GOING BY THE BOOK
I usually travel by the seat of my pants, getting to airports minutes before take off, landing in foreign countries without currency or hotel reservations. It usually works out pretty well, and I like the open-road nature of my travels. But this time I decided I'd take friend Jeff Slade's advice and go by the book.
Or several books, that is ...
Slade, one of the owners and guides of Detours of Arizona's "off the beaten path" tours sent me an entire list of books I should read before going to Arizona for the Detours Tony Hillerman Country tour. It's not that I needed to be a Hillerman expert, or even know anything about Hillerman's page-turning mysteries before the trip--for with or without reading Hillerman, this promised to be a great ride. However, Slade knew if I read Hillerman's books, it would whet my appetite for the adventure that lay ahead. Soon I would be trekking through the canyon lands and Navajo country of northern Arizona and eastern New Mexico.
Of course, as is my nature, at the last minute I picked up five Hillerman books at the library just one day before my trip, and I began to read. The tour would be a whirlwind five-day introduction to the places and people Hillerman loves and writes about in his novels.
Through the books, I became acquainted with characters Jim Chee, Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Bernadette Manuelito. I learned a bit about Navajo culture, tribal police business and places as mysterious and haunting as their names: Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Zuni Pueblo and more.
Of course I only finished three books before the trip began, but I kept on reading, for Hillerman's style is captivating, like the rugged country I would see on this trip. So I flew to Phoenix to begin my next adventure. I would soon find that "going by the book" might just be the only way to go.
The Phoenician in Scottsdale
... and the Royal Palms Resort and Spa both offer exceptional experiences in resort lodging. So I began my Hillerman adventure by flying into Phoenix and staying at The Phoenician, a four-star resort hotel in the shadow of Camelback Mountain (which I'm told is a great place to hike). First I had lunch at the nearby Royal Palms Resort, one of my favorite hotels to visit, (not to be confused with another fabulous hotel, the Tempe Mission Palms Resort, that I also recommend) and then I spent the afternoon wandering in Old Scottsdale's downtown area and having ice cream at the delightful Sugar Bowl soda fountain. I then returned to the Phoenician Resort where I had a luxurious spa treatment before dinner, which enjoyed at the Phoenician's own Windows on the Green, a world-class restaurant overlooking the golf course.
This wasn't part of the trip, but it was a place to lie by the pool and read the books before I left. I don't know if Tony Hillerman starts off his Four Corners adventures this way, but I'd highly recommend it.
The next morning the fine folks from Detours picked me up at my hotel, and we headed up Carefree Highway in a clean, roomy van with separate captain chairs for comfort and privacy. The luggage followed us in a trailer, and our guide began to tell us what was ahead for us on our amazing Hillerman Country tour of Arizona and New Mexico.
Our first stop was in Sedona. With its breathtaking views of red rock canyons and the town's fabulous shops and spas, we could have stayed there for a week. But we wanted to see the Grand Canyon in just the right light, so we moved on.
Because Hillerman's novel SKELETON MAN was set at the Grand Canyon, that was our first official Hillerman-tour destination. However, when we caught our first glance of the canyon, the DETOURS guide wanted to make sure we saw it the same way the SKELETON MAN had seen it--from the air!
Our van stopped at the Maverick Air Star Helicopter's heliport, and our group prepared for one of the most thrilling moments in our lives. We would take a helicopter over the edge of the Grand Canyon and dip down to see the wonders below. In the novel, an airplane crashed into the side of a canyon wall there, and a man who was carrying diamonds in a jewel case that was handcuffed to his wrist fell to his death leaving only his dismembered skeletal arm behind. I only hoped life wouldn't imitate art ...
That night we stayed at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. My favorite place there is the old log-cabin-like lodge called EL Tovar, but there is affordable lodging all over the park, and of course Detours handles all the arrangements for you on this trip, so you know you'll have a great place to stay. El Tovar is a pleasant place to have a drink and sit on the porch to hear the Grand Canyon Railway train whistle blow. Sunset at the Canyon is stunning--so peaceful and quiet that the whole world seems far away.
The next morning, we spent more time exploring the Canyon trails before heading to the Old Trading Post in Cameron, Arizona, where we broke Navajo bread with a very special guest ... a real life counterpart to a character that appears in The Wailing Wind. James Peshlakai is a silversmith and a traditional Navajo who even spent some time as a Navajo Tribal Police officer, just like the main character in Hillerman's books. Peshlakai is a personal friend of Hillerman, and so he shares stories with us about his friendship with the author and about the land and people they both love. He tells us about the Navajo culture and way of life, and he kindly autographs the WAILING WIND (a Hillerman favorite) which mention his name as a main character. (In the book, he's a Navajo Shaman). After a lunch of Navajo tacos in Cameron, Peshlakai welcomes us to his home nearby, on the reservation, where his wife crafts beautiful handmade Navajo jewelry.
