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Friday, September 11, 2015 : Canyon de Chelly, Hubbell Trading Post, Petrified Forest

 

I have booked an appointment with our Navajo guide at the hotel front door at 9am. So we get up not too late, have breakfast at the hotel restaurant, still as great, pack our bags and load the Camaro, which will be staying the whole morning on the parking lot.

 

An early start is a brilliant idea, because this day will be hectic, with both visits and driving:

 

 

At the exact time, or perhaps a few minutes early, our guide shows up. His name is Terrell. He came with a SUV that must be a few decades old, with more than 200,000 miles on its odometer. The car is in such a condition that it would probably not pass a technical inspection, but who cares ? Terrell is friendly, he takes all his time for explanations, and leaves me even more time to translate to Marie. He is of course a genuine Navajo.

 

Canyon de Chelly is a Y-shaped valley, divided in two branches, North and South. To the North is Canyon del Muerto, which we are going to visit with Terrell, to the South is Canyon de Chelly itself. The earliest human occupation traces date back almost 5,000 years. The canyon has been settled by the Ancestral Puebloans (750-1300 A.D.), the Hopi (1300-1700), and the Navajo, since 1700. Nowadays, about 70 Navajo families still live inside the canyon.

 

There are two ways to visit Canyon de Chelly :

 

  • Either on your own, by driving either road on the mesa, along each of the canyon rims. The downside is that most archaeological sites can only be seen from rather far away,
  • Or with a guided tour, which allows a much closer look at those sites, along with the guide's comments.

 

The visit of the canyon begins with a very short stop quite close to the visitor center, to buy a $2 permit allowing us to enter the canyon together with our guide.

 

Ancestral Puebloan engravings, Canyon de Chelly

Ancestral puebloan engravings

 

Our first stop is in front of a vertical wall of rock, on which early canyon residents have engraved all sorts of pictures, hands, children, animals, and so on. The zigzag on the left of the picture is a snake.

 

The name "Canyon de Chelly" comes from a Spanish distortion of a Navajo word roughly meaning "the canyon inside". In fact, that pretty accurately represents what we are going to see, a narrow canyon enclosed within a mesa.

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Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly

 

While it is true to say that Canyon de Chelly is an archaeological site, it is also a beautiful natural wonder, a Y-shaped canyon nestled between its North and South rims. We are still on Colorado Plateau, in the midst of its stacked limestone layers.

 

This canyon is way less deep than the Colorado's, between 400 and 900 ft. At the bottom of the canyon, close to the almost dry river, we do not feel crushed. It is an almost intimate vision.

 

The sun is shining, there is not a single cloud. The rocks on the canyon sides have taken on shades between orange and brick red.

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First Ruin, Canyon de Chelly

First Ruin

 

We stop at First Ruin, the first site from the entrance of the canyon, as the name shows. First Ruin is an Ancestral Puebloan site, as we can tell by the shapes of the houses and their windows, the granary and its tiny openings, and the choice of a site high enough above the river to never be flooded.

 

Like in Mesa Verde and elsewhere, I am amazed by how those 7-centuries old sites have been preserved.

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Junction Ruin, Canyon de Chelly

Junction Ruin

 

At the confluence of both canyons, quite logically, is Junction Ruin. Here too, houses have been built in a higher place.

 

The width of the canyon varies according to places. Where there is enough room, moisture brought by the river allows some crops, mostly corn. Present-day residents extend traditional farming, along with some cattle-raising.

 

Unlike in Mesa Verde, farming and cattle are here at the bottom of the canyon, with dwellings and granaries a little higher up.

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Hopi paintings, Canyon de Chelly

Hopi paintings

 

A little further, Terrell shows us more paintings, which look more recent than the first ones. Patterns are slightly more detailed, and colors more diverse. Most likely, those traces have been left not by Ancestral Puebloans but by later residents, the Hopi.

