Monday, February 13, 2017

...step off the sidewalk.

"For the record, we were NOT lost-not after we figured out we'd dropped two miles and 1,500 vertical feet in the wrong direction in a near-whiteout."   Just a postcard from the edge. 


...in a near-whiteout."

To be honest, I really don't know Steve Woodruff well.  He is the friend of a friend.  What I know of him comes from our brief and infrequent digital correspondence and his photographs.  But we do share a love of horses and the outdoor life.  And for me, that's enough.

Montana is fly-over country.  It is the hyphen that connects the urban centers of the east and west coasts.  The graceful neck around which hang the pearls.  There are just over a million people living in Montana.  Compare that with Ohio, where I live, and its population of nearly twelve million souls.  There are few homesteads, outposts in a sea of grass, and fewer cars.  The wind gathers up what is not secured and pushes it for mile upon mile until a taut fence line catches up what it can. Tumbleweed, just Russian Thistle really, torn from the thin soil rushes about madly just ahead of the wind.  And there is water, cold water and cutthroat trout, elk and deer, the larder of past times.  Foxes raise their generations, while buzzards make death pristine and hawks deal with the problem of over population.  There is still more in the jagged granite peaks, creeks that tumble white over their rocky paths, and rolling meadows of purple and yellow blooms rife with long grass,sweet and green.

Steve, you see, is not afraid to step off the sidewalk, to peer through the hedges, to look up and down country.  He fishes for trout in cold fast running streams and scours the tussocks for pheasant along with his two yellow labs, and rides his good horse Ranger along narrow paths into a wider, wilder world.

There is an intimacy and warmth in Steve's photographs.  However, in many of the photographs, survival and not the animal is the real subject. No matter the animal and no matter its size, all of them face deep snow, brutal cold and solitary searches for food that never end.  For the most part, leisure and a full stomach are unknown in the animal world.  

Steve has graciously allowed me to use his photographs.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.  

First, the horses:


Ranger in a sea of grass.  Notice his muscle mass.

 Zimba's Partial Eclipse
My favorite of all the horse photos.


Zimba is Ranger's pasture buddy.


Ranger patrolling the fence line.

From the field:


Timeless


If Today Could Last Forever.
This is achingly beautiful and almost moves me to tears.


Rough-Legged Hawk


Coyote and Hitchhiking Magpie


Bison
In order to subjugate the Plains Indians we nearly
hunted the Bison to extinction.  When that didn't work, we rounded up
their horses and killed them all.


Bull Elk


Great Blue Heron on the Bitterroot River


Magpie in the Snow
Magpies are ubiquitous.  And everywhere too!


Winter on the Mountain


Day's End

All photos by Steve Woodruff,  Copyright 2/13/17

Text and captions by Loren Schumacher, Copyright 2/13/17

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In The Rear View: 2016

Maybe it's because I don't have the best eyesight, that I love to look at pictures.  Life in stop action, every detail frozen in time to be savored, to be examined in your own good time.  I've collected photographs since I can remember and the computer, a treasure trove of digitized images, has given me a resource that I could never have imagined and at a price that anyone can afford.

 Horses satisfy our souls, elevate our spirit and stir our hearts and let's not forget the human beings who ride them, the courageous men and woman who risk their lives to do the one thing that few can, ride a thoroughbred gate to wire faster than the rest.

These are just a few of the photos I've collected in the past year, 2016.  Perhaps one of these horses is a favorite of yours.  I hope so.

First, a remembrance or two and some wistful goodbyes.


Trainer Richard Mandela saying goodbye to Beholder


Cigar 15 days before his death.


Lady's Secret, the Hall of Fame daughter of Secretariat.

Secretariat is better known for his fillies and mares than his male progeny, an exception is Tinner's Way, now a resident of Old Friends Equine in Georgetown, Kentucky.  While she is deceased, Lady's Secret's record remains.


Arguably the greatest thoroughbred of all time, this is Secretariat in 1973, his legendary Triple Crown year.  This photo was taken by famed photographer Barbara Livingston when she was twelve years old.


The late Garrett Gomez aboard the incredible Beholder.


