Driving from the Petrified Forest National Park my son, Sean, and I arrived at Chinle, Arizona the evening of Monday, November 2, 2003. No time to rest or eat after checking into the Best Western he and I reached the White House overlook and trail head with the sun low in the sky, the sun sets 6:45 pm these last few days of Daylight Savings. The Navajo Reservation observes Daylight Savings, so the click jumps crossing the border from Arizona to Reservation.
I was 50 at the time and with Sean graduated from SUNY Maritime and fresh from a tour at sea we made good time to the canyon floor. I wanted to catch the White House in the setting sun.
This morning, 14 years later, I published a fine art photograph from that trip.
Looking along the canyon, over thick stands of Russian Olives, I caught the risen moon, in gibbous phase, against a mid-canyon freestanding fin of red sandstone of the southern canyon wall.
The Defiance Plateau of northeastern Arizona declines gradually from its origin, the Chuska Mountains of New Mexico. Route 191 runs where the Defiance Plateau merges with a valley of the larger Colorado Plateau. The Black Mesa escarpment forms the western valley wall and is clearly visible from Canyon de Chelly visitor center.
Carved into the Defiance Plateau, the high cliff canyon walls of Canyon de Chelly at intervals belly out into wide alcoves. For thousands of years, the land between the walls was farmed. Here is a photograph from our 2008 canyon visit, visible are fields, farm equipment, shed and sport utility vehicle (SUV). Look closer for the hogan, adjacent to the shed, and, on the lowest sandstone shelf on the left, white goats.
Here is a quote from the reference link provided at the end of my post:
“The massive, high cliffs that form the walls of the canyon are De Chelly Sandstone. The De Chelly Sandstone consists of sand deposited in dunes in a subtropical to arid environment in Early Triassic time (about 250 to 230 million years ago).”
In this photograph the goats jumped off the shelf to graze, around them are the two forms of De Chelly Sandstone. 230 million years ago winds driving across the dry lands, piling the eroded bits of ancestral rocky mountains into dunes hundreds of feet high. The in-stratified rock cliffs are the body of those dunes, converted to stone over the eons. The cliffs are visible in both photographs. The dark stains are called desert varnish. Read more about desert varnish in the first posting of this series, “Portrait of a Navajo Guide.” The rock in the foreground appear formed from an orderly pile of stone plates, this appearance is called stratification. Another name for it is Cross Bedded Sandstone, formed from wind blowing across the dunes.
That entire, northeastern, side of the alcove is Cross-bedded sandstone. Click on any one of the following photographs for a larger version, to peruse the detail.
A fascinating detail in these photographs, the subject of this post, are human figures rendered tiny by the distance and the enormous maze of sandstone.
It is four generations of a Navajo family, fathers, mothers, children of all ages down to infants in carriers. My wife Pam, myself and our Navajo guide watched in wonder as they made their way down to the canyon floor.
Their progress was slow and careful. Everyone kept together. Nobody left behind.
Here they inch along a high ledge.
Descend from one ledge to the next.
Most amazing of all, the first person down is an elderly woman wearing sports shoes, steadied with umbrella, accompanied by a pre-teen girl. Her progress steady and sure from years of experience.
Our guide knew the family. He and they chatted in the Dine language. The were travelling for a birthday party.
On November 3, 2004 my son, Sean, and I made our way to Chinle, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly.
The next day, driving a rented 4 wheel drive, we arrived at the visitor center, at dawn, and there met Peter Tsosie who worked as a guide. This is how you do it, if learning about the Canyon is your goal. It is possible to walk, unaccompanied, into the canyon to view the “White House” and this I highly recommend. Tourists can also drive around the rim to various overlooks. This is what most people do.
The canyon is still farmed and the tribe only allows visitors when accompanied by a guide. Only Navajos are certified as guides. They know the rights of way and the preferences of the landowners.
We negotiated with Peter to take us for half a day for our interest in petroglyphs and ruins. It is important to start early when the sun is low in the sky, when directly overhead the details of ruins and petroglyphs are washed out by the light. Catching the late afternoon/evening sun is also an approach that requires detailed knowledge of the route, taking into account the time of year.
Peter was an excellent choice, though he was our only option on that day. He was fluent in Navajo beliefs, the lore of the canyon and generous in sharing what he knew.
Here is Peter, approximately 6.2 miles into the canyon with the “Ledge Ruin” behind. We arrived at the junction just in time, before the sun was high enough to wash out the ruin. It is slow going into the canyon what with the deep sand and water that must be negotiated. Peter did the driving and was expert. We passed other parties bogged down in the wet sand. I do not believe it was luck that kept us moving . We stopped many times to talk and admire the petroglyphs and pictographs.
