Tag Archives: road trip

Southwest Road Trip: On The Floor of Canyon de Chelly

We have hopscotched through four states — New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado since October 1, 2023. We left Canyon de Chelly (pronounced SHAY) and Chinle, Arizona, yesterday morning and are back in Gallup, NM, before going on to Chaco Canyon, NM, where we will see the annular solar eclipse on October 14 as it passes over us there. This location promises to give us the maximum view!

Mostly, for the last week, we have been in Navajo country, a vast area of 16 million acres that spans New Mexico and Arizona. Diné is the native language and this is what the people prefer to be called. I was compelled to do this road trip after reading the epic tale of conquest of the American West, Blood and Thunder by historian Hampton Sides.

He eloquently tells the story of the Diné people and their expulsion from their sacred homeland, Canyon de Chelly, by Kit Carson and the U.S. Cavalry in 1964. They employed a scorched earth policy by burning corn and wheat fields, killing churro sheep, and starving them out. They cut down 5,000 mature peach trees on the valley floor. The Diné forced Long Walk to desolate Fort Sumner in southeast New Mexico along the Pecos River near the Texas border, resulted in hundreds of deaths. It is told and retold today, a painful part of history.

In a sense, this trip has been about learning more deeply about Native Americans by visiting them on their ancestral lands, in their pueblos, appreciating their connection to the spiritual, and the beautiful weavings, pottery, baskets, and jewelry that they create. We have eaten Navajo tacos (fry bread topped with chile con carne, onions, tomatoes, and cheese, and attended the Northern Navajo Fair in Shiprock.

Most importantly, we spent a full day on the floor of Canyon de Chelly with a Diné guide exploring the cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans and retracing the footsteps of great grandmothers and grandfathers who were forcibly expelled and then interned at Fort Sumner from 1864 to 1868.

Yes, Diné people still inhabit the canyon floor where they farm, tend apple orchards, raise horses and cattle. They are the descendants of the survivors. On the canyon rims, too, there are ranches and farms where Diné gave lived for generations.

What is remarkable here are the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, much more numerous than at Mesa Verde. We made the trip through Canyon de Chelly in a Jeep, across gullies and washes, through shifting sand, wind, over rocks and between old growth trees. I sat in the back seat and figured after this ride, I could easily ride a horse in Michoacan.

Our destination was the impressive Mummy Cave and White House. We saw some amazing petroglyphs, also created between 350 and 1300 AD. The Diné painted glyphs of Spanish conquistadores that came through in the 16th century using charcoal.

From the South Rim road, we saw Spider Rock, the birthplace of the Navajo Nation. From the canyon floor, we saw where the Diné climbed the narrow crevice to get to the top of Fortress Rock to escape, and hide from, the U.S. Cavalry.

The only way to explore the ancient archeological sites, caves, and petroglyphs is by going on a tour with a Diné guide. It was expensive, but it was well worth the experience. We both agreed that this was a highlight of our trip so far.

Southwest Road Trip: Monument Valley Monsters

According to Navajo legend, the red sandstone buttes of Monument Valley that stand 1,000 feet above the desert floor, trap long-defeated monsters that are part of the Navajo creation story. Monument Valley is a Navajo Tribal Park and almost everything here is Native owned and operated. We are here for three nights, spending the first night at Gouldings in Utah, and the second night at The View Hotel, just across the border in Arizona. On Wednesday, October 4, we took a 4 p.m. to dusk tour with Chris, our Navajo guide from The Three Sisters Navajo Guided Tours. The tour was spectacular and Chris gave us both a cultural and personal history of the region, making it extra special.

We are in an ancient sea bed of red sand rich in iron ore, outcroppings of juniper trees, grasses, sage, and yellow-blooming chamisa. Once, millions of years ago, the mesa was at the top of these monster spires, which give the landscape a other-worldly appearance. We could be on the surface of an unknown planet. If you want to read more about the geology, click here.

Anthropologists generally agree that the Navajo came to North America some 6,000 years ago from north Asia, moving from Canada south into the American southwest and Monument Valley about 500 years ago. To read about the Navajo creation story, click here.