Speaking of Beholder, six year old Beholder ( 8) with Gary Stevens up, defeats three year old Songbird (1) and Mike Smith by a scant nose in the 2016 Breeders Cup Distaff.

Beholder was retired to Spendthrift Farm in Lexington after winning the Distaff in perhaps the greatest horse race anyone has ever seen.  Her first suitor in February will be the great Uncle Mo.

Earlier I mentioned the danger in horse racing and the courage of the jockeys.


Aiden Coleman falls with Mick Thonic at Cheltenham, England in late 2016.


Northside Downs, North Sydney, Australia.  A catastrophic wreck in which everyone, horses and drivers survived, although one of the drivers was hospitalized.

Lest we forget the ladies.


Chantal Sutherland

Chantal Sutherland has been a very successful jockey in her home country, Canada.  She always ranks among the leading jockeys at Woodbine.  She has had more difficulty finding rides and owner/trainer support in the states, but is currently riding at Santa Anita  Here she is seen aboard Coasted, a contender for the 2016 Breeder's Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf 

Chantal was once the paramour of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and was featured in the realty series,Jockeys, which ran for two seasons.  Her rocky relationship with Smith was the focal point of the series and when the break-up came between them, the series ended. The two were lovers and roommates and the series' tension was driven by the dichotomy of her love for Smith versus his ego and unwillingness to commit to the Canadian beauty.  His loss.

Afterward she married and had a child, retired and began a career unrelated to horse racing, but she simply could not stay away and she has returned to her first love, racing.


Nicole Vuille, an Australian jockey whom I became aware of through Facebook.  Click on the photo and see that she is screaming.  I would have been too.

It has been a year of retirements, too.


Frosted in a lather.

Frosted (Tapit x Fast Cookie) needs no one to apologize for his sterling career. He was always a threat whenever he raced.  Wherever there was racing, Frosted and his connections were there, be it in Dubai, Kentucky, Maryland, New York or California.  He raced the life out of a tired American Pharoah at Saratoga, but he seemed to have a problem carrying his speed to the finish in some of the longer route races.  But his record setting effort in the 2016 Met Mile (1:32.73), winning by 14 1/2 lengths, was a historic achievement and his victory has been judged the premier racing performance of the year.  He is retired now and I think racing is poorer for it.  I will try to see him at Godolphin's Jonabelle this year.


The haughty visage of Tourist (Tiznow x Unbridled Melody x Unbridled's Song).

This is Tourist, who defeated the favorite, Tepin, in the 2016 Breeder's Cup Mile.  In the same race in 2014 he finished 13th and 8th in 2015.   Look at the hard set of his eye.  I imagine that this horse can be a handful if you don't stay on top of him and after seeing him act up during a workout prior to the Breeder's Cup, my suspicions were confirmed.  I believe that Frosted would have easily bested Tourist in the BC Mile.

It was a year of early retirements, adding credibility to what we already knew, that stallions and mares are chattel to be used as cash generating breeding machines, until they can no longer perform or are too old and fragile to bear a foal.  

Nyquist ( Uncle Mo x Seeking Gabrielle ) was never right after winning the Derby this year. Mysterious illnesses plagued him off and on and his performances suffered.  His connections sited a "growth spurt."  He is recovering nicely at Godolphin's Jonabelle farm after recent colic surgery!

Ironicus, the middle distance turf horse by Distorted Humor was retired to Claiborne Farm.  In the last two years the five year old won 5 of 10 races with 4 second place finishes.

Tamarkuz (x Speightstown) won the BC Dirt Mile in 2016 with Mike Smith aboard.  The five year old began his career in Great Britain before heading to Dubai and then the U.S.  A winner of 8 of 20 starts with additional placings, Tamakuz won nearly two million dollars and will spend retirement at Sheikh Handen's Shadwell in Kentucky.


Run Happy

Known as much for his hilarious sleep habits as his speed, Run Happy was retired to Claiborne Farms after finishing 8th in the BC Dirt Mile as a four year old.  He was undefeated in sprint races and was 6 for 7 as a three year old, winning an Eclipse Award as Champion Male Sprinter. 

But in the present and recent past there more than enough equine heroes to capture our attention and our hearts.

