Amaz­ing Ari­zona is a won­drous ad­ven­ture

BETH ASHTON goes tribal as she sees the Grand Canyon state through the eyes of its orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants

Macclesfield Express - - TRAVEL -

I’M in the back of a jeep driv­ing through wa­ter. The road is rocky and re­quires duck­ing at in­ter­vals to avoid get­ting soaked.

As the jeep turns the cor­ner, hun­dreds of feet of canyon come into view, a can­vas of colour; black, or­ange and yel­low. It dwarfs ev­ery­thing into in­signif­i­cance.

At 230 mil­lion years old, you can pic­ture di­nosaurs roam­ing this part of the Earth.

Our tour guide, Os­car, ex­plains the pet­ro­glyph­ics high up on the wall. He tells us the sto­ries of how they came to be and that the canyon runs for hun­dreds of miles and has thou­sands of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites.

An­other stop. Hun­dreds of feet up in the rock are ru­ins of a house and more ev­i­dence of life mil­len­nia ago. Canyon de Chelly is a ge­o­log­i­cal won­der, but this is a Na­tive Amer­i­can tour.

There’s a man and woman de­picted on a rock face.

“Man. Woman. Could have been a chapel,” says Os­car.

The Navajo’s history is an oral one and it’s pow­ered by sto­ries.

Head­ing to the Grand Canyon State know­ing that I wasn’t vis­it­ing its main at­trac­tion felt like sac­ri­lege.

But the idea of noth­ing was the main rea­son I’d come to Ari­zona, be­ing in the mid­dle of nowhere with no dis­trac­tion was quite ap­peal­ing. That’s some­thing that the Na­tive Amer­i­cans have al­ways known.

Apache isn’t a re­li­gion, it’s a way of life. The Apache tribe has been, “con­nected to this land since time im­memo­rial” ac­cord­ing to our guide at the White Moun­tain Apache Cul­tural Cen­tre and Mu­seum where that mes­sage is re­in­forced.

As the trip went on, meet­ing three dif­fer­ent tribes in to­tal, it’s ab­so­lutely clear that th­ese are sa­cred lands. That the tribes re­main with the land­scape (and it is a beau­ti­ful land­scape) is im­per­a­tive. The drive from Phoenix to Whi­teriver had been one of dry desert rife with cacti.

The next part of the drive (from Whi­teriver to Canyon de Chelly) was where the jour­ney into nowhere really be­gan, with open road for miles and miles.

At one point the drive briefly in­ter­sects with Route 66, a re­minder of what you could have had on a more com­mer­cial hol­i­day.

Canyon de Chelly it­self is a high­light. If you head up the 600ft or so onto the road, short drives give spec­tac­u­lar views, in­clud­ing Spi­der Rock, where the spi­der woman once saved a Navajo in dan­ger by let­ting down her web to lift him up.

Navajo would tell their chil­dren that the tip was white from the bones of mis­be­hav­ing young­sters; folk­lore within folk­lore.

All of this in­for­ma­tion can be found in the guide book at Sa­cred Canyon Lodge, a peace­ful ho­tel off the beaten path with in­di­vid­ual cabin-style rooms where the doors open straight out onto the land­scape around you. It’s pretty ba­sic but it’s a good rest stop and the stars look amaz­ing at night.

A quick cafe­te­ria-style break­fast and it was off to Old Oraibi on the Hopi reser­va­tion, the old­est con­tin­u­ous Na­tive Amer­i­can set­tle­ment in North Amer­ica.

I toured Third Mesa, a tiny vil­lage that’s been in­hab­ited for al­most 1,000 years.

There’s no elec­tric­ity (other than so­lar pan­els) be­cause there was a prophecy that one day spi­ders would block the view of the sky. They use the so­lar panel en­ergy to charge iPads as they mod­ernise while keep­ing their old way of life.

At Dawa Park, pet­ro­glyph­ics tour guide Mika stands by a sec­tion of canyon with sym­bols dat­ing back to 500 AD.

‘What is it?’ he asks. There are a few guesses. But as he ex­plains the pet­ro­glyphs sud­denly the draw­ings be­come co­her­ent and the history be­comes alive.

Th­ese same sym­bols still ex­ist in Hopi to­day so they can all be trans­lated through the gen­er­a­tions. From lands oc­cu­pied since time im­memo­rial to newly-formed land­scapes, we went to Flagstaff via Sun­set Crater, a vol­cano formed less than 800 years ago, which is sur­rounded by the dry lava, as though the erup­tion was frozen in time as it flowed to­wards the stun­ning view of the San Francisco peaks.

Back on Route 66, back to fa­mil­iar­ity with free­ways and road signs, we headed to Flagstaff, a Fron­tier­land, with tribes sell­ing art and restau­rants aplenty.

That night we were in lux­u­ri­ous sur­round­ings in the Twin Ar­rows casino, where the hos­pi­tal­ity was ex­cel­lent and the Navajo beef steak even bet­ter.

On the reser­va­tion are a num­ber of casi­nos. On the first night I stayed at Hon Dah Casino, a large lodge-type ac­com­mo­da­tion with a lobby full of lo­cal taxi­dermy and the only place to stay within the park.

Th­ese casi­nos con­trib­ute to the sus­tain­abil­ity of the tribes and al­though the ho­tel pro­vided much-needed rest af­ter a long day of trav­el­ling its pres­ence pre­sented some­thing of a para­dox in the con­text of the tribes’ way of life.

Over the course of the trip we cov­ered thou­sands of miles by car which wasn’t as test­ing as it might sound, the ever-chang­ing land­scape made the jour­ney feel less like a never-end­ing road trip and more of a won­drous ad­ven­ture. It really was the drive of a life­time.

●● The view from the top of the Canyon de Chelly

●● A brief stop-off on Route 66

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