Our tour, on a dirt and sandy trail, took us into the far reaches of the valley, where erosion, wind, shifts in the earth, create phantasmagorical sculptures on the 7,000+ foot high desert floor that is part of the Colorado Plateau. In the distance, we can see Bears’ Ears, the latest national monument to be created by the Obama administration. Chris tells us that under the 45th President, there was a move to sell off the lands to private mining interests that was then reversed by Joe Biden. Still, the region is in peril of mining development because of strong lobbying interests.

Monument Valley is an icon of the America west. In the 1930’s, Henry Goulding, who had established a trading post here in the 1920’s, needed a source of income during the Great Depression. He went to Hollywood and convinced director John Ford to film Stagecoach starring John Wayne in his breakthrough role. The film was released in 1939. Goulding constructed lodge rooms and dining facilities to host film crew and actors. The rest is tourism history!

On this trip we have heard a multitude of languages here: Italian, German, Dutch, Russian, Slavic languages, Korean, Japanese, Dine (a southern Athabaskan language) spoken by the Navajo or Dine people, Spanish, and English. Tourists are here from all over the world!

If you want to know more about the history of the Dine people, please read the epic book Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides, about the conquering of the American west and the key characters who waged war and appropriated the land, including Kit Carson.

We made a stop to visit a rug weaver who raises Churro sheep on the reservation, cards and spins the wool, and who was born in a hogan (pronounced Ho-Wahn) next to where she conducted her demonstration. She tells us that winters have changed — there may be one foot of snow when in recent years there was six feet or more during the winter. Now, it is just windy and bitterly cold from December through early March.

Our guide Kris Chee, age 41, has only returned to Monument Valley, the original home of his family, a year ago. He had a yearning to return to his roots after working outside, telling us that there is little employment here other than tourism. His dad, who was in the US Army, was stationed in Fayetteville, North Carolina, for many years, and that is where he grew up. He returned here to finish high school and left again. Now, he drives a big Toyota Tacoma 8-cylinder truck that hauls a trailer to hold passengers intent on seeing the valley, explaining the lore as we make various stops to see buttes, climb sandhills, and oggle at ancient petroglyphs carved in rocks by Anasazi predecessors.

On our way back to the Visitor’s Center, we made a stop at Navajo Code Talkers point. The spot honors the young men who created an unbreakable code for communication during WWII based on the Dine language. This is an important part of our collective history to recognize the contributions of Native American culture.

Kris is intent on understanding and practicing native rituals and beliefs as he embraces traditional Navajo life. These are based on how to live in harmony with nature and other people. Something we can all learn to do better!

Tomorrow, Friday morning, we leave for Mesa Verde. To be continued!

San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca: Mezcal on the Mountain

We didn’t start out planning a trip to San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca. It just happened as we moved into the day. Friend Sheri Brautigam, textile designer, collector and Living Textiles of Mexico blogger, is visiting me. After a roundabout through the Teotitlan del Valle morning market, we headed out to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit master flying shuttle loom weaver Arturo Hernandez.

San Juan del Rio_2-2

Don Arturo creates fine ikat wool shawls and scarves colored with natural dyes, including cochineal, indigo, wild marigold and zapote negro (wild black persimmon).  Sheri knew him from the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market where he exhibited in summer 2014.  I’ve known him for years through my friend Eric Chavez Santiago, education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. So, of course, we couldn’t help ourselves and new rebozos made it into our collections.

San Juan del Rio_2-11

It was only eleven in the morning. I asked Don Arturo if he knew the village of San Juan del Rio, where some of Oaxaca’s finest mezcal is produced and sold under private label. He said, Yes, it’s only about forty-five minutes from here.

San Juan del Rio_2-13

I looked at Sheri, she looked at me. We said, Let’s go. I invited Don Arturo to come with us and he said Yes, once more. A native Zapotec speaker, we were lucky to have him with us. He helped find our way!

About Mezcal: The agave piña or pineapple is dug up out of the ground at maturity (seven to twelves years of field growth) and taken to the distillery, where it is roasted over a wood fired, rock-lined pit.  That’s what gives it a smokey flavor. It’s then crushed to yield the liquid that becomes mezcal. Good mezcal goes through two distillations.