After American Pharoah and Frosted, my personal favorite is the Candy Ride colt, Gun Runner.  This is a  horse that can never be counted out and while he may not be Arrogate, he brings grit, guts and determination to every starting gate.  In 11 starts he has 6 wins, 2 seconds and 2 thirds, among them a win in the G1 Clark Handicap in November.  He is a possible starter in the Pegasus, where he will acquit himself with his usual maximum effort.  Did I mention that I love this horse?


My guy, Gun Runner.

And here are a few more still racing in the present or in out hearts.



California Chrome will race anyone, anywhere, anytime.  He will be retired to Taylor Made after the Pegasus.


Courage and speed to spare, Arrogate with Dana Barnes up.  He was scratched from the San Pasqual
stakes (GII) on New Year's day, due to wet track conditions.  Trainer Bob Baffert felt that Arrogate was not mature enough to test the Triple Crown waters, so as a late bloomer, he is a super-horse in training,


Effinex, post race, with lightening in his veins.  His eyes appear almost glazed and vacant.  He is spent after giving everything.


Two words: American Pharoah.  Nothing more needs to be said.

And I've saved the best for last (If you don't count American Pharoah.).


My paint mare, Callie (Calliope)

This is my beautiful girl fresh from a bath, but still wearing a dirty face, courtesy of a weed in our pasture that goes dormant every fall.  At fourteeen Callie has never been able to give everything that she has to offer because of a chronic navicular problem, aggravated by her foot stomping fly dance during the summer.  I hope to give her relief this year with two injections of Osphos, a drug whose specific purpose is to relieve navicular distress.  The drug can lead to colic, so I have every finger crossed.

She is unbelievably powerful, a bit stubborn and given to atmospheric bucking when her thoughts on an issue go unresolved.  I have never ridden a horse that is so responsive.  You have only to stay centered on her long back and think about what you want from her. 

Callie is playful, winding up my other mare, Stormy Monday, whenever she takes a notion to.  She is loving and affectionate and I can only hope that Osphos will be a blessing to my good and kind friend. Oh yes, she likes to eat and will defend her vittles from her domineering sister, Stormy...so long as there is a gate between them.

Callie makes the world a better place.


Stormy

Her name fits her. Stormy, my pint sized registered paint horse, thinks, connives, remembers and gets even.  She is a second hand rose that no one could do anything with, but she was looking for someone to trust, someone strong enough to endow with the title of herd leader.  Though she never stops testing me and never will, I've gained her trust and that means a lot to me.

Stormy is difficult to ride, her trot is killing, because she has a short wheelbase, but her slow canter is worth whatever the cost might be.  To watch her canter or gallop freely is like watching Astaire and Rogers, or Gene Kelly in Singing In The Rain on the silver screen.  She is that graceful.  Stormy needs an experienced rider, but if the rider begins to daydream, there is a price to pay.  The price, she assumes you are no longer in control and so she must be.  Stormy will tolerate no passengers.  

As I said, she can be difficult and quite often her eyes are as hard and edgy as they appear in her picture. Romance her, but don't bribe her and she will be putty in your hands. Well, you can bribe her just a little if it makes you feel better.  If she knew how predictable and funny she is she would be mortified.  There is no other like her and I am glad for that.

Copyright, January 1, 2017 by Loren R. Schumacher

Photograph credits as noted, or photos in the public domain.
Callie and Stormy Photographs, Copyright, Loren R. Schumacher, January 1, 2017

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Long Riders

Somehow the words to the song Route 66 came to mind whenever I read about Valerie Ashker, her friend Peter Friedman and their two off-track Thoroughbred horses, Primitivo and Solar Express, on the Off-Track Thoroughbreds.com website.  Route 66, now a relic of our motoring past, ran from Chicago to LA, nearly 2000 miles one way, but only two-thirds the distance Ashker, Friedman and their horses planned to ride.

For those of you who have never been to the United States, it is a big country. I mean it is a big country.  More than 3300 miles end to end, it crosses desert infernos, the Rocky Mountains, where a fourteen thousand foot mountain is more the norm than an aberration, The Great Basin, home to freakish weather and the dust storms of the Great Depression, until the green rolling land of the mid-east gives way to the ancient Appalachian Mountains and then to the eastern most coast and some of America's greatest urban centers.  

