Over the Rainbow: Finding Red Rock In the Navajo Nation

A rarely-attempted traverse reveals the Navajo Nation's vast red-rock wilderness.
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A rarely-attempted traverse reveals the Navajo Nation's vast red-rock wilderness.

"Are you bringing a pistol?"

A friend of Leo's asked him that. The question was posed in Navajo, so it sounded

like this: "Pistol y ish ne wholo?" But it was just as puzzling to

Leo in his native tongue as it would have been in English. Why would he bring

a pistol to Arizona's Rainbow Plateau? Who needed a gun in one of America's

most remote spots, smack in the middle of the Four Corners? Leo Manheimer would

be taking photographer Vance Jacobs and me dozens of miles from humans of any

kind—good or bad, armed or unarmed—and it seemed unlikely we'd need to defend

ourselves against anything but sunburns and flash floods.

Then Leo's friend

explained: A rogue mustang was prowling the area, attacking anyone who ventured

too near.

When Leo told Vance and me this story, just before we started off

on our hike, he'd smiled and vaguely twirled a finger near his temple. Leo had

been doing quality time in the wilderness around here since he was 10 years

old, when he spent an entire summer shepherding his family's flock of sheep

through labyrinths of canyons and mesas and buttes all by himself. The now-54-year-old

son of a revered medicine man named Buck Navajo, Leo had grown up to become

the area's preeminent guide, regularly leading Sierra Club groups and other

non-Navajos on journeys into otherwise hard-to-access tribal land.

We'd contacted

him with a simple request: that he bring us to Rainbow Plateau, an allegedly

spectacular part of the Navajo Nation that few people, Navajo or otherwise,

ever visit. He agreed, we negotiated terms, and then, after a wild off-road

stint in a pickup to a spot about a half-hour east of Page, Arizona, we hoisted

our packs and headed out. We were about to begin a 30-mile, west to east, three-day

route, one that would start with a steep descent on an old pack trail just south

of the rim of Butterfly Canyon but quickly turn into an off-trail riverbed slog

and plateau-top scramble. Though finding enough drinking water was a concern,

wild horses were not. Mustangs, Leo assured us, don't attack people. They don't

want anything to do with people. We all laughed at the idea of a predatory horse.

We definitely weren't laughing the next morning.

The pack trail had petered

out early on the first day, at Kaibito Creek, and we'd been dividing our time

between sand and water ever since. We pitched our first camp in a sodden spot

that was a combination of both, and shortly after waking I was plodding through

wet sand in a pleasant post-dawn daze, my boots in my hand and my thoughts in

the sky. I followed a frigid waterway through a wide canyon, listening to the

plop and pull of my own bare feet and watching the rising sun paint the cliffs

and the mud different shades of orange. Suddenly, behind me, I heard Vance and

Leo shouting. I looked over my shoulder and saw a horse approaching at full

gallop.

I wheeled around, and the mustang shuddered to a stop, digging its rear

hooves into the sand, its tail flicking in unmistakable anger. I wondered whether

Leo's friend wasn't crazy after all. The horse and I were maybe 30 feet from

one another, stuck in a sort of inter-species Mexican standoff.

Finally, the

animal pivoted and galloped away, past Vance and Leo, back the way it came.

"Alright," Vance said, "who's got the pistol?"

The Navajo

Nation looks great splashed across a windshield, which is a good thing, since

that's how most people experience it. Countless Grand Canyon-bound tourists

slice through America's largest rez every year, many no doubt marveling at the

immense blue-sky-red-earth vistas. But few pause to do any on-foot exploring,

instead forging ahead toward the familiar chasm 100 miles to the west. That's

too bad. (Or not, depending on your perspective.) The Nation straddles three

huge states—Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico—and at 27,000 square miles is as big

as several small ones. With its huge area and tiny population, it contains some

of the country's most pristine wilderness, from Rainbow Bridge—the world's largest

natural stone arch and a sacred Navajo site—to Rainbow Plateau, a massive turtle-backed

expanse that rises up to a thousand feet above the ancient rivers that carved

it.

Part of the reason the Navajo Nation doesn't see as much foot traffic as

some of the Southwest's hiking hot spots is its somewhat confusing access issues.

As is the case on Indian reservations elsewhere, if you want to hike here, even

on an established trail, you have to get a permit from the tribe. If you'd like

to do a more ambitious, off-trail hike, like what Vance and I had had in mind,

you need to get not only a permit but also, in most cases, permission from the

patchwork of individual Navajo families whose homesteads you'll be passing through.

This is nothing if not difficult. The easiest way to bypass the access hurdles

is to hire a local guide—someone like Leo—who can handle all of the logistics

ahead of time. And a local guide offers the added benefits of, well, a local

guide.

Though Leo might not have had the most up-to-date gear—his idea of hiking

boots was a pair of black Nike cross-trainers, and he wore faded blue jeans

that seemed to mock my quick-dry expedition pants—his skills were cutting edge.

