Since I didn’t achieve my goal, the Baisse de Peluna, I would consider it a failed hike. Yet, I learned a lot and intend to try again when I have more time.
I parked near the tourist office in La Brigue and found the beginning of the hike at Balise 44. It was near noon when I started. The path was easy and relatively shady with good views.
After Balise 46, the path got slightly steeper and rockier but still was great views over the valley.
All was well until I reached a fork in the path.
First I took the left fork but I didn’t see another balise so I assumed it must be wrong and headed to the left fork. It was an easier and less rocky walk with a gentle incline but as I walked for about 20 minutes without seeing a balise I realized that it couldn’t be the route to Baisse de Peluna. It was a shepherd’s path that just meandered in the hills.
I found a flat rock to eat my sandwich and enjoy the view but decided to head down.
Back at the fork I decided to climb a little further along the left fork and finally did come to a balise. The right road! Unfortunately, I could see the sun starting to slip behind the hills and figured that I had better head down the way I came before the temperature dropped with the disappearing sun.
There were a few tricky spots descending but it all went well. I arrived back at the beginning around 3pm, about 3 hours after I started.
As most of the route is in shade, this would be a great summer walk. To complete the circuit in winter it would be best to arrive no later than 10.30am.
No, I did not take a long walk. The Long Walk is the seminal event in Navajo history and refers to Kit Carson’s forced death march from the Canyon de Chelly to the Bosque Redondo reservation in 1864. Having failed to starve the Navajo out of the canyon, the US Army came up with another plan.
Soon, 8,500 men, women and children were marched almost 300 miles from northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico to Bosque Redondo, a desolate tract on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. Traveling in harsh winter conditions for almost two months, about 200 Navajo died of cold and starvation. More died after they arrived at the barren reservation. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-navajolongwalk.html
For me, it was a relatively short drive from Monument Valley to Spider Rock Campground on the canyon’s south rim.The light was beautiful when I arrived in late afternoon.
The campground is named after the striking Spider Rock, a sacred place for the Navajo.
As in Monument Valley, it wasn’t easy to find fully Navajo-owned accommodation in the Canyon de Chelly which is why I chose the Spider Rock Campground. Fortunately, the campground also offered typically Navajo structures, called hogans, used for ceremonies and to house guests. Mine had a kerosene lamp and a wood-burning stove for warmth, plus a mattress on a platform, little wood tables and ample bedding.
The campground also had flush toilets, a sink and a “sweat lodge”. I learned later that the owner is in contact with a local medicine man who will occasionally treat ailing guests in this traditional sweat lodge.
The owner had set out my bedding, lit the lamp and got my log fire ready to me ignited with one match. (If you can’t count on a Navajo to build a good fire, what can you count on?) I was snug and cozy as night fell, watching the fire, listening to music and dashing outside from time to time to gaze at the incredible, starry sky.
In the morning, I arranged for a jeep tour of the canyon with the owner’s nephew, Benjamin. Like many Navajo, he had a dwelling on the rim and one on the floor of the canyon which he used mainly in the summer when it offered a respite from the heat.
The cottonwood trees were in full autumn color which created little spots of brilliant yellow light.
Benjamin was not impressed by the cottonwood trees. In fact, he was irritated. It turns out that the government planted the trees decades ago to curb erosion. The problem is that cottonwood trees are thirsty and absorbed the groundwater, leaving nothing for the residents. Water had to be brought in by tank as there was no connection to city water mains. What should have been done about the erosion? “We would have taken care of it” he answered.
Undoubtedly they would have as the canyon has been inhabited for around 2000 years. The Navajo drifted in during the 15th century. Before them were the Pueblo who lived there from the 8th to 15th century.
One of the highlights of the canyon are the ruins of the Pueblo, visible in several places.
They also drew on the canyon walls, mostly pictures of antelopes.
There were no animals in the canyon at this particular time but Benjamin assured me that in winter the animals return from the further reaches of the canyon (not all of it is accessible to the public). Mountain lions, coyotes and even bears can be glimpsed. “Bears? Wow. Scary”. “Not to us,” said Benjamin. “They’re like our pets. They never attack us. They understand our language.”
I wish I had more time to spend in the canyon but I was shocked to learn that I was a full 3 1/2-hour drive to Flagstaff. Time for the long trip home by car, bus and plane.
After a day of rest and making arrangements for the rest of the trip, I picked up my rental car at Budget and headed north to Monument Valley. The plan was to visit the site in the afternoon and then head to my AirBnB nearby.