San Juan del Rio_2-23 San Juan del Rio_2-37

Years ago, Sheri  worked with a seamstress embroiderer Alma Teresa who lives in San Juan del Rio. Sheri designs gorgeous quechquemitls and Teresa crochets the pieces together. To reconnect with her was another reason to go.  Notice Teresa’s blouse and jacket, with the elaborate crochet trim. Seems like some of the most fun days in Oaxaca start with no particular plan.

San Juan del Rio_2-36

We headed out toward Hierve del Agua but made a left turn onto a winding road that soon became unpaved dirt, rough from recent rains. It took a good hour plus to get there from Mitla.  The road ends at the picturesque village, tucked away in a river valley. Houses are built on hillsides.  Other hillsides are terraced with mezcal palenques and maize crops. The stills are at river level.  They use the water to cool the distillation process. This is not yet a tourist destination.

San Juan del Rio_2-5 San Juan del Rio_2-30

This village is known for small production, artesenal mezcal. I was on a hunt for reposado. What I found was an extraordinary reposado at a third the price of what I usually pay in Oaxaca city, plus a wild agave (silvestre) mezcal called Tepeztate from a mezcalero who is akin to a winemaker. He produces mezcal that he sells to some of the top hand-crafted brands.

San Juan del Rio_2-35 San Juan del Rio_2-32 San Juan del Rio_2-9

Sheri got a taste of just distilled mezcal, warm and just out of the still. At eighty-percent alcohol her engine was roaring after just a sip.  I inhaled and almost fell over. Don Arturo joined us. Being the designated driver, I had to be more careful. The whole thing reminded me of North Carolina moonshine, but the resulting product here is so much more refined it’s not even comparable.

San Juan del Rio_2-17 San Juan del Rio_2-20 San Juan del Rio_2-16

There are now so many varieties of mezcal, depending on the type of agave used and whether the mezcal is aged and for how long. Añejo can be aged as long as twelve years in oak which takes on characteristics of the wood. Wild agave has a distinctive herbal flavor and aroma. You need to taste to see which you prefer.

San Juan del Rio_2-3 San Juan del Rio_2-26

This is a full day trip. We could have stayed longer and visited more mezcaleros. But I think we came home with some of the best produced in the village at a fraction of the retail price. If you go, bring your own liter size glass bottles with tight lids. Some bring gallon jugs to fill up. Plan to leave Oaxaca by nine in the morning. You’ll return around seven at night. Don’t go in the rainy season! You will slide all over the road!

San Juan del Rio_2-29 San Juan del Rio_2-8 San Juan del Rio_2-14

Who to visit?

  1. Redondo de San Juan del Rio, Rodolfo Juan Juarez, mezcalero. Tel. (951) 546 5260. Reposado and Tepeztate
  2. Perla del Rio Mezcal, Ignacio Juan Antonio, mezcalero, Tel. (951) 546 5056. Espadin joven.
  3. Alma Teresa’s clothing cooperative, a block from the church. She is sending two daughters to university in Oaxaca. Her husband went to the U.S. to work years ago and never came back.



San Juan del Rio_2-40 San Juan del Rio_2

You can buy a road map of Oaxaca state at the Proveedora, corner Reforma and Independencia, in the Centro Historico. Comes in handy for exploring and having an aventura, like we did.

Coming Up: Oaxaca Portrait Photography Workshop, Starts Jan. 30, 2015

Just Passing Through: Onward to Oaxaca, Day Two

photo 2

Day Two on Interstate 20 took me through the rest of Alabama, across Mississippi and midway through Louisiana.  LaTuga is running great and I’m getting to know her better.  The manual says the Honda Element is a high-profile vehicle, not to drive her fast or make sudden moves. So, I didn’t. Slow and steady wins the race, I keep telling myself.

