Hiking Canyon X
Navajo Indian Reservation near Page AZ
by Stephen Ausherman
As my friends and I follow our strange guide down into a 150-foot fissure on the Navajo Reservation, questions swarm my mind: “Is there a flash flood in the forecast?” “How can we trust our lives to a tattooed hippie with a German accent?” And, “What killed that porcupine?”
All I know is, I have to explore this mysterious slot dubbed Canyon X.
Something about the narrow depths of slots offers a kind of intimacy with nature that often gets lost in grander canyons. Lately, more and more travelers seem to appreciate this fact as they flock to popular draws like Buckskin, the longest slot canyon, and Antelope, the most photographed.
Innumerable slot canyons cut through the northern Arizona desert, but gaining access poses its challenges. For one, entries are often too steep for hikers without ropes and gear. Another, many slots slice through Navajo land. Exploring the terrain here requires permission, which can be difficult to obtain.
Such was the case for a particularly stunning slot on Navajo land. Harley Klemme, whose aunt owned the grazing rights, wanted to share its splendor with visitors, but feared too many would spoil the experience. He compromised by offering exclusive access to small groups.
He then hired a professional photographer Jackson Bridges as a guide, and together (so the story goes) they christened it Canyon X.
As news of the new slot leaked out, aficionados arrived from around the world, including one Charly Moore, a well-inked, longhaired native of Wiesbaden.
“One day, I helped out. Before I knew it, it became a weekly thing,” he recalls in an accent reminiscent of Oktoberfest. “And now it’s a daily thing.”
Our day starts with a 15-mile drive from Page, much of it on rugged dirt roads.
“Any of these roads you take, you’ll probably encounter another little slot somewhere,” Charly says over the groaning engine of what he calls his covered wagon. It’s actually a Chevy Suburban that has seen better days, but it gets the job done.
Shallow scars in the surrounding landscape hint at deeper chasms to come and floods that have passed. One ditch contains an auto fender and a bicycle frame, each a relic of the 50s or 60s that arrived here just recently in a torrential rainfall.
Still, the potential depth and power of a flash flood in a slot canyon doesn’t sink in until we hike down to the canyon floor. Just before ducking into a sandstone alcove, Charly points out a railroad tie lodged in the rocks ten feet above our heads and says it, too, arrived recently. I now have a better idea of what a little rain can do.
What I’m not so clear on is what we would do in the event of a flood. As we continue down the canyon, the walls soar ever higher, some up to 300 or 400 feet, by Charly’s best estimate. I wander away from the group and soon feel shut off from the world, deeply isolated. It’s a strangely relaxing sensation, far more peaceful than the scrum in the Antelope, where photographers arrive by the busloads and jockey for shots within a crevasse that often narrows to a hawk’s wingspan.
“I felt like I was at Disneyland,” Charly said of the lines there. “Like I was waiting for a ride.”
With its trademark lighting – that beam of sunshine that appears on so many calendars, postcards, and screensavers – the Antelope is arguably the more photogenic slot. Canyon X, however, is technically an upper segment of the same canyon. And with a maximum of nine visitors per day, it is more private, more pristine. Wildflowers thrive in the unforgiving sand and stone. Mormon tea sprouts up like bamboo forests in miniature. The confetti of scarlet and canary blossoms has me scouring my Audubon field book for proper names, but I’m soon distracted by a hawk perched on a chimney rock.
Bobcats and coyotes are known to wander down here. Porcupines, too, but the one we spotted was, for some unknown reason, dead.
“We see rattlesnakes once in a while, and we have to get rid of them,” Charly says. “We try not to kill them.”
Charly has long been an outdoor enthusiast, an avid hiker and backpacker. It shows in his weathered skin, the bits that aren’t tattooed. His experience is reassuring and his knowledge of the area runs deep.
He’s spent a lot of time down here. I know by the way he identifies faces in the walls as though they were friends. He points to a bulging rock and tells me it’s a lion. I don’t see it at first. Then, slowly, it takes shape before my eyes. Eyes, nose, whiskers—the full MGM logo.
That is what’s so amazing about this canyon. It’s solid rock, but it seems fluid. It morphs. Colors shift like traffic lights, but their hues are difficult to identify. I could list a palate of similar shades – baby aspirin, brick, orange sorbet, guava, salmon, ahi tuna – but none quite matches. I think it has something to do with scale. Colors this robust rarely appear elsewhere in such broad strokes.
The shapes in the canyon are equally evasive of accurate description, despite the best efforts from the writers in our group. We start with the finer details: “contoured” and “wavy.” Then we attempt to describe the larger geological features: “gothic” towers and “corniced” ledges. We somehow manage to exhaust our architectural vocabulary without succumbing to the “cathedral” cliché.
In crevices that resemble Georgia O’Keefe paintings, “womb-like” seems both apt and polite, though clunky. In the winding confusion, we pit “serpentine” against “labyrinthine,” and then retire the adjective debate on “intestinal.” In a Zen kind of way, Canyon X is at once all and none of these things.
Despite his familiarity with the canyon, even Charly struggles to articulate certain qualities: “A flash flood in a slot canyon sounds like—” he pauses. Maybe he can’t find the words in English. Maybe there’s no way to describe it. “—like something you do not want to hear in a slot canyon.”
For some who marched these deep trenches further along the Antelope, it was the last thing they ever heard. On August 12, 1997, rain from a thunderstorm 15 miles away spilled into the wash, sloshed along its sinuous walls, and caught 11 hikers and their inexperienced guide by surprise. Only the guide survived.
Ferocious as they are, floods are what sculpt basic drainage conduits into curvaceous masterpieces. In Arizona, beauty is often a lure to danger. It’s true. Just look at the markings on a diamondback rattlesnake. They’re gorgeous.
As for the porcupine, I still have no idea what killed that.
There are hotels and motels in Page with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list. (Click here for rates, availability and reservations online.)
Camping & RV Parks
There are many commercial and National Park Service locations for camping and RVs in and near Page.
BIO: Stephen Ausherman is the author of Restless Tribes, an award-winning collection of travel stories. Visit his site at www.restlesstribes.com. For more complete biographical information, please see: www.restlesstribes.com/pic.
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