The thought occurred to me in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those strange, inexplicable revelations that changed the course of our plans.
We had left Tucson that morning, heading for Moab. Deciding that the journey was too long for one day, Rich surveyed the thin options on our remote route and booked us a room at the Thunderbird Lodge in Chinle AZ. It is owned and operated by the Navajo Nation, and is situated on their land. It seemed more interesting than the standard motel fare in town.
Driving through the red rock formations of northern Arizona, it may have been the out-of-this-world environs that tickled my brain.
“Rich, do you remember someone told us about that ‘mini Grand Canyon?’ Do you think we will be near there?”
I got only a non-committal reply as he concentrated on the driving. But the idea had hijacked my brain.
I’m a list maker extraordinaire. I have an extensive packing list for traveling, carefully honed with each trip. En route, I document each day’s travels, where we stay, how far we drive, the restaurants we choose and our activities. Quickly mining the Notes app on my iPhone, I had my answer.
“Yes! It was the man who cleaned our room at Yavapai Lodge at the Grand Canyon.” That was back in 2017, five years ago.
“We chatted with him, and he told us about the Canyon de Chelly – how it rivaled the grandeur of the Grand Canyon but on a more intimate scale. It was in his home town of Chinle AZ.”
I was on fire now. “That’s it! That’s where we’re going!” In fact, the Thunderbird Lodge was at the entrance to the Canyon. The Rim Roads spun out from our very lodgings. We had time to spare the following day, and I just filled it.
Up at first light, we threw on our clothes and headed out the door. The North Rim was said to be best in the mornings so we headed to the first overlook – Antelope House, just 8 miles away. We arrived to find a deserted parking lot and a rough sign pointing toward a scruffy area stating “Overlook 1/4 mile.” Setting out, we crossed the solid rock expanse dotted with scrub bushes. It felt like senseless wandering, until I noticed the sequence of rocks defining a path, showing us the way. I was further encouraged by a few man-made stone steps, and an arrow painted on a rock.
Then suddenly, we were there, perched on the edge. The world dropped away in front of me, the depths of the canyon yawning in the open expanse. The sun’s rays were just working their way down the walls of the canyon, illuminating the colors, glowing as only early morning sun can do. Sharp shadows in stark contrast.
True to that man’s words, it was majestic and grand. A beauty to behold, extensive and captivating in every direction. But that was not its magic.
It was the solitude. We competed with no one for the view. Silence reigned as we gazed out over the canyon. We had complete freedom to wander the terrain, to take in the depths from our choice of vantage point, to make the experience uniquely our own. To spend as long as we liked looking, thinking, pausing, appreciating.
There was not a barrier in sight, save one promontory protected by short brick walls. No one to collect tickets, no lines waiting to enter.
I felt entirely unrushed as I cruised over the thick slabs of rock. Playful but careful. I watched as the canyon came to life, changing colors before my eyes. Peering down over the edge, finding caves and imagining the rocks forming gates down below. Rich took his fill of photos, relishing the lack of interference from other onlookers.
We eventually moved on to two more overlooks further down the rim. The views continued to impress, especially when we spied the remnants of early cliff dwellers across the way, looking like doll houses in the distance. And still we were solo visitors.
What will remain with me from that morning was the memory of that first overlook, feeling that we owned the canyon, had our own private showing. The freedom to wander unencumbered by fences or warning signs. The sense of awe we were allowed to absorb. I
t’s an experience that can’t be bought. Or planned. Clearly it was fate that brought it to us.