A Winter Visit To The Navajo Reservation, USA, 1-2019

A white whisper of snow dusted the sandstone buttes of the Lukachukai mountains that are sacred to our people the Dineh´. Franz and I had come out to the Navajo Reservation for a whirlwind tour to visit family out on the “Rez” with our son and his Austrian girlfriend, who was a first time visitor to the US. We wanted to share with her the beauty of our homelands but were pressed for time due to our guys having to be back in California to give a talk. Can the Southwest be done in 7 days in January? Yep! Enjoyable? You bet! It can be as long as it’s not the worst winter on record and if one focuses on one main destination per day it can be quite doable. The day before we had flown in from San Diego to Albuquerque, New Mexico and we overnighted with family in Placitas. When in the vicinity a must stop is at the iconic Range Cafe in nearby Bernalillo for some local eats and live blues music. 7 days is not a whole lotta time out in the great expanse of the American Southwest. That and a weather front had just dumped substantial snowfall on the route out to Arizona that included several high passes and remote roads. This was of concern as well as the government shutdown which affected the clearing of the highways and had caused the closure of many national parks and monuments. 



As luck would have it the dawn brought sunny skies and clear roads and the Navajo Nation had stepped up to ensure that the highways out on the Rez were maintained. The stars had aligned in our favor. Our route from Placitas via I-40 to Grants, New Mexico included a side tour via Route 66 to check out a Native Basket Array installation at the Fire and Ice Park. The project highlighted the work of local artists who had repurposed satellite dishes and painted them in traditional designs to create unconventional pieces of public art. While there a quick peek in at the New Mexico Mining Museum is well worth the time taken and holds a collection of related artifacts from the area and some tribal art.

Route 40 winds near the ancient El Malpais National Monument where the landscape morphs into unusual basalt formations with dormant volcanic spires and hardened lava flows. The otherworldly terrain was formed from 115,000 to as recently as 2,000 years ago and the local tribes the Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna Pueblo people have inhabited this region for over 10,000 years. One’s imagination can easily take hold out here in the vast spaces of this arid region. And mine did just that as my sister recounted a story that told of large lizards that inhabit the remote lava tubes of this eerie landscape and are said to be voracious eaters that keep the locals and animals away. The 60’s sci fi film Journey to the Center of the Earth came to mind. Creepy! This of course intrigued our guys and Franz set out on foot to check out an underground flume they had spotted on Google Earth and Stefan followed him with a drone recording his progress. I am happy to report that he encountered no flesh eating lizards but perhaps they were hibernating in the winter months only to emerge come spring with ravenous appetites… but regardless of the lack of large reptiles the footage they caught was pretty spectacular! 

The frozen waters of Wheatfields Lake lay silent with only a whisper of falling snow. If one is lucky majestic eagles can be seen perched along the pines lining the shore. The Diné/Biitah Scenic Road winds right past Wheatfields Park at 7300 feet which is known for its trout fishing then steadily climbs the Chuska Mountains until descending into the Lukachukai Valley with the mountains (9466 ft.) in the distance. We spent an evening at the homestead and planned the next day to take in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, just one of the many treasures on Navajo tribal lands.

After a lovely family evening our small group took off to visit a special place in Canyon de Chelly that involves rugged muddy roads and takes effort to get to especially in winter. The view from the point is quite spectacular and mother nature does not get any more beautiful than this. The canyon itself covers 84,000 acres and is about 45 miles long with sandstone faces up to 800 feet tall. Carved into the Defiance Plateau by the Chinle Wash this magnificent gorge is considered sacred to both the Navajo and the Hopi and has been inhabited for over 5000 years and still is today. Prehistoric cliff dwellings and rock art dot the canyon walls with the grande dame spire of them all, Spider Rock (830 ft) presiding over the canyon. Spider Rock, or Na’ashje’ii, is sacred to the Navajo and many stories are associated with her, such as how she taught the Navajo how to weave as well as her ensnaring naughty children in her web that has kept many little kids in check over the years.


We woke to snowfall the following day which kept us from exploring further afield instead we hiked closer to home then cozied up to a warm fire
and played a rousing game of Scrabble. To my dismay one of our native German speakers won the game with a whopping 84 points for the word “question!” Ouch! Our trip out to Lukachukai was way too short but we had to get out to California and opted to drive back with a few stops along the way. With our first time visitor in tow we headed to our next destination via Round Rock and Kayenta to Monument Valley, about a 2 hour drive away. One simply cannot visit Navajo Country for the first time without stopping at the Monument Valley Tribal Park. The rugged buttes, jagged pinnacles, and flat mesas that grace the valley and beyond did not disappoint as they shimmered in the stillness of the January day. Its breathtaking beauty always inspires awe no matter how many times I’ve visited. Traveling the Southwest during the winter is a gamble weather wise, but if the conditions are right one can experience the season when tourism slows to a trickle and can walk about the parks and the visitor centers minus the crowds. It felt as if we had the whole majestic place to ourselves.


