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.
animal pivoted and galloped away, past Vance and Leo, back the way it came.
"Alright," Vance said, "who’s got the pistol?"
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
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
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.