The Navajo Nation
By the way, there is surprisingly little accommodation near the park. There are a few big hotels such as the famous Gouldings but very, very few guesthouses, inns or B&Bs. I was determined to put money in the hands of the Navajos and so chose an AirBnB.
I knew that the Navajo Nation was dry and thought I would pick up a flask before entering but there were no stores whatsoever on the barren two-land stretch of road between Flagstaff and the entrance to the reservation.
And where was the entrance anyway? I must have missed the sign because I abruptly found myself in the reservation, picking up granola bars and pumpkin seeds at a Trading Post. It was around then when I noticed that I couldn’t seem to lock the back trunk.
I drove on to Tuba City which, like most Navajo towns, is not a place where people actually live but a place to grab fast food, shop for groceries or do laundry at a vast laundromat. It was then that I became extremely aggravated by the unlockable trunk and called Budget. After allegedly “consulting the manual” they said that the latch must be broken and they would send me a new car. But where? I gave them the address of the B&B.
I put the luggage in the back seat, locked the car and sat down for lunch which turned out to be the first of several “Navajo tacos”. Puffy fried bread, a local specialty, was topped with refried beans, salad, cheese, salsa and mayonnaise. At least it was filling.
After lunch I headed up to the park passing Kayenta which is where I thought my B&B was. As the afternoon wore on, the sky clouded over and it began to drizzle. I drove to the park anyway, realizing that the visit would have to wait till tomorrow. Even under overcast skies, my first view from the Visitor Center, made me gasp.
Now it was time to check into the B&B and wait for the car. But where? I realized, to my alarm, that the the GPS was not detailed enough to locate it and the cell signal was too weak to hunt for information on the internet.
Tip: Expect weak to non-existent cell service on the Navajo reservation
I had the address though and headed back to Kayenta thinking I would ask someone for help. No one knew where it was. I tried calling and texting the owner but apparently her cell signal was spotty as well. This is life on the reservation. After a half-hour or so, she finally responded with directions which turned out to be halfway back to the park. I didn’t mind the drive as the road to the park was punctuated with the striking red clay towers.
It was nightfall by the time I finally got settled in her home which, like every Navajo structure I saw was basically a pre-fab, like a mobile home. It was large and comfortable though so I didn’t mind a bit. The new car finally chugged up in early evening. It turned out that in order for the trunk to lock you have to walk away from the car with the key. Why I hate renting cars on holiday.
After the car business was sorted out, I settled into bed with a copy of The Navajo Times, the extremely informative local paper.
The information was sad though. First, there were the plans to develop the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon by putting an elevator to the bottom of the canyon (what?) where there would be a luxury hotel development. The Navajos were to get a percentage of the revenue but hadn’t decided whether to sign on as it involves sacred ground. Then, another article bemoaned the fact that a new school principal held an open house for the parents but practically no one showed up. The article noted that many students were being raised by their grandparents. Not a good sign.
The article that really typified the powerlessness of the Navajo in their own “country” was the one about Kit Carson, the man that subjugated the Navajo by driving them from their land to Canyon de Chelly where many starved and then out to Fort Sumner on “the long walk” which was essentially a death march. They froze, starved and were shot before eventually being resettled back in Arizona. So, the article was about the efforts of the local population to rename “Kit Carson Street”.
Kit Carson Street? How about Eichmann Boulevard on the Lower East Side? Almost 200 years later and the subjugated Navajo have to live with the name of the man who destroyed them?
The article enumerated all the many bureaucratic problems with changing a street name: has to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, conform with other names, approved by the Post Office. Blah, blah, blah.
I found this infuriating.
I awoke to a glorious sunrise which I could even appreciate from my bedroom window.
The sky was clear and blue, perfect for a visit.
The site stretches as far as the eye can see in any direction over a flat reddish landscape dotted with these looming, majestic rock towers. The effect is weepingly beautiful.
I couldn’t tear myself away from contemplating these natural sculptures from every angle and in different lights.
I was glad I hadn’t signed up for a tour and it wasn’t terribly crowded as this eerie panorama is steeped in spirituality. The Navajo believe that spirits reside in the rocks which is why they were never carved or hollowed out for dwellings.
The largest rest stop was at “John Ford Point” which the legendary director made his headquarters while he filmed his famous westerns. Here’s a setting that was used in many of them:
The recommended 1 1/2 hour drive turned into 3 as I revisited stops to see the changing light. Finally I came to the end of the portion that can be visited without a special permit and looped slowly back, still in a state of wonder and awe at the indescribable beauty.
