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Know the West

Craig Childs walks with desert ghosts on the Navajo Nation


The dogs are getting closer, barking through junipers about a half-mile away. We douse our small can stove, scoop the rest of breakfast into our mouths, and within two minutes are gone.

The day before, we were dropped off on a dirt two-track where we hopped a gate and smuggled ourselves into the wilderness atop this humpback mesa, 10 days of gear on our backs. We don't want to encounter men, women, dogs, trails, anything. Just raw earth and nowhere.

The man with me calls himself a ghost walker. Not to be confused, he insists, with skinwalkers, Navajo witches. Rather, he walks making as few tracks as possible. Sometimes barefoot, sometimes wearing sandals made out of yucca strips, he's hiked hundreds of miles through the Southwest, hiding out at edges of towns. His real name is Colin. A tall man with broad shoulders, and his thrift-store clothing never fits quite right. He's nearing the end of his 20s, wears a greasy hat and a big knife on his hip. Intimidating if you don't know his palms sweat when he meets girls.

We had set out to cross the Navajo Reservation over a swath of canyon-riddled mesas in far northern Arizona. It's off-limits, but a young Navajo man smoking weed out of a Coke can in the front of his truck had told us you can walk anywhere across those mesas -- as long as nobody sees you.

We quickly leave the dogs behind, taking the first exit up a steep ravine. Hand over hand, we rise a few hundred feet along the side of a rimrock mesa, ice pocketed between tipped and tenuous boulders. From the edge, the high desert spreads as far as we can see, the town of Kayenta glimmering in the distance like broken glass. We don't break the horizon for long, slipping quickly into bedrock canyons beyond. Ghost-walking. Colin grins. I grin, too. Disappearing is our favorite pastime.

At a crux descent -- rock walls steepened into a cliff and a crack -- we find fat juniper-posts notched into the rock as a staircase; it looks as if it has not been used for centuries, each step splintered, too fragile to hold our weight. We climb around, wondering at the early Navajo who built it, perhaps in the days of first Spanish arrival, back when this was a different land, no pavement, no United States of America. It's not the first human sign that we've found, nor the last.

Farther inside the web of canyons, crumbled cliff dwellings appear -- ancient villages that predate any archaeological record of the Navajo. The ruins are wedged into rock-fractures and perched on ledges, dark-windowed towers like castle turrets over our heads. They are of Pueblo origin. Navajo call those who built them Anasazi -- Other. When the Navajo arrived here sometime around the 16th century, they were nomads traveling from the north. They would have found an embattled, post-abandonment landscape where the Pueblo world had just gone through one of its legendary meltdowns. The landscape had been swept by drought and conflict -- caves full of corpses, withered human heads in cliff-dwelling doorways and windows, human bones stirred in cooking pots and cast aside. No wonder the people who live here talk about skinwalkers. I've heard stories of witches and corpse-diggers. A Mormon who lived in this area once told me coyotes walking around on two legs came banging on his door. He shot one; a Navajo woman was found dead the next day.

We pull off our boots and move barefoot below the ruins, negotiating scads of old snow, splintered ceiling-wood and brightly colored potsherds. Partly we walk this way for the benefit of future visitors, lightening the weight of our step so it will still appear as if nobody has visited these sites in a very long time, a nod to the language and spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Mostly, though, we move barefoot so as not to stir the ghosts.

I pause at a half-buried bone, perhaps human. It has rolled down with everything else from a collapsing structure. I almost touch it, but do not. My heart beats quicker than it should. Traditional Navajos say, Don't do it; around here, death will leap right into your soul.

A fresh snow falls overnight. Canyons turn white and silent. That's when we start noticing tracks. They're everywhere: boot prints of two, three, maybe four men. We never actually see them. They are either just ahead of us, or just behind, their trail picked up as we backtrack or as we drop to a canyon floor.

This is where the classic American notion of wilderness collides with the reality of a landscape. The Wilderness Act defines areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." But how real has that kind of place ever been? I convince myself the tracks must belong to hunters, probably out with rifles looking for mule deer. At one point we find their boot prints side-by-side in the snow where they each gazed in the same direction: the route Colin and I had just come down. They know we are here.

We change the way we move, try to make ourselves invisible, traveling away from animal trails through a busted topography of fallen cliffs and deeper canyons. In the evening, I walk by myself along a canyon made of soaring rock and massive columns of fir. It is last light, and the forest looks pointillist, nothing solid enough to seem real. I reach a water hole, punch through the ice, fill my bottles. Loping back to camp with fresh supplies, shadows grow thick and I move faster. Everything has eyes. Was this in the Wilderness Act, too?

In the morning, Colin and I decide to switch course again, getting away from the tracks by jumping to a different network of canyons. He scouts a clean route -- fresh snow and not a single track to be seen. We can drop into this canyon and eventually angle our way to the nearest highway, thumb our way out.

I smile and thank him, feel weight lifting off me. But the moment we shoulder our packs, successive pops of an automatic weapon ring out around us. The gunfire comes from the canyon ahead, the place Colin just came from. Eight or ten shots; it is not someone out for deer. Not even knowing if we have been spotted, we sprint back the way we came, throwing ourselves down chimneys of rock where the people before the Navajo once carved handholds. We monkey our way to the bottom, arriving in time to set camp among yet more tracks -- this time from a mountain lion. They're fresh, paced back and forth, hungry. I sleep that night with my knife blade unfolded and locked in my sleeping bag, unsure whether it's for the lion or for whatever I feel haunting these canyons. Can you slash through a ghost?

It might be simple paranoia. Maybe nobody actually knows we are here, just a coincidence of footsteps and gunfire. There might not be such things as ghosts and coyotes who walk on two legs. Still, I feel stared at, naked.

The next day, we try another exit down a new canyon in a dawn blizzard. The mesa widens, empties our canyon out into a broad and blustery sky. Sheep bells jangle around the bend ahead of us. Hauling big winter packs, bearded and crazy-looking, we prepare for our first face-to-face, rehearsing words that we hope will garner forgiveness for our trespass. But there's not even a dog to lift its ears at us. Only sheep, and they do not seem to notice our passage, as if we were transparent.

A hogan appears through the snow ahead, smoke flying sideways out its stovepipe. A red, threadbare blanket flaps on a line outside. Don't come to the window, I think. There is nothing out here but the wind.

We walk single file, our eyes straight ahead, and the hogan passes. Champagne-snow billows across the ground, taking the entire landscape in and out of view. Colin and I appear, disappear. By the time we reach the highway, we have crashed through creek ice, and mud is spattered to our waists. We put out our thumbs and watch Anglos race past, none willing to give us more than a shocked glance.

Finally, a wobbly red pickup pulls over. A family sits up front, an older Navajo man at the wheel, plump, round smile on his face. He looks like he has a little Hopi in his blood, true Native all around. We hop in the back, newcomers with hands folded into our armpits. We wanted to learn this place, and now we know there is wilderness deeper than the one imagined by Muir and Thoreau with their rucksacks and crusts of bread.

The truck starts up and asphalt rolls away, yellow line flashing past. Our tracks are obliterated, the line cut. We are all ghosts around here, the canyons holding a memory of our passage, adding us to centuries of people who came to either settle or disappear. I put my head down against stinging flurries of snow as this country of red mesas floats away.

Craig Childs writes from Crawford, Colorado.