Mark D Stephens: Adventurer, writer, photographer, ambassador of the sonoran desert
Canyon de Chelly: The Backroads in Winter

The Legend of Spider Rock
Leon actually groaned at me when I asked about the legend of Spider Rock. "I thought you wanted a backcounrty trip? Everyone wants to know about Spider Rock . . ."

Now, let me get this out of the way: If Sherman Alexie emphatically uses the term "indian" over "native american" in his stories, then I think that's his way of telling us to shut up and just use "indian." So I will.

Leon was our Indian guide, and he thought that Spider Rock was either over sensationalized or not as magical as we outsiders think it is. Or perhaps something in between. Nevertheless, he groaned when I asked about the spire.

I have to admit this much, too: Leon was trying to give us a fantastically unique trip, and it worked. He had us drive all the way into Canyon del Muerto where we talked with an artist who lived in the canyon. He made elaborate carvings out of mesquite and juniper, as well as some jewelry. As we left the artist's house, Leon made some kind of noise at him and the artist did the same to Leon. Well, the noise was language, but I couldn't make it out.

Back in the Jeep, Leon said, "I'm going to teach you some Dine words. Don't tell anybody." Okay, so I won't. But he did teach us some facsinating words and phrases. I like language because it's only a way to express something - and often language doesn't really quite hit the mark. But some Navajo terms are really interesting, mostly because they don't directly translate into English.

For instance, Leon gave us a phrase that he said, "It means something like the kindest way to greet somebody. It's very sincere, nothing like it in English."

At the narrowest point in the canyon, Leon said, "Okay, stop right here. Shut off the engines. I want you to listen to this." And he told a story, then stopped for short moment.

"I don't do this for very many people. But you seem like you will appreciate it. Shut your eyes, and listen to the water flowing, and my voice echoing off these walls . . ."

Then he sang. He sang a song I can't quote or make up, either. Leon sang for at least 10 minutes, and I had to peek just to watch him for a little bit. He stretched his arms out wide, closed his eyes and sang with his head tipped back. This is just not a part of any menu the guides give you at the beginning of the day. It was a special treat we earned somehow.





Canyon de Chelly Information
Basics: You need an Indian guide if you want to get inside the canyon. That's the rule. Since rules were meant to be broken, there is one exception: The hike to White House Ruins from the rim. This you can do without a guide

For a guide, you can do a few things.

  1. Show up at the visitor's center at the park. You'll be greeted by no less than 4 or 5 Navajo guides looking for some busness
  2. Call Leon. He's a first-rate guy with a sense of humor. Website:
Other stuff: Chinle has several nice hotels, and there is a campground at the park.

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Mark D. Stephens: Adventurer, Writer, Photgrapher and Ambassador of the Sonoran Desert