Toward a Sense of Place by Philip Hyde 3

January 30th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

(CONTINUED FROM BLOG POST “Toward a Sense of Place 2“)

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Horse and Cottonwoods at the Mouth of Canyon de Chelly, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1963, by Philip Hyde. From Navajo Wildlands, Sierra Club Books.

Toward a Sense of Place 3

By Philip Hyde

From Navajo Wildlands: As Long As The Rivers Shall Run

Sierra Club—Balantine Books

*Note: Beware of using this as a travel guide. The areas where people are allowed and the approaches to them may have changed since 1967. Also, the politically correct term for the native people now is their own word, “Dineh,” in its various spellings, rather than the Spanish word in common practice then, “Navajo.”

Our Navajo Mountain adventure took on a new aspect two mornings later when our packer brought up his retinue of three horses, four people, and two dogs. Walking down into Painted Rock, where we would set up our base camp for exploring the westside canyons, we learned that the first four miles don’t prepare you for the spectacular climax. The trail traverses the slopes of the mountain—lightly dusted with snow on that early morning—crosses several incipient canyons, climbs a bit, and passes through a narrow sandstone defile called Sunset Pass on one side and Yabut on the other. Then the trail peels off like a dive bomber into a funnel-shaped abyss, Cliff Canyon, and its great sheer cliffs of warm yellow sandstone. The canyons that twist their way eventually into the waters of Lake Powell come into view, and the long backbone of the Kaiparowits Plateau recedes in a straight line northwestward into the blue slopes where the Escalante River begins.The isolated bulk of Cummings Mesa intervenes to the south. If you look when you are high enough, and it is a clear day, you will see the great arch of the Kaibab Plateau on the far southwestern horizon. We saw it. To the north, Waterpocket Fold, and its Circle Cliffs are partly cut off by the northwestern shoulder of Navajo Mountain. Within this arc you see what is left of the climax of the Glen Canyon system. They still have beauty, but to those of us who knew Glen before it was flooded this remains a supreme act of bureaucratic vandalism. Happily, little of the unnaturally—and temporarily—blue water of “Lake” Powell is visible from the trail.

Two miles beyond the great drop into Cliff Canyon is First Water. A mile beyond that, our trail turned out of Cliff Canyon to climb through a narrow cleft in the sandstone, Redbud Pass. At this turn, we saw the pictographs that gave Painted Rock its name. We camped, and spent one day exploring Cliff Canyon and Forbidden Canyon. The second we went as far as Oak Canyon on the trail leading around the Mountain. On the third day we reached around the Mountain. On the third day we reached the perigee of our five-day orbit when we decided to walk down to Rainbow Bridge.

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Rainbow Bridge from Downstream, Navajo Mountain in the Distance, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Arizona, 1964, by Philip Hyde. Before Glen Canyon Dam filled and Lake Powell flooded Forbidden Canyon. Reached Hiking with a Backpack.

Our first view of the Bridge had been some years before, after coming up five miles from the river through a magnificent canyon of beautiful rock sculpture and delightful long, narrow pools. We were almost reluctant to go to the Bridge again after that fine, wild memory of it, knowing that it was now only a mile and a half from the rising edge of Lake Powell that is engulfing the stream that created the bridge.

We had been three days in the wilderness, with all that is implied in getting close to the land and letting it get close to you. For more on wilderness see the blog post, “Wallace Stegner: The Wilderness Idea.” We rounded the last great curve above the Bridge and began to see tourists. I sniffed the air and—sensed something extraordinary about it, but was not quite able to name it. Then I knew: it was perfume, emanating from some immaculately clad yachtsmen—or was it the yachtwomen among them—busily signing the register under the Bridge. The Bridge looked the same, or did it? Was it only an illusion that it looked a little like a reasonable facsimile, a little plastic? To know what the real Bridge looks like, don’t you have to participate in the finding of it, a little arduously along the stream that made it possible, the heat and the cobbles and the water and the time that all combined to build that Bridge? Can you merely sit, throttle, steer, and saunter and still begin to know what it was? For more about the color photograph of Rainbow Bridge see the blog post, “The Making Of ‘Rainbow Bridge From The Upstream Side.'”

I think of the land of the Navajos as a living entity of moods—of light moments and gloomy. Above all I think of color—color constantly changing with the light, color that infused the life of the people who have passed over this land.

Overpoweringly, this place testifies to man’s transitory nature—and yet confirms his continuity. That continuity may end if this should ever cease to be a land of time enough and room enough. The automobile could obliterate both, and along with them, the wilderness experience.

