“See that rock formation over there, and the other skinnier one in the distance?” Jon Yazzie says, “they represent the story and fate of Big Snake and Owl Maiden. Big Snake came from what is called Sugar Loaf near Mexican Hat, Utah slithering its way down, and eventually ending up coiled around Agathla Peak or (what Kit Carson called) “El Capitan.” The Owl promised to look over Big Snake until he came back to life again. Owl is frozen in sandstone looking right at big snake on Agathla Peak.” Having passed through Kayenta countless times, driving from the southwest US to Moab, or further into Colorado, these prominent volcanic plugs and sandstone towers rising iconically out of a sea of sandy fields and sandstone mesas have always caught my eye. As we rested there just a few miles into the ride, legs slung overloaded bikes attempting to absorb everything Jon was telling us about the surrounding landscape, I knew this was going to be a special weekend.
Since moving to the Phoenix area nearly three years ago, I’d heard stories from friends about Jon and his exploration of bikepacking routes throughout the Navajo landscape. I also recently read the somewhat infamous New Yorker article Extreme Cyclists of the Navajo Nation and could only imagine the potential to create all types of trails (even those of the technical enduro variety featured in the article) across the expansive Moab-esque slabby expanse. Needless to say, I was intrigued. But the area appeared closed off; somewhere I could only experience from the window of my truck. There are no documented or permitted Kayenta area trails that I know of and – without a deep understanding of the Navajo land management system – not an appropriate place to just ride around and “explore.” So, when the opportunity arose to help Jon test out and photograph an initial route for his burgeoning bikepacking guide company, Dzil Ta’ah Adventures, I was all in.
After a 5:00am departure from Phoenix, me and two other bikepacking connoisseurs, Bryan and Chanel, arrived at Jon’s house in the middle of Keyanta and were ready to ride. Bryan, having heard of the amount of sand on the trail, was equipped with his rigid steel fat bike. Chanel, always crushing singlespeed, kept it simple on her Honzo 27.5+. I also ran 27.5+ but, fortunately for my old legs, had gears. Jon, a former racer sidelined due to an ankle injury, rode his single speed 29+ OptimusTi with one of the cleanest double stem bag cockpits I’ve seen.
From Kayenta we pedaled down the highway and then to a washboard dirt road following Comb Ridge into the mesas outside of town. The ultimate destination would be an overnight camp on the edge of a mesa overlooking Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. To get there, it took nearly six hours riding and pushing loaded bikes through sand-covered double track, and up, through, and over sand dunes to a series of stacked sandstone ledges and mesas. Describing her experience, Chanel recalled: “Riding through the Nation had an increased notion of remoteness. Every step feels different when you’re pushing your loaded bike through a half-foot of sand uphill, exposed to the sun.”
While Bryan’s giant tires trudged through the sandy lower elevations most efficiently, Jon seemed to effortlessly stay right with him. Thinking back about his bike choice, Bryan told me, “it’s a rare occasion, but the fat bike was the perfect machine for the ride. This summer’s lackluster monsoon season left our route dry, with us traversing loose dirt and hills of sand dunes. After letting some air out of those fat tires, that bike just cruised through what should have been soul-sucking sand.” Though the terrain was challenging, the awaiting sandstone slabs and endless views overlooking the surrounding valley made the effort well worth it. Once at camp, the reality of it being shoulder season in northern Arizona set in. We all packed fairly light; Chanel in particular. “Sleeping under the Hunter’s Moon,” she remembers, “the first full moon after the autumnal equinox, and watching the moonlight play on the beguiling formations throughout the night, was humbling. The temperature was brisk, but I stayed warm in a bivy beneath a picnic table near the embers.”
