It was late September 2016 and the planet was in its eternal autumnal dance of change. Eleven people including my nephew Greg and I were on an Earth Walks journey from Santa Fe westward to the 1,000-foot red sandstone canyons called De Chelly by the Anglo world and Tseyi by the Dinè (Navajo) people. Our path took us around the Jemez Mountains west of Santa Fe where only a million years ago its massive volcanic explosion sent chunks hurtling as far away as Nebraska.
Onward we went through high desert rolling hills, tall pine forests and open plains, home to herds of elk. We passed the turn to Chaco Canyon, where amazing structures constructed with precise astronomical alignment are found along with hundreds of underground ceremonial kivas, all which represent an advanced complex social and spiritual organization. https://www.nps.gov/articles/chaco.htm
Once we escaped the clutter of billboards, oil rigs, auto salvage yards and cookie cutter fast food eateries in the Farmington-Bloomfield area, we saw a huge looming, almost otherworldly land form in the hazy western horizon. Its silhouette was dark, starkly solitary, and almost brooding.
It is known as Shiprock and indeed looked like a gigantic ship, impossibly frozen in a sea of desert. ( Photo by focalworld.com ) One story I heard was that to the Dinè, it is the legendary great bird that brought them from the north to their present lands. We traveled on, the land rising to forested mountains, dropping again to bare sandstone cliffs of the Lukachukai Mountains. We were nearing our destination when suddenly without warning, the canyon opened visibly before us.
On our first full day, we were immersed in the canyon on a journey with Beauty Way Jeep Tours https://beautywayjeeptours.com/ when my watch stopped. Me, who was leader of the pack and so focused on dates, itinerary, agenda, checklists and movement of participants at specific intervals of time. But we were in some ways in “time without time” and a wristwatch actually seemed like a superfluous anachronism. I wasn’t prepared for the spirit of the land next taking away my prescription glasses, but I didn’t even miss them until hours later.
The following day we were back in the canyon gathered around Kathryn Pemala who knelt before the web of her hand crafted loom, weaving threads of wool from her sheep into a multi-colored tapestry of wind, sunlight, stars and ancient stories of hope, tragedy, sadness and laughter. Kathryn lived on this family farm all her life, raised sheep and goats, grew fruit trees, corn and a family as had generations before.
“I hear the songs and stories. That’s why I weave,” Kathryn told us. “Plus it’s good physical work.” We came to hear her story, but also to help on the farm, so we got busy with physical work. Dust flew, people sneezed, goats greedily munched the weeds we chopped and everyone chatted and chuckled. It was time to go all too soon, but we crammed into crowded jeeps amidst smiles, appreciation and promises to return next year.
One can feel an eternal return in the canyon, however—a coming and going and coming again of countless seasons that have shaped both the land and the people who live within her protective embrace. It was hard not to feel a part of this immensity, to shed our limited physical skins and become a part of the place—to Walk in Beauty, as the Dinè say. It was especially so on our last night as we overlooked the great spire of Spider Rock, full moon rising on the eastern horizon.
Oh, and that watch of mine that stopped? I took it to the jeweler who checked the battery and found nothing wrong and returned it to me ticking right along. And the glasses? On the second day, our group kindly stopped in the side canyon where I thought I might have dropped them, and we fanned out in a search party. Suddenly overhead, a red tailed hawk circled and sent out its screeching call, resonating against the canyon walls.
Soon after, the glasses were found where they had spent a night under the nearly full moon. “New vision,” someone said.