Amazing Arizona is a wondrous adventure
BETH ASHTON goes tribal as she sees the Grand Canyon state through the eyes of its original inhabitants
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