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Lupita McClanahan guides SAR members down the White House Trail, Canyon de Chelly.

Blog by Jeanne Simonelli, SAR Study Guide, Canyon de Chelly 2023

As we drove along Interstate 40 everything looked to me like the outskirts of Gallup. To be driving to Canyon de Chelly with a bus load of active seniors was strange enough. To have forgotten the landmarks was eerie. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the road, but I was feeling excited about returning to introduce another group of people to the spectacular beauty of Canyon de Chelly. Since the initial appearance of the book Crossing Between Worlds, written with the help of photographer Charles Winters and with the patience of Lupita McClanahan and her family, in the past I had brought almost one hundred of my students to stay and learn on Lupita’s land. They were young, exuberant, energy filled individuals able to go up and down canyon trails without breaking a sweat. In contrast, this was a group of steadfast supporters of SAR, mostly retired or genuine seniors like me. They’d jumped at the chance to visit the Canyon with Lupita and me as guides.

SAR members and Jeanne Simonelli (Center) at Window Rock, AZ. 

Lupita was the real name of the character I’d named Margarita in the book. We’d known each other for over thirty years, through ups and downs in our personal lives, and in the trajectory of the world in general. During those thirty years our children and grandchildren had grown, weaving an even more complex pattern to the fabric of our lives. Indeed, during those decades our families had shared visits. Charlie Winters brought his granddaughter Zara to stay in the Canyon. My daughter Elanor and her husband brought my grandkids, who gleefully told me how mom had to stay silent as they scurried up the sides of the Canyon, following Lupita’s grandchildren.

It was nice to share some of these stories as we rode the bus up Highway 12, through Tsaile, and down to the overlooks at Mummy and Massacre caves. The light was getting long, as it does in the Canyon, as I explained what I knew about both of these locations. Even this group of tired and hungry visitors were taken by the history, beauty and sorrow of the sites.

We were scheduled to meet Lupita and family members for a short talk after dinner at the Thunderbird Lodge, where we were staying. I’d last seen Lupita towards the end of Covid, as the Navajo Nation, (in their own language called the Diné), slowly opened their reservation to visitors. The Covid years took a heavy toll of the Navajo people especially the residents of Canyon de Chelly. The rest of the country learned the sad truth about life on the Rez; about the number of people who lived without water and electricity, hunkering down on distant lands and in wood heated hogans. The Canyon was closed, which meant a loss of livelihood for those like Lupita who guided for a living.

There were some interesting wrinkles to Diné response to these Covid issues. Full four-piece bathrooms were hauled onto the Canyon de Chelly peninsula and attached to log cabins lacking any source of water. On that same trip I was astonished to visit a family member who received solar powered condensers, whose job was to extract water out of the desert air. It was good to see each other, catch up on family, and visit the livestock surviving on hay costing $23.00 a bale.

Now, we finished our classic TBird dinners, and joined Lupita, her cousin silversmith A.C. Henry and his wife, who’d recently started making pottery. Lupita and I hugged and she commented that she had more white in her hair than I did. I laughed, showed her my roots and we agreed that after all this time, we didn’t look bad. The talk was a story, constructed of culture-filled information and delivered like a journey with starts and stops and short diversions down side canyons. I was familiar with this way of telling, though some of the SAR group, tired and bus weary, were not. But it formed the basis for asking questions as we hiked down the White House Trail the following day.

It had been a remarkable winter for the Canyon. Lupita and her husband Jon and daughter Kris described three-foot snowfalls which were still melting up in the mountains, sending a steady flow of water through both Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. It was more water than I’d ever seen there, except for a monsoon flood. The White House Ruin, our destination, was on the other side of the wash.

Our descent into Canyon de Chelly.

The air was clear and cool as we started down the six hundred-foot change in elevation on a remarkably temperate May day. Each of the group walked at their own pace, sometimes joining Lupita and family, or just staring out at the Canyon walls. Going down was long, but relatively easy, with our younger, taller, stronger members getting to the bottom first. They tested the waters and positioned themselves so that those who wanted a hand could take it. Lupita led a small group further down the wash to look for a different crossing spot.

One of the things that I’ve realized about the process of getting old was that you no longer had to get to the top. Stop a little bit further down, and you could be the one who took the picture of everyone who wanted to get to the summit. Knowing your limits, listening to your body is more important than getting there. Lupita and I had laughed about this during a visit just before Covid. We came down the Yeibichai Trail, stopping to laugh and heave and breathe on the way. For my part, I was concerned that what comes down, must go up: Coyote Trickster’s interpretation of the Law of Gravity. The wash was springtime refreshing as we crossed over to the White House side. Gathering in front of the site, folks were curious about colors and graffiti as well as rock writing. Both groups traversed the water and Lupita began an impromptu, but in-depth explanation of many Diné customs, including creation history and the place of Spider Rock in that tale. She was in top form. Finally looking at the clock and realizing that it was getting late and warm, we moved back across the wash and started up the trail.

SAR members cross the canyon wash.

I don’t know who came up with the idea that 75 is the new 65. Our bodies are aging out in the same way that they did 30 years ago. With knees and hips replaced, you might need to acknowledge that perhaps you are an elder, visiting a culture that would grant you respect. Some of us went up slowly, though Lupita, Jon and Chris were interspersed through the group, making sure everyone was okay. The best thing was watching people accept help if they needed it, a skill I’ve learned from being with my Navajo friends.

The rest of the day’s activities included a sunset ride through the canyon on the Thunderbird lodge’s huge Jeep trucks, which we often called the Shake and Bakes. Lupita was disappointed that she couldn’t join us. She was on her way to attend the proud graduation of a relative. A fast late lunch, a change of clothes and we gathered at the Jeeps. Our driver was a cousin of Lupita’s and we were able to chat about relatives and past generations. We started up the Canyon as the light got long. It was the color I remember most about the eight hundred-foot walls. When all the sweating and rehydration is over, the sun goes down and the canyon turned to gold. It shone on the cliff sides and side canyons and illuminated the petroglyphs and pictographs, incised or drawn to depict the Canyon’s long history. It was a wonderful cap to a busy and informative day.

Lupita and members at White House Ruins.                                                    “Shake and Bake” Jeep tour. 

The following morning, our last day, we added a stop at Spider Rock overlook. Lupita’s stories at White House made it clear that you couldn’t visit Canyon de Chelly without looking at the place where Spider Woman taught to people to weave and helped create the Diné. The stop there made us a little late but what is time except a series of things we think we have to do. On the way back we paused at Junction Overlook where AC Henry, his wife and another Diné artist had their jewelry and pottery displayed. It was a good shopping experience.

Heading home, our last visit was to the Hubbell Trading Post. I’d never seen the Hubbell house. The ranger there was passionate and knowledgeable as he explained the Hubbell family’s relationship to the Navajo, and all the people who passed through and stayed at the house during its heyday. The trading post sold rugs and jewelry and wool. One of the views of the canyon walls at dusk had left me with a weaving in my mind, so I couldn’t help but buy a few skeins at Hubbell’s. We reboarded the bus, stopped for lunch and headed back to Santa Fe. From the conversation it was clear that folks were tired but happy to have been on this journey between worlds and into the generations of Lupita’s and my life.

For those of you who will join us in the September trip to the canyon, all I can say is recognize your limitations, open your hearts, and expect to see the beginnings of a glorious autumn. Between family graduations, Lupita was exuberant about the visit. It was great to see her smiling, as we grandmothers contemplated how we had gotten to that point in our lives!

Spider Rock Overlook, Canyon de Chelly.