“Campfire smoke rising up the canyon walls, stars overhead, and a full belly, what more could you want?” our Navajo guide asked us on our family horseback trip in Arizona.
I glanced at my two daughters, huddled close to the blazing fire, and nodded. Maybe it was the aspirin I had taken to soothe my screaming muscles, or the endorphins surging through my veins from hours of bumping and lurching in the saddle, or perhaps I was completely content to be with my daughters in the Arizona wilderness. There were no phones, no electricity, and no paved roads where we were camped deep in Mystery Canyon on the Navajo Tribal Lands.
Nearby, the horses shuffled and munched their oats under a Juniper tree. Silent and mysterious Anasazi ruins loomed on the high ledges above and the fire cast eerie shadows on the red rock canyon walls.
While we sat around the glowing campfire, satiated from a traditional trail feast of streaks, salad and baked potatoes, Gunnar, Evelyn’s son, and our guide, created a drum from a plastic bucket and wrapped tissue paper around the end of a stick. He drummed and sang traditional Navajo songs about honor, eagles, war, and romance. My nine and twelve-year-old daughters were mesmerized by his melodious, haunting voice. I watched their glowing faces in the dancing fire light as the music seeped into my soul. The spontaneous concert and awesome grandeur of the ancient canyon enveloped us under a black velvet sky laden with brilliant stars.
Evelyn, a former bank manager, now runs a Navajo Trading Post outside Monument Valley and has the only female-owned trail riding company in the area. She’s an organized, competent and big- hearted businesswoman and a forty-six-year old grandma. “Mom’s one of those people who is happiest in the saddle,” her son Gunner told us.
I discovered Evelyn’s tour company online and signed us up for two days of horseback riding and camping in Mystery Valley, adjacent to Monument Valley.
Each day during a four-hour trail ride, Evelyn told us about growing up in a traditional Navajo Hogan; a circular domed structure made of mud and logs. On her second birthday her mother balanced her in the saddle, told her to hold on while they herded sheep from the high mesa to the lowland pastures.
Annalyse trotted on a magnificent quarter horse, Hoskinini, named after the last prominent Navajo chief, who defied the troops of Kit Carson. JC galloped full speed across the dusty meadows, then turned around and galloped back to us. I sauntered along the trail, taking time to breathe in the sagebrush-scented air. Puffy white clouds were streaked with pink; the reflected color from the crimson rocks.
Our leisurely pace gave us time to absorb the spectacular landscapes and to imagine what it was like to be an Indian on horseback tracking antelope through these canyons.
We stopped often to examine elaborate geometric petroglyphs juxtaposed with detailed hunting scenes near the ruins of the prehistoric Anasazi Indians who lived in this area for 1,000 years until they mysteriously disappeared about 1300 A.D. Our favorite pueblo ruin was “House of Many Hands” –so named because the cliff walls were covered with tiny hand prints.
Although I enjoy adventure travel, I worried about the rigors of horseback riding all day with nine and twelve-old-year old girls and camping every night. My concerns were unfounded. They loved the riding and exploring and we slept well thanks to thick double sleeping bags and cots.
Family vacations don’t get much better than this. Everyone got something they wanted. JC, “the teen” had adrenaline rushes and earned “bragging rights” for galloping full speed across the plains. Annalyse was thrilled to discover fossilized dinosaur tracks and prong-horned antelope petroglyphs etched into the canyon walls by the Ansazi. And I was thrilled to spend quality time with my girls to ride horses, explore the great outdoors and learn about the Navajo.
The lasting legacy of the journey was our personal relationship with Evelyn and her son. Now the Navajo people, history and stories are real to us. And we experienced the West the way it has been explored for centuries: on horseback and sleeping under the stars.