White House Ruins

Something to Write Home About

Originally published June 2006

After living in Arizona for thirty-four years, I finally got around to visiting Canyon de Chelly. I can't believe I've waited so long to go there. With stained walls, fascinating rock formations, and a wealth of Anasazi ruins, I won't wait that long before I return.

It was actually a last minute trip. The Queen had minor surgery on her neck to remove a lump so she had a couple of weeks off planned for recovery and catch up with her books and movies. They made her wear a bandage that looked like a falsie on her ear. She looked Princess Leia with a missing bun. I have a snapshot of her wearing it but I was told that if I published it, my obituary would soon follow. By the end of the first week; she was ready to get out of the house and on Friday, I was free so we hopped in the truck and headed north.

I have studied Ansel Adams' canyon pictures and my friend Alain Briot has a nice portfolio on his web site (you can get there through my Links page) so I knew I had two specific subjects I wanted to capture; White House Ruins and Spider Rock. Both are canyon icons. Imagine my chagrin when I began shooting Friday evening and discovered I only brought six sheets of film.

The overlook for Spider Rock is along the south rim drive and is an easy place to get to. There are several locations along the trail to get various perspectives of the formation. White House is a different story. From the rim, it’s in a small cave in the far canyon wall. Unless you have a long telephoto lens, you won’t get a very good shot. Luckily, there is a trail that leads down the 600-foot cliff and across the stream to the ruin site. It's the only place in the canyon you can hike without a guide. Standing at the cliff's edge, I made up my mind to get up early and hike down and out before the heat of day.

At six the next morning, I woke, got dressed and gathered my equipment. As I made my way to the door, I heard Anne say from under the covers, "Be sure to take a room key."


"So when they search your dead body, they'll know to come to the motel to get the rest of your stuff," she answered.

I was pleased to find I was the first to arrive at the trailhead and started my descent. The trail is only a mile and one half each way and although it looks like a smooth crushed granite path, parts of it are carved out of the cliff face. I wouldn't recommend it to those challenged by heights. As I looked back, I wondered if I was insane for doing this. I forced myself onward. At the trail's top and bottom are tunnels carved through the sandstone. At the exit of the lower tunnel, the trail crossed the dry sandy river meandering along the canyon floor.

I spent an hour alone at the ruins examining them and checking out various angles. I was disappointed to see all of the graffiti on the walls even though some of it was dated in the 1700's. I was packing to leave when the first couple arrived and we exchanged greetings as we crossed paths.

I had two bottles of water in my sack and a couple of Rice Krispie Treats in my shorts pocket for energy. As I headed up the trail, I pulled the first bottle out of my pack. Water in hand, I entered the lower tunnel.

I didn't notice on the way down that although the tunnel was only a dozen yards long, the path dropped a good twenty feet inside of it. Now, the long climb out of the canyon faced me. Every so often, there was a bench along the trail where geezers like me could sit and let the pounding in my ears subside. It was at the first bench that I caught my breath and ate my first Krispies bar. I could see people making their way down the trail in pairs. As the first couple passed they started the conversation du jour.

"Did you get some good photos?"

"I hope so."

"Sure hope lugging all that heavy equipment was worth it."

That's how the next hour went. From bench to bench, I finished the first bottle then started on the second all the time greeting happy people skipping down the trail in sandals or flip-flops. "Did you get some good photos?" Yea, yea! Let me suffer in peace. These weren't even young people. These were retired people who had nothing better to do than to torment me. You'd think they'd be more sensitive.

Finally, I managed to drag myself through the upper tunnel and climbed a small set of stairs onto the canyon's edge. My vest, soaked in sweat, looked as though I had been swimming in it. Proud of my accomplishment, I turned and walked toward the parking lot to find the first tour bus of the day had arrived. Women wearing sundresses and men wearing shorts with black socks and shoes all making their way down the path toward me. As I passed through the crowd, a woman stopped and asked, "Are there toilets at the bottom?"

There was one, but even I wouldn't use it.

"Yes, for what they're worth," I responded.

"Good. We're writing a guidebook; Toilets Across America. It would be a shame to make the trip down there without something interesting to write about."