Flagstaff, Arizona is the perfect base for visiting the Grand Canyon and the Grand Canyon International Hostel is the perfect base in Flagstaff because of its excellent, central location. I was hoping to take one of their tours to the Grand Canyon but I was lucky enough to hook up with the delightful Vanessa in the morning who had a car.
We headed out around 9, stopped to pick up lunch snacks and arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon around 11.
It’s important to have a plan when visiting the Canyon because it’s, well, big. We did not have a plan. Thank gods for off-season travel though. We found parking right away and headed to the Visitor’s Center for advice. There were no lines and we got the undivided attention of one of the many friendly park rangers on duty. He sorted us out right quickly with an itinerary that included a short hike into the canyon along the South Kaibab Trail to the Ooh-aah point and then a return to the shuttle buses to various lookout points, ending up at Hopi point for the sunset.
The shuttle system was complex. Neither of us exactly understood the ranger’s instructions on which buses to take to avoid having to hike eight miles back to the center. “I don’t seem to understand human talking anymore”, said Vanessa sadly. I had to agree as we pored over the maps.
First stop was the lookout point closest to the Visitor Center, Mather Point. Nothing and no one can prepare you for the waves of red rock that stretch to the horizon..
Eager for a closer view, we hopped the shuttle to the popular South Kaibab Trail which winds down to the Columbia River. A plethora of signs warn visitors against trekking down and up to the river in one day which it never occurred to me to do anyway. The trail was gentle and sandy which was good because I was unused to starting a hike by going downhill. The views?
Left to my own devices, I probably would have hiked down to the next lookout but I realized later it would have messed up the afternoon’s sightseeing. There were so many vantage points from which to soak up the canyon’s majesty!
We hopped the shuttle bus, getting off at each stop up to Mojave Point.
And then finished up the day with a view of the sunset from Hopi Point.
From New York to Flagstaff, Arizona by train? People said I was crazy to do it. Why not take a plane? I wanted to see the country!
The Lake Shore Limited
The first leg was New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited, an overnighter. Although I could have checked my baggage straight through to Flagstaff for free, I wasn’t sure about the weather and wanted access to my suitcase in case I needed to take out more clothes. As it turned out, there was plenty of space to store luggage in the train as the car was far from full.
Tip 1 There is no access to checked luggage during the train ride. Bring any luggage onboard if possible.
I settled into my seat beside the window and was pleased to note that the reclining seat was wide with plenty of legroom. There was also a footrest, overhead storage and a pull-out section under the seat to support the legs. It was like a la-z-boy recliner.
Tip 2 There is no assigned seating. Get there early for a seat by the window.
We set off on time in mid-afternoon to head up the Hudson River. As the sun sank in the sky a golden light glinted off the river on one side and illuminated the stunning fall foliage on the other.
The glorious colors mesmerized me for the roughly 3 1/2 hours it took to reach the sleek but nearly empty Albany train station.
There, we had a stop long enough to look around the neighborhood and even grab a drink at this stationside bar.
By the time we re-boarded, dusk was turning to night. No more scenery!
I struck up a conversation with my new seatmate, a young woman well-equipped with a blanket, pillows and food. She had set off from California months before on a vague cross-country train odyssey that involved working periodically in rehab centers and the Salvation Army. She was headed as slowly as possible back “home” to rejoin the fiancé whose cellphone calls she glanced at and ignored.
Unlike airplanes where everyone is tense and slightly irritated at being in a cattle-car, conversation is easy on a train. Strangers are happy to chat.
I munched on a sandwich and read the news as the Lake Shore Limited has a wifi connection.
Eventually I pulled out the blanket I copped on the flight to New York and my neck pillow. After arranging the seat it was quite comfortable enough to sleep.
Tip 3 There’s no bedding provided for coach class. The car is somewhat underheated making a blanket necessary.
I woke up to a drizzling rain around Toledo. I grabbed a coffee and noodle soup at the cafe rather than an expensive breakfast in the dining car.
Tip 4 There are two dining options: a restaurant with sit-down service and a cafe for snacks. One is incessantly reminded via the loudspeaker that restaurant dining needs to be reserved.
Passing through grey and rainy Ohio, the cornfields were dusky and the trees a dull yellow. I listened to the local news and learned that Naloxone was now available without a prescription and that a man called the police to report that his marijuana was stolen.
