"When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence."

- Ansel Adams

 

Canyon de Chelly is a deceptively beautiful, somewhat mysterious spot near Chinle, in far northeast Arizona.

The canyon is home to hundreds of well-preserved Anasazi ruins. It is also inhabited by a number of present-day Navajo, whose families have lived there for generations, cultivating crops on the canyon floor and raising sheep and goats.

In 1863, during the campaign of Kit Carson to round up the Navajo and send them to the barren reservation at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico (the Long March), holdouts considered the canyon their last retreat.

Carson, reluctant to enter the unscouted depths of the canyon, observed it for days from above before sending soldiers in. About 300 Navajo, taking refuge atop a rock formation called Fortress Rock, endured a lengthy siege and were never captured.

Long before the Navajo took up residence, the canyon was home to the Anasazi, or "Ancient Ones," who thrived between 200 and 1300 AD in the Four Corners country of southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona. They lived in elaborate cliff dwellings high on the walls of desert canyons and buttes. Above the desert floor, generations of families found safety from predators and their enemies in homes accessible only by climbing on ropes, ladders and footholds carved in rock walls,

Centuries ago, they mysteriously vanished, leaving hundreds of cliff dwellings that had sheltered them. Archeologists and historians debate what happened to the Anasazi, but many believe they are simply ancestors of the modern-day Pueblo people.

Marti and I have visited more elaborate cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado, have climbed ladders to explore others at Bandolier National Monument, New Mexico, and were allowed by our Navajo guide to enter dwellings in Mystery Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border. But the one that made the biggest impression has to be the White House Ruins in Arizona's Canyon de Chelly.

While you can photograph the White House Ruins from an overlook above amid Navajo selling arts and crafts from the backs of pickup trucks, you really must hike down a winding trail to the canyon floor to experience it fully. It's about a mile, and you have to do a little scrambling over rocks, but the climb is worth it.

At the stream below the ruins, watch for the Navajo woman herding her goats. When we visited 10 years ago, she lived in a cabin on the canyon floor, and we hope she's still there. We were struck by how quietly she moved her small herd through the stunted trees along the creek. For the use of her shade, we offered two oranges from our backpacks. She repaid us with a smile when Marti said hello in the Navajo tongue.

There were few visitors when we arrived. For a time, on the canyon floor, we made ourselves comfortable on the roots of an ancient cottonwood, reclined on our backpacks and ate the lunch we had brought.

Ravens scouted just below the canyon rim, and we listened as their calls echoed from the 1,000-foot sandstone walls. The bleating of the goats faded away as the old woman moved them down the creek flowing quietly behind us.

And then we heard the voices.

From high on the canyon wall, inside the White House Ruin, we heard children playing. Quietly at first, then louder, playful squeals and chatter... and for a second we heard the children of the ancient ones romping in the shaded spaces behind the white adobe house touched by the sun that gives the ruin its name.

Eyes wide, we strained to hear as the voices grew louder. And finally, they were behind us.

A group of young hikers, on a school outing from Chinle, appeared from the trail to our rear. The ruin, in its cave-like recess on the flat canyon wall, had captured their voices far down the trail, collected their youthful enthusiasm and transmitted it back to us at the base of the cottonwood. It was eerie.

When they arrived and took over our space, their silliness was not nearly so magical as it had been when our minds leaped at the idea we were hearing voices from the past. But they were just being kids, and we were ready to leave anyway.

We laughed, gave up our solitary claim to the canyon floor and said goodbye to the White House Ruin. Even though it wasn't real, we still felt touched by the Anasazi in a way we will never forget.

Shouldering our backpacks and retrieving our hiking poles, we headed up the trail, back to our Jeep on the rim and on to more adventures down the road.

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Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column runs every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.

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