Every journey begins with that first step. In this case it’s the beginning of a climb down from the Shonto Plateau into the Tsegi Canyon system. Located in the Navajo National Monument, it is surrounded by the Navajo Nation. Just west of Kayenta Arizona, these canyons contain many dwellings. The largest are Keet Seel (Kitsʼiil) or Broken Pottery , Betatakin (Bitátʼahkin) or Ledge House, and Inscription House (Tsʼah Biiʼ Kin). Betatakin is viewable by taking a short hike on a paved trail from the Visitor Center. Inscription House is currently closed to visitors.
To visit and tour the Keet Seel ruins you need a permit. It is a 17 mile round trip that drops into the canyon. Part of which is a 1000 foot decent down stone, wood retained stairs and sand. This steepest portion is 0.8 of a mile. At 2.5 miles in you arrive at the bottom and begin to follow the white marker poles as well as cross the stream many times. The exact track is perpetually changing due to the flash floods each monsoon season. Your hike can be canceled due to large thunder heads building to the north of the canyons.
With our packs heavy with water and camera gear, we set out at dawn. Three guys filled with anticipation of climbing up and being in the ruins. Few go there due to the remote location and difficulty in hiking in. This is especially true if you plan to camp overnight at Keet Seel as we did. It wasn’t long into the hike when we began wondering if we had bit off more than we had planned on. Other than the first 2.5 miles down, it is a hike up the canyon and a rise of only 300 feet in 6 miles and walking in soft sand, quicksand during creek crossings, slipping on algae covered stream beds and dealing with the sun and heat. Water becomes more valuable than gold. As advised, we stashed water on the way in, which lightened the packs considerably as we ventured further into the canyon. Day hikers brave the round trip with lighter packs but still drop off water along the way.
We left before 8am as required but did not arrive in the campground until after 3pm. Hurriedly we dashed over to the ranger station to check in before the deadline of 4pm. Sore, exhausted and wanting to sleep, our guide took us on a short hike up to the ledge where up to 150 people lived from approximately 1272 A.D. to 1306 A.D. Suddenly abandoned, no one is quite sure why they left. A draught? A spiritual quest? Corn cobs still litter the site as do pottery shards. Food was stored in sealed up rooms as if they intended to return. They never did. But nature preserved this place in a way that is astonishing.
The only way in is a set of ladders strung together to climb up to the ledge. Those that lived there used only hand and foot holds cut into the sandstone. You can see some of these as you climb. Willing my legs to keep working, I arrived at our destination. Finally here, exhausted and wondering how I was going to find the strength to hike out in the morning, I simply sat down on a rock and gazed at the site. All three of us were pushing our limits of endurance. The heat and the terrain had taken it’s toll. But wonder still set in as we took out our cameras to record our brief time at this amazing place. Tripods are not allowed in the ruins area. I moved my ISO up to 400 to help the shutter speed while shooting hand held.
Our young guide told us the story of Keet Seel, making it real as we were inches from walls built by hand with sticks, rock, and mud. There had been an attempt to rebuild some of the site where walls had come down. This work was shoddy compared to the original builders. There was a care taken and even a pride built into the structures. Wooden roofs could catch fire and the home would be lost. The family had to move out of the village most of the time if this happened. A motivation to keep that from happening! In this arid land and compact housing I imagine rules like this helped to prevent a disaster from befalling all.
Ceremonial Kivas, food storage rooms, family dwellings, all as small as an average bathroom in a modern home, make up the site. Ceiling heights are only five feet on average except for the Kiva. Black marks the walls where fires burned to keep them warm in winter or for cooking.
The corn they grew is small, only slightly larger than the size of a finger on a large hand. The small cobs are still lying around the site after 700 years! They also grew beans and cucurbits (gourds). They also hunted. Many lived up and down these canyon walls. Smaller structures are hidden away from us, only the Navajo visit them. People still live in Tsegi Canyon. Cattle and horses run loose everywhere. Gates keep the areas that are part of the National Monument protected from them. But most of the land that you hike through belongs to the Navajo Nation. Your job is to transit the miles each way between 8am and 4pm. The rules are simple: leave things alone; respect the land and the people; and take out yourself, your trash, and your gear.
Looking into every place we could while taking images to last a lifetime, it was finally time to climb back down the ladders and head to camp. The time was too short. We said goodbye and shook hands with our guide. He only lives down there for 5 days at at time as the guides rotate in. He hikes in and out like the rest of us do. But his legs are more spry than mine. At 63, a fifty + pound pack is no easy thing anymore, especially in these conditions.
Camp never looked so good. Resting and eating until dark we pulled out our camera gear again and shot the dark skies. The Milky Way is so brilliant there. There are no light domes from cities in our shots. Truly dark skies. Our wonder keeping us awake and being the only ones in the camp, we had full run of the place until the wee hours.
Soon it was morning. I awoke at 3:30am. Cold and needing to eat I started my day. Brian was up next at 4am followed by Patrick at 5:30. Packs full and water shoes on, we looked at each other with that “you know we have to do this” look and began the trek out at 7am. This allowed us to hike in shade and cool temperatures for many hours. We struck up a pace and hardly stopped for four miles. We tried not to waste steps, cutting as straight a line as possible down the canyon. Follow the cattle and horses they said. They know where to go and not get in the quicksand. Before 11am we arrived at the base of the climb out. The place where water had been stashed. After some food and energy drinks we dug in for the climb, full sun on our backs and a sandy trail to start with. Part way up we gathered the other water that was stashed. A breeze came up allowing us to air cool from the sweat. As we crested the top and made our way to the car we put our hands in the air in as good as a Rocky Balboa stance as we could and started to chant the song.
Sore, once again tired and weak, we had made it. Checking in with the Visitor Center, so they knew we where back and safe, we smiled and shook hands with the Navajo gentleman at the desk. He smiled back in a knowing look. This is his land.
We have, as a nation, taken on the roll of preserving so many sites and places for posterity. Some of which are contained in the vast Navajo Nation. I travel and visit many of them with my fellow photography buddies. We not only experience them, we document them for others. Many will never make this trip nor have the ability to do so. But through our eyes and images we can share them, bring to light their important place in history and for the future nation we call the United States of America. We must protect them from harm, from dissolution. What is lost, is lost forever.
The dust is now washed off, the gear put back in it’s place. The memory of the pain and exhaustion will fade and we will talk about the adventure we had. I asked our guide how many folks ever visit this remote place. He said maybe up to 3000 people per year. That is what makes this so special. For those that can, they should. For those who can’t, my only hope is that you can see the beauty and history through my lens and words written here. There will come a time when I can no longer visit these remote places. I will have the memories and the photos to turn to, and the stories to tell to those who will listen.
Larry Pollock is a professional product photographer with a passion for black and white images of the American Southwest.
Gear: Canon 5D MIII, 24-105mm f/4 L, Really Right Stuff 24L Tripod and B55 Ball head.
You can find images for print at Fine Art America