I still remember the climax of that experience for us. It was the walk to Keet Seel, and what we felt there. Keet Seel, the most remote of the three great Anasazi ruins in Navajo National Monument, is about eight miles by trail through the sandy canyons of the Tsegi system cut into the mesas just west of Monument Valley. The great ruin itself is not visible until the last quarter of a mile, and then it seems diminutive. Not until you are under the edge of the great sandstone shell sheltering the ruin does its scale become apparent.

Great Kiva, Mummy Cave Ruin, Canyon del Muerto, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, by Philip Hyde.

We climbed up the ledge, into the ruin, and suddenly believed we were the discoverers. There were few footprints, and we saw only a lone Navajo looking for strays. The silence was so pervasive that we found ourselves speaking in low tones—I guess out of respect for the people who had just departed 700 years ago. The wind blew everywhere we went that spring, but it was still now. The silence grew as we cooked supper and rolled out our bags on a lower level beneath the ruin. A tiny seep, with a depression beneath it just big enough for a cup, gave us our nightcap, and we went to sleep where the ancient ones had gathered food and looked out and talked, and had put their children to sleep.

Philip Hyde, April 1967

To read more about Navajo Country go to the blog post, “The Making Of ‘Rainbow Bridge From the Upstream Side.'”



  1. Greg Russell says:

    As Americans, we often see our wild places–the topography that helps to define us–from a car window. I can’t say that sort of experience is necessarily any less meaningful as actually letting the land connect with you, as your father writes about here. But, I can say, without question that feeling that connection with the land is a feeling that surpasses many that I’ve felt.

    Thanks again for sharing this essay. Its one I’ll come back to many times.

  2. Hi Greg, you mentioned in another post having grown up near Shiprock, New Mexico, in the Four Corners. Do you feel that people like yourself, who grow up in places where you spend time on the land, end up having more appreciation for it later? I guess some city kids, like my dad and David Brower break out and get out to the land, but the question is, do you imagine that your upbringing in such a place helped shaped your feelings about nature?

  3. Greg Russell says:

    Hi, David. I think that growing up spending time on the land does give me a certain appreciation for it that is different than the appreciation that someone else (e.g. a “city kid”) may have for it. I don’t know that its more meaningful, or “better”, but it is certainly different.

    I think, perhaps, I have a deeper sense of place, since I have memories have formed and been twisted in with the land, but at the risk of sounding elitist, I don’t know if I can say that with any real certainty.

    Its funny that you mention having a greater appreciation for it later. Growing up, my own father took me on several backpacking trips to the Cedar Mesa area of SE Utah. While I enjoyed it at the time, I look back on those trips and wish I had realized at the time how impactful they would be in forming me as a person.

  4. I grew up running around in the wilderness right outside my back door in the Northern Sierra Nevada in California, but I went through a phase from about age 15 to 27 where I went the opposite direction from anything to do with my parents. I was living in the Los Angeles rat race during the 1992 riots, driving a big Mercedes and wearing Italian suits, when I suddenly picked up everything and moved to a place in Cuyamungue, New Mexico, surrounded on three sides by the Pojaque Indian Reservation and shaded by gigantic Cottonwood trees. I walked in the desert every day. Even though I was further from home, I felt like I was returning to my roots, the land. New Mexico felt more like home than Southern California. Perhaps it was because I had been traveling to Northern New Mexico since I was in the womb. Perhaps it had to do with the wide open land and the sky. There is something about the sky in New Mexico.

  5. Greg Russell says:

    Its interesting to hear you say that. We’ve lived in southern California for 7.5 years, and although I feel fairly connected with the places–I know the peaks and canyons, especially in the San Gabriels, quite well–I don’t connect here quite as much as other places.

    Perhaps its the culture of a place that can ease–or not–our connection to the land.

    I’m wondering, can I add this blog to the “blogroll” on my own?

  6. I would be curious to hear what people who have lived in Southern California all their lives say about their connectedness to the land. Either way, what you’re saying about the culture of a place easing a connection to the land, makes a lot of sense. Please feel free to add this blog to your blogroll. Many others have without asking and I have been happy to hear about it.

  7. I can’t help but see pictures of cottonwoods in the desert and think “there’s water there!”

  8. Hi Derrick, Yes, about the cottonwoods: Did you know you can dig down and find water often where they are growing, even in the driest conditions? In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, you can still see cottonwoods in many places along what are now dry washes most of the time. This was one of the ways that archeologists got the idea to look more closely at rainfall patterns over the centuries. Both the presence of cottonwoods and tree ring patterns point to Chaco Canyon being much wetter when the Anasazi, or Ancestor Puebloans flourished there.

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