The Dogs of Tseyi (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 18 Oct 2004

The Dogs of Tseyi

I managed to wheedle Dave into taking the back roads from Winslow to Chinle, crossing more of the Navajo nation rather than staying on the interstate we've seen before.

Good move! The roads are fine (if a bit slower than an interstate highway) and the scenery is terrific. Dave reciprocated by making an impulse turn into the Little Painted Desert county park's overlook -- empty except for us, the vista across striped layers of bentonite (is that Moenkopi, or Morrison?) rivals its namesake to the southeast in everything but size.

Near Castle Butte, a striking wall of basalt curves gracefully across a plain, an obvious remnant of a vertical dike from which the surrounding, softer rock has long since worn away. This is what created Shiprock, a larger and more famous formation of the same type which I'm hoping to get a chance to see later on this trip; but the thin, curving walls near Castle Butte, with their spiky towers, are marvellous examples.

The roads through this part of the Navajo reservation (perhaps it's true everywhere) are open range. Cattle grazed near the road, and at one point I had to stop suddenly when a horse decided to trot across the road in front of us.

Canyon de Chelly sits right on the edge of Chinle, closer than we'd realized from the map. In fact, Chinle, "where the water flows out", is located right at the mouth of the canyon, where the surrounding mesas drop to the level of the river at the canyon's bottom.

De Chelly itself is really Tseyi, meaning "in the rock" in the language of the Diné (i.e the Navajo). The Spaniards had difficulty pronouncing this (sometimes spelling it "Chegui"), and when early American settlers moved in, they mis-heard it again and assumed they were hearing "cañon de chelly", Spanish for "canyon of rock", pronounced, more or less, "dee shay". But the Tseyi name is still prominent in town and in park literature, this still being Navajo land. The park literature says it's pronounced "say-yee", but a Diné woman in town pronounced it for us more like "tsay-yeh".

The park literature mentions that there may be some stray dogs wandering in the park, and warns not to feed them. The town of Chinle has a problem with too many stray dogs; feeding them "only makes the problem worse." It doesn't mention stray horses, though quite a few wander the mesas above de Chelly and occasionally cross the roads.

We followed Dave's Rule of Parks: go to the end of the road first, because that's where the really good stuff is. The end of the road for Canyon de Chelly is the end of the south rim road, or Spider Rock Overlook. Spider Rock itself is an impressive spire of sandstone (de Chelly sandstone, in fact: a thick desert dune deposit like Navajo sandstone, only much older, at 230-260 million years, and also much redder) standing in a wide, flat canyon of green and autumn gold.

On the horizon far beyond Spider Rock stood a striking dark butte. Our first view of Shiprock? (No, as it turned out.)

The other attraction of Canyon de Chelly is the Indian ruins. Anasazi cliff dwellings pepper the cracks in the canyon walls, and are visible across the canyon from many of the overlooks. Bring binoculars (and a good zoom lens, if photographing).

The star ruin of the park is called White House, and it's accessible via a trail which climbs down from the south rim and crosses the canyon. It was beginning to rain as we arrived there, as well as nearing twilight; we hope for good weather tomorrow morning. We had to drive around a tired looking black dog lying on the (presumably warmer) roadway, seeming unperturbed by the cars going by and disinclined to move. Another dog followed tourists around with a hopeful expression.

And Dave's Rule of Parks? It doesn't work as well at Canyon de Chelly as at most parks. White House is far better than any of the ruins visible from the farther overlooks; and in fact, the very first overlook (last for us, since we were visiting them in reverse order), called Tunnel Canyon, gave a lovely view down a narrow canyon to the riparian zone below. Maybe we were just lucky with the light, arriving at Tunnel as the setting sun pierced through a hole in the otherwise unbroken cloud layer. There's a trail going down from Tunnel, too, but it's only open for guided tours. (Access into Canyon de Chelly requires a guide, except for White House trail, because some 40 Navajo families still live and farm inside the canyon.) After appreciating the lovely light, we chatted with a Diné woman selling jewelry, and watched a couple of puppies trot in, search for food, and then run off toward home.

The town of Chinle is neither depressing, like Tuba City or the area around Monument Valley, nor modernized, like Kayenta. It's small and sparse, with only two hotels (plus the one inside Canyon de Chelly) and few restaurants besides the two associated with the hotels -- a few fast food eateries and a pizza parlor. Yet at night, lights (mostly low-pressure sodium, I was happy to see) twinkle from a wide area, hinting that there's quite a bit more to the town. We tried to explore, but couldn't find our way to the pockets of light we could see from the main part of town. So we reluctantly settled for a dinner at the Holiday Inn's restaurant, which was surprisingly good. Native American towns don't seem to succumb to chain-hotel-itis quite so much as other towns do.

And the dogs! Everywhere you go in Chinle, a few dogs appear out of nowhere to follow you. Dogs fade in and out of the plants along the roadside, and haunt every park overlook and restaurant parking lot. Most of them look quite young -- which may bespeak a short lifespan -- though most of them also look fairly healthy and friendly. They wag, and play, and appreciate a head scratch, and otherwise behave pretty much like pet dogs everywhere.

Photos.

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[ 21:32 Oct 18, 2004    More travel/anasazi | permalink to this entry ]