I’m posting this partly to cement my commitment to return to Canyon de Chelly on a better day when I have more time. I decided to visit almost spontaneously as I was driving home from Flagstaff. I already had motel reservations in Gallup and the drive from Flagstaff was so short that I would be there by 11 AM. What to do? I already went through the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert — you can see that here . Sitting in a McDonalds in Winslow, I looked at a map and my watch and figured I could make it to Canyon de Chelly just for a quick visit and then go on to Gallup. I’ve never been to Canyon de Chelly.
One of my few complaints about family vacations as a kid was that my dad figured that if we couldn’t see something from the car window as we drove down the highway it wasn’t worth seeing. I’m just the opposite and I dilly-dally my way across country and purposely make advance motel reservations about four or five hours apart. As they say, we may never pass this way again. But…here I was trying to squeeze in a side trip that deserved much more time.
So off I went. It took a little longer than I anticipated to get there so that left me with maybe two hours to see what I could see and then get back on the road for Gallup. I stopped at the Visitor’s Center and got advice and a map. I would only have time for the south side of the canyon. The advice was to go all the way to Spider Rock and then work my way back.
I quickly learned that looks are very deceiving at Canyon de Chelly because you lose proportion and context a little. You don’t realize how high the canyon walls really are…and how far down it is to the canyon floor. This is especially true in my case just coming from a visit to the Grand Canyon.
Spider Rock is over 700 feet tall from the floor of the canyon… and you are looking down on it. I was raised in St. Louis and learned to gauge tall things by the height of the Gateway Arch. Spider rock is almost 100 feet taller than the Arch.
The day was moving on and it looked like maybe we would see some snow. I headed back along the south rim road and stopped at s few spots.
It was a cold day and I’m certain that I missed several places along the way. I finally reached White House Ruin overlook. If you are familiar with Ansel Adams you will probably recognize White House Ruin. You can easily find his photograph just about everywhere. I’m guessing that this is now one of the most photographed spots in the west but it is hard to capture it. Adams was on the floor of the canyon looking up at the ruin. When you get there you expect it to be larger and almost expect to see it in black and white. There is no easy access to the canyon floor…and you usually need a guide or Navajo escort because this is a sacred place. Most people don’t climb down the long trail to the canyon floor to take a picture. It is a long way up again. So…the first challenge is that you are close to a mile away and the ruin is quite small.
In Adams’ iconic photograph you only see the upper ruin in the rock shelter. There is another ruin on the canyon floor pressed against the rock wall that is as big or bigger than the sheltered one. Adams found a vantage point that concealed the lower ruin so he could focus on the white ruin tucked into the rock shelter. I don’t know much about his method or equipment but he must have had plenty of time and patience. This was two generations before the birth of digital photography.
My day was running out and I had to get on the road. I wasn’t quite sure of the route back to Gallup. I will come back here and spend more time.
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