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I was traveling six hundred feet down and a thousand years back, more or less. The trail from the rim of Canyon de Chelly to the White House Ruin begins with a series of steep switchbacks. On one side, there's a wall of rock. On the other side, if you're clumsy, there's a fall that's long enough to kill you. I watched my step.
What was I doing at Canyon de Chelly? My well-developed work ethic kept telling me that I should be in the office. But I'd had business that morning in Holbrook, Arizona. Holbrook is only a two-hour drive from the canyon. I'd never been there, and I'd decided to seize the opportunity to go.
As I made my way down, I noticed a lone tree growing against a steep canyon wall:
The canyon is a symphony of rock. The words "de Chelly," which are pronounced duh-SHAY, are thought to be a European corruption of a Navajo word meaning "rock canyon." You could say that the modern American West is all a European corruption. Some places, though, have been less corrupted than others.
Canyon de Chelly is entirely on the Navajo reservation. I was taking the only hike that outsiders can take without a Navajo guide. Towards the bottom of the trail, the switchbacks gave way to a more gradual descent. The first thing I saw at the bottom was a patch of inhabited private property that contained an old, picturesque Navajo hogan. Two signs proclaimed emphatically that photographs were not allowed. Many Navajos have a cultural aversion to being photographed, and even to having their land and dwellings photographed. Although I felt an impulse to cheat and take photographs anyway, I didn't.
A hundred yards or so to the north were the ruins.
There are a dozen major ruins in Canyon de Chelly. The experts tell us that the structures were built about a thousand years ago by the Anasazi. They abandoned the area in the thirteenth century, probably because of climate changes. They all moved to Florida and bought condos on the Gulf. Or perhaps not. No one is entirely sure what happened to the Anasazi. The Navajos arrived a few centuries after the Anasazi left. Like the Europeans, the Navajos are recent immigrants.
I spent a lot of time simply looking at the ruin, without taking photographs. You'd have to be soul-dead to look at such a place without thinking about how transitory human existence is. I wondered how they had lived and what they had dreamed of. The only answer I would get was silence.
The White House Ruin, like many ruins, wasn't easy to photograph. It's fenced off to keep the tourists at a distance, and wisely so. Because the fence was fairly high, I couldn't use the tripod I'd packed in. I had to peer over the fence and shoot hand-held. I changed lenses several times, even though the wind was kicking up lots of dust and sand. If you live in Arizona, you have to resign yourself to having a dirty sensor.
After a while, I hiked back up to the canyon rim. When I'd finished with the trial to the White House Ruin, the only thing I could do at Canyon de Chelly without hiring a guide was visit the various overlooks. They dot the highways that follow the canyon's north and south rims. An hour or so later, I was looking at the most photographed place in the canyon, Spider Rock.
I took essentially the same photograph of Spider Rock that millions of other visitors have taken. I gave some thought to returning near sunset in the hope of getting more interesting light, but the day didn't work out that way. From sunset until it was completely dark, I was photographing the canyon from other overlooks. I was back at first light the next morning doing the same. This next photograph is probably the best of an undistinguished lot:
This image, taken at dawn, required a three-stop graduated neutral-density filter. Near sunrise and sunset, the canyon is shadowed and quite dark while the sky is very bright. Other than using a graduated neutral-density filter, the only way to get a decent photograph at those hours would be to do a lot of bracketing and combine the images.
The biggest problem I had, though, was finding an interesting composition. Photographing from outlooks limits your compositional options and makes it almost impossible to get any foreground interest. I decided that, despite my aversion to being guided, hiring a guide is probably the only way to photograph Canyon de Chelly in a serious way. Next time. Maybe.
By 7:00 the next morning, a cold front had come through. Cold temperatures, a stiff wind and a solid overcast convinced me that it was time to leave. I started the six-hour drive back to Phoenix, and back to the deadlines, details and demands that awaited me there.
Most of us are far too good at delaying gratification In my stolen day at Canyon de Chelly, I'd taken some time to do some living before I disappear like the Anasazi. I don't do that enough. Few of us do.
Don Peters' photographs can be found at http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/