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Antelope House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly

Antelope House Ruin

 

After almost 2 hours of visit, we make a stop at a place where the canyon is wider, in the middle of a few Navajo houses. The hamlet is populated by a few families who live off farming, cattle raising and local crafts sold to tourists.

 

A few dozen feet away from the village, there is a beautiful site of ruins, Antelope House Ruin, fenced to help preserve it. It is the only one of our visit to be at the bottom of the canyon. One of the hypotheses is that the river has not always been at this level, and this part of the canyon may have been filled with sediment.

 

We stop for a moment. While Terrell chats, we take a few pictures of the ruins.

 

It is the end of the visit. We climb back in the battered old SUV, and drive back to canyon entrance and the hotel. We now need to warmly thank Terrell for this detailed visit.

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Wild West wagon, Chinle

Wild West wagon, Chinle

 

Before we leave, Marie takes a few pictures of Wild West relics scattered on the hotel parking lot, including this well-preserved, with the exception of its lost cover, pioneer wagon. We have to imagine a whole family piling up all their possessions, and crossing the Wild West in search of a better life. For us Europeans, accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle, it seems it took a lot of courage and could be quite risky.

 

We now leave Chinle for good, and we are back on US Route 191, heading plain south to the small town of Ganado.

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Hubbell Trading Post

Hubbell Trading Post

 

Shortly before Ganado, we stop at Hubbell Trading Post, a commercial trading place that has become a listed historical landmark, managed by the National Park Service.

 

After their forced exile to Fort Sumner, NM, 400 miles to the east, the Navajo were given permission to come back to their ancestral homeland in 1868, and a treaty granted them a reservation, which gradually became Navajo Nation as we know it. But after 4 years away, the situation was really dire : decimated cattle, derelict farmland, destroyed houses. They had to start everything again from scratch.

 

That's when John Lorenzo Hubbell began to play a prominent role, for the sake of the Navajo as well as for his own prosperity. In 1878, 10 years after the Navajo had returned to their homeland, he setup his first trading post in the heart of the reservation, and began to supply food that was not produced locally, seeds, tools and, more generally, anything the Navajo lacked. In return, he purchased wool, sheep and, later on, rugs, jewelry and baskets.

 

The trading post as we see it was built in 1897. John Lorenzo Hubbell passed away in 1930, and his descendants took over until 1965. The trading post was ultimately sold to the National Park Service in 1967. The trading activity is still in existence.

 

The site is made of two main groups of buildings :

 

  • On the right after site entrance, a small building is used as a visitor center, with a small museum where a few historical artefacts are displayed,
  • At the rear, a group of single-story buildings includes the Hubbell family house, the trading post itself, and a large barn used as a wharehouse.

 

Around those buildings are a few pens with some cattle, and a few plots of land cultivated using traditional techniques.

 

We visit the trading post. Predictably, Navajo crafts hold a prominent place. After all, this is the purpose of this place. Most pieces are rather expensive, but of outstanding quality. I specially recommend the colorful rugs, basketry, pottery and jewelry.

 

After a short visit at the visitor center, we hit the road again, to Petrified Forest National Park. We take Interstate 40 at Chambers, AZ. We are roughly on the trace of Historic Route 66.

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Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

 

Interstate 40 crosses the northern part of the National Park. We leave the highway and are immediately at park entrance.

 

We have just left Navajo Nation territory. After some hesitation, our Camaro's onboard GPS ended up correctly resetting itself to Arizona Time. We get one extra hour, which is great for such a busy day.

 

We stop for a while at the visitor center, the time to buy a few postcards and some snacks. On the parking lot, we see a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air in perfect condition. Without a doubt, people know how to take care of their cars, in this country !

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Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park

Painted Desert

 

Petrified Forest National Park is crossed from north, where we are now, to south by a 29-mi. road, with many stops along the way. The best is to drive all the road and leave the park thru its south exit to Holbrook, where we had planned to stop anyway.