Petroglyphs are symbols incised, or cut, into the surface (the name means petro, “rock”, glyph, “symbol”). In the desert climate of the southwestern USA a thin, dark pigment forms on rock surfaces of overhanging cliffs. The pigment forms from infrequent precipitation, in the form of water, flowing downward over the surface or even dew. The high heat of the desert drives a chemical reaction between water, clays, iron and manganese oxide to form a coating on the rock surface. The dark coating, called “desert varnish”, contrasts with the underlying rock. When it is scraped away a line forms. Many of the petroglyphs were of this form. Others were carved into the rock itself, more time consuming and durable. No one knows when the petroglyphs were made, they were always there are respected. People have inhabited Canyon de Chelly for over a thousand years. The word pictograph has a different meaning when used to describe prehistoric art. The earliest writing were symbols incised in wet clay, then allowed to harden. The pictographs we viewed was prehistoric art, mostly white pigment on the red rock, outlines of hands. There were also kokopelli, the outline of a flute player and jagged lines, symbolizing, Peter told us, lightening.
In November the cottonwoods were in fall foliage, a brilliant yellow under a cloudless sky. The sun is lower in the south and rises later. The Navajo Reservation follows daylight savings time, unlike Arizona. This November morning the sun rose around 7:45 am, so if you are not an early riser this time of year is an excellent choice for a Canyon de Chelly tour.
November 2003 my son, Sean, and I drove up route 191 from the Petrified Forest National Part to arrived at Chinle on a November afternoon. In 2003 my photography kit included a Sony Point and Shoot 5 MP camera with filters, an over the shoulder (purse type) bag and an inexpensive “Kmart” tripod.
We found the White House trailhead, hiked down essentially alone as the sun set at 5:20 pm. At that time, a thick stand of Russian Olive trees choked the wash. We stopped at this point in the gathering dark. I took this distant shot of the White House Ruin against the Russian Olive autumn foliage. A stand of Cottonwoods growing near the canyon wall had yet to turn their brilliant yellow. At that time, the White House Ruin was painted white.
When Pam and I visited July 2008, in the intervening 4 years, 9 months the Russian Olives were removed as an invasive species, the ruin was no longer white.
There is one highway headed south in the Four Corners region of Northern Arizona, the same route 191 Sean and I took. In 2008 Pam and I came from Colorado south on 191, also arriving late afternoon.
That July day the sun set 8:33 pm as the Navajo Reservation observes daylight savings time. My goal was to photograph the White House Ruin I missed in 2003. We arrived at the trail head. My photography kit was expanded from 2003, now included a Kodak DSC Pro slr/C, the “C” meaning “Canon” lens mounting, a Sony 700 alpha slr (I only use a variable lens), Manfrotto tripod with hydrostatic ball head, and the backpack style Lowe camera case. With the tripod it is over 25 pounds.
With this on my back I was prepared to boogie down the trail. At the height of tourist season there were many more people at the trailhead. Pam, being a friendly person, started a conversation while I ploughed ahead along the flat canyon rim. It is solid red sandstone, beautiful, generally level with enough unevenness to require attention. When Pam saw how far ahead I was she tried to catch up, tripped, fell hard.
I backtracked to Pam and we pulled it together. She thought, maybe, the fall broke a rib. We descended, slowly, together. Here we are in front of the ruin. The sun, low in the sky, is moving below the south canyon wall. This is a perfect time and I used both cameras.
The sweep of cliff and desert varnish was my intent to capture. Here it is through the Canon 50 mm lens.
The village of Chinle is a “census designate place”, in other words it only exists because people live there, it was not formally recorded in “official” records. On the Navajo reservation, people lived here beyond recorded time. It is called in their language “flowing out”, where live giving water flows out from the canyons.
There is a fine Best Western in Chinle, better than most of that brand and the only choice for mile and miles and miles.
In Junction Ruin Musings, the previous post, a ruin from the Anasazi people was contemplated. Above is a traditional Navajo dwelling from a later, more secure, time.
Ouch!! Everywhere in the southwest, watch where you tread.
A Native American, seeing the flute playing Kokopelli, hears in the mind the sonorous melodies of their native flutes carried in as if on the wind. The hands waving in rhythm, “Here we are.”
I recall our guide, Peter, describes this as a scorpion.
The feeling of movement and the story invoked viewing this drawing etched carefully on the rock demonstrates we are in the presence of an accomplished artist. The story of the times for us to learn from.
A Navajo woman, fleeing Apache captors, flew over this cliff, or seemed to. Survival depended on knowing how to run over slickrock without stumbling and to know where and how to disappear into the rocks.
