A Canyon de Chelly Remembrance

By Ken Gorelick

As a splendid encore to the NAPT conference John Fox led his second walking/writing tour to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay"), on Navajo lands in Arizona.

Under the auspices of John's friends, Lupita and John McClanahan, the Navajo guides on whose land we camped in the valley at the base of 600-foot cliffs, we learned Navajo history and Navajo reverence for life and nature. And, through the writing and listening so sensitively conducted by John, we reached deeply into ourselves and shared with one another.

We began our walk into the canyon with the Beautyway chant, and for the next several days we did walk "with beauty before us, with beauty behind us, with beauty below us, with beauty above us" as we appreciated the chromatic diversity of the red cliffs, the clouds floating from where to where, the sere vegetation in so many shades of yellows and greens, the preciousness of water, and the resiliency and tenacity of life, from the desiccated brine shrimp resuscitated by the spring rains, to the Navajo themselves, threatened with cultural oblivion. Around "grandfather fire" we gathered evenings to share communal food and hear stories of Navajo survival , of marital customs (sons-in-law and mothers-in law are kept apart), birthing and child-rearing practices (women about to deliver walked the steep Yeibecheii trail up to the birthing hut, children are taught confidence in their abilities and are entrusted early with tasks), and death (bodies are placed in a cave and "returned to the Canyon", which they are a part of forever).

We took new paths daily. We saw the petroglyphs and high ruins of the Anasazi, "the ancient ones", horses roaming through the canyon, flocks of sheep, an old woman working a handloom with the comb and shuttle made by her father and polished to a gleam by work and time. We learned of healing practices like the sweat lodge purification. We learned that the Talking God moves the sun through the skies daily. We learned something of harmony and balance. At our feet lay innumerable shards of Anasazi pots and arrowheads that demanded to be touched, then to be returned to the earth.

Our high point was the ascent of Yeibecheii path, a steep ascent on the face of the rock. We were aided by Anasazi footholds enlarged by the conservation corps in the 30's , with handholds added. But it was the group spirit and the careful preparation offered by John and our guides which pulled us upward. Preparations allowed a respectful place for fear, and invited words to steady our nerves and feet. This amazingly enabled even several individuals afraid of heights to reach their goal. Fear turned to laughter. What exhilaration! The basic trick? Confidence in one step at a time. Try it!

Each day included time for writing and sharing. We wrote about our companions, the wind and rock, about time and timelessness, about endurance and the moment. The experience was a series of "nows" we were sad to see ended. But we all felt changed forever by this experience of deep beauty.

Ken Gorelick is a psychiatrist and poetry therapist who lives in Washington, D.C.

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