Soon we were on our way through the spectacular northeastern corner of Arizona through Navajo lands, rocky canyons and stunning skies. Although we stop and visit other sites that Hillerman mentions in his books, I was eager to get to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which is pronounced Canyon d' Shay by locals. (I've been pronouncing it Chelly, rhymes with jelly, and I feel like a fool).
There we spend the night in Chinle, Arizona, about a mile from the entrance to the canyon. In the morning we take a rough-riding jeep tour of Canyon de Chelly where cave dwellings still sit proudly in the sun. A Navajo guide points out the stunning pictographs (or pictograms), still apparent on the canyon walls, of ancient peoples who called Canyon de Chelly their home. A Navajo community still makes their home there. As the Canyon de Chelly Web site explains, the park "is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land that remains home to the canyon community." It is perhaps the most beautiful, remote place I've been in years. Walking along the deep canyon floor and looking high at the cliffs, I feel as though I live there and those houses are my own.
Canyon de Chelly is where an old unsolved murder took place in the book The Fallen Man.
We travel on into New Mexico after our unforgettable time in Canyon de Chelly. We visit other villages and communities on reservations, many of which are settings for scenes in Hillerman novels, and we visit museums and shops where Native American artists sell their jewelry, rugs and Kachina dolls. And then we are on our way. One of our favorite stops is at theToadlena Trading where there is a rug museum in the back of the store..
As the Detours Web site describes it, "On our way to Chaco Culture National Historic Park, commonly known as Chaco Canyon, we pass Nageezi and Blanco, trading posts featured in Hillerman's A Thief of Time. Chaco Canyon was a place of commerce, a spiritual-religious center, temporary living quarters and perhaps a gathering place for early astronomers. A real treasure of the Southwest, Chaco Canyon contains one of the largest excavated pre historic ruins in North America. Chaco Culture features towering, six-story structures and kivas from an era long past. This mystic place is visited in A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns."
"After leaving Chaco Canyon we journey to Crown Point, a location often mentioned in Hillerman's books. Next we drive past Standing Rock, from People Of Darkness and Sacred Clowns and through Coyote Canyon," Detours explains. We also pass by the abandoned Air Force hangers that are mentioned in The Wailing Wind.
Before we get there, though, we have to stop on the side of the road just to take in the spectacular beauty of a grove of Aspen trees in yellow-gold splendor. It is so lovely I feel tears come to my eyes. And then, between the tall, white trunks I catch a ghostly glimpse of Shiprock mountain, the setting for a pivotal scene in Hillerman's FALLEN MAN.
Shiprock becomes not only an important part of our Hillerman novel, it became a fascinating point in our trip, for when we got to Gallup, we were thrilled to be invited to the office of the mayor of the city, Robert Rosebrough, who tells us the fascinating story of how he found his way into Hillerman's book as a rock climbing expert that is dropped from a helicopter onto the top of Shiprock in FALLEN MAN, and how he got Hillerman interested in writing about Shiprock in the first place. We're amazed by the story and thrilled when Rosenbrough agrees to autograph our books. But before we met the Mayor, we checked into a fabulous, old-fashioned, Historic Route 66 landmark, the El Rancho Hotel. Howdy Doody would be at home here--and apparantly all the old Hollywood movie stars were, too. I expected the rooms to have covered wagon kiddie lamps, but they didn't--though I did see some in the gift shop! It was like going back in time to my childhood cross-country trips to California with my family. I loved this hotel, though the rooms are quite plain, providing only the basics--a bed, a desk, a tiny bath. I think Hillerman would like this place (heck, he probably stays there all the time!)
The trip continued the next day, and we journeyed on to Zuni, a pueblo that was the setting for scenes in Hillerman's Dance Hall of the Dead.There, in an ancient mission, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, built in 1629, which is now called the Old Zuni Mission, colorful life-sized paintings of Zuni Kachina and Shalako by Zuni artists Alex and Ken Seowtewa line the church. We can't take photographs inside the old church, but the images are burned in my brain. Luckily, they're also shown on the Web site where I found this photo: www.hanksville.org/voyage/images/shalako.jpg
There is a great deal more that our group saw and did on this trip, but my telling you about it is no substitute for your going there. If you're a Hillerman fan--and even if you're not, and you'd just like to see the beautiful Four Corners region and the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi lands of Arizona and New Mexico--call my fine friends at Detours of Arizona. This company really goes by the book with Hillerman and gets off the beaten path to show you everything else. I've rarely seens such knowledge, kindness and graciousness among people in this business as I've seen in the family-friendly folks at Detours. On our trip we had women in their 70s and people much younger, and I wish I had brought my little son along, for he would have enjoyed it too.
Reading brings whole new worlds to life, and travel brings books to life, too. I hope you'll take the time to read some of Hillerman's work, for he so beautifully captures the spirit of the people and the places I saw in the specatcular Four Corners region.
And for even more information about what else there is to do and see in Arizona, call the Arizona Communications Group in Tempe, who can tell you all about the fabulous towns of Williams, Flagstaff, and Page--just to name a few. Or go to my Grand Canyon page on this Web site for more information about just how much Arizona Rocks!