At one point early in the hike, Leo—who could spin tales of prowling coyotes

and mustang fights from faint impressions in the sand—noticed two pairs of days-old

human footprints, and divined that the owner of one had been carrying a heavy

pack and the owner of the second had not.

His experience proved even more useful

when we left all tracks behind and began carving our own route. On the second

day of our hike, about an hour after my mustang encounter, we were still following

the river, several miles short of an old shepherd's path Leo knew wended upwards

to the top of the plateau. Sometimes both banks disappeared, and we'd spend

minutes trudging through the frigid, knee-deep current, our bare feet gathering

cuts and bruises that would hurt later in the day, once the warming broth of

our blood had recirculated. Then, at a bend in the river, Leo spotted a narrow

gully and decided it might provide a shortcut. He was right. We left the river

behind, scrambled up a half-mile of steep scree and, after solving a few low-grade

bouldering problems, crested the lip of Rainbow Plateau.

My first impression

was that the plateau looked like an immense Petri dish. With so many crenellated

pinnacles, pinpricks of harsh green shrubbery, and narrow, waterless channels,

it had an alien, anarchic feel, like something you might see under a microscope.

And then, for the next two days, as we rambled across whorled and barren tangerine

stone, roasting under a screaming blue sky, I felt like a flea on the back of

some huge tawny beast. Back in 1964, when the academic journal American Anthropologist

published a report on the plateau, a few Navajo shepherds still resided there,

living lives devoted to "pastoralism and marginal agriculture." Today,

except for us, it is devoid of people, and at first the only signs we saw of

its past residents were some faint sheep trails and a single empty bottle of

Sun Crest, an extinct brand of soda.

Then Leo noticed a rectangular slab of

rock that someone had carved into the shape of a tombstone and book-ended between

two rock piles. Thirty yards away, down a mellow slope of shale, were two small

cairns. If you sighted from the tombstone directly between the cairns, your

eyes came to rest on a pockmarked breast of sandstone rising sixty feet from

the dirt. Leo said this odd configuration of land and landmarks reminded him

of a story he'd heard growing up. One hundred and fifty years ago, a group of

Navajo had spotted three Anglo prospectors heading east across the tribe's land,

back from the then-fertile California goldfields. One by one, during a hunt

that lasted several days and covered hundreds of miles, the prospectors were

caught and killed. Although their bags held no gold, the Navajo hunters found

a map on the corpse of the last man. It showed a detail of landscape that looked,

in Leo's recollection of the story, much like this one.

The air was eerie. Had

the desperate prospectors hoarded their loot while on the run? Had they left

this tombstone to mark its resting place? Was there gold at the end of Rainbow

Plateau? We spent a while scrambling around the tiny sandstone peak, reaching

and peering into its unlit nooks, putting our all into finding, ultimately,

nothing.

On the second and last night of our hike, we fed the fire with brittle

juniper so light I could break down and carry entire tree carcasses. Whenever

I hiked away from camp to search for wood, I turned on my headlamp so I wouldn't

step into a ravine. Sometimes, when I was far enough away that the flames were

just a dim fuzz behind me, I would turn off the lamp and let my eyes adjust

to the night.

A couple of dozen miles to the north, Navajo Mountain was a dark

bulk against a darker sky. According to Navajo legend, this was the cradle of

their people: Leo's ancestors once took shelter within it, safe from the monsters

that prowled the Earth's surface. Eventually, two strong brothers were born

and left the mountain's stony womb. They roamed the wasteland for years, slaying

dragons everywhere they went, until all the monsters were dead and the world

was safe for the rest of the Navajo to emerge.

Cold had come with the night.

It was almost time to sleep. An airplane passed above, heading southeast toward

Phoenix, its red wing lights pulsing, the sound of its engine trailing a few

seconds behind its tail. I wondered whether our fire was visible from behind

the airplane's portholes, whether it glowed like a smudge of phosphorescence

in a dark sea. In a handful of hours the sun would rise, wash away the stars,

and reveal a landscape as grand and empty as the night sky. The monsters were

gone, but it was some comfort to know that their wilderness remained.

Plan it

Guides Because the permit process for the Navajo Nation is sticky,

the navigation is tricky, and the history is rich, a good guide is invaluable.

Leo Manheimer (928-672-2335, ext. 26) offers his services for $200 a day. You

provide your own food.

Homework Brave enough to go it alone? Go to navajonationparks.org

or call 928.871.6647 for beta on access, and grab a copy of Michael Kelsey's

Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau ($20). For a ghost-story vibe, any

of Tony Hillerman's thrillers—which all take place in and around the Nation—will

do the trick.

Getting Here The nearest town to Rainbow Plateau is Page, AZ, about 40 miles away. There

are regular flights to Page out of Phoenix, or it's a drive of about four hours.