The I-40 interstate crosses the center of Arizona, skirting the Navajo Reservation that fills the northeastern corner of the state. The narrow strip of land to either side can be extraordinarily beautiful, with double rainbows reaching across the desert plain and fiery dawns blazing along the horizon, Flagstaff makes a base for several interesting excursions - to ancient Native American sites and the New Age mecca of Sedona , but above all to the Grand Canyon.
Although five million people come to see the Grand Canyon every year, it remains beyond the grasp of the human imagination. No photograph, no set of statistics, can prepare you for such vastness. At more than one mile deep, it's an inconceivable abyss; varying between four and eighteen miles wide, it's an endless expanse of bewildering shapes and colors, glaring desert brightness and impenetrable shadow, stark promontories and soaring, never-to-be-climbed sandstone pinnacles. The overlooks along the rim all offer views that shift and change unceasingly from dawn to sunset; you can hike down into the depths on foot or by mule, hover above in a helicopter or raft through the whitewater rapids of the river itself; you can spend a night at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor, or swim in the waterfalls of the idyllic Havasupai Reservation . And yet that distance always remains - the Grand Canyon stands apart.
Until the 1920s, the average visitor would stay for two or three weeks. These days it's more like two or three hours - of which forty minutes are spent actually looking at the canyon. The vast majority come to the South Rim - it's much easier to get to, there are far more facilities (mainly at Grand Canyon Village ), and it's open all year round. There is another lodge and campground at the North Rim , which by virtue of its isolation can be a lot more evocative, but at one thousand feet higher it is usually closed by snow from mid-October until May. Few people visit both rims; to get from one to the other demands either a two-day hike down one side of the canyon and up the other, or a 215-mile drive by road.
The deserts of northeastern Arizona, popularly known as INDIAN COUNTRY , hold some of the most fascinating pre-Columbian ruins in North America, in the most striking settings imaginable. The cliff palaces of Canyon de Chelly , and Betatakin and Keet Seel in the Navajo National Monument, are among the greatest architectural achievements of the Ancestral Puebloans , made that much more special by the fact that the lands on which they stand are still lived on and worked by their heirs, the Hopi and Navajo.
The NAVAJO NATION , the largest Native American reservation in the US, fills most of the region, lapping over into western New Mexico and stretching to include the majestic sandstone pillars of Monument Valley in southernmost Utah. Although the migrant Navajo have embraced the American Way - driving pickup trucks and wearing baseball caps - you get a very real sense of traveling through a foreign country here. Everyone can speak English, but Navajo, a language so complex that it was used as a secret military code during World War II, is still the lingua franca. Supermarkets mark their prices in Navajo, and the reservation follows its own rules over Daylight Savings; in frontier-style towns like Tuba City, the time on the clock can vary according to whether you're in an American or a Navajo district. Tune into the Navajo Nation radio station , KTNN 740AM, for a sense of the Navajo-American melange.
When white immigrants began to arrive in force during the early nineteenth century, the Navajo - who call themselves Dineh , "The People" - had lived in Arizona for hundreds of years; within a generation, they lost almost everything. When the Yankees took over from the Mexicans, things just got worse, hitting bottom in 1864 when Kit Carson rounded up every Navajo he could find and forced them all to move to Fort Sumner in the desolate plain of eastern New Mexico. A few years later, the Navajo were allowed to return, the US government granting them most of the vast acreage they hold today (lawsuits arising from territorial disputes with the Hopi , their neighbors and predecessors, have dragged on ever since). Most of the 250,000-plus Navajo today work the land as shepherds and farmers on widely scattered smallholdings, though many craftspeople also live by selling their wares from small stands set up along highways and in tourist stops.
Visiting this region can be fascinating and rewarding, but it's important to respect the people and places you encounter. The Ancestral Puebloans, the region's first occupants, have long since vanished, but many of the relics they left behind are on land that is still of spiritual significance to their modern counterparts - Native Americans come here from all over the Southwest and beyond to take pride in their heritage. Similarly, it is offensive to photograph or otherwise intrude upon people's lives without permission; one reason why the Hopi, for example, banned photography was because it was such an interfering nuisance.
On a practical note, don't expect extensive tourist facilities . Most towns exist solely as bureaucratic outposts that only come alive during the annual tribal fairs and rodeos. For more information, call the Navajo Nation Tourism Office on 928/871-6436.
Most of Arizona's compelling natural attractions are in its northern reaches, but the southern half of the state holds ninety percent of its people, all its significant cities and several important historic sites. Apart from a couple of Spanish missions, the bulk of what there is to see is frontier Americana, especially in Tombstone , in the southeast corner. Phoenix , the state capital, is huge, and sprawling. Tucson makes a better base for visiting this part of the world and for trips south of the border into Mexico.