It was from the base of Prayer Rock that Lynn Krause set out last September, leading ten people on a Sierra Club outing to the wildlands of the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona. The monument Lynn chose to mark the start of our week-long trek was so impressive that I wondered if everything else along our route might pale by comparison. I needn’t have worried: Each day some equally remarkable arch, cave, butte, mesa, or canyon materialized to astonish us. Clearly Lynn had laid out the excursion in part for dramatic effect. As Sierra Club trip leaders generally do, she had painstakingly scouted the territory we were to traverse, mapping a hiking route that would both challenge and dazzle us.
I had singled out Lynn’s trek from among more than 350 outdoor adventures described in last year’s Outings Catalog (included, as always, in the January/February issue of Sierra), seduced by her promise of exploring mountains that “soar above blue deserts and fiery-red Windgate sandstone.” I had never thought of any desert as blue, but later, standing on a cliff in Broken Flute Valley and gazing out at silver-blue sagebrush crowding up to the edges of arroyos cut deep into the earth, I saw what Lynn meant.
I was lured also by the prospect of following “ancient Anasazi routes and Navajo sheep trails.” Though no archaeologist, I was curious about Anasazi culture, and welcomed a chance to see their now-crumbling cliff dwellings, faded pictographs and petroglyphs, and scattered postsherds. The idea of resorting to sheep trails struck me as odd at first, given the Sierra Club’s aversion to livestock-trampled land. But I knew that Navajo culture is bound up with the raising of sheep–the tribe has fought and bitterly lost battles with the U.S. government over grazing rights–and I found the thought of the trails somehow inviting. If on the one hand our group would be stepping in sheep dung and rambling through overgrazed pastures (as turned out to be the case, with virtually every tuft of grass on the range chewed to the roots), on the other we would be following paths bespeaking tumultuous years of Navajo history.
Perhaps the clincher for me, though, was the promise that a Navajo guide would accompany us. Charles Howe of Cove, Arizona, knows the land well; he had twice before worked with Lynn in guiding Sierra Club trips around his remote corner of the reservation. His presence among us was not arbitrary: The Navajo Nation requires trekkers on its land to be accompanied by a member of the tribe. This proved to be not a restriction but a benefit, since Charles gladly related his people’s beliefs to us and, at the end of the trip, built a sweat lodge in which we cleaned ourselves of six days’ dust and any lingering worldly cares.
Our “Highlight” trip–a small-scale version of the now-defunct Sierra Club High Trip–enjoyed the services of still another key player. Peggy Taylor of Flagstaff was our packer, negotiating her four-wheel-drive vehicle over precarious jeep roads in order to meet us each night with our commissary, personal gear, and water supply. She oversaw most camp functions, and enabled us to hike sunup to sundown with the lightest possible load: just daypacks holding three quarts each of water and the day’s lunch fixings.
I can’t say whether the participants on this outing–a thoroughly engaging and capable group of women and men –were exactly the sort who routinely sing up for Sierra Club trips. I’d venture to guess, though, that we were typical in one respect: We possessed widely varying degrees of interest in the Club’s conservation efforts. Some of us were ardent wilderness advocates, signers of petitions, and writers of letters to Congress, while others claimed no particular fondness for environmental activism at all, their sole interest in the Club being its outings program. How this group of total strangers was able to spend a week together without getting on each other’s nerves is hard to say, but I suspect it’s not uncommon on Club outings. On our trip, I think it had to do with the respect we gained for each other as we pushed ourselves to the limit, hiking together through the caprices of weather and the uncertainties of terrain, seldom complaining.
I also believe our group harmony had much to do with our humble attitude in the face of that immense landscape. For all of our conversation on the trail and around evening campfires, the most profound voices any of us heard were inner ones, those that speak loudest in the wilderness.
A Sierra Club trip to Navajo Reservation in Arizona is described. The trek explored the landscape along Navajo sheep routes and ancient Anasazi routes and was accompanied by a Navajo guide.