Postcards From the Canyon

An essay from the October 2017 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Edward S. Curtis

Postcards From the Canyon

I didn’t know Mosa’s name until I saw her photograph on a playing card. “Mosa, Mohave,” it read. Up until that point, I had known her only as Mohave Girl.

I didn’t really know her at all, of course, but there was something about her eyes — a sadness belied by calm — that made me believe she might have had a story to tell.

Something about the way she sat made me wonder how her portraitist put her at ease. The playing card company must have wondered, too — she was one of 52 “Native peoples” whose faces hid aces and spades.

If I remember right, Mosa was the three of hearts.

Edward S. Curtis photographed the girl near the turn of the 20th century. Hers was plate 61 from The North American Indian Portfolio, Volume 2, and the image, as well as Curtis’ others, later became part of the public domain. Available through the Library of Congress. At no cost. For books and magazines. Postcards. Playing cards.

A high-res printout of that portrait hangs in my office now — a leftover from a book we published long before I saw those playing cards. I pushed for its inclusion in the book for reasons I don’t really remember. It was a reminder, maybe, that photographs really do speak more than most words can say.

If I had to argue for its inclusion again today, I’d probably push the idea that no one has photographed this country’s Native people more beautifully than Curtis did.

So, when I went to Canyon de Chelly for the first time, in May, he was on my brain. As was Jerry Jacka. And Josef Muench. These are the men whose images pushed me to the place to find wild horses amid cottonwood trees. To behemoth sandstone walls and the patina of striation and pictographs. To witness history and modernity as the Navajo people farm and live in the shadow of Anasazi ruins.

I knew Mosa wouldn’t be there — her people were long ago and far away — but I thought I might find the colors of the longest, loveliest sunrises and sunsets.

I found a dog.

I didn’t know him at all, but there was something about his eyes that made me believe he might have a story to tell.

He walked up to my partner and me near the first overlook on Canyon de Chelly’s south rim, and I bought a piece of tile art from a local artist while the dog watched. He was neither shy nor skittish nor aggressive in the way some dogs can be, and his tail wagged with the rhythm of a fish swimming through ripples.

He was a puppy, though, and with paws as big as my hands, we could tell he’d be a bear someday. There were parts of both of our hearts that wanted to nuzzle that dog into old age — his or ours — but we knew that decision wasn’t right or responsible just then.

So when we said goodbye the next morning to head into the canyon with our guide, we couldn’t quite see each other through the tears in our eyes.

The Pinzgauer rumbled through the canyon, stopping and starting at each ruin with a cough and a tremble. Water in the wash meant we’d feel a cool splash every now and then, counteracting the sandstorm the truck conjured.

Within an hour, my face had taken on the rough, ruddy color of sun and wind, and my eyes burned from the ride. But, reprieve. Around a corner, there were cottonwoods with leaves so green, they looked illustrated against the terra cotta of the canyon walls. Shade. Horses like I’d seen in Curtis’ photographs huddled beneath the canopy — two foals wobbling with the uncertainty of new life as a stallion watched us with only bored interest.

By the time we turned around at White House Ruins, I felt I’d made my own mental postcards from the canyon, seen the things that Jacka and Muench and Curtis had captured more fully than I ever could. And while tourists are no longer allowed to climb into and through the ruins, it’s better that way.

Visitors have a deep and weighty responsibility to protect the skeletons of human history.

It was hot when we returned to our own car, and we knew that the drive home would be straight and long and lonely. We couldn’t stop at that first overlook again — we knew it. The dog would stay.

But we knew, too, that we’d return to the canyon someday when our other travels were through. And maybe he’d have more stories to tell.