Valerie Ashker, 60, is a long time Off-Track Thoroughbred trainer, she, her daughter, Lainey a four-star Eventer and Rolex competitor and Friedman left her Georgetown, California ranch in May of 2016.

A joyous gallop for the camera.  Valerie Ashker and Primitivo.
(photo by Tylir Penton)

The mountains and high altitude came quickly, as did a number of falls that left Ashker with broken ribs and and a broken clavicle.  Along the way a suspicious spot discovered on her lungs was found to be scar tissue from an earlier injury and not cancer, as was first feared.  The emotional and physical toll did not weaken her resolve as she was determined to "call attention to the usefulness of Thoroughbred horses once their racetrack careers are over."

Of the ride she said, it is "not about me, but about the horses that have so much to give once their racing days are past."

It was when Ashker and Friedman reached Cincinnati (my hometown) in mid-October that I began to follow their progress as they made their way toward Loudon County, Virginia, their destination. Solar Express and Primitivo ambled along our city's congested roads with the cool confidence that experience bestows. They stood calmly as children from a city apartment complex swarmed around them "like bees," asking countless questions and hoping to pet the horses which most of them had never before seen in the flesh.



Valerie Ashker and Peter Friedman near Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals.

By November 7th, the caravan had crossed into Grafton, West Virginia where Ashker took time to thank the local Dairy Queen for the complimentary ice cream cones (for human consumption only) and gave thanks for the great weather that we have experienced in the mid-east this fall.  By now we are usually experiencing nights in the low 30's F, killing frosts and torrents of bone chilling rain that can turn to sleet and sometimes to snow.

The journey ended in November with their arrival at the Middleburgh Training Center in Loudon County, Virginia, with smiles, hugs and a good gallop by the fit and trim Thoroughbreds that delighted the eye and the camera.


Welcoming Valerie Ashker and Primitivo to Virginia.

Primitivo, Ashker said, began as "sort of spooky, " but quickly adjusted to the noise and confusion of busy highways and congested cities.  "Along the way he became more confident in his own skin," she said.

Primitivo in Virginia.

"This horse never stops," she said of Solar Express. "He had his eye on the next mountain and the next twenty miles the whole way."  Solar Express was once her Eventing horse and Ashker once said that he was "on the muscle too much."  She added, "Now I see that he belongs in the realm of endurance horses.  He lead the entire time...his ears pricked."


Seventeen year old Solar Express.

Ashker and her horses will soon be moving to Virginia where they will have time to reflect on their journey and its meaning,  Saying of the long haul, " I have a total new appreciation for the country and its people. And the timing was right.  Looking back on the entirety of this, I'd say its been the ride of a lifetime."


A fitting end.  Look at the condition of these two horses.




Copyright, November 26, 2016 by Loren R. Schumacher

Sources:  Off-Track Thoroughbreds.com,  The Loudon Times-Mirror.

Your can also learn more about Valerie Ashker's journey on her Facebook page: 2nd Makes Through Starting Gates. 

Only one photo has been credited and the balance came from each of the websites/Facebook pages noted above.  They seem to be without credit.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Local Legend Calls It Done

Russell Road, a 10-year old gelding by Wheaton out of the Verification mare Roberta Grump (Roberta Grump produced 11 starters, all winners), called it a career recently at  Charles Town (W Va.) Races.  Winning  more than two million dollars during his career, Russell Road leaves behind a stellar record of 31 wins (22 were stakes wins) in 62 starts.


A farewell to Russell Road

Bethanny Roll, a photographer at the Hollywood Casino at the Charles Town Races, had this to say about the chestnut gelding;

"This horse was truly something to watch,  He won over half of his career starts and is a local legend here at the Charles Town Races.  

He was always a competitor at the race track.  In fact, when the track had him in the post parade for the West Virginia Breeder's Classic, a race he won three times, he was a struggle to jog off the track, because he wanted to join the competitors and race again.