My intention was to spend the night in Vicksburg, MS, on the Mother America Mississippi River, wide, magnificent.  Mark Twain’s river, paddle boats then steam boats.  One of the greatest and prolonged Civil War battles happened at Vicksburg. It was worth a stop.  And, when I did, the restaurants were closed and there was this dead-end, shut down, trying to make a comeback as a cute tourist chatchkah kinda’ town that didn’t quite make it.  The views were magnificent.  I honored the dead on both sides, imagined the force of battle, the strategic location on the bluff protected by still evident forts, and how the war turned against the Confederacy once it lost Vicksburg.  Controlling the mightiest river in America meant controlling food, munitions, life itself.

Once I crossed the Mississippi, I was immediately plunged into Louisiana’s flatlands and bayous.  The rain came.  It was getting dark at three-thirty in the afternoon, and by four-thirty I was ready to get off the road.  Where?  In West Monroe, LA, where the Quality Inn welcomed me.  This is not a high-end road trip, Judith Reitman!

Oh, boy, I though.  Louisiana bayou country.  Fish. Cajun. Jambalaya. Etouffee.  Dinner. I asked the woman behind the front desk, Where is a good local place to eat?  Why, jess dawn dah rode, she answered.

Repeat  from Day One:  at Willie’s Duck Diner where fatigue green and all-terrain vehicles populate the TV screen along with some scrufty looking millionaires, and diners whose bodies are testimony to overindulgence of hush puppies, corn bread, and jambalaya, there was no beer or wine.  Sorry ma’am, said the waitress, we don’t serve alcohol here, and no hot tea.  OK.  Hot water and lemon please.

Can’t wait to get to Austin.  I know from Eva Olson and Norm Chafetz that I can get a good glass of Malbec or Pinot Noir!

LaTuga Packed: To Oaxaca Day One

Yesterday LaTuga and I  covered 497 miles, from Pittsboro, NC to Pell City, AL.  It’s the first time we have been in Alabama, USA, which is covered in pine forests, rolling hills, lakes and rivers — just beautiful.  Stephen gave us a send-off by doing an iPhone video of the event.


My plan was to leave at eight in the morning and spend the night in Atlanta, six hours away.  After goodbyes, last-minute loading, gassing up and hitting the road, it was nine-fifteen. (Thanks, Stephen, for finding me enough gas to get to the gas station.) So be it.  What’s the rush? I ask myself.  This is a road trip and I can do what I want.  I’m on my own schedule.

LaTugaRoadTrip1-2 LaTugaRoadTrip1-3

Maybe I was too tired from the Monday night before with the grand finale mezcal and southern buttermilk fried chicken and apple pie with homemade ice cream goodbye dinner at The Small Cafe with dear friends.



Maybe, I was procrastinating the departure, not wanting to say goodbye to KitKat, the new addition to my NC house and life.

I think I was just a little bit scared and anxious about starting out across the country by car into territory where I had never been before.  A single woman, traveling alone. I’ve traveled far by plane, but not by myself in an automobile for any great distance.  As I drove along, I saw many women at wheel going long distances.    My only disappointment?  The audible.com book I bought to listen to along the way could not be heard above the road noise.

LaTuga is a formidable vehicle.  She is not really a car, nor is she a truck, but she sits high and proud.  I’m a little person inside her ample body and I feel secure.  Once I got onto the Interstate the rhythm of the drive was soothing.  It was only three-thirty in the afternoon by the time I got through the beginnings of Atlanta rush hour traffic.  The road signs said two hundred more miles to Birmingham along I-20.


So, I kept going until dusk  As soon as I crossed the border into Alabama, I entered Central Standard Time, and gained an hour, although the sun told me differently.  I pulled into a comfy Comfort Inn, and found a local catfish and steak joint where there were the best hush puppies I’ve ever tasted and a cornmeal coated catfish that was too good to count the calories. See more photos on my Facebook page. No beer.  No wine.  Only tea.  No hot tea, that would be ice tea, ma’am.  So I opted for hot water flavored with lemon and sugar.  Went down pretty well.

Now, I’m itchy to hit to the road.  I spent time writing this instead of getting out the door.  Next stop?  Who knows! I have all the time in the world until Wednesday when I’m on an airplane to Oaxaca from Austin, TX.