 

Our first stop is at Tiponi Point, a viewpoint that overlooks Painted Desert. We had already crossed its northwestern tip 5 years ago along US Route 89 between Cameron and US Route 160 junction near Tuba City, AZ, we now watch its southeastern tip. It stretches well over 110 miles. Its geology is quite straightforward, like the rest of Colorado Plateau. Limestone layers have been eroded and shaped by sand grains carried by the wind. This very specific type of erosion created those soft, rounded shapes.

 

Petrified Forest National Park is one of the countless natural sites protected by a decree from President Theodore Roosevelt, under the provision of 1906 Antiquities Act. It was first designated a National Monument, and became a National Park in 1962. In 2004, during Pueblo Revival style's Administration, legislation authorized eventually more than doubling its surface, to protect the largest possible amount of petrified wood. However, and despite their intensive watch, park rangers estimate that about 11 metric tons of petrified wood are illegally picked up each year.

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Painted Desert Inn, Petrified Forest National Park

Painted Desert Inn

 

At this moment, except the stump near the entrance sign, we have yet to see a single petrified tree. But we know that Route 66 used to cross the park as soon at it was commissioned in 1926, when it was still a National Monument. Of course, road traffic had attracted a few shopkeepers. Starting in the 1920s, an inn opened at this place. In 1935, the National Park Service purchased the inn and its surroundings.

 

The present inn opened in 1940. After the United States joined WWII in 1941, it closed in 1942, having served its customers for barely two years. After the end of the conflict, in 1947, architect Mary Jane Colter whom we already mentioned about Desert View Watchtower in Grand Canyon National Park, was commissioned to restore and redecorate the facility in Pueblo Revival style. However, the inn kept on falling into disrepair, and finally closed in 1963, after the visitor center near park entrance opened.

 

The building was scheduled to be demolished in 1975 but, as often in the United States, a public fundraising campaign saved it. The inn was listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1987, and reopened in 2006, after an extensive restoration. We now can see it as travelers did in 1949. Furniture is sparse, but inside decoration is in excellent condition. A few vintage objects are reminiscent of what a roadside inn would look like : tables, chairs, and very early transistor radios.

 

The history of the inn has indeed strictly nothing to do with Petrified Forest. However, it has everything to do with the legend of Route 66. It was the only stop between the towns of Chambers and Holbrook, AZ, a stretch of about 50 miles. It is the only known case of a United States highway, now an Interstate, crossing a National Park.

 

Today is 9/11. As a tribute to the victims of the 2001 attacks, flags fly at half-staff at all United States official sites.

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Route 66, Petrified Forest National Park

Route 66

 

A few miles after Painted Desert Inn, we cross Route 66, or, rather, its trace. Where Petrified Forest Road crossed the Mother Road, there is but a small cement platform, with a print of the Route's shield and a rusty car body left there since the 1940s. The Road itself has disappeared, covered by Nature, which, ultimately, always wins over Man.

 

The trace of the Road is hardly visible : vegetation is slightly darker on a narrow, straight line. Phone poles, once quite expectedly along the road, now look oddly out of place in the middle of the prairie. That's all that remains of Main Street of America : a 20-ft wide green stripe, barely darker than surrounding shrub.

 

Plus the old car body.

 

Plus the Route's shield.

 

That's precious little, for a legend.

 

I get a weird feeling. It's not disappointment, no, more like some kind of sad nostalgia.

 

We take the road again. A little further, we pass over BNSF, Warren Buffett's company, railroad tracks. Yes, indeed, a transcontinental railroad also crosses the park.

 

Soon after, we make a stop at Puerco Pueblo, just after crossing Puerco River's almost dry bed. This wash is extremely large, for a tiny creek. We assume that, as often in the region, it may not rain too often, but whenever it does, the flooding river must be wiping away anything on its course. We do not get a chance to check, the weather is beautiful.