He had a presence when he came on the track unlike any other (you get an idea of his presence in the picture above). He was the type of horse you knew was something big without even knowing his name."


Russell Road winning the 2014 West Virginia Breeder's Classic

Owner Mark Russell knows that Russell Road is a candidate for the retirement blues and needs to stay busy.  "He'll make any kind of jumper or riding horse and we're going to explore those possibilities for him.  He's not the kind of horse that's going to be happy stomping flies out in the field. Russell said.  He wants to do a job, he loves being around people, he loves having something to do. It's just who he is. It doesn't matter if you take him home and put him out in the paddock. 30 minutes later he's at the gate wanting back in.  He just likes that connection with folks."


Russell Road wins the 2015 Roger Ramey Stakes

Russell Road is the second leading money winner among all West Virginia bred horses and is held in such esteem that the Wild & Wonderful-a race Russell Road hit the board in three times in his career-will be renamed the Russell Road Stakes in 2017

I published this little story of an obscure gelding from a third tier track because so many stories from the racing world are scarred and ugly. corrupt and tawdry.  Tales of injured horses running on pain-killing drugs until they break down or are sold to slaughter when they can no longer produce on the track or the pay window are common.  This is a story of triumph.  A happy story.  Racing needs more of them.  And so do we.

Copyright: October 18, 2016 by Loren R. Schumacher
Photo copyright as noted.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Soft White Underbelly, Part 1

Since the coming of American Pharoah I have thought about little else, when it comes to horses, than thoroughbreds and racing.  I'm never going to know the lineage of every champion who put hoof to dirt or shoe to turf, but I will always love the game, the color, the mud spattered jockeys and the thoroughbred's time-compressing speed.  Feeling the tension before my horse enters the gate is part of the thrill of racing for me.  I remember literally being unable to sit down in the hours just before American Pharoah ran the Belmont and then plundered the field in the Breeder's Cup Classic in 2015.  Similarly, I suffer with California Chrome and Frosted each time they race.

One of my favorites was Big Brown (Boundary - Mien by Nureyev), trained by Rick Dutrow.   Now eleven years old, his progeny have begun to make their presence felt in racing circles.  His Derby and Preakness victories in 2008 left the racing world hungering for a Triple Crown Winner, the first since Affirmed decades before.  But in the Belmont he finished 9th, barely crossing the finish line before the last beer concession closed for the day.  A collapse so dramatic that it cast his entire race record in doubt.  In eight races, he finished first in seven of them.  His list of victories also include the Florida Derby, The Haskell Invitational and the Monmouth Stakes.  But to this day, a stench surrounds his career, the same stench of unscrupulous illegality and deception that follows trainer Rick Dutrow.


Big Brown and people who loved him.  Check out the watch on this guy.


Trainer Rick Dutrow.

Dutrow is now serving a 10-year suspension (at one point the state's Racing and Wagering Board recommended Dutrow be banned for life)  of his trainer's license in 2011 by New York regulators.
The former trainer of Big Brown has waged a continuous legal fight to have that judgement overturned.  But the beleaguered trainer's most recent appeal was rejected in federal court.

"The board's decision resolves two specific matters that arose in November 2010: Dutrow's horse Fastus Cactus tested positive for the drug butorphanol-a pain killer 10 times more potent than morphine-after winning the third race at Aqueduct Racetrack on November 20, and three hypodermic needles "loaded with the drug Xylazine" were found in Dutrow's desk in Barn 10 at Aqueduct on November 2.  Xylazine is an analgesic and tranquilizer that can enhance performance by alleviating lameness or calming a nervous horse."  While  he had probably not done anything that other top trainers had done, or been suspected of, he did get caught with his hand in the cookie jar, not once, but many times.  Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen, both Hall of Fame trainers, have been under some scrutiny in the past for similar infractions.  "If anything, he's (Dutrow) had multiple opportunities to practice his profession in compliance with the rules.  After all these infractions, I don't think any court will say he has been discriminated against...given his record" said Louisville attorney and racing official Robert Heleringer.

