Ordinally, the first bite of a roast beef sandwich doesn't transport anyone to lyrical heights, but it did this time. Even better was the swirl of ice-cold soda cascading down our throats.

Deep in the depths of Canyon del Muerto, the Canyon of Death, our truckload of a giant cottonwood tree. Visible through its sun-dappled leaves, an ancient tower of Mummy Cave seemed to brood, its stone and adobe walls still untouched by the searing midday sun. To the northeast, a dark void high atop the black-stained cliff marked the entrance to "Massacre Cave."

"death," "mummy," "massacre,"-sinister and ill-boding names, but misnomers, for this is Canyo de Chelly, a location that has furnished a viable haven for people for 10,000 years. The site, now a 130-acre National Monument in northeast Arizona, comprises two main canyons: the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d-SHAY) and its "Y" branch, the Canyon de Muerto. This spectacularly beautiful geological anomaly has nurtured a succession of cultures by affording protection from invaders and marauders with easily defended passageways and perpendicular cliffs.

The land belongs not to the u.s. government but to the Navajo Tribe, or the Dineh (people), as they call themselves. Within its confines, the tourist is a guest of the Navajos. It is the largest archeological monument in the country and is the only one in which ordinary citizens use the land for their livelihood. The National Park Service administers the area by agreement. No liquor may be bought or sold and the privacy of the people must be respected.

Human history started here with the Archaic Ones, a mysterious, nomadic people of whom little is known. They came and went with little trace. About 350 A.D., the Anasazi basketweavers and pueblo builders entered, eventually to create the magnificent legacy in stone and art forming today's attraction. At the height of their culture, about 1300 A.D., the entire area was suddenly abandoned for unknown reasons. Speculation on the cause includes prolonged drought, hostile invaders or destruction of the farmlands.

In any event, silence fell over the land and for centuries the canyons slumbered undisturbed except for some intermittent farming by Hopi Indians to the south. About 1750, the Navajos were driven from their native New Mexico. Scouting for a new homeland, they found the canyon haven, the gods' reward for the prayers of the medicine men. It would be pleasant to add thatthey lived happily ever after, but the same gods deemed otherwise.

In 1850, after a series of Navajo raids on the surrounding countryside, the Spaniards mounted a punitive expedition that penetrated the Canyon de Muerto from the north. To escape, almost the entire population hid in a fortress cave atop a cliff. But the hiding place was somehow revealed. Result: 115 Indians killed and 33 captured. Thus the saga of what was later named Massacre Cave.

Life waxed and waned for the tribe, which continued its outside raids.Wearying of the constant turmoil, the United States sent a detachment of cavalry under frontiersman Kit Carson to remedy the situation in 1864. Carson, trying to bring about a blood-less subjugation, pursued a "scorched earth" policy. He killed the stock, burned the fruit trees, leveled the crops. The Navajos finally surrendered.

The government ordered the defeated Indians moved to Bosque Rekondo on the Pecos River at Fort Summer, N.M., about 300 miles away-and thus began the tragic "Long Walk." More than 8,000 Navjos tried to exist on marginal reservation lands, but after four years it was obvious they were being destroyed as a people. In June 1868, they were allowed to return to their canyon refuge.

Today herds of sheep horses and donkeys wander the canyon flats. Though the area appears to be arid, there is abundant water year-round just beneath the surface. Small farms dot the wayside and green pastures are abundant. Weaving and metalcrafts provide added income for the canyonpeople.

Happily for the visitor, the lack of publicity and limited accommodations have restricted tourism. The scenic beauty and the archeological sites have been preserved in a relatively pristine state and the hoopla of tourist attractions noticeably absent. Highly touted Mesa Verde National Park, 100 miles away, draws hordes of tourists, severely straining the existing facilities. Littering, vandalism and heavy trail traffic have resulted in ecological and physical damage. To preserve the remains, portions of Mesa Verde have been fenced in, restricted in access or blocked off. With limited time, it is virtually impossible to explore and appreciate the ruins there.

Rim drives as they exist in most national parks and monuments are perfect for the average tourist seeking to hit the salient points quickly. But for anyone interested in pursuing the detail or examining the local way of life, it is necessary to see the srea not from the top down but from the bottom up.

Canyon de Chelly offers both possibilities, starting with spectacular rim views. Then, with your own four-wheel drive vehicle plus a mandatory Navajo guide, you may drive to some of the ruins (notably White House) and explore from the ground up some of the spectacular scenery and archeological wonders seemingly around every turn. If you lack your own vehicle, or wish to penetrate deeper into the canyons, arrangements can be made at the Thunderbird Lodge near monument headquarters or take either a half-or full-day guided tour in converted Armay trucks whimsically termed "buses."

The only other permissible access to the bottom without a guide is a fairly rugged, 45-minute hike from the rim to White House ruin. Allow two hours for the round trip.