Content that our photographers got their shots we hit the road once again with our next stop, the amazing sandstone wonders of Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona. To tour the slot canyons of Antelope Canyon it is necessary to book a guided tour as it is a big tourist destination even in January. We had made our appointment at 3:00 pm with Ken’s Tour at the Lower Antelope Canyon to catch the best possible winter sun rays and there was no way we were going to miss our allotted time.

Our route lead us 2 1/2 hours through the chaparral terrain (6312) of Shonto, Arizona. As we descended from the high plains the placid waters of Lake Powell came into view. It’s hard to miss the second largest man made lake in the US that covers 190 miles in this arid region. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief that the conditions had cooperated and we would make our tour. And it was simply amazing! It was even better than I had anticipated and far surpassed our expectations. Stunning, spiritual, spectacular, sensational and all the superlatives combined, it was that and more. We also had the best Navajo guide possible who was not only friendly but a wealth of knowledge regarding the geology and history of the “Corkscrew” Canyon. And to top it off he was a photographer who could offer advice as to angles and spots to shoot from and for this amateur photographer his tips were most welcome. It turned out visiting in the off season was a good choice as we had heard that during the high season the experience can be trying to say the least. Highly recommend a winter visit!


Admiring the clouds tinged with pink that reflected off the calm surface of Lake Powell we shivered in the evening light. In earlier times in summer we had camped along its shores and water skied though its red sandstone canyons. And it had been wonderful. But that is only one side of Lake Powell. As our photographers busied themselves capturing their footage I pondered the other side of the reservoir that lay before us. That is the controversial history of the flooding of Glen Canyon and the building of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1956. The mega project was conceived by the US Bureau of Reclamation so that the Upper Basin states could fulfill their obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact to deliver a fixed amount of Colorado River water to the Lower Basin states. The plan was ardently contested but the government prevailed and the project went forward resulting in far reaching environmental damage to over 80 side canyons, streams and natural arches, not to mention the loss of habitat to its thriving wildlife. Recreational boating introduced invasive species into the water system and the dam dramatically altered the Colorado River itself. The impact on Native American communities meant that culturally significant places and an unknown number of archeological sites have been lost due to flooding. And it never seems to stop as the disputes over water rights in the arid Southwest continues with the growing demands of urban settlement putting pressure on an already overtaxed river system. As I gazed over the life giving waters of the Colorado mulling over these complicated issues I wished that I could have seen what these ancient lands had looked like before man and his machines had made their mark. These thoughts and memories finally gave way to the more pressing issue of hunger. I put aside my thoughts and was thankful for the joy of my traveling companions. In high spirits we enjoyed the local eats and drinks at a nearby restaurant and reveled in our shared our experience.  


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The Ulm Christmas Market, Ulm, Germany, 12-2017

Towering Gothic spires of the Ulm Minister reached 530 feet into the sky and a nativity scene featuring live animals decorated the entrance to the impressive church dating to 1377. I had convinced Franz to join me on this very cold day to embrace the upcoming holidays along with one million other tourists that visit the famous 2017 Ulmer Weihnachtsmarkt in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The festive Christmas Market was bustling with visitors imbibing both the spirit of the season and the mulled Glühwein spirits as well as enjoying the wooden stalls displaying their wares as they had for many Christmases of yore.


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Liechtenstein Art Museum, Vaduz, Liechtenstein, 11-2017

What to do on a cold rainy day? Chores can always wait. A visit to the Liechtenstein Art Museum in Vaduz, Liechtenstein had been on the list for quite a while and the exhibition Weaving the World by Kim Kimsooja was right up my alley. And the exhibition did not disappoint. The artist who works out of both New York and Seoul used the theme of thread that is woven throughout her work to express the energy emanating from her body to the needle. The energy generated is then released into her performance installations of video, photos, and sculptural work. My favorite was the film piece Thread Routes that traced the native cultural and textile traditions around the world combining both agricultural and natural elements into the work as well. It was an afternoon spent in the company of this jewel of a museum that packs a powerful artistic punch into the Upper Rhine Valley.