Perhaps an even more memorable aspect than riding across the beautiful landscape with Jon was absorbing his knowledge of Navajo history — his descriptions of how this history intersects with Western “science,” as well as the physical manifestations within the landscapes and features all around us. And why slowing down to experience it all on a loaded bike makes sense. He pontificates about all of the possibilities, from linking the entire Navajo migration route by bike to the seemingly endless shorter route options closer to home. Looking out across a valley toward Comb Ridge, Jon tells us: “Another great ride connecting sheep trails and broken sandstone is Kayenta to Mexican Hat via Comb Ridge. I love that one for the same reasons. History! Comb Ridge has numerous round impressions that range from 50ft to 300ft. In the Dine (Navajo) cultural, when the current sun and moon paths were being created the holy ones would place them on the ground as they tried to align the best route. Those huge sandstone bowls are where they sat. Comb Ridge was also a major trade route for the Ancestral Puebloans. This is evident in the number of granaries, shards, and petroglyphs on the rocks in just several miles in either direction. Someday I’d like to ride the whole length of the ridge from Kayenta to Elk Ridge to Bear Ears.”
Jon has been riding, bikepacking, and exploring Navajo lands for years and wants to share his knowledge and experiences with others. During our time with him, we learn about the Dine people and how they identify with four clans: maternal, paternal, maternal grandfather and paternal grandfather. “My first and mother’s clan is Dzil ta’ah – Kiyaa’aanii,” he tells us, “the Kiyaa’aanii translates as The Towering house clan and is the original clan of the Dine and Dzil Taa’ah is a subgroup of that clan. Dzil Ta’ah means “near the mountain” and is also the name of the bikepack/adventure company we are starting. We (Nadine and I) went with that because of our location to Black Mesa just southwest of us. We are at the base of it or “near the mountain.” Also, my maternal grandmother is from just over the mesa from a place called Forest Lake. Nadine (Jon’s partner) is from up there as well. So it was fitting. On a recent ride, an elderly local told me that he was born for Kiyaa’aanii and that the clan group use to reside up and down the western side of Cane valley where we are riding today.”
Each time we stop to catch our breath or have a snack he tells us a different historical or cultural aspect of the surrounding terrain, explaining: “A big part of the reason I love to ride locally is the history of the landscape. Everything from the Ice-age paleo-indian hunters, the Anasazi culture, Dine creation myths and the vicissitudes of present day. What I hold dear is how the geographical landscapes bring Dine stories alive. This area is significant to me because of my upbringing. I was raised with traditional beliefs and some of the stories told to me of emergence of the people into the four worlds are brought to life in geography.”
Straight out of Judy Pasternak’s Yellow Dirt, the area to the east of where we ride features remnants of a more recent history, with scars left over from the 1940s uranium mining boom. A tour of that zone would reveal visible drilled holes where the land was blown apart to extract carnotite, makeshift airports for Washington execs, and even a tailings pile. With other mines in the area shutting down over the years (including the coal-powered Navajo Generating Station slated to close in December 2019) Jon recognizes an opportunity to invite tourism into his backyard, helping to support the local economy. But not just any tourism – sustainable tourism in the form of building a bikepacking community on Navajo land. Jeep tours have their place, but he likes the idea of human power and meaningful results that come from bikepacking trips, both mental and physical. Jon strives for bikepacking culture to be welcomed in Kayenta, as exemplified by those of us who leave the landscape better than we find it, in addition to serving as advocates for locals.
“What an absolute privilege to have been a part of this trip,” Bryan remarked. “Jon’s willingness – dare I say “excitement” – to play host, guide, and teacher to us on Dine land has made for such a unique experience. I feel like we were on an adult field trip set in the most beautiful landscape.” Dzil Ta’ah Adventures’ mission statement is to provide backcountry cultural experiences on Navajoland and Jon is passionate about leading rides and teaching others about the Navajo people, geography, and culture. He is working to procure an inventory of bikes and gear for guests to rent or use. As a L3C company, it’s all out of pocket and will take time to build out. While Jon has many routes proposed for future permitting, right now he has a few established tourist routes and is currently booking guided single and multi-day trips out of Four Corners Guides in Mancos, CO.
Culturally and logistically (and oftentimes legally), guidance is imperative when exploring Navajo land. Jon is passionate about hosting guests, going beyond route-finding and navigating permits. The richness of my experience left me with the realization that I probably learned more in a weekend with Jon than I have in three years of exploring Arizona on my own.