The full-day bus trip is heartily recommended. Although it's not easy, it's well worth the discomfort incolved (hot sun, dust, hours). Food and fluids (water and soft drinks are amply provided. Be sure to bring sunglasses, and wear a hat, long-sleeved shirt and pants and comfortable shoes. Buses are topless and one is exposed to the sun for the entire nine hours, except for breaks in the shadows of the cliffs.

The majors ruins in the area are from the Anasazi Pueblo period from 700 to 1300 a.d. Early basketmakers, arriving about 200 A.D., lived in temporary wickiups (huts that looked lide teepees) on the floor of the canyon in summer and in caves in the winter. About 450 A.D., a change to permanent pit houses began. These later developed into kivas, circular covered covered pits used for religious ceremonies. About 700 A.D., when the era of the Great Pueblo began.

For the next 200 years, large, multistoried habitations, often bulit on the ruins of previous buildings, grew into giant pueblos. At the culmination of this development, towers were added either for defense museum at monument headquaters can add appreciably to an understandingof the culture.

There are hundreds of ruins, many tucked in caves or under overhanging cliffs that provided shelter from sun and rain. First, Ledge, Junction, Blue Cow Cave and Sliding Rock Ruins and Mummy Caye Ruin are major attractions, and White House Ruin is the Monument's pride and joy.

Antelope House Ruin, in the Canyon del Muerto, consists of 91 rooms and a four-story structure arranged in three majors blocks connected kivas, square living quarters and storage rooms. Built about 693 A.D., it was continually occupied to about 1260 A.D., when it was abandoned, probably because of flood damage. Its name derives from a series of antelopes painted on the wall near the pueble. The pictographs, dating from about 1830, are attributed to a local Navajo artist, Little Sheep.

Mummy Cave, also in Canyon del Muerto, is one of the largest and most picturesque sites in the area. It derives its name from two mummies found below the cave proper. The complex consists of an east and west cave connected by a central pueblo dominated by a three-storey tower. The ruin, containing 77 rooms and three kivas, starts about 60 feet above ground level. Traces of hand and toe holes chiseled in the rock indicate this was a major method of entry and exit. The tower, built about 1280, was abandoned almost immediately, adding yet another mystery to the canyon.

White House Ruin in the Canyon de Chelly is startling when first seen. Set high in a cave on a sheer cliff like two teeth in a gaint maw, the top half of the ruin is white against cliffs of ochre, maroon and vermillion. The cliffs are streaked top to bottom in brown and black, a result of interaction between groundwater and minerals in the rock. Building started about 1060 a.d. and continued as late as 1275 A.D., on White House, which accommodated more than 100 people.

The outstanding geological feature of the Monument is Spider Rock, far into the Canyon. Carved by the elements from the Chelly sandstone, the monolith soars 800 feet high, only 200 feet less than the height of the canyon walls. According to legend, naughty Navajo children are carried to the top of the tall spire by the Spider Woman, a tribal deity who revealed the art of weaving to the tribe. The white-tinted stone atop the stone needle is supposedly composed of their bleached bones. Scattered throughout the area are pictographs (paintings on the rock surface) and petroglyphs (carved into the rock itself) of great interest. Animals birds, figures, hand outlines and geometric designs dating back 2,000 years abound in caves and walls. The Blue Cow Cave pictographs consist of a large blue-grey cow and a multicolored parade of turkeys and ducks. Another famous pictograph is the Navajo rendering of the Spanish conquistadors, showing armed and armored soldiers and a priest on horses. It depicts what must have been a memorable sight for the artist. The horse had-been extinct in-North America since the Ice Age, and the Spanish reintroduced them to the continent.

The Tomb of the Weaver opposite Anteloped House was the burial spot for one of the Anasazi "greats." In the 1920s, the well-preserved mummy of an old man was found wrapped in a blanket woven from over 1,000 feet of thread made from the down of golden eagles. Under the body was a perfectly preserved white cotton blanket, and over the spot more than two miles of cotton yard and a spindle had been placed. Only a highly respected man would have been accorded such honors.

Although there motels in the city of Chinle,about five miles from the monument, Justin's Thunderbird Lodge near the entrance is unique. It was an active trading post until 1969, and even today includs a store marketing authentic Indian handiwork at reasonable prices. Instead of a restaurant, it has a modest cafeteria. But what it lacks in fanciness, it makes up in color and low prices. Many of the patrons are local Navajos and prices are adjusted accordingly.

For dinner, my wife and I had juice, roll and butter, an excellent beef stew, apple pie and iced tea. Total for two: $5 and change. At a nearby table, an elderly Indian, wearing braid, beaded shirt and a hat with an eagle feather, stoically ate his dinner. His grandson arrived, dressed in a modern business suit. Reflecting the tradition of seeking advice from tribal elders, he solemnly asked, "How's the chili?" CAPTION: Picture 1, Canyon de Chelly by David De Harport-National Park Service; Picture 2, A hogan at Standing Cow ruins. Photos from the National Park service; Picture 3, Weaving and metal-crafts provide added income for the canyon people.