Canyon de Chelly

Photo by François Bereaud


François Bereaud

We were too late. I stood in the parking lot in the middle of nowhere, seven teenagers around me, with no idea of what to do. We would come back tomorrow as we were camping nearby tonight, but, at 2 pm, we had at least seven hours to kill before anyone could reasonably go to sleep. Then from behind me, a quiet voice. “You guys missed the canyon?” Obviously. I composed a sarcastic remark as I turned. I saw an older Navajo man, wrinkled face, work shirt, jeans. I swallowed my words and nodded. “I’ll take you to my canyon,” he said.

I was in my third year of leading an exchange program between my students in central New York and Navajo students from Tuba City, Arizona. Midway through our week’s visit, with our hosts in school, we’d decided to go to Canyon de Chelly, a National Monument site with well-preserved cliff dwellings, a dream of mine to visit. The chore of rousting teenagers followed by a four-hour drive had put us behind schedule and we arrived at the canyon just in time to find out the park service was admitting no more visitors for the day. Then this man with “his canyon.”

“Your canyon?” I was sure I’d misheard him. He introduced himself as Johnson Johns. His family had lived in this area for generations and their canyon was just across the road. It also held cliff dwellings, and for $50 he’d give us a personal tour. He pointed at a jeep. $50? That wasn’t an insignificant amount of money. The trip was paid for by local businesses back home as a donation to a group of high school kids who’d each committed to completing 100 hours of service work during the school year. Every dollar counted and I wondered how much I had in my wallet. $40, I discovered as I huddled the kids to discuss the offer. Someone had the remaining $10. We decided to go.

For an old man, he moved spryly to his vehicle and I hustled the kids into our van, a tad worried he might disappear with our money. We drove a few miles down the road, turned onto a dirt road, and parked. It looked like most of Arizona, beautiful but desolate. We got out and started walking. The canyon was wide, sandstone rocks, pale dirt, and scrubby plants were all familiar to me. Johns had a quiet voice and soon the teenagers moved ahead of us. I gave him a questioning look. “It’s fine,” he said, “let them run.”

He told me that his people had lived in this canyon undisturbed for generations. Then the white man came. Unexpectedly, he smiled. “You know John Wayne?” he said. Of course I did, though I don’t think I’d ever seen one of his movies. “He used to film movies right here.” I must have looked surprised. “I was in some of them. They’d hire us Indians. You know cowboys and Indians.” I thought about how I’d had cowboy and Indians dolls as a kid, plastic figures that rode horses and held guns. I’d fight them and thought myself progressive for having the Indians always win. “It was always the same story,” he said. “We were the bad guys and John Wayne would come in on his horse and rescue the woman, always a blond. I saw Rita Hayworth one time, she was a dish.” He smiled broadly. “They’d give us fake guns, didn’t trust us with the real things. Then one time they asked us to talk Indian, say something about the great White Father. We were all gathered around John Wayne and one of us starts talking. ‘The white man is clumsy and stupid.’ We all started chanting it. The director loved it.” Johns started laughing, the forty-year-old memory bringing tears to his eyes. I laughed with him.

I looked up and saw the teenagers stopped up ahead. The canyon had narrowed and they were staring at the rock face of one of the sides. We approached and I saw the dwelling, maybe twenty feet up. Hundreds of years ago, people had made their home in that cliff. It took my breath away. “Go on, climb up there if you can,” Johns said. My students looked at me. They were aware that across the street, climbing into the dwellings would be both illegal and disrespectful, if not sacrilegious, yet here was a man telling us to do so. “Go on,” Johns said. I gave the kids a nod, after all it was his canyon.

All of us made the climb. It was tricky and we were fortunate to have little more than scratched knees, a fall could have meant a sprained ankle or worse. Standing in the dwelling and looking into to the canyon was magic. I imagined the peoples of centuries ago living here, having figured out water, food, and shelter in this sparse landscape. I wondered if they needed protection from the elements or other humans. I didn’t want to leave, but a part of me also felt we shouldn’t stay too long. I motioned to the teenagers and we made our way down. I thanked Johns, he gave me a tired smile and we walked back. The group was tighter and the kids asked him questions. I half listened, lost in historical reverie. We said goodbye and he encouraged me to come back and handed me a worn business card that said Johnson Johns, Navajo Tour Guide. I took the card, thanked him, and said I hoped to return.

After a fun camping night, we visited Canyon de Chelly. It was vastly bigger than Johns’ canyon with towering red rock walls and many better-preserved dwellings which we could only view from the ground. I watched the ravens soar overhead and spent the afternoon thinking about the peoples who had made this place their home. Later I was to write this poem about the experience.

Canyon de Chelly

I sit on a rock peering into the immensity of the canyon.

Its beauty is overwhelming, tears well in my eyes.

I wonder about the canyon’s inhabitants of 800 years ago.

How their souls must have been stirred by the canyon as mine is now?

                     What did they look like?

                     How did they live?

I think about their connection and how I have come to share this place with them.


The canyon is still yet dynamic.

A bird’s cry then a cow’s moo echo for miles through its imposing walls.

I close my eyes and listen to the wind.

Its power and relentlessness recall the ocean.

I let the tide flow over me, call me.

A part of me yearns to answer.

Jump! Join the wind.

Hope to become one of the ancestors.


Questions of death bring questions of life.

         How do I explain my existence in this magnificent place?

                     Do I have a role? A significance?

                                 What force has brought me here? From where the canyon?

I fall into a trance — the canyon’s serenity envelops me though no answers come.


I am interrupted by a far off shout.

Phouphet yelling for rescue from Gregor.

I am jarred into an understanding.

I am here to be with those I love, family and friends alike.

The canyon must wait.


Before I answer her call, I take a last long gaze below.

Darkness has arrived and the canyon walls have become indistinguishable from its interior.

Only a silver ribbon of river lies below, cutting gently through the churning ocean.

I shall leave the canyon for now,

but not without drawing some if its strength

and perhaps,

leaving some of my own spirit to blow in the ancestral winds.

Desert Rose

John’s Canyon

Climbing John’s Canyon

Author at Canyon de Chelly, 1998

Author at John’s Canyon

Thanksgiving week, 2021

After more than twenty years away, I returned to Canyon de Chelly with my family and some friends. Before I left, I contacted a Navajo friend who lived on the reservation not far from the site. I knew that the Navajo Nation had been hit extremely hard by COVID and wondered if it was okay to go. “If they’re open, go, they need the money bad,” he said. We booked our stay at the Navajo-owned Thunderbird Lodge (highly recommend), and reserved a guided horse ride and jeep tour — to get close to some of the historic sites, a native guide is mandatory. Our time there was fantastic. It was as inspiring as I remembered and our guide talked to the kids about spending part of her childhood in the canyon, climbing out every day to go to school. We had fry bread and hominy stew for Thanksgiving dinner. I stared at the red rock and cliff dwellings, soaking it in once again.

I also thought about Johnson Johns. I had a crazy hope to see him in the area, but he would’ve been well into his nineties so I knew that was unlikely. I hope the rest of his life found him smiling as he told the John Wayne story.

I spent two hours with him and smile at the memory. The good fortune that brought us together feels as vast as his beloved landscape. 

Canyon de Chelley, 2021

Photos by François Bereaud

François Beraud writes, sometimes publishes, edits, and supports writers. San Diego Stories comes out in September. More at 

X: @FBereaud