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Fall 2008 | The Grand Canyon: A Spiritual Journey Part Two

Fall 2008 | The Grand Canyon: A Spiritual Journey Part Two

The most awe-inspiring geological wonders of Arizona reside in the most culturally rich corner of the state. The Grand Canyon and the Navajo and Hopi Nations -- a journey that’s transporting in more ways than one.

On my second morning, I bypassed the canyon?s popular Bright Angel Trail for the lesser-trafficked and more scenic South Kaibab Trail. I switch-backed slowly into the towering, auburn canyon, which swallowed me in its warm, rocky embrace. The lesser-visited North Rim loomed in front, as did high mesa tops with mystical names like Shiva Temple, Isis Temple, and Cheops Pyramid. Finally, the tourists thinned out and I arrived at the ridge of Skeleton Point with its 360-degree views. There I stood and gawked at the grand cathedral all around me. Like the last man on earth, I had it all to myself.

And like the last man on earth, I saw danger looming. I had spotted signs all along the trails depicting a shirtless hunk passed out in the dirt with his blond girlfriend in agony next to him. ?Don?t you dare hike to the bottom of the canyon and back up in one day,? the signs exclaimed (even daredevils know it?s a two-day hike at best). At what temperature does the brain fry? ?105 degrees,? the signs told me, ?causing permanent brain damage, cardiac arrest -- even death.? I had spotted a tome in the bookstore titled Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, written by a local doctor who had seen it all, apparently. But the beauty of the chasm kept tempting me down. I journeyed farther and caught a glimpse of cable suspension bridges strung over the river and the small stone houses of the popular Phantom Ranch, the only lodging within the canyon itself. My boots wanted to keep going, going, gone into the rich oblivion of that cosmic portal awaiting me below, transporting me to an unknown era of the planet. My brain finally won out, and under a blood-red sunset, I barely climbed out of the alluring abyss in time to watch the full moon rise over its edge, having avoided being another story in the revised version of that death book. But what a way it would have been to go!

The next day, I was safe in the shelter of my air-conditioned rental car heading northeast, to Monument Valley, a dramatic desertscape of towering rock mesas and pinnacles where so many John Wayne westerns and Marlboro Man ads were shot. It lies on the border of Arizona and Utah, deep within the Navajo Nation, which is the largest Native American tribal land in the United States, with about 300,000 people spread over 17 million acres -- an area nearly the size of West Virginia. It slowly dawned on me just how large that is, as hour after hour passed and I was still inside this nation within a nation. When I pulled over to fill the tank up in Tuba City, the town looked like any other highway village with mini-malls, Kentucky Fried Chicken, shiny new trucks, and tract houses. But everyone around me was Navajo, speaking their own language instead of English. I was submerged within a foreign country.

?When I was growing up here, my sister and I used to dress up in Navajo clothes and position ourselves with our sheep herds in the photos of the tourist buses,? laughed Richard Frank, my Native American guide for the valley (Monument Valley can only be visited with a guide). ?It was a great way to make a few extra bucks.? He was wearing a baseball cap and jeans and driving me over sandy roads under soaring stone formations jutting 50 stories high into a cloud-dotted sky. Richard seemed to love his job, which is saying something in northern Arizona, where unemployment is still a palpable reality. The Navajo had fought the idea of building casinos for years and succumbed only recently due to the closing of mines and other industries on their tribal lands. I asked him about the spirits that must dwell in the valley?even as an outsider I could practically feel them. He just looked at me and smiled knowingly. One can only divulge so much.

Richard showed me where he grew up and we rested near bizarre rock arches with names like Ear of the Wind and Eye of the Sun, where he nonchalantly sang Indian chants that echoed supernaturally among the bluffs. He showed me his aunt?s hogans -- little round dwellings made of earth or fiberglass beside most Navajo homes. ?We usually have a female one and male one, along with a sweat lodge,? he said. ?The male one is for healing ceremonies with a medicine man.? I crawled inside the male one, and it looked like a cozy yurt with a potbellied stove in the middle. Richard told me of other Navajo ceremonies: Baby?s First Laugh, in which a newborn takes on the qualities of the person who first made them giggle, and prayers with ears of corn during the sacred dawn hours. I asked him about the spirits that must dwell in the valley --even as an outsider I could practically feel them. He just looked at me and smiled knowingly. One can only divulge so much.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

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