 

When we come back to the car after a few minutes' walk, we can see two XXL-sized crows pretty closely interested in our Camaro's tires.

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Newspaper Rock, Petrified Forest National Park

Newspaper Rock

 

We drive to Newspaper Rock. Like last week on the road to Canyonlands, it is a rock on which residents of past centuries have carved lots and lots of symbols. However, here, the rock is at some distance, and we have to use the telescope installed by the park to see something.

 

Marie manages to take a few pictures of Newspaper Rock with her zoom lens.

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The Tepees, Petrified Forest National Park

The Tepees

 

Our next stop is at The Tepees, a set of vaguely tepee-shaped rounded hills, of the same origin as the petrified dunes in Painted Desert.

 

No parking here. We just stop on the road shoulder, more than wide enough for our Camaro.

 

We are about half-way thru our park visit, and we still have not seen our first petrified tree. Of course, we can't know it yet, but our curiosity will be fulfilled very soon.

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Petrified tree, Blue Forest, Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified tree, Blue Forest

 

Little over a mile further, we turn onto Blue Mesa Road, a narrow road that climbs in between boulders up to the top of a small mesa, and ends up in a one-way loop.

 

The first stop is a viewpoint that overlooks the plateau by perhaps a hundred feet.

 

Starting from the second stop, Blue Forest, a narrow path winds down between rocks, and we at last can see our first petrified trees, including the one on the picture.

 

Those trees date back to the Late Triassic period of the Mesozoic era, roughly 225 million years ago. When a tree falls, in theory, it progressively rots and entirely disappears. But not here. Fallen trees have immediately been swallowed by the soft soil made of mud and volcanic ash. Once solidified, that mix became rock and preserved tree trunks. Water present in the soil dissolved rock silicium and permeated the trunks, progressively replacing organic matter with quartz grains. Iron dioxyde, along with other metal oxydes also present in water, gave the trunks their beautifully brilliant and diverse colors.

 

Blue Mesa Trail is rather short, about 1 mi. That's fortunate, because, with such a heat and not even the slightest wind, walking soon becomes strenuous. As usual, we have an ample supply of water in our backpacks.

 

Our effort is rewarded big time. We can see petrified tree sections all over the place, in huge quantities. We begin to realize that we are in the heart of a Mesozoic Era forest. When visiting Petrified Forest National Park north to south, patience is its own virtue.

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Agate Bridge, Petrified Forest National Park

Agate Bridge

 

Our next stop is at Agate Bridge. As shown on the picture, those are not tree sections, but a whole trunk fossilized in rock. Much later, erosion unearthed the trunk and dug a creek underneath. The trunk, in big danger of breaking for good, had to be supported by a cement beam. The present concrete beam was made in 1917. Poor aesthetics aside, without that beam, that unbroken petrified tree trunk, the only one of its kind, would never have been preserved for us to see it.

 

From the parking lot, the lying tree can be accessed with a very short trail, with no difficulty.

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Jasper Forest, Petrified Forest National Park

Jasper Forest

 

Little over a mile further, we make a stop at Jasper Forest, a viewpoint overlooking a vast plateau covered with petrified trees. It is a huge expanse, there are tree sections as far as sight can go.

 

No complete tree trunk like at Agate Bridge, here. Trees are all broken. Among colors, red is prevalent, a sure sign of iron dioxyde presence.

 

Oddly enough, tree sections seem to be all the same diameter, and sections all the same size. I assume that first, trees would fall down at roughly similar ages, and second, those Mesozoic Era forests lacked diversity, and were probably made of very few different tree species.

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Petrified tree trunk section, Crystal Forest, Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified tree trunk section, Crystal Forest

 

Our next stop is at Crystal Forest, another site with lots of petrified tree sections. Crystal Forest can be visited with a rather short trail, with absolutely no difficulty.

