
an outcrop of sandstone rock hugging his bare knees with his wrists
and wearing his cap pulled over his eyes. When we sat beside him he
pushed back the cap and gave me a challenging look.
"What do you think of this country?" Shane
"Beautiful," I said.
"I think it's boring," he replied, and commenced staring into the
George unwrapped a granola bar he had taken from
the pack, broke it in two pieces, and offered me one. "What are you
looking at?" he asked the boy.
"My sheep," Shane answered, without moving his
"Where are they? I don't see any sheep."
Through fieldglasses I scanned the plain below for
sheep and finally found them, so far out as to be nearly invisible.
"That guy," Shane said darkly, "don't know nothing.
Otherwise he wouldn't have taken sheep where there ain't no graze."
"Where do you take them?"
"Somewhere where there's something for them to graze."
George pointed out for me his mother-in-law's
ranch, directly ahead of us and 1,500 feet below. It was a small house
and barn with a couple of big cottonwoods for shade. "Lena says you've
had a lot of snakes out here this summer."
Shane nodded, and indicated something apparently
far in the distance. "It's the witchcrafters' doing," he said. When
George made no response to this I asked, "What witchcrafters?" "Those
out there." I followed his extended index finger and made out a ranch
adjacent to his grandmother's property. "They make the snakes come to
us." In the past week he had killed three or four he'd found in the
house after finishing his afternoon nap, all of them good sized
rattlers. When I mentioned that I am fond of snakes, even rattlers,
Shane told me sternly that Navajos are not allowed to pick up, eat, or
even look at a snake when it is possible to ignore him.
The three of us stood finally and began to traverse
the rimrock again, gazing down as we went into the side canyons where
hawks soared on the thermals above the interlacing trails the deer had
made on their way to water. The deepest of the canyons cut through the
cliff into the yellow plain below where it formed a crevasse that
Shane said was the home of a giant crab who had lived there for many
years. All you saw was the huge claw reaching out of the ravine to
grab a sheep, or a man. Shane wanted to climb down and investigate the
crevasse but George put him off, saying that the country was too flat
and uninteresting, as well as too hot, down there. "I know something
else you'd enjoy seeing," he told me suddenly. "That is, assuming we
can find it. I've never seen it, myself."
We descended White Mesa on its gentler western edge
following the curving road down to Kaibito, past men on horseback
moving in and out among the juniper trees, women pushing sheep (now as
for the past 400 years woman's work in the land of the Navajos) on
foot, and windmills revolving like silver pinwheels above the
waterwells where rights-holders loaded the big water cans into pickup
trucks. As we drove Shane talked about his horses, and how until the
livestock reduction program was implemented to reduce overgrazing on
the reservation the family had owned 400 sheep, and how he wanted to
live in Phoenix after he finished his summertime work, which was
branding cattle around the reservation.
North of the mesa we came to a general store with a
gas pump outside it where two roads intersected. George got out and
asked directions from an old Indian standing beside a flatbed truck
loaded with hay. The Hosteen, or elder, repeated the word "roo-un"
several times slowly around the stalk he had been chewing but finally
shook his head, so George called Shane from the pickup to interpret.
At sight of the boy the old man's face assumed a warmer expression,
the skin around his eyes wrinkling further in a slow smile as he
listened to him speak. Then he answered briefly in Navajo.
"He doesn't know," Shane translated proudly.
"He knows, all right," George said as he started
the engine, "but he doesn't want to corrupt an innocent boy like the
Dude here." When Lena was pregnant with Christopher she had asked her
husband to suspend his archaeological explorations until after the
baby was born. "I don't know why anybody would want to live out here,"
Shane observed. "It's totally boring."
Inside the store two Indian boys about 17 years old
were flirting with the pretty girl who managed the video desk. They
had some English and George asked them if they would be willing to
guide us to the turnoff to Inscription House Ruin, and direct us
verbally from there. We followed the boys in their red sports car on
the newly paved road that terminates at the Indian boarding school at
Navajo Mountain, past the new medical center built in total isolation
in a juniper and cedar forest. Shane was impressed by the car and
wondered aloud how the boys had obtained such a splendid machine.
Nobody he said in his family would ever buy him a car:
his grandfather let him have the truck keys sometimes but only when he
Two or three miles north of the store the boys
turned onto a paved apron from which a rutted dirt road moved off
among low tree-covered hills. We pulled in behind them and the boys
came back and began giving us directions to the ruin, but their
English was so bad that George asked them to jump in the bed of the
truck. They climbed up and hung on tight over the rough canted road,
until at last the one on the left side yelled "Stop!" through the
driver's window. From here, they made us understand, we would have to
walk. They were vague about the direction, and finally George told
them to get up in the truck again and drove them out to the highway,
where he made an impression by giving them six dollars.
"They're going back to the store to buy their
little honey a pop," George said as we watched the car disappear into
a curve. "There's no mutton gut on that Indian, that's for damn
sure. Eh, Dude?"
