Something magical is happening between mileposts 536 and 537 on US 89 south of Page, Arizona.
Here, in the northwest corner of the Navajo Nation, Baya Meehan offers a bed and breakfast experience unlike anything else. Shash Diné Eco-Retreat is located about half a mile from the paved highway, but it’s way off the beaten path.
Guests are asked to arrive before the sun goes down, wear closed-toe shoes and bring sunscreen and hats. Meehan, the 36-year-old co-owner of the bed and breakfast, provides the rest: accommodations in a traditional Navajo hogan or canvas tent, cots, linens, fresh drinking water, lanterns, a wood-burning stove and a self-composting toilet. There’s also a bucket of water in case guests want to shower.
In the morning, Meehan, who grew up on this working ranch and now lives here with her husband and two toddlers, serves traditional blue corn mush, coffee and a variety of seasonal fruits.
“We call it a glamping B&B,” Meehan said of her enterprise, now operating for three years.
Glamping, or glamorous camping, is the latest trend in vacation destinations. It combines luxury travel experiences with the intimacy of camping.
“It’s kind of the buzzword right now,” Meehan said. “But there’s all these new buzzwords out there like permaculture and green and sustainability. All of that is what we were aiming toward. We want all of that, but totally Native, totally Navajo.”
Shash Diné is filling a niche, said Lee McMichael, tourism director for the city of Page. An estimated 2.5 million people pass through Page every year, where they visit attractions like Lake Powell or Glen Canyon Dam.
But a recent, year-long survey of visitors found that a large percentage of them wanted a “cultural experience,” McMichael said. That’s where Shash Diné comes in.
“The Navajo Nation is on the other side of our property line,” he said. “What better concept is there to have than something that embraces that culture? Shash Diné is not an attraction, but an experience. You get to touch and feel and live that life for a night.”
Meehan, a Navy veteran, left the reservation as a young adult in search of adventure. She returned three years ago to the family homestead, where she and her husband, Paul, started the bed and breakfast and raise a variety of animals, including Navajo churro sheep, Nubian goats, horses, chickens, peacocks and “very unique ducks.” The particular breed of crested ducks have large puffs feathers on their heads.
Meehan’s family history can be traced back 15 generations on these grazing lands. Hogans her ancestors built are still standing, and her family tells stories of the nearby canyons where forebears hid during the 1860s when the U.S. Army rounded up the Navajo and forced them to march to Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Not much has changed in the generations since, Meehan said. Although the ranch is located just 12 miles south of Page, it lacks most modern conveniences. Meehan still hauls water, and neither her home nor the bed and breakfast is hooked up to electricity.
But that’s the charm of Shash Diné, Meehan said. Guests, who can book a stay through a menagerie of Internet sites, still have to work to get here.
For starters, Shash Diné cannot be found by GPS. Instead, guests have to follow a set of uncomplicated—but perhaps uncomfortable—old-fashioned directions that include mileposts, landmarks and stretches of lonely dirt roads. The directions lead guests to a wide but secluded valley where they can experience a “quality interaction” with the Navajo culture, Meehan said.
“People come here and they can see a slice, just a peek, at what it’s like to be out here and how we live,” she said. “If someone is just coming off the road and they want almost total immersion in nature or a slice of Navajo culture, then that’s what we’re here for.”
Not all guests know what they’re getting in to when they reserve a night at Shash Diné, however. Meehan said she fields all kinds of questions from guests who have never been camping, or who arrive at the ranch uncomfortable or even fearful when they see the dirt floor and paneless windows in the hogan.
“They ask me if it’s safe,” she said. “They ask if we can do something about the insects. They ask why we don’t have water.”
But even for the most anxious guests, something often changes overnight, Meehan said.
“They’re out there in the quiet, with the earth and the stars,” she said. “They let go and something happens to them overnight. When I take them breakfast, they say it was the best night of their lives.”
For Meehan, who experienced the same thing when she returned home after so many years away, the explanation is simple. The bed and breakfast offers a return to a simpler life, a connection with nature and a glimpse at a rich and colorful culture.
“A long time ago, people just used to call this life,” she said.
This story was originally published September 23, 2015.