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2004 Travelogue #29 Navajo Country
Gallup, New Mexico

Places of Interest:

New Mexico: Gallup, El Rancho Hotel

Arizona: Window Rock, Navajo Tribal Museum, Hubbell Trading Post, Chinle, Canyon de Chelly

8/24 After yesterday's busy tourist day on the Zuni Reservation, we stayed in the near vicinity today, beginning with breakfast at The Ranch Kitchen. The old restaurant, here since the early 50's, is spacious, has good food and is next door to our USA RV Park on Historic US 66. They have a hearty breakfast menu, which includes seven New Mexico chili dishes, as well as the typical eggs, bacon, biscuits and pancake fare plus our own pot of coffee. They also serve lunch and dinner, being noted for their grilled steaks and New Mexico cuisine.

After breakfast, we visited a Gallup landmark, the El Rancho Hotel, on the south side of old Route 66. Built and decorated in the Spanish/Indian tradition by the brother of movie magnate, D.W. Griffith, it opened in December 1937. It was a reminder of early Hollywood when film crews, actors, actress, and directors stayed in the hotel.

We climbed the grand staircase to the mezzanine. Each step was made from a 12-foot pine tree sawed in half; the rounded bark-side underneath and the cut side on top, with a dark stain and glossy finish. The walls of the circular mezzanine were covered with black and white autographed pictures from Hollywood's major actors and actresses of yesteryear.

Thanks to the Southwestern landscape, Gallup was the setting for many westerns movies and the El Rancho was their home away from home. Several movie titles caught my interest: "The Hallelelujah Trial "with Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick; "Streets of Laredo" with William Holden, MacDonald Carey, William Bendix, and Mona Freeman. There was also a picture of President Regan and his wife, Nancy, with the management of the hotel; someone had taped a small flower on the photograph. Other autographed pictures were of Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Kirk Douglas.

We like old hotel lobbies; there's a fascination about them because they have stories to tell. Exploring this one with its many pieces of heavy, dark-stained, highly-polished furniture with leather seats and backs, I just know many stories have been told lounging in these massive old chairs.

The floor was polished native stone with two very large Navajo rugs in front of the fireplace. I stepped-off one of the rugs, it was 12 feet X 18 feet and there was yet another rug even larger. I have never seen Navajo rugs this large.

In the center of the lobby, on the back wall, was a semicircular hearth and fireplace built with enormous polished rocks. Looking up to the second story ceiling, we saw that vigas supported the roof and looking around this old two story lobby with its grand staircase, circular mezzanine, Navajo rugs, and mounted trophy animal heads, we were impressed that the new management has maintained the Western tradition and ruggedness appeal of this old hotel.

8/25 All systems were "go" this morning. We took SH-264 to Window Rock, AZ, and the Navajo Capital. The Navajo Nation is the largest, most populous Indian Nation in the United States and is located in the Four Corners Area, covering northwest New Mexico, northeast Arizona, and southeast Utah. They have lived here for more than 400 years and when the Spanish explored this area in the 1600's they used the name "Apache de Navajo" meaning "Apaches of the Cultivated Fields". Today, approximately 200,000 people live in Navajo Country; located here, in the Capital, is also the Navajo Tribal Museum.

There were many cars in the Museum's parking lot this morning; the grounds had much activity because the facility also houses the library as well as community meeting rooms. Upon entering, we found it was pre-enrollment day for kindergarten and also a major water conservation meeting for the men was being held in another room. All in all, it was a very busy place.

The Museum offers a different interpretation regarding the Navajo from their perspective, not from the Anglos and it contains a hidden world of Navajo history.
A pictorial exhibit of the aftermath of "The Long Walk" is displayed. The "Long Walk" occurred after the surrender of more than 8000 Navajo to Colonel "Kit" Carson in the winter of 1860. The Navajo were forced to march over 300 miles to a flat, 40-square-mile, wind-swept reservation in east-central New Mexico and incarcerated at Bosque Redondo near Ft. Sumner by the US Army. This whole episode is similar to the Cherokee Indians "Trail of Tears".

