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.
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.