While there is nothing to say Dutrow could not set up shop in another state, most racing jurisdictions will uphold the findings of other racing authorities.  An exception might be Louisiana where Heleringer said they "have a reputation for being more lax when it comes to honoring suspensions,


At the apex: Big Brown

but Dutrow's notoriety makes it less likely a state would take that chance."  If he were to apply for a license in a state other than New York and was denied, he would have to disclose the denial in future applications.

So unless Rick Dutrow pulls some nefarious behind the scenes shenanigans, he is out of racing,

At this point Big Brown's future is much brighter than Rick Dutrow's.  And that is a good thing.





Sunday, September 11, 2016

When The Racing Gods Are Smiling

This story appeared on the McKathan Brothers Training Center Facebook page today.  It is a testament to experience and courage under extreme stress. 

A five furlong turf race, just over a half mile, can seem like a ten furlong route race when you are trailing a field of seven $10,000 claimers.  Jockey Marcos Meneses stepped on the throttle heading into the far turn when his reins broke, first one, then the other.


Marcos Meneses, broken reins in hand and four-year-old Chia Ghost

Chia Ghost drifted outside leaving the turn heading into the stretch.  Meneses remained calm, grabbing Chia Ghost's mane and the neck strap of his bridle, riding him to the wire and victory.

After his second straight victory, Chia Ghost, trained by Bernardo Lopez, galloped out on the outside rail and was picked up by outrider Paul Haffner on the backstretch.  Haffner escorted Meneses and Chia Ghost to the winner's circle.

In the victory circle I'm sure there were lots of smiles, and no doubt heavy sighs of relief, and for jockey Marcos Meneses, a hurried trip to the restroom.

I love this story and hope you enjoyed it as well.





Thursday, September 8, 2016

Soul Searching

Hoping to satisfy the hunger that rattles in their stomachs, they amble, unconcerned, onto US 191 stopping traffic, their ribs showing, their eyes hollow and empty.  They are homeless gypsies: paints, palominos, red bays, roans, duns and blacks.  Their groups are small in number.  The colts are vital and spirited, alert and quick, not yet broken by hunger and the experience of relentless heat, thirst and privation.  There is no one to inoculate them, float their teeth or trim their hooves.  Hell, there is no money to feed them, let alone money for health care. Still the young ones move with an elasticity and grace that is missing in the adults.  Their prancing, mincing youth dams up the pity you would otherwise feel for them all. 

 
The only horse I was able to photograph, this one in Cheyenne, Wyoming, truly a one horse town.
 


In addition to 37,903 families in Navajo land, there are 37,008 motor vehicles and 35,000 horses, nearly one per family!   Perhaps horses remain a deep reservoir of pride for the Navajo as evidence of affluence, masculinity or even currency.  Poverty is everywhere, inescapable, in your face, loud and damning, yet nearly every home or trailer, ramshackle or otherwise has a horse.  Usually they are confined to grassless paddocks so small that a canter would be nearly impossible even if there were just one horse.  It is not unusual to see two or more confined to a small area without shade.  But more importantly, I think the horses  provide a source of pleasure, escape, competition and balance a razor thin existence with laughter and smiles.  I say this because I lost track of the number of rodeo arenas that I saw.  The horse remains important to the average Navajo.

This is Chinle, Arizona, the heart of the Navajo reservation, where hope seems lost in a flickering memory that is ancient and in conflict with Burger King and the buzzing and beeping of cell phones. Chinle is about government entities, both Federal (Bureau of Land Management ), the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Navajo.  Tough tribal police, high crime rates and a serious drug problem have filled the large juvenile correction facility on Indian Road 7. 

What drives the crime rate?  A youthful population that averages 24 years of age.  40% of all Navajo live below the poverty line with a median family income of just $22,000.00.  32% have no complete plumbing, 60% are without phones and 54% of those aged 25 and older are without a high school or higher education.  The reservation is an incubator of discontent, acting out and crime.  All of these facts and figures are compounded by the fact that the youth have no interest in the values and traditions of the Navajo.  I was told that fewer and fewer speak the native language.


 
The plight of the Navajo and I'll wager most native Americans, has not changed a great deal in the sixteen years since these stats were collected.  It is an embarrassment and we should be ashamed. 