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On the Trail of Neanderthals Vogelherd, Germany, 11-2017

Neanderthals have gotten a bad rap in the popular press. Portrayed as a primitive man clad in pelts lugging a club and grunting is an image that many still conjure up. But Neanderthals are only beginning to get the respect that they deserve. I am a big fan and unabashedly fascinated by them. And that is why on an unusually cold day I cajoled my husband to drive many hours to Stetten, Germany to visit the Archaeopark Vogelherd that is one of the latest additions to the UNESCO World Heritage Listing in the Swabian Alb in Baden-Wurttemberg. These six newly inscribed cave sites have been inhabited for 100,000 years and approximately 43,000 years ago during the last ice age Neanderthal man was carving exquisite “animal figurines, musical instruments, and items of personal adornment.” These objects are of such intricate beauty that they alone would dispel the myths of the “primitive cave man.” It was in these caves were found the oldest pieces of figurative art in the world recovered thus far dating from the Aurignacian period. The artwork was carved out of mammoth ivory including a leaping cave lion, a cave bear, and an intriguing man beast.

The Archaeopark Vogelherd site is not only a museum but an interactive outdoor Stone Age hands on exhibition where the visitors can go back in time and experience what life was like during this early period of man’s evolution. We happened to visit late in the season and the park had already closed but it had opened for a special family day and we were the only group in the park. We were treated to an informative tour with a knowledgeable guide who lead us through the entire park where we were able to throw spears, dress in ice age pelt clothing, and build a fire in a tented dwelling. Franz even played a tune on a swan flute from the long ago era. And of course the highlight of what we came to see was the exhibition on the premises of the cave lion and the cave bear sculptures. What a blast into the ice age past.


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The Port in Portugal Porto, Portugal, 8-2017

Strolling along the River Douro on a balmy September evening one could almost inhale the feeling of Porto, Portugal. The royal blue sky framed the darkened slopes that met at the water’s edge. The star of the scene was the silhouette of the Dom Luis Bridge with its sparkling lights glimmering off the midnight blue water. This moment in time could not have gotten any better. Then it did. Because the real star, or satellite, of the show made its dramatic entrance. The gleaming full moon in all its lunar glory rose over the architecture and illuminated the landscape below. One could not helped being enthralled by the magnificence of the heavens as man has been since the beginning of time. This is the image of Porto that I have perched so elegantly on the banks of the Douro.

The evening began as stellar as it had ended. We started out on a dinner quest by hailing a river taxi to the opposite bank in the Afurada neighborhood that just oozed Portguese authenticity. Children played in the streets while the old people watched from the sidewalks and friends called out greetings to each other making for a vibrant street life. We found our restaurant destination the Casa do FC Porto na Afurada that came highly recommended by our host. The eatery is a local’s spot and known for serving up some of the best grilled fish and it’s also the choice for the avid soccer club fans of FC Porto. And do these fans eat well. The fresh seafood was prepared on the barbecue right in front of the restaurant and the combination of the old Porto vibe and succulent food made for a most memorable meal.

The influence that the Catholic church had and still does is quite apparent throughout the city. Within the historic center the must see sights abound such as the the Sào Francisco Church (1383) with its striking Gothic architecture and its dramatic Baroque interior. Other religious sites we took in were the soaring 75 meter Clèrigos Tower that’s hard to miss on the skyline. And situated on the opposite bank in Gaia perches the 16th century Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar whose church and cloisters display a circular columned design that is unique in Portugal. We also took a tour which offered us insight not only into the monastery as a religious institution but to its defensive importance due to its geographic situation that was and still is used by the military.

The nature of the city is expressed in its humble fishing and working boats that possess great character despite their peeling paint and are moored by frayed lines strewn with brown kelp along the river estuary. The worn watercraft lean beached among the algae rocks and lobster cages when the tidal action lays bare the debris from the working harbor. And the pungent air reeks of decaying fish and the natural smells of the ocean. Birds of all kinds forage in the shallow waters where it flows out to the Atlantic Ocean . The aging fleet is as colorful as the people who work at the water’s edge whose lives revolve around the harvesting of the oceans bounty and the transportation of the all important Port wine. The most recognizable of the watercraft is the traditional Portuguese wooden Rabelo boat. This elegant yet durable boat was used for centuries to transport people and goods along the Duoro River. But by far its most precious cargo was the product of what this city was named for its delicious Port wine.

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Surreal Seradina-Bedolina Archeology Park, Capo di Ponte, Italy, 8-2017


The half moon shone radiant against the sapphire sky as the morning sun lit the sandstone peaks across the valley. As I paused to take in the rugged grandeur of the Seradina Bedolina Municipal Archaeological Park and wondered how many sunrises have these mountains seen and by whom? Questions such as these is what lured Franz and I to this ancient site in Capo di Ponte, Italy.  The Camonica Valley holds more than 150 engraved rocks with inscriptions and a thousand figures that depict the long ago dwellers in their daily and religious life as well as in more aggressive activities such as in hunting and fighting. The engravings span from the Late Prehistoric through the Roman Age with the majority dating from the Iron Age. The most famous engravings include the “Rock of the Map” and the symbol of Lombardia, the Rosa Camuna.


