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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.

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,


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