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December 2007

Over the Rainbow: Finding Red Rock In the Navajo Nation

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


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