The petroglyphs are found on the western side of the valley and the conditions created from the sunny mountainside allows for an interesting combination of succulents and cacti along with a variety of alpine flowers set among the low growing evergreens. We were amazed at the access of the park that was unregulated with limited signage warnings but for the most part visitors were free to roam the park at will. We even came upon a group camping site with children running about despite it being set among the ancient petroglyphs.

To gain a more in depth knowledge of the area we ventured to the commune of Capo di Ponti where the Camonica Valley National Museum of Prehistory is located. The museum was well worth the time and included an extensive collection of engraved steles and menhirs along with informative and interactive exhibitions that are a treasure trove for history buffs like me. Each floor focused on a theme ranging from the sacred and religious sites to material culture offering the viewer a greater understanding of the region’s earlier inhabitants and a fascinating look into their past.


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Beauteous Bienno, Italy, 8-2017

Strolling up the thoroughfare into the old town center of Bienno, Italy my eye was caught by a stately house whose gate was slightly ajar and I could glimpse the garden that lay beyond. My curiosity got the best of me and I just had to have a peek. Inside revealed a lovely courtyard with manicured lawn and hedges. As I admired the setting an older gentlemen greeted me and I excused myself for being a “looky loo” explaining that I had been enticed by the beauty of his home. He was gracious and invited me in and gave me a tour of his garden and patio. Workers were busy readying the premises for a family party the next day. And what event it was going to be. Inside the patio he had an automated spit to roast an entire pig with enough seating and settings for a small army. He told me the following day his large family was coming to visit for the beginning of the arts and culture festival the Mostra Mercado that is held every August and is the highlight of their summer season.

The friendly conversation with the local gentleman was our introduction to Bienno and this hospitality continued as Franz and I wandered the ancient walkways of what has been voted “One of Italy’s most beautiful cities.” We took in the fine ironwork and colorful facades and found the shop owners welcoming and their products were not of the typical variety found in many tourist towns. One such establishment was a traditional leather maker who not only fashioned custom shoes but created scabbard sheaths for swords. Another fascinating building was the Forge Workshop whose facade displayed the artistic work that this “iron born” town had been known for in supplying tools and weaponry. Overlooking the village is a fifteenth century water mill that is still in use and was manned by an elderly couple that sell the freshly ground products. Bienno brought back to life its proud past and is a testament to its amiable people and their creative craftwork all nestled into the fairytale mountain valley.


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Captivating Carvings Val Camonica, Italy, 8-2017

The turquoise sky was cloudless and the temperature was climbing as Franz and I made our way into the forest canopy in the Camonica Valley near Brescia, Italy. The coolness of the air beneath the trees combined with the early morning solitude lent a feeling that we were stepping back into time. And we were for these mountains had been formed during the Ice Age when glaciers cut out the deep valleys and polished the gray sandstone. It was upon these rocks that the early valley dwellers pecked away at the hard stone to leave their markings on the surfaces. Over time they left an extraordinary prehistoric record that we had come to see as we made our way into the Naquane National Park of Rock Engravings. This historic area was chosen as the first recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site established in Italy in 1955.

The Naquane Park covers over 14 hectares of rock art land and holds 104 engraved rocks whose chronology ranges from the Neolithic (5th-4th millennium BCE) to the Iron Age (1st millennium BCE) when the region was inhabited by the Camunni and and it is these people who are best represented. The stone surfaces tell the story of man’s inhabitation in the valley including a thousand human stick figures found in numerous postures portraying them from hunting to fighting and even dancing. Village life is depicted in daily living situations and is complete with scenes of religious life ranging from what is interpreted as shamanistic rituals and divine like images. Camunian inscriptions and symbolic symbols are found as well. Taken as a whole it is no wonder that the park was chosen over the incredible historical treasures that this country holds and attests to the singular importance of the landmark .

The Camonica Valley has more than its share of historical significance as well as an array of good food and wine that rivals any in Italy, but there is one downside to the region and that is the northern access into the valley itself.  Franz and I even came up with a new table for us which we dubbed the “barfometer.” Unfortunately the road we took rated a 10. Our chosen route represented on google maps did not mirror the reality of the seemingly endless WINDING road. At one point I came close to giving up on our destination but with Franz’s optimistic “we’re almost there” I persevered and was happy that I had. Just a heads up unless one drives from Milan the road in is not the most “motion friendly” route.


Despite the challenging drive the Valley was fascinating. We stayed at a local Airbnb the Valtili’-Camera Blu in Berzo Demo which had just opened. The family was gracious, the breakfast superb, the rooms were modern and tastefully decorated, and the location overlooking the Po River offered easy access to the major routes. The nearby Ristorante Pizzeria Piz Tri served up well priced and delicious local food and with a smile too. Our sojourn to Val Camonica was a blast to the prehistoric past but with good eats. This Natives kind of journey.


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