Passing through Indiana via Waterloo the cornfields gave way to woods and a succession of lawns. Radio from Fort Wayne interspersed the Top 40 with ads for pre-owned cars, cheap diamonds and the University of Saint Francis. An interview with a spiritual counselor advised how to help people who struggle with being gay. “Sit with God”.
Near Gary Indiana, whitecaps danced on a steely Lake Michigan.
We pulled into Chicago’sUnion Station about an hour late. I grabbed my luggage and decided to spring for the elegant Legacy Lounge which stored luggage for only $2 more than the luggage lockers. Plus there were drinks, snacks, TV, spacious restrooms and priority boarding.
Amazingly enough, Chicago was cold and windy. Go figure.
The law requires that all first-time visitors to Chicago must chow down a deep-dish pizza. I complied at Beggars Pizza, picked up a gigantic muffin and whole-grain cookie and boarded the Southwest Chief for the 30-hour trip to Flagstaff, Arizona.
The Southwest Chief
Amtrak’s historic Southwest Chief replaced the famous Santa Fe which opened up the west by linking Chicago with Los Angeles.
We left in mid-afternoon for the flatlands of Illinois. Just outside Chicago was Naperville, recently named the second-best place to live in the US. Its qualities were unapparent from the train.
We sped by grain silos, warehouses, fields, row houses and ranch-style houses lonely in their little yards. Roads fled from the railroad track in neat rows.
Finally we crossed the border into Fort Madison, Iowa where I was excited to see the Mississippi river just in time for sunset. So wide and placid, the river conjured up the spirit of Mark Twain. How he would have carved up this sad election year with his mordant wit.
As we sped on into the night, I headed to the dining car. No one eats alone on Amtrak. I took my seat next to an extremely well-coiffed California brunette from the sleeping car. A plump African-American woman that I thought had a bizarre air about her sat opposite us with her teenage son. I was mortified to realize after a few moments that she wasn’t bizarre at all but nearly blind. She wanted to see as much of the world as possible before her sight deserted her completely. She was also involved in social work, helping veterans with eye damage. When I mentioned where I live she remarked that it must be a calm and peaceful place. I replied with a reminder of the gruesome attack this past summer and immediately regretted it. She looked so stricken I thought she might cry. “Of course I remember now. I’m so, so, so sorry”. She wanted to know if there were grief counselors for the survivors and I reassured her that there were. Such a kind, gentle soul.
Dinner was a thoroughly respectable veggie burger with chips and salad but a bit pricey at $13. At the end of the meal the server started cracking jokes about Donald Trump and the table laughed which was the only time on this entire trip I heard anyone laugh at his name.
I read and listened to music for a while as there is no wifi on the Southwest Chief and the cell signal is sporadic. There are plenty of chargers though.
Woke up the following morning in time to pass into Colorado.
We made a 15-minute stop in a chilly La Junta where one of the passengers entertained us with her hula-hoop which she “takes everywhere”.
It’s black cattle country now. I headed to the comfortable observation car with plush seats and panoramic windows to watch the increasingly spectacular scenery. This first video with the Rockies in the distance was taken in and around Trinidad, Colorado.
Crossing into New Mexico, we made a short stop at Raton, New Mexico where, according to explanatory signs, the railway brought railway workers, immigrants and coal miners into traditional Native American communities.
After the endless grain fields and prairie of Colorado, it was a relief to see some green in the landscape. Cattle were rare.
Las Vegas, New Mexico had a particularly striking train station.
From Las Vegas to Santa Fe the scenery became particularly stunning with tall pines and distant mountains on the left and a rolling plain on the right marked by mesquite and red gorges.
The train track passed next to faded houses and mobile homes surrounded by yards full of old cars, stacks of wood, discarded appliances, tires and miscellaneous junk. Accustomed to the European countryside, it surprised me that there were few to no attempts to landscape or otherwise prettify the property.
Around Glorieta tall pines sprouted dramatically across the ever-changing landscape. I felt as I was watching a movie, too beautiful to pry myself from my seat. Little Lamy was adorable. As we hurtled to Albuquerque, the craggy plains were dotted with isolated settlements of humble houses and more junkyards.
We made a long stop in Albuquerque but not long enough for me to find appealing snacks to bring back on the train.
As night fell, I decided to splurge on spinach and cheese tortellini in the dining car, grateful that there were vegan and vegetarian options.
We pulled into downtown Flagstaff at 8.51pm, right on time. Truthfully, I was sorry to leave the train after such a comfortable and relaxing journey.