 

The picture shows a close-up on a petrified tree section. We can clearly see the cylindric traces left by organic matter, gradually replaced by silicium turned into quartz. We can touch the tree, it is hard as stone. With a little patience, we could probably determine the age of the tree when it fell down.

 

Crystal Forest was our last stop in Petrified Forest National Park. Near the south exit of the park, there is Rainbow Forest Museum, but we do not stop.

 

We leave the park and take US Route 180 to Holbrook, 18 miles away.

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Hot-rod Mustang, Wigwam Motel, Route 66, Holbrook, AZ

Hot-rod Mustang, Wigwam Motel, Route 66, Holbrook, AZ

 

After crossing Little Colorado, we enter Holbrook, a step on Route 66 in an almost deserted area, where each city therefore had its own importance.

 

We slowly drive down West Hopi Drive, where Historic Route 66 used to pass, and stop at Wigwam Motel, the sixth out of a series of seven similar motels built by Frank A. Redford between 1933 and 1949, from Kentucky to California. Two of those are located on Historic Route 66, this one and the one in San Bernardino, CA. They both still exist. A third one, in Kentucky, has also been preserved. All three are listed on the National Register of Historical Places, not so much for their architectural value (after all, they are but basic steel-reinforced concrete tipis) than for their historical interest.

 

Holbrook Wigwam Motel is sort of the black sheep in the flock. First, it was built in 1950, after all others, and not by Frank A. Redford but by Chester E. Lewis. To use Redford's designs along with the Wigwam Motel registered trademark, at the time an established brand, Lewis agreed to put coin radios in each motel room. Each dime granted 30 minutes of music and was sent to Redford as royalty payment. This is one of the earliest business franchise known agreements.

 

Holbrook Wigwam Motel closed in 1974, when Interstate 40 bypassed the city, replacing Route 66. Chester Lewis' children, Clinton, Paul and Elinor, inherited the motel at their father's death in 1986, completely renovated it and reopened it in 1988. It is still operated by the Lewis family. It has 15 tepees, numbered 1 to 16. As often in the United States, there is no #13.

 

In front of each tepee, a more or less well-preserved vintage car is parked. The '65 Mustang on the picture is not part of the collection. It belongs to the occupants of one of the tepees with whom I chatted for a few minutes, a couple from a small island near Ketchikan, AK, where, out of the 60 or so households living there, at least 40 recondition vintage cars into hot rods. They are young retirees on vacation. They drove all the way down with the Mustang, which is well over 2,500 miles !

 

By the way, wigwam or tipi ? A wigwam is a fixed structure, made of wooden beams covered, according to location, with bark plates, animal pelts, grass, and only occasionally cloth. On the other hand, a tepee, designed to be easily moved, is made of a few wood posts covered with cloth. Judging by their shape, Wigwam Motel rooms are clearly tepees. However, motel rooms are very seldom seen moving around. So, why not wigwams, after all ?

 

We then leave Holbrook towards Meteor Crater, our last stop before Flagstaff.

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Sunset near Flagstaff, AZ

Sunset near Flagstaff, AZ

 

When travelling off-season, the curse is that some places close early. When we make it at Meteor Crater, the site has been closed for more than one hour, and we can only make out the rims of the crater, not walk in, much less have a look inside. Of course, we leave with some disappointment.

 

On the road between Meteor Crater and Flagstaff, Marie takes her revenge by snapping a nice series of sunset pictures over the plateau.

 

In Flagstaff, our hotel is the Baymont Inn, a chain we had never previously heard of. Considering the very moderate price, we feared the worst, but no, the place is a standard category hotel, with no extra luxury, but nice, in great condition, and very well tended by a friendly staff. It is definitely one of the good surprises of this trip.

 

We have dinner at Five Guys, a fast-food chain we love for their very tasty burgers cooked on demand right before our eyes, with the extras of our choice. Then as every night, Marie writes notes in her diary, while I backup pictures and update the blog.

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