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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.

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

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.

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