Mummy Cave Ruin, Canyon del Muerto
Cottonwood grove and cool pool of water at Sam's camp
I had advertised to to run a hiking trip into Canyon de Chelly on the full moon of June. During the phone call to Manhattan to the one participant that had signed up for the trip I never got around to telling him the trip was cancelled. He said he couldn't wait to get there to turn 60 years old on the full moon in Canyon de Chelly. I picked Peter up in Albuquerque and we drove to the canyon.
Arriving at our guide Sam's house, he wasn't around but his sister said we could camp anywhere we wanted in the pinyon/juniper woodland surrounding their house. Camp was made, dinner cooked and eaten during a sudden rain storm that just as quickly disappeared. We turned in for the night but Sam was nowhere to be seen.
Next morning I looked up from my frying pan to see Sam leaning against my truck asking me who had made the rack in the back of it. No time or place had been arranged for our meeting that morning. I looked at my watch it was exactly eight a.m.
Our camp gear would be trucked into the canyon so that we could enjoy the hike without heavy packs and still have great food and ice cold drinks. Gear sorted, Sam's two nephews in tow (or more like at the lead) we started our hike into Canyon De Chelly National Monument. Because the Navajo's still own the land within the monument all trails except one are closed to hiking unless you have a Navajo guide. Sam, his two nephews, Peter and I descended the trail between red slick rock walls into the watered canyon floor. The morning was warm, sky with few clouds and the canyon limitless beauty. We all made Sam's camp for lunch.
We were in Canyon del Muerto-Canyon of the Dead one of three canyons that make up Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de shay)National Moument. Sam's family owned a major portion of the upper canyon, to me the most spectacular part of the monument. Sam's camp was set among giant cottowood trees. A stream ran along the canyon floor and passed right in front of the camp before making a short drop into a long "S" curve of red sandstone finally pouring over a ledge into a three foot deep pool of cool water. From this setting the bare,rock walls of the canyon rose to the wooded rim above.
Every day tourists are brought from the lodge in Chinle up the canyon in an old army truck to view some of the best ruins and wall etchings in the American Southwest. The Navajos call them the "shake n bake" tours as the going is rough and the trucks offer no shade. The trucks slowly make their way up canyon past our camp to view the ruin at Mummy Cave. This ruin, the most impressive in the monument, got its name as well as the canyon name from the mummfied remains that were discovered there. A mummy wrapped in two miles of cotton fabric was discovered in the ruin at Mummy Cave.
From camp it is a reasonable afternoon hike to Mummy Cave. But before we departed on that hike, Sam's nephews had other ideas. I followed them out from camp to a large sandstone alcove with a large Douglas fir tree growing within. When it rained the sandstone walls above gathered the rain and funneled it into a great waterfall that watered the base of the immense fir tree. The boys pointed up the walls above there to a house-sized rock about 600 feet up the wall and said that was where they usually climbed to when they came to the canyon.
Sam and the boys mother had said the real reason they came to the canyon was the pool of water at the end of the "S" curve. The sun and reflected heat from the rock made me believe that was the better place to be instead of high on the walls of Canyon del Muerto-Canyon of the Dead. On Peter and I pushed to scrubby trees and a spot of shade just big enough for us. The rock still seemed a long ways above us. The boys caught up with us and said they were headed back down to the cool pool of water so we headed back to the canyon floor.
After a cold drink in the shade of the cottonwoods at camp we walked down the road to Mummy Cave, some how the swim idea evaporated. The ruin is closed to visits by a Park Service fence but it is still very impressive. There are many rooms and a three story square tower to one side. The entire ruin lies beneath a giant sandstone rock overhang. The wind and black clouds sent us back towards camp as now the heat of the sun was traded for an approaching storm.
I got dinner cooked as the wind picked up and turquoise blue skies were erased by black storm clouds. We all stood and watched as waterfalls poured from the canyon walls. It seemed that life had sprung from the earth nourished by sky. Only a few minutes ago it was barreness that dominated the landscape, now it was water. Me and one of the nephews stood watching the waterfalls when an icrediable bolt of light shot from a cloud and struck the canyon wall near the rock we had tried to reach. The crack of thunder from it made my ears ring. It was like the Hand of God coming out of the clouds. I have spent more than 20 years wandering the American Southwest, seeing countless storms but none had equaled this sight. After that the canyon fell silent and I went to bed.
I was awakened by a light and in sleepy confusion opened my tent door to see who it was. It was the moon. The full moon. I had forgotten we had come here so Peter could see the full moon in Canyon de Chelly on his sixtieth birthday. The clouds had broken and now the moon was kitchen-light bright. I checked my watch, it was eleven-forty-five. I heard the zipper on Peter's tent and he stepped out into the night. He saw the full moon in Canyon de Chelly on his sixtieth birthday.
While making breakfast the next morning I gathered Sam's nephews around the cook stove and stuck a candle in each of four one-inch squares of fudge. On count of three we would sing Happy Birthday to Peter. It was a complete surprise. We ambushed him as he approached for his morning coffee. The candles were hidden by the stove's wind screen and it must of been a sight. Two navajo children singing Happy Birthday to a man from New York City in a canyon lost in a world two centries away. I really enjoyed that morning.
Sam had arranged for our gear to be picked up early. Camp was cleaned andpacked but no truck. We climbed the opposite canyon wall for more great views but no truck. Finally we loaded packs, left the boys with the gear and started our hike out of the canyon. We had walked about forty-five minutes when I spotted two Navajo women approaching. I asked Sam if he knew them but I recognized them as his sisters before he answered.
The rains from the night before had swollen the river and the canyon could not be entered by any vehicle. The two women had hiked down in flat soled shoes to help us carry our gear out! We hid our packs behind some rocks and returned to camp.At camp it was obvious I was stressed out. I had another tour to do the next day back in Albuquerque and I needed all the gear that was now in the bottom of the canyon. The women sensed my frustration. One of them picked up a can of Vienna Sausages and said "I am going to open this can and give each person one of these to carry out." It put everything in perspective, the load was divided and we started the hike out of the canyon of the dead.
Peter and I carried our personal packs, a 64quart cooler between us and what ever we could in our free hand. It was nowgetting hot as we walked down canyon. The going was slow but everyone was in good spirits with the boys splashing in pools in the river while wrestling and dunking each other. As we walked Peters boots, both the right and left started falling apart. We tied the flapping soles on and kept walking. It was at the hot afternoon sun that we reached the trail at the base of the canyon wall that would take us out of Canyon del Muerto. I told Peter to leave the gear and just concentrate on getting himself out of the canyon. I spent the afternoon concentrating too. I would walk up the trail with some gear, set it down,go back, pick up other pieces, carry them ahead then return for the previous pieces of equipment. I think the conversation I was having with myself went something like how Zen it all was. It was a long afternoon.
The boys made it to the canyon rim first followed by the women. They walked the mile to the house and returned with a truck to carry us and our gear the final mile. Someone brought out ice cold cokes as Peter snd I loaded my truck. We said our goodbyes and drove away. Peter turned to me and said "I really feel like I 've been someplace. I nodded and looked back over my shoulder into the silence of Canyon del Muerto", not knowing at the time this had been the last, great canyon adventure.
On or about the full moon of June 1994
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