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WORDS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | PHOTOS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley
Chinle, Arizona is 100 miles south-west from Four Corners Monument where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. 198 miles from Moab, 311 miles from Grand Junction, 229 miles from Albuquerque and 195 miles from Flagstaff, it sits at the mouth of the Canyon De Chelly National Monument.
From the Thunderbird Lodge, on the outer edge of town, it is apparent that we are in the middle of nowhere. With elevations ranging from 3,500 feet to 10,000 feet above sea level, and topography features such as mesas, buttes and grassy plains, we went for a 100-mile ride.
Driving in from Flagstaff the night before on Interstate 10 it was dark. We followed roads to their end into a night pitch-black except for thousands of stars and our headlights. We had no visual clues regarding the landscape except for a generic idea that this part of the world was sandy and riddled with canyons.
In daylight, on the side of a road devoid of cars but not trucks or wild horses, our suspicions were confirmed: the landscape is grand, rocky and mostly red. What is not red is one of a thousand shades of pastel grassy-green and the original blue. To describe this landscape and our physical adventure through it is pointless.
We passed gas stations that were more of places to meet and congregate than a place to fill on petrol. Paints and Mustangs sometimes lazily strolled between the pumps at gas stations. We climbed Buffalo Pass where at 8,400 ft we rested with a view of Shiprock in the distance across the valley floor. We ate Navajo tacos and pickles. At every stop we visited with local Indians. We fed reservation dogs. We stopped and scaled a near-vertical rock wall with hand and foot holds chipped into its face. We stopped to wait out a dust storm. And we rode and rode.
There is something intrinsically different about the Navajo Nation. It feels sacred and magical but that’s likely as much to do with the purity of the landscape, than the associations our culture has with American Native spirituality. The difference is bigger than that and simpler too. The Navajo Nation feels sovereign. Like a foreign country. We felt like guests. Like tourists, somewhere other than the United States. We were granted permission, though indirectly, to be there. And that sense was palpable through every interaction we had. It felt like pride, disquiet, curiosity and disillusionment all at once. It felt, in many ways, exactly as it should.