Soaring Autumn Skies


Finally the a.m. fog has retreated, the afternoon howlers have subsided and we’re into the gracious skies of fall. If ever there was a time to travel by air or take to the hills this is it. My excuse was a friend in need of a get-away. We decided on the ‘4 Corners’ region to learn about Ancient Puebloan culture and current tribal lives.

Our flight east bound to Moab, UT was flawless. Not entirely ‘cavu’; we had the early afternoon buildups to work through as we moved into the mountains of Utah. Not that you get cavalier about these mountain peak denizens. The turbulence wasn’t too bad under the smaller cells; nothing was flying around the cabin. The bigger, darker beasts we stayed clear of by winding our way through their palisades. There should always be a mental fall back, a safe port, when crossing the cumulus lines. The closest airports with nearby facilities are always on my list of alternates.

Once clear of the summits it’s downhill and clear air into Moab airport. The scenery is awesome and inspiring to our coastal minds. Massive ‘reefs’ of sandstone, caught up in compression and upwelling million of years ago, now stand sentinel along the San Rafael Swell. Their jagged mass have been cut by eroding water ways, creating slot canyons only recognized from the air. What a treat to be given the chance to see the fast forward of geologic time.

Moab is bordered by 13,000’ peaks to the south, the mesas of Canyonland National Park, the meandering flow of the Colorado and Green Rivers and the delicate bridges of Arches National Park. All of these vistas are surrounding you on approach to land. That’s a lot of gawking while you are trying to land the plane. Folks at Canyonlands Airport are wonderful. While taxing in I get the “Nice to see you back Cindy” over the radio.

By the next morning Catherine and I had picked up our emerald green jeep ‘Ozzie’. We were off to Mesa Verde National Park where Anasazzi cultures lived in alcoves high up on cliff walls. The docent led tours take you down stairs and ladders to get into the cliff palaces and balconies to learn how and why the people lived here. The general consensus is that they disappeared from the cliff faces 700 years ago. Yet you still see Hopi, Zuni and Navajo tribal people living in Arizona and New Mexico.

The Puebloan communities moved to land easier to farm and survive. Why they had to move is the question no one has the answer to. There are numerous tours to take all day long. You sign up at the visitor center and drive out along a ‘table top’ to get to the trails down the cliffs. Scrub oaks, cottonwoods and native brush were all beginning their journey into fall foliage. When there’s less sun light to stimulate chlorophyll production the secret colors of the leaves emerge. Each day a page turns into a deeper, fuller spectrum of autumn colors.

After an afternoon of tramping up and down the ladders of the cliff dwellings we headed southwest to the town of Chinle, AZ. To get there you pass into tribal lands where federal and state laws are suspended for the native nations. The rock monument formations are so stunning you have to stop and gaze. Other times your soul cringes from all the liquor bottles and litter thrown out along the roadways. The best emotional position to take is just to accept without the intrusion of your values.

Chinle,AZ is the center of Navajo people. The National Monument of Canyon de Chelly is just to the east of town. A Holiday Inn is right outside the park and a great place to stay. Most guides meet you here in the morning for your tours. To get into the park you must have a Native guide. Many of these people grew up in the canyons and were sent away to schools outside the reservation. This epoch of their lives was a sad time. There was the effort to exorcise their Indian culture from them. Now schools are local and their heritage is revered.

Our guide was Sally Tsosie; a Navajo woman, who was born in the north canyon of Canyon de Chelly. Because water levels have dropped so low they no longer allow families to live up canyon. One has to bring in their own water to camp out for short periods. Horses, sheep and goats still graze the canyon floor as they have for centuries.

Back in the 1800s the U.S. Calvary tried to remove all native people from the canyons. I suppose the army thought of them as ‘terrorists’. Many people were massacred but much of the canyon community survived by secret steps, ‘Moki’ steps, carved into the vertical walls to escape. The Ancients have left petroglyphs and pictographs all along the walls. Silent talismans to a people long gone make you wonder what the message was. Sally used a mirror to high light the carvings way up on the stone that we would not have seen with a quick glance.

Early on we had let Sally know that we wanted to do some hiking not just spend the day in a jeep. We got permission to enter a local’s land to hike up his canyon and see some of the rock art. The only ‘open’ area of the canyon is the floor of the main channel.

You need special permission to explore the side canyons. Horses grazing up canyon came trotting to us thinking we had treats for them. The alcoves of petro and picto graphs were dense with many generations of design. Like modern day graffiti, peoples would carve or draw on top of other’s creations. Sally had heard a rumor that there might be a trail climbing out of the canyon in this area. We kept hiking deeper into the narrowing walls of rock and finally picked up a faint track that led up. The vertical wall seemed impossible at first to climb. Yet carved at regular intervals with corresponding hand holds were the ‘moki’ steps we had heard about earlier. At times ancient trees had been felled and chiseled with foot steps to climb to higher ledges. The vertical ascent was a good thousand feet of picking our way up cracks, steps and transparent trails. What an engineering feat! Getting down was equally challenging because it was harder to see down the vertical wall as compared to climbing up. Returning to the car the three of us were bonded to an amazing experience. What a rare treat this has been.

Our journey the following 4 days took us east and north to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. There is a reason why artists, for the last 100 years, have flocked to this region to work and live. There is a quality of light, a uniqueness of culture and a beauty of being you will find no where else. Consequently the towns are full of galleries and museums show-casing some of the greatest American art ever produced. In Taos we stayed at the El Pueblo Lodge; a wonderful motel two blocks from the plaza with shady, relaxing grounds and generous hospitality.

Taos and Santa Fe both have airports and car rentals for easier access by air. It’s just that being on ‘the road’, seeing and sensing the land and people, gets one closer to the knowledge of what their culture means. West and north bound we entered into the southern limits of the Rocky Mountains with fall in full throttle. These are the scenic roads deemed by calendar and travel posters as the places to explore. Cowboys, with their working dogs, were moving cattle down from the high pastures of summer to more secure winter lands. Fishing folks cast their lines in graceful arcs, into the waters of the Rio Grande, San Juan, Animas and tributaries. Pine trees, redolent with that rich scent of the last heat of the year, were releasing cones to impatient ground creatures. A time of harvest, a time to prepare was pervasive.

Back in Moab we enjoyed 2 big days of hiking and climbing. Ancient rock art is everywhere in these lands. The Ancients have left us a history difficult to decipher. As Sally taught us; “Use your imagination”. Our flight home early Monday morning wove through some local virga before stepping out into the clear skies of Nevada and CA. The hues of autumn have deepened in brilliance and volume. The north slopes of mountain ranges blaze in neon glory.

Unfortunately, after crossing the Sierra crest, we noticed some wild fires popping up. I got on the radio with Flight Watch and gave them the radials and distance to a local VOR. They then put out a call to Cal Fire to summon the spotter planes. This is one of the many services general aviation can share. Your eyes are often the first to pick up forest fires.

Home again to O69 to my familiar runway, warm hugs and friends. What a gift this life is! Great friends, great fun, great flying.

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