“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
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.
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,
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.