Whoosh….whoosh. Taking out the garbage last Monday evening, July 15th, I heard the unmistakable sound of a liquid propane burner. As the propane is gasified and ignited, the flame and exhaust is directed into the balloon, all under control of the human operator. What a sound!!
This year, hot air balloons started launching from West Hill and, when the breeze (balloons never launch in winds, as far as I know) is right the balloon and gondola full of passengers drift in the direction of our home. One time, directly overhead, I estimate 200 feet away. We could clearly see and converse with the passengers. What fun.
Each previous viewing I regretted not filming the balloon as the vision floated away. Last Monday, I dropped everything (not literally, I did leave the garbage in the bin), mounted the Canon lens EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM on a EOS 1Ds Mark III body, returning to the north side of our property as the balloon emerged from the trees, only the envelope visible.
We have enjoyed this balloon before, the envelope pattern evokes a classic Navajo Rug, the colors really pop against the blue sky.
Why the Whooooosh?
Tourists and local residents pay $230 per person for the experience of floating silently over Finger Lakes landscape with a launch from Trumansburg, ending up over Ithaca, in its valley surrounded by hills. Cayuga Lake is visible the entire flight, to the east, then northeast as the path reaches Ithaca. As they approached the balloon elevation was not so high relative to our home. You can see this clearly in the first photograph. With the zoom on 300 mm I was almost able to look into the basket, each of the four riders (the operation, looking at a cell phone, and three passengers) was recognizable.
There are three propane burners, two in front and the edge of a third just visible between the front pair.
Ethereal silence and reveres are broken when the burner lights up. Here it appears only one burner is running, sending the craft high above us.
Seven of the forty images are shared here. The duration was three minutes. With a goal of capturing the action, I had the camera on burst mode, with the shutter pressed the exposures run serially, in close succession.
I perfected these seven photographs to represent the perfection of this colorful event as it passed from the northwest, disappearing in the tree line to the southeast.
I am listening for the next event, camera and lens ready.
Post script….it was my usual early morning blogging time when I heard the familiar Whooooosshh, whoooosssshhh, grabbed my IPhone for a video and captured the following. You will hear the gondola occupants chatting. The burner was turned on at 1:03 when the balloon was fairly distant. The Whoooosssshhhh is low, but audible.
Today, they were headed North/Northwest in the opposite direction from Monday and are backlit. Enjoy!!
Copyright 2019 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved
In my last post, Homecoming Parade 2003, I described my initial reconnection with the University of Arizona (U of A) as a 1975 graduate and alumnus. This personal project of involvement with U of A and Arizona continued through 2011 with annual autumn trips to coincide with Homecoming. The travel was as a CALS (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) Alumni Board of Directors member, a primary responsibility was raising funds for scholarships.
The Amerind Foundation and weathered boulders of Texas Canyon granite. Beyond are the Dragoon Mountains
I met, Linda Kelly, the owner of the Triangle T Guest Ranch, while camping in the Chiricahua Mountains. I arrived a week before homecoming to photographing the landscape, nature and rock formations of the Chiricahua National Monument. Click this link for my Arizona Online gallery, including some work from that time. Linda and a friend were visiting that day and we struck up a conversation about the area and her Triangle T Guest ranch. The next day I was scheduled to guest lecture a class at the U of A, as an alumnus of CALS. The ranch was on the way and I needed a place to stay, so Linda gave me directions and I checked in.
She gave me a tour of the incredible weather granite rock formations of Texas Canyon and, meanwhile, shared stories of the history of Texas Canyon. It is appropriate for the Amerind Foundation to be here (see first photograph), the winter camp of an Apache tribe for generations.
Weathered granite boulders greet visitors to the Triangle T Ranch.
That night, my request was for a room storied to be haunted by a spirit they call “Grandma,” as in when her foot steps wake you from a sound sleep you say, “It’s all right, Grandmother.” She woke me that night, footsteps in the dark, hollow on the wood floor, the room filled with a hard cold. I talked to her, without a response, while swinging my legs out of bed to reach the gas heater in the wall. I turned on the heat and the sound of expanding metal heat fins lulled me to sleep.
I call this pair, “Father and Son.” The restaurant is built around a round boulder.
It made a good story for the students. They were surprised I could fall back asleep, but after all I had to be there the following morning.
Your imagination roams among the natural forms.
I gave Linda a few of my photographs from that day and we made arrangements for the Triangle T to supply a two night package for the CALS “Dean’s Almost World Famous Burrito Breakfast” silent auction during 2008 homecoming.
A tableau of figures keep silent watch with the ghosts of Texas Canyon.