July, 2016 Edition

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Living like the Navajo

There’s no wifi, no cable, no air-conditioning, and the shower is a bag you fill with sun-warmed water, hoist up onto a hook above your head and stand beneath its gravity-fed flow.
And it’s all absolutely wonderful!
There are a few other things it doesn’t have.
No crowds. No hustle and bustle. No traveler’s dizzying distress. No same ol’, same ol’. And the only noise is that of the wind laughing as it sweetly caresses the tall grass outside your sheepwagon, and in the medium distance horses whinnying, goats and sheep bleating, and the livestock dogs occasionally barking their warnings to unseen intruders.
My wife, daughter and I are glamping at Shash Dinè, an eco-retreat on the Navajo Reservation located about 10 miles south of Page, Ariz. Visitors can choose to stay in a cabin, an old-fashioned bell tent, a traditional Navajo Hogan or a converted sheepwagon. We chose one of the sheepwagons.
OK, so Shash Dinè doesn’t offer traditional lodging amenities such as wifi and cable but what it does offer you can’t find anywhere else. You can take a deep breath of fresh, clean air, which is useful because the property on which Shash Dinè is located on and surrounded by has some of the most breathtaking views in the American southwest. Because of Shash Dinè’s remoteness, it has almost no light pollution so when the stars appear in the evening they seem to sparkle just 18 inches over your head. And, best of all, you’ll get to partake in life’s rarest, most delicious treats: sharing traveler’s tales with your fellow travelers around a communal campfire.
We check in around 5:30 and our host, Paul Meehan, takes us to the sheepwagon that will be our home for the night and gives us an orientation of the property. Besides offering glamping, Shash Dinè is also an authentic working sheep and goat ranch. Besides sheep and goats, they also have horses, chickens and dogs.
“You’re welcome to visit the animals,” Paul tells us, “and feel free to pet the ones that will let you pet them. And feel free to wander the property and look around. I suggest you take in the view from up there, and over there,” he says, pointing to spots on the western and northern edges of their property.
Shash Dinè is owned by Paul and Baya Meehan, who live on the property in a house separated from the guests’ lodgings.
Baya grew up there. Her mother, grandmother and grandfather still live on the land, too. Shash Dinè means Bear People. They named it that because according to Baya’s family story, they are descended from the bear people.
The land has been in Baya’s family for numerous generations, Baya tells me. Her ancestors used to hunt antelope there. It also served as their summer sheep camp.
“There’s a lot of family history here,” says Baya. “A lot of important events have happened here. We’ve held a lot of ceremonies in our Hogan here. We want to pass this land and that heritage on to our own kids.”
Baya tells me that when the Navajo people were rounded up by soldiers from the U.S. Army and marched to the reservation, that many of her ancestors remained on the land, hiding in hard to find places in the canyons adjacent to today’s Glen Canyon.
When Baya graduated from high school in 1998 she was filled with wanderlust, she said.
“I wanted to get the heck out of Page,” she said. She attended two years at Dinè College in Tsaile, Ariz., then joined the Navy.
Baya and Paul met through a mutual friend when Baya was living in Oklahoma City, Okla. and Paul was living in Bisbee, Ariz. They were married a few years ago and they now have two children under 3.
It was around the same time Baya and Paul met that Baya started missing home, started thinking about settling down and starting her own family, she said. The same month that she and Paul moved back, Baya learned that she was pregnant with Brigitte.
“That solidified our will to move back and make it work,” Baya said.
Turning it into an eco-retreat was Paul’s idea.
“A lot of tourists want an authentic interaction with the land and with the Navajo culture,” said Baya. “We offer a slice of Navajo life. We don’t put on shows, but anyone staying here gets to see what modern Navajo life looks like.”
It’s a hot afternoon in early June with afternoon temperatures around 100 degrees. My wife keeps our daughter comfortable inside the wagon while I take Paul’s advice and hike to the two overlooks he recommended.
