My trip to the Southwest this summer took me to the Navajo Nation, where mystery writer Tony Hillerman set his Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee books. I saw first-hand the sculpted landscape and the people that make his novels so engaging for me.
Tony Hillerman, who died in 2008, wrote 18 books in the popular Navajo mystery series set in the Four Corners area where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet. The majority of the region belongs to semi-autonomous Native American nations. The Navajo reservation is the most vast, covering 27,425 square miles, mostly in Arizona. It stretches from northwest New Mexico to the Grand Canyon, where Hillerman’s Navajo policewoman Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito finds herself tracking a criminal in Skeleton Man.
Hillerman has a wonderful way of drawing readers in by weaving the Navajo culture, religion, and mysticism into his stories. Many of the book titles exemplify this. For example, The Listening Woman is a blind shaman who speaks of witches and restless spirits, People of Darkness refers to members of a peyote church (a cult) called the People of Darkness, and Coyote Waits is titled for the belief in many Native American traditions that the coyote is a mischievous trickster and a mythical figure embodying chaos. Also, Chee is studying to be a traditional Navajo healer.
Linda, my traveling companion, and I read most of his Navajo books several years ago. When the PBS Mystery series came out, we watched the three that had been adapted for television (Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, and A Thief of Time). Approaching Shiprock, we were about to discover Hillerman’s Navajo Land.
We started our trip in Santa Fe but worked our way northwest to the Navajo reservation for the last few days. Linda was excited about going to Shiprock, where the fictional Jim Chee is based, and wanted to spend time downtown and have lunch. When we pulled into Shiprock, we didn’t see a downtown. We bought gas and asked the cashier where it was. “This is it,” she said. “There’s no real downtown.”
The town is basically a strip of gas stations, fast food joints, and uninteresting shopping centers along Highway 64. I couldn’t imagine where the Tribal Police Office would have been. However, Shiprock is distinguished by the rock edifice Shiprock that can be seen for miles. A 7,177 foot high rock mountain, the Navajo call it Tsé Bit’ a’ í, meaning rock with wings. However, it gets its name because it resembles a 19th century clipper ship.
Just outside of Shiprock, we turned onto Indian Route 13, where I pulled off the road for our closest view of the geologic Shiprock. In the book The Fallen Man, the remains of a man, along with his climbing gear, are found on a ledge under the peak of Shiprock. Miles away in Canyon de Chelly, a sniper on the rim of the canyon shoots an old canyon guide. The newly retired “Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn, now living in the Navajo capital, Window Rock, connects the skeleton of the fallen man to the sniper.
As we continued toward Canyon de Chelly, our destination for that evening, I could well imagine Leaphorn, the younger Chee, and Bernie tracking criminals through the mesas, canyons, arroyos, and red sandstone hills we passed. It’s wide-open country with two-lane roads, sparse traffic, the occasional spattering of small houses, and no ugly billboards.
By early afternoon, we reached Chinle, where we stayed in the Sacred Canyon (formerly known as Thunderbird) Lodge for our exploration of Canyon de Chelly. I thought of the old canyon guide in Fallen Man when our own old canyon guide, Ben Teller, a Navajo man with grandchildren, took us out in his four-wheel drive truck/van to see the cliff houses, petroglyphs, and rock art on the steep walls of the canyon. It had rained ferociously the evening before, so the canyon valley was muddy and its streams were high. Ben, who has been a guide most of his life, faced every challenge the storm left and won.
He took us to his home, which is across from Antelope House, the ruins of an ancient dwelling inhabited by the Anasazi (the Navajo word for ancient ones). Hopi and Pueblo Indians are their descendants, and it was the ancient Puebloans, who found this canyon an inviting place to live. Hillerman mentions the Anasazi and petroglyphs in his books. In A Thief of Time, Leaphorn and Chee search for a missing anthropologist, thieves who have ravaged an Anasazi ruin, and a killer who has left two bodies at the site.
After leaving Canyon de Chelly, we drove to Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation and home of Joe Leaphorn. Window Rock, named for a rock formation that resembles a window, is also the end of the Nation. When you leave the town heading east, you’re out of Chee and Leaphorn’s jurisdiction.
Hillerman lived in Albuquerque, which is not a long drive from Window Rock and the Navajo Nation. He served as president of Mystery Writers of America, received every major honor for mystery fiction, including the Edgar Award, France’s Grand Prix de Literature Policiere, the Western Writers of America’s Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement, and, of course, the Navajo Tribal Council’s commendation
It is one thing to read Hillerman’s books and imagine these places and quite another to actually see and experience them. It’s a whole other world – a fascinating one –from the Anglo world I’m used to. This is a quiet place of ancient ruins and primitive art, of bright colors and sharp edges, as well as rounded curves, and of a proud people. It’s also full of secret places for criminals to hide.
Have you visited sites where books you’ve read are set? How did you feel about actually seeing the places, and how did they compare with the authors’ descriptions?