The sign is clear and unequivocal: Private Property. No Photography. The area behind the sign is empty. There are no buildings, no livestock. What doesn’t the landowner want you to see? As you follow the chain link fence towards White House Ruin, stands of cottonwoods and green brush block the view. Glimpses through the trees reveal that there is something there — a house or a barn. You continue on to the ruin where you meet vendors selling jewelry and crafts. On the way back, you see other tourists photographing the sign.
Many national parks and monuments contain private land, some more than others; so Canyon de Chelly is not unique. Some overlooks (such as the one above) let you look down into the lives of the farmers and sheep herders who make the canyons their home. You might ask “What is the problem?”
I made good time going down Whiting Road even though I had to keep stopping and climbing back until I saw Lynn waving and jabbing her poles against a fall as she crept down the double track. The clatter of chains alerted me to the mountain bikers sweeping through Sleepy Hollow, but I was surprised when I saw another hiker in front of me, a man of average height who wore one of those green boonie hats that one associates with Vietnam. He draped himself in camouflage and wore black combat boots. The only thing out of keeping with his casual uniform was his blue backpack and the tube from his Camelbak. I followed in silence for several steps, watched as he stopped to tie his shoe then resume without noticing me.
“On your left!” cried a voice behind me and “On your right!” as it passed me. The mountain biker shouted the same warning as he passed the trooper, who turned around and noticed me for the first time. He jerked as if he was thinking of reaching for his gun and then realizing that he was unarmed, picked up his pace a little and fast-footed it down the trail, glancing behind every few seconds to see if I was still there. We parted ways when I turned to go up the Concourse Trail to my home.
I thought about his dress and his gear. Was this some sentimental journey for him? Was he remembering old companions? Or did he miss life in combat zones? I thought about what a bad option camouflage was when you didn’t need to hide from people. A nice bright color — a white or a red or an orange — were my choices when I went afield. I made sure that I could be seen should there be an accident. Plain brown and forest green suited this man. We didn’t talk, so I didn’t know his mind but I wondered about his march and his mental destination. This landscape of golden oats and dead mustard stalks was like none of the places that America has battled in our lifetimes. People came to Whiting for the peace. This man found himself walking in war, an adventure in which he would not die or have to kill someone.
I don’t think of myself as being all that old — I’m 56 — but it is only been in the last 15 years that I have made an effort to get outside and see where all the skunks and snakes that sneaked into my neighborhood were coming from. Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park lies a block from my home and I can almost throw rocks at the Cleveland National Forest. The land around here is turning brown: it was a splendid spring despite the widely advertised drought. Chaparral Yuccas shot off their flower stalks around April and species such as golden stars, various Mariposa lilies, mustard, black sage, white sage, and the rare fiddleneck sprang up around them.
Now the heat bears down on us — we’ve had a few days of torrid weather reaching 100° F — and all these wonderful blooms wither. I take heart that the hills will turn to golden and the live oaks and sycamores will hold on to their green. Soon I’ll hunt for lemonade berry to suck on.
I hope you will walk with me through these hills and some of the other places that I go. Lynn and I are looking to visit northern Arizona including the Navajo Reservation in the fall, so it won’t be all boring old Southern California back country. Lots of things remain to be seen and done.