At the trailhead George locked the truck. We
slipped water bottles into the day packs and walked to the edge of the
reticulated maze of slickrock canyon. The view was a panoramic 180
degrees from White Mesa low on the southwest horizon to the Vermilion
Cliffs in the northwest: a maze of deeply carved purple, red, and
orange rock that appeared from the surface plateau as a vast, slightly
rolling forest of juniper and piņon pine stretching like a blue
mat to the edge of the world where the late afternoon sun, an
incandescent ball, rested. @In:George looked at his watch. "Let's go
for it," he said, and nodded at Shane. "We can count on our genu-wine
Indian guide to get us back to the truck before dark."
The genu-wine Indian guide went leaping ahead of us
over the rocks like a mountain goat. For an instant he stood poised in
silhouette on the hump of a petrified sand dune, before he was gone.
George called out to him but did not receive an answer. No discernible
trail was in sight and we walked about for a while among the hummocks
of red dust grown thinly with grass, prickly pear, and Mormon tea,
searching for a way down. From the farther reaches of the park an owl
called and was answered by another. The opposite wall of the canyon
was a sequence of hanging gardens set in tiers: terraces of piņon,
juniper, and wildflowers. "I'll have a bad time explaining at home if
I lose Shane," George said.
"He isn't lost," I told him; "he's an Indian."
"Well, if we can't get off this cliff I guess he can't either."
We walked on and discovered a row of cairns that
marked a trail descending to the floor of a secondary canyon, but saw
no ruins there. Cutting across a peninsula of rock we came to a
collapsing hogan built of pine logs, and beyond it a clearly
defined footpath. We followed the path and were hailed after a hundred
yards by Shane, who sat on an elevation of rock with his legs
stretched out, pressing his hands between his knees. At risk of losing
his clients, the genu-wine Indian guide had picked up the trail before
he was five minutes from the truck and started along it.
The trail down was blocked by a balky whiteface cow
who stood chewing the cud before turning reluctantly and trotting on
ahead of us, her bag swinging. A hogan with its brush corral
stood in tall grass at the head of the canyon beneath ancient
cottonwoods that boiled slowly on a breeze easing between the livid
rock walls against which the foliage showed an amazing green.
Navajo Creek in this season of the year was several
inches of brackish water idling between loose banks 15 and 20 feet
tall on its way to rendezvous with the Colorado River at Glen Canyon,
60 or 70 miles distant by line of sight. The trail followed through
high sagebrush above the creek, allowing us a forced march across the
sand beneath cottonwood groves piling like emerald thunderheads into
the stark blue sky that made a perfectly fitted roof over Navajo
Canyon. Side canyons ran in from left and right; we found horses, a
mule, and a donkey in the mouth of one of these, but no ruins. Shane
left on a tangent to investigate the condition of these lonely
specimens of "those that men live by," and caught up with us to report
that they looked well fed and in good health.
Evening was near; we had just agreed to turn back
at the next canyon when George and I saw it simultaneously: a line of
fitted wall a hundred or more feet above the canyon floor,
unmistakably the work of human hands though isolated in a wilderness
of desert rock. We moved forward again at an increased pace in the
lengthening shades of the great cottonwoods. The trail led steeply
down into the creek and up the far bank to the base of a tall red
cliff, where it clung precariously for another hundred yards before
deadheading at a holed chickenwire fence with a sign hung on it that
said "Keep Out."
We squeezed through the largest hole, climbed up 30
or 40 feet hand over hand, and stood panting on the floor of one of
those spectral villages with which the Spanish explorers had almost no
contact and that were hardly known by white men until the Macom
Expedition of 1859 and those of John Wesley Powell in 1869 and 1871
reported seeing strange rock structures built by human beings in
humanly inaccessible places. Probably the majority of these with their
troves of relics are undiscovered to this day. The painted pictographs
and the petroglyphs tapped or scraped into the desert varnish on
remote canyon walls are undomesticated ghosts: to you and only you,
perhaps, they make their first--and possibly last--apparition.
Carbon from ancient smokes blackened the ceiling of
the cave in patches where the rock surface had not flaked with time,
and on the walls above the low simple buildings white prints left by
shy hands gave mute greeting across the centuries. To the left of the
sequence of footholds cut into the rock and just within the overhang,
Shane discovered two potholes that George guessed might have served as
the water source for the pueblo. We crossed the circle of flat rock,
in which postholes had been carefully cut, that was the floor of the
kiva and walked the narrow space between the housefronts and the rocky
lip above a potsherd accumulation of anciently-flung houseware. The
houses themselves were built of adobe brick reinforced by brush sticks
and roofed with thicker sticks supported by poles.
I picked up one of the loose bricks to examine it.
Although that brick had been baked around the time that Dante was
writing The Divine Comedy, the grass used in its construction
looked no older than last year's straw. Around the houses and inside
them tiny corncobs lay scattered, harvested seven or eight centuries
before by the Basketmakers, as the Anasazi are also called:
sophisticated agriculturalists for their day, as well as accomplished
masons and designers.
"Let's go now," Shane suggested. I don't want to be
We reached the truck at dark and sat on the
tailgate to drink the last of the water and watch Venus arise in the
pale ecliptic of the vanished sun.
"Are you going out with the sheep in the morning?"
"Not if I can help it," Shane said.
"I suppose you're going to need a ceremony to purify you of where
you've been today."
"I don't need no ceremony." Shane's voice in the darkness was
"Why don't you?"
"Because I'm modern," Shane answered serenely.