Seeing The World From A Saddle

Riding the Reservation

He was my constant companion in the desert-tall, brown, and handsome. He weighed about half a ton--definitely the strong, silent type. Navajo was his name. His occupation: horse.

I know very little about him except that he didn't complain as we rode up and down canyon walls and through about 150 miles of breathtaking Southwestern scenery. It was some of the greatest fun I've had on a vacation, even though the conditions were rugged and sanitation was strictly...well, I wound up smelling a bit like my four-hoofed friend.

"BURNING DAYLIGHT." I was on a weeklong journey through the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona under the aegis of Equitour, a Wyoming-based travel agency that specializes in horseback vacations (307 455-3363). This $1,100 excursion was a trip through parts of the reservation rarely seen by tourists. And it lived up to its billing in spades.

After making my way by dinky propeller plane from Phoenix to Page, Ariz., to meet the group, we went by truck to Canyon de Chelly, far smaller than the Grand Canyon but rivaling it for sheer beauty. We proceeded through Monument Valley and ended up on the northern shores of Lake Powell. There were six paying riders plus Mel Heaton, a taciturn Arizonan who was our tour leader, and an occasional Navajo guide. Soft-spoken and patient, Mel was a perfect trail boss for us urban cowboys.

The other riders, including myself, were weekend equestrians of no great skill. But not all that much prowess was required. Far more important was experience riding over rough territory and proper gear, particularly regarding the lower extremities. It was not an especially fast ride--for the most part, we plodded along at a walk. Mel allowed us to dash off on occasional lopes. For me, however, the charm of carefree galloping wore off after a week.

Like the other horses, my quiet friend Navajo was astonishingly surefooted, and none of us had a mishap. For the first time, I found myself in total charge of a horse--grooming, bridling, and saddling him every morning. On a typical day, we would rise at about 7 a.m.--"We're burning daylight," Mel would say--and eat a breakfast prepared by a crew of support people who paralleled our trip by truck, carrying our luggage and tents. (O.K., this was not exactly pioneer-style.) We would then ride for three or so hours in the morning, then another three hours in the afternoon. By trip's end, I had earned my merit badge in tent-erection--and outdoor sanitation. My childhood cavalry fantasies were dashed. What did George Armstrong Custer do without Baby Wipes?

The scenery was spectacular. We rode through just about every major part of the magnificent Canyon de Chelly in two days, exploring ruins not seen by tourists. We then were trucked to a bleak spot in mid-desert called Dinnehotso and from there rode on to Monument Valley. Our approach, from the south, gave us vistas usually witnessed only by Navajo herders.

ROUGHING IT. Not all of my experiences were terrific, however. I loved Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and the adjacent Canyon del Muerto. But none of us thought Navajo Mountain was all that scenic. I'd have preferred if we could have gone a bit further to one of the nearby national parks in Utah. Also, the tour literature's promise of "portable shower and toilet facilities" for a "comfortable camping experience" proved not totally correct (two showers in one week and three nights without facilities). Some advance warning would have been nice.

Don't get me wrong, though--in my view, there is no better way of seeing the desert Southwest. Equitour sponsors other trips throughout the world--treks in the Sahara, things like that. So does its chief competitor, FITS Equestrian (800 666-3487). You can also contact horse-trip outfitters. One good sourcebook is Frommer's Horseback Adventuresby Dan Aadland ($14.95; Macmillan General Reference).

I plan to stick with Mel Heaton, who runs Honeymoon Trail Co. in his hometown of Moccasin, Ariz. (520 643-7292). His horses were great, and Mel was relaxed and informative. Also, I kind of miss Navajo. Sure, he was a bit potbellied, and his saddle tended to slip. But we all have our flaws, don't we?

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