Shash Dinè is located in the bottom of a natural bowl. From the western edge atop the bowl’s lip I have an impressive view of Glen Canyon’s craggy cliffs. From the north end of the property, I have a great view of Page, the northern end of the Kaibeto Plateau, with Tower Butte and Navajo Mountain in the distance. On my walk back to the wagon, I see two sheep dogs herding a herd of sheep and goats across the valley.
When I return from my sightseeing, my wife, daughter and I walk over and visit the horses, which are eating hay in a corral.
As all desert travelers know, the temperature drops quickly as soon as the sun sets. Within 30 minutes of the sun setting that night at Shash Dinè, we feel the temperature drop from 98 degrees to a comfortable 80 degrees.
With my hatchet, I split wood into slivers of kindling and lay them in a teepee pattern over a quid of shredded bark, which I light to start our fire, just as the first bats appear overhead.
More often than not, the setting Arizona sun tinctures the western horizon the warm colors of yellow, orange and red due to dust or smoke particles in the air. But this early in summer, the California wildfires and the Nevada winds haven’t yet begun so when the sun dips beneath the horizon, the sky turns a cool blue-gray, which combined with a very soft zephyr blowing just slightly cooler than the surrounding air, gives us the illusion that the air is blowing off a far-distant ice field. After a day over 100 degrees, even the illusion of coolness feels good.
It has been a long day for my 8-month old daughter and she grows restless and fussy in my wife’s arms. My wife would like to stay up and talk around the campfire while our tinfoil dinners cook, but she announces that she’s going to take our daughter to bed instead.
“I’ll be in as soon as the tinfoil dinners are done,” I say and kiss her and my daughter good night.
While the fire burns down into coals, the stars start appearing overhead in Shash Dinè’s dark sky. Mars and Jupiter are the celestial harbingers, then like popcorn that’s reached its kinetic temperature the stars — pop-pop-pop — begin appearing, dozens, then hundreds at a time. And in the eastern sky, the Milky Way stretches from northern horizon to the southern horizon like a trawler net bursting with bioluminescent plankton while our tinfoil dinners of sausage, carrots and potatoes sizzle on the campfire coals.
It’s about then that our fellow travelers return to Shash Dinè. I met most of them earlier in the day when they checked in, but after that they left again on trips to Horseshoe Bend or dinner reservations in Page.
One of our fellow campers is Laia Valle from Sevilla, Spain who is living in Chandler, Ariz. on a work visa. She took a long weekend to travel parts of northern Arizona. She was delighted when she heard about Shash Dinè and the experience it offered. She is staying in the other sheepwagon.
“This is an amazing opportunity to step into the shoes of a people and a way of life that is gone now, even if I only get to do it for 16 hours,” she said. “I really appreciate the remoteness of it, the quiet and being able to see all the stars so brilliantly.”
I’d like to stay up and hear more traveler’s tales, as the rest of the guests are arriving back at camp and will soon be congregating around the campfire, but the tinfoil dinners are done cooking and my wife and daughter are waiting in the wagon.
I’ll just have to hear their stories in the morning.
Inside our sheepwagon, I find our 8-month old daughter has already fallen asleep after her very busy day. My wife and l open our tinfoil dinners, spread them out on top of our cooler and dig in. Delicious!
The sheepwagon is an authentic sheepwagon with iron rimmed wooden wheels (painted red), and wooden sides (painted green). It has a very cheerful effect on us. It has a canvas roof and walls stretched over curved wooden slats. It has a double bed in the back and two benches along the sides. It has shelves and cupboards to store our belongings. Shash Dinè has two sheepwagons, both of which were restored by a couple in Cave Creek, Ariz.
Before we’ve finished eating, the temperature has fallen into the chilly zone, which makes crawling under the covers in our little wagon that much cozier.
Outside I can hear my fellow travelers gathered at the fire, telling of their travels throughout the Grand Circle, and comparing notes and recommendations on where to go next.
Wherever these travelers move on to next, I guarantee the story they’ll enjoy telling the most around their next campfire or table will be of the night they spent camping on the Navajo reservation, and how they fell asleep under 10,000 stars and the spell of coyotes howling.