SHIP ROCK (TSE BIT’A’I), THE ROCK WITH WINGS
Thirty miles southeast of Four Corners, on the eastern edge of the Navajo nation, Ship Rock towers more than 1,500 feet above the flat New Mexico desert like a giant clipper ship on a sea of sand and dirt.
The remnant throat of a volcano that erupted around 30 million years ago, Ship Rock was originally nearly a half mile underground. Millions of years of erosion stripped away the softer sandstone and shale around the formation, exposing the harder igneous volcanic rock. In addition to the throat, there are six dikes that radiate outward. The largest of these is five miles long, 150 feet high and just a few feet wide.
Ship Rock is visible for up to 100 miles in some directions. Whether you see it from the Mesa Verde complex up in Colorado or the area near Chaco Canyon to the south, it is easy to understand how such a distinctive landmark became such a central part of the Diné Bahaneʼ, the Navajo creation story.
The ancient Navajo were said to be praying for deliverance from another tribe in the far north when the ground beneath them transformed into a giant bird that flew for a day and a night before finally delivering them to the place where Ship Rock is now. Once there, Cliff Monster climbed on top of the bird’s back and began building a nest that trapped him.
The people sent Monster Slayer, one of the warrior/hero twins that rid the world of monsters, to fight the Cliff Monster. Monster Slayer cut off Cliff Monster’s head and threw it to the east, where it is now called Cabezon peak.
The bird that delivered the people to the southwest was fatally injured during the battle. To remind the people of its sacrifice, Monster Slayer turned the bird to stone. The stone dikes of the monument are said to be the Cliff Monster’s blood that flowed over the bird.
Other stories say that the people lived on Ship Rock after their arrival, descending to farm on the plain below. One day a storm came and lighting struck, destroying the path down and stranding them on the monument above the sheer cliffs. The ghosts of the dead, known as Chindi, still haunt the monument.
Though climbing, camping and hiking on the actual monument is illegal under Navajo Nation law, access to the monument is easy via the Red Rock Highway/Indian service Route 13 that connects to Highway 491/US 666 about seven miles south of the town of Shiprock, NM.
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At-Large Guide to the West James Orndorf was born in Minnesota, but knew at a very young age that the future lay out west. He is currently photographing and illustrating outside of Durango, Colorado.
You can see what he’s up to at inlandwest.tumblr.com and roughshelter.com.