This period in Navajo history is called Hwe'eldi, the time during and after their imprisonment at Ft. Sumner and their return four years later to Dine'tah, the land between the four sacred mountains. The Dine'tah is the ancestral Navajo homeland in northern New Mexico. The word encompasses their relief of having survived the four long years and the joy of returning to Dine'tah.

Another Navajo word we saw many times, not only in the museum but on billboards, was the word Dine', meaning Navajo People. The artwork, jewelry, sand paintings, and pottery all have symbols that are a language.

The Museum was featuring an exhibit from male weavers starting with Hastiin Klah (1867-1937) from Newcomb, NM. He was the first male Navajo weaver to become well-known outside the Navajo society. There were exhibits from other weavers with small biographies alongside a rug they had woven. Each Navajo rug, just as its weaver, is individualistic, expressing something mystical from their oneness with the landscape and their spiritual touch with Dine'tah.

Driving west through the Navajo Nation, we saw many "hogans", which are the traditional homes of the Navajo. They served both as a residence and as a place for certain ceremonies. Often they are six-sided, but can have more or fewer sides. They are made of wood, earth, and stones, with the doorway facing east, so the sunrise will welcome the occupants to a new day.

Our next stop was the National Historic Site of the Hubbell Trading Post founded in 1870 by trader John Lorenzo Hubbell. He introduced the Navajo rug patterns to the east coast and the Indians began weaving. A distinctive regional style was developed called the "Ganado". The Hubbell Trading Post is still active and looks like it did a century ago, with lots of rugs and other merchandise for sale.

We walked around the grounds noting the old barn and corral. The barn's walls were stone and adobe; the roof was made of large crossbeams with small limbs then covered with mud and thatch. Hubbell's home was available for a guided tour and there was also a small museum where Peggy and I sat at a computer for a virtual-reality tour of the Hubbell home, because we had missed the guided tour.

Leaving the Hubbell Trading Post, we took SH-191 north to Chinle and dropped from the high country into the wide-open rugged land. There are no trees, just sagebrush and multi-colored mesas off in the distance. Every now and then we saw a hogan or a mobile home stuck out in the middle of nowhere. About 35 miles later we reached Chinle, which had water, evidenced by the cottonwood trees.

Chinle, AZ is the gateway into the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d'SHAY) National Monument. The Dine' named the town for its location. Chinle, pronounced "Chin-lee", refers to the mouth of the canyon and literally means where the water flows out.

Millions of years of uplifts, the cutting flow of water and winds have created the sheer cliff walls of Canyon de Chelly and for over 4000 years man has been sustained within these canyon walls. The Ancient Puebloans found the canyons an ideal place to raise crops and their families.

The National Monument encompasses three major canyons and approximately 84,000 acres or 130 square miles are located entirely in the Navajo Nation. There are more than 700 ancient ruin sites, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs within these canyon walls.

When we were in Santa Fe we found a gallery that had the works of Edward Sheriff Curtis on display. One of his photogravure's, which is now sold out, titled "Canon de Chelly", captured Navajos riding east in Canyon de Chelly during the summer of 1904 and it struck a mystical chord within me… I just had to see this place.

I can say I was not disappointed when we took the Southern rim drive and stopped at our first scenic overlook for our first view of the Canyon, whose walls rise 300 to 500 feet straight up from the Canyon floor. It has taken over 2 million years and volumes of water to etch these sandstones into these magnificent towering monoliths and ledges.

Driving further around the rim, we came to the White House Trail Overlook where we could gain access to the Canyon floor. This is the only place a visitor can hike a mile-and-a-half trail down to the canyon floor and see some cliff dwelling ruins without needing a Navajo guide.

We walked about a quarter-of-a-mile down the trail along the canyon wall and stopped at a bench. We sat and soaked in the beauty and could feel a little of what the Dine' (the Navajo People) might feel. Here, within this canyon the history and culture of the Navajo is cradled. To us as outsiders, it's Canyon de Chelly but to the Navajo, it's a spiritual home. Sitting on the bench, I reflected on the photogravure of Edward Sheriff Curtis and now know why this place pulled me here.

Bob & Peggy Woodall


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