 


In the quiet of nearby Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay) the past and its ancient traditions hang by a slender thread in the hands of the few Navajo who tend their cattle, sheep and sparse gardens of beans, squash and corn ( the three sisters of Puebloan culture ) there.  This national park is unique in that it is populated, although sparsely, by Indians living on ancestral lands, the titles for which stretch into antiquity.
 
 
The August gardens at the bottom of the canyon.  Chinle Wash to the left beyond the trees.



Canyon de Chelly's solitude is broken by the raspy voice of circling Ravens, and the lowing of cattle in the canyon depths below.  There is only one hike in the park that can be done without a park ranger or Indian guide and that is the trail that leads to the White House ruins wedged into a cliff wall crevice 600 feet below the canyon's rim.  Why can I hike to White House and nowhere else without a guide?  Because these ruins are not Navajo.  The ruins date from 750 to 1300 and were built by ancestral Puebloans.  Although the Navajo, who call themselves Dine', say they have always lived here, they actually date from about 1700, after the Hopi left the canyon.

The hike, just 2.5 miles, descends a trail dotted with long stretches of slick-rock and laced with so many switch backs that the route seems as though it were stitched by a surgeon.  Dropping down onto the trail, I was struck by gnarled and twisted sandstone, burnished red and blasted smooth, wrinkled like an ancient skin over millions of years.  Where the slick-rock sloped away from the cliff  toward a fall no one could survive, I put a hand on the cliff wall to give me the courage that was at the moment lacking.  I am not crazy about high places.


 
A fellow traveler took this photo of me on the trail.
 

The 600 foot descent took about forty minutes and passing through a short tunnel I stepped into the onset of evening on the canyon floor. After I snapped a photo of the Navajo Hogan ( a building used in many traditional rituals and found nearly everywhere on the reservation ) just beyond a fence, I noticed a small sign that read: No Pictures. It should have read, "This place, this land and our ways are sacred to us.  Respect them."

The sandy bottom of Chinle Wash, which wanders for miles, made the hike to the ruins slow and heavy.  Rain slicked the surrounding cliffs, turning them from a powdery red to a slate grey color. 

After the descent, a long sandy trek across the flat, then a short climb up a rise marked by cholla cactus (pronounced choya), the ruins appeared in a niche some 8o feet or more above the canyon floor. A phalanx of grazing cattle, one with well developed forward pointing horns...a female by the way, stood between me and the ruins.  I didn't stop for a selfie, but taking a deep breath walked between them and made the last hundred yards to the ruins.  

Indians selling jewelry in Arizona is not unusual, but I was surprised to see Navajo selling goods from a couple of card tables under a tree just in front of the ruins and more surprised that they had gotten to the bottom of the canyon in cars! 


 
The White House ruins in Canyon de Chelley.  Click on the picture to enlarge it and you can see the pictograph.
 
I once stood  under a natural overhang like the one in this picture, but one much, much smaller.  Little taller than me and perhaps no more than 8 feet deep and no more than 15 feet in length, it was once home to a family.  The ceiling was blackened from the open fires used to heat and cook and I could place my finger tips over theirs in places where they had plastered the ceiling of their sandstone home.  It was literally a hole in the wall.  There was no evidence of the engineering I saw in the ruins high above the canyon's floor in front of me.  It was the definition of primitive, just a rocky place in the Arizona desert, but it was a home.
 
I couldn't reach the White House ruins, a chain link fence kept visitors like me far enough away so that the worst among us could not plunder or damage them.  If you knew how much I wanted to find the worn moqui steps in the wall above the dwelling on the canyon floor, and trusting my balance and nerve, climb to the uppermost dwellings and explore them.  Just a few minutes alone with them, to share their view of the world and to wonder what drove them to live this way and in the end, to vanish.  There is no written language and there are few if any answers. 
 
Still these people reach out to us sharing their dreams, their gods or their fears in pictographs.  There is no Rosetta Stone to help us interpret their drawings.  There are as many meanings as eyes to see their work.  If you look closely at the picture of the ruins and count over five windows from the right, there is a large pictograph on the wall, big enough to be seen from a hundred yards and across 700 years.
 
 
 Copyright September 8, 2016 by Loren R. Schumacher