In Page, Arizona the Navajo people have something special for you
Combine water and barley with yeast, add some hops and you have that miracle, beer. Leave out the hops but add a still and you have another miracle, whiskey. Now take water once again but combine it with sand and add gravity, and you have a miracle of quite a different kind but no less wonder, namely Antelope Canyon.
I was on a tour of the western US with Great American Touring which I was sort-of leading for our Australian readers. In fact, though, “Skip” Schippers was the man with the know-how and he did the leading far better than I could have. For one thing, Skip knows the best breakfast places in the entire contiguous United States, or so it seemed. But there was one place that I wanted to see, and it wasn’t on Skip’s usual schedule.
He didn’t hesitate when I mentioned taking a look at Antelope Canyon. Page, Arizona wasn’t far off our route and that’s where you start when you want to see the canyon. Private visits are not allowed; you need to take a tour organized by the local LeChee Navajo people. We rolled into Page early one day and got set for the experience.
An experience it is, too, especially when you are going to see the Upper Antelope Canyon, called Tsé bighánílíní by the Navajo, which means ‘the place where water runs through rocks’. Can’t accuse them of gilding the lily: the place where water runs through rocks is exactly what it is. Ah, but it’s the way the water has run through the rocks that makes all the difference.
Lower Antelope Canyon, called Hasdestwazi or ‘spiral rock arches’, is also accessible to tours. It’s considerably longer than its upper sibling, but it’s also somewhat strenuous with numerous sets of stairs. Possibly not the best bet in summer and in motorcycle clothing.
Both are slot canyons formed by erosion of Navajo Sandstone, mainly due to flash flooding but also to other processes including frost and wind. Rainwater runs into the basin above the canyons, picking up speed and sand as it rushes through the narrow passageways. Over time the course of these flows has been eroded away, making it deeper and smoothing rock edges to form the organic shapes of the rock.
Sound a bit geological? Believe me, combined with the glowing colours of the rock it translates into almost transcendental beauty.
The visit to the Upper Canyon begins with a dance presentation about the significance of the canyon and the whole area to the Navajo people. Unlike a lot of these tourist set-pieces, this is a genuinely powerful and impressive performance. When you climb aboard the small four-wheel drive bus that takes you out to the canyon, you’re ready for something special.
It’s just as well that you’re not allowed to ride your bike to the entrance of the Upper Canyon. The way is along a dry river valley floored by deep sand. A dirt bike would be fine, but a Harley or BMW tourer would be stuck before you got halfway there. With me aboard, anyway.
At the entrance to the canyon itself, you meet your Navajo guide who explains the formations and gives you an idea of their spiritual aspect. He also helps with photography which is great because differences in light levels in here make it hard to get shots that do justice to your surroundings. I presume he also makes sure nobody scrapes their initials into the walls or leaves other graffiti.
Walking along the sandy floor of the canyon is a little what a psychedelic trip must be like (err, not that I’d know) with rock shapes twisting and turning like spectacularly coloured smoke columns around you. The photos show the shapes, but they can’t do justice to the power of the brilliant reds, oranges, yellows and other colours. All too soon you reach the end of the slot part of the canyon, but this is where the guide will tell you more of the significance the place has to the local people. Ours accompanied himself on a local flute, which made the whole thing even more unearthly.
Some people will tell you that the canyon is overcrowded, but in my experience the groups of visitors were separated well enough so that we didn’t encounter anyone else until we turned around to retrace our steps. There certainly wasn’t anything like a steady flow of people through the canyon.
Apparently the most spectacular sight in the Upper Antelope Canyon is the powerful beams of sunlight that spear down around noon. We weren’t there at the right time, but as far as I’m concerned that’s just a reason for a return visit to Page, Arizona. I hope I’ve inspired you to call by there yourself.