The sun hit the zenith over the eastern border of Navajo Nation as I pulled into the gas station off the 191. I was starting to get that stiff feeling behind my eyes from driving. The drunk man in front of the knockoff “7&11” swayed in his blue jeans and a faded black t-shirt. His brown cheeks and thin mustache sagged from beneath a baseball cap and dirty black fishing glasses. He staggered after a patron leaving the store who waved him off.
As I walked towards the automatic doors, he turned on me, asking,
“Hey man, can you help me out with a couple of bucks?”
“Not today,” I said, moving quickly into the store.
The store was like any other white linoleum hell that ministers to gas stations. Stepping into air conditioning is overrated after your body has accepted the heat. Still, it works to reset the Etch-a-Sketch senses. The florescent lights force the vision to take refuge in beer advertisements and other dark surfaces, and the act of shopping crowbars the eyes from the back of the skull where they’ve become stuck staring at endless highway with minimal plot changes. The limbs receive blood gratefully. I have no memory of what I bought; It was probably caffeine.
Back in the car with my road atlas, I scan routes to Hopi Nation via Navajo Nation. The Kokopelli carving I’d found by the garbage can in Canyon de Chelly Nat’l Monument that morning dances in my cupholder. He is supposed to be a kind of deity, but I know nothing about him.
Just then, a knock came at the driver’s door. I turned to see the drunk man swaying. He gestured to roll down my window. I held his stare for a few beats and did nothing, but eventually I caved and rolled it down.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Hey, man… I’m from–,” he burped quietly into his fist, “south of here, and I’ve been tryna get some money together to get back home and take care of my family… Could you help me out with a couple a bucks? It’d mean a lot to me…”
I felt cornered. I opened a small compartment to the lower left of the steering column, removed one of four dollar bills and handed it to him. He took it, eyeing the rest of the money, and took off his fishing glasses.
“Can I have another? … Pleeease.” His face squeezed tears and spittle from the corner of his mouth. I felt disgust and anger well up in me, at him and myself.
“I didn’t have to give you the last dollar.” I replied.
“Ok, fine. Thanks. And God bless.”
He moved away from the car towards two other Natives leaning against the 7&11. One man, older, donned a massive belt buckle, fancy button-up shirt and a bolo tie. His white cowboy hat shaded the sunglasses that hid his eyes. A toothpick was held lightly between his fingers that he softly inserted into his wrinkled mouth. The other man was stocky and stone-faced. The soft-cheeked drunk walked to him and handed him the dollar.
The man takes the dollar and ignores him. The stocky man leans in and whispers to the old Indian, who nods but says nothing. The drunk cranes his neck towards the south with an eye to the horizon, like a pit bull who lustfully tracks the fence line. I can’t tell if this old man is some kind of gangster or what. Does he pay his enforcer to bully the drunk? Or does he pay the drunk with drink to continue begging? Or, does the beggar simply beg, the gangster tax, and the enforcer bite? Perhaps the truth is much deeper than money, booze, and fences.
Perhaps I’m in the wrong parking lot.
I drive west into the Navajo Nation. I cannot believe I just gave a drunk Native American money for booze. By many greater degrees, it is the most politically-incorrect act I have ever committed after the time I accidentally said ‘gracias’ to a Chinese waitress. You can condone drunks in your own town, maybe kick them pocket change. But this place was not my home, and I did not want to encourage their burdens.
In Kayenta, I send out postcards before heading south into Hopi Nation. On the way in, I buy some cupcakes from a little girl and her brother selling pastries from the bed of a pickup truck. They are mustard yellow like the mesa with turquoise blue frosting as sky.
A rusting trestle bridge leads further up the mesa into the high chaparral. Abandoned mining equipment sits in dry grass the sides of the road. The blue sky opens wide above a gradually expanding horizon as I climb higher and higher onto the mesa. The Peabody Mining Company has signs everywhere. Some say, “Let’s prevent more accidents this month!” or nondescript “private property” postings. A long conveyor belt runs along the road, covered by a weathered metal plate. It looks like a snake stretching from the mine shafts ahead, like bullet-holes into the earth, down towards the shipping yard at the base of the mesa. The intricate engineering of the snake, flowing between the sequential industrial buildings, are as alien to the high desert landscape as an arrow shaft embedded in flesh.
There are more romantic opinions of economy, job creation, and the progress of man, but one forgets that narrative as you see the hankering mosquito of civilized industry drawing out the riches of the earth to run power grids, services livelihoods — and keeping street lamps humming, casinos blinking, cinemas rolling, and traffic lights flashing.
The plateau is not flat in a typified sense. Not like Monument Valley or a Road Runner cartoon. It is an open cloudless prairie covered with shrubs, pinion tree, and powder green sage. The road becomes sandy dust, corrugated and uneven. My car bounces around like a small craft hit by ocean swells, creaking bulkheads and manifolds banging against the uneven pot holes, violently vibrating my seat. I slow down, reducing the epic dust cloud thrown up behind my hatchback.
I wonder if I’m closer to the Hopi Nation. I pull over at a crossroad behind a pueblo on the mesa. After futility consulting my road atlas, I pull out the old CD binder. I flip through CDs from junior high through the junior college years. A dark pickup truck with two Native women passes me, stops, then backs up.
“Where you headed?”
“I’m going to Hopi Nation.”
“Third Mesa, I think.”
“Come on, we’re headed that way.”
I tossed the CD book behind me and inserted a random mix. I kept my distance due to the dust. Where before I’d felt rude for driving too fast, these women corrected that feeling by hauling ass and making me keep pace. The road was so unmaintained that we had to swerve like rally cars to save our shocks from the gaping maws of erosion. The road wound up and down for almost an hour with no sign of other traffic. The CD played something from the late pubescent years. I didn’t know where I was at all.
After an hour we exited the dirt and entered a more open landscape. I burned out on the mix CD and turned on an AM station that was completely in Navajo. The language is filled with strange sounds with random cameos by newer words like ‘cellphone’, ‘internet’, or phone numbers spoken in English. Just hearing the sound of a language that had been spoken on this continent prior to English was temporally and culturally disorienting.
Clouds began to choke the sunlight as rains intermittently appeared and vanished. More cars passed now as we came to a T-intersection of paved road. The women pulled over, and I followed suit, got out, and walked to the passenger window. They let me know to keep right, follow the signs, but it wasn’t far off.
“Are you a journalist?” asked the passenger.
“Well, I’d like to be,” my mouth said without thinking. “I graduated last May, so I’m just escaping right now.”
“See?” said the passenger to the driver. “I told you he was a journalist!”
The road descended past the Hopi Cultural Center towards Kykotsmovi Village and Third Mesa. Old Oraibi on Third Mesa was one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. The cinderblock homes sat on stone and beam homes buried deep in the earth, reaching down almost a thousand years. I didn’t know what I was looking for there. I wanted to meet the Hopi, but not as a tourist or a shopper.
The sun sank towards later afternoon. I’d have to find a place to car camp where I wasn’t an imposition. Down the road was a dilapidated building called White Bear Art Gallery. The facade was unpolished, and appeared to have a living unit attached to it. Out front were several older SUVs. The building was red brick with white bars on the windows, a neon “open” sign, and rotted poles painted red thrusting forward from the flat-angle roof. I pulled up hoping to find a place to sleep for the night.
The floor of the studio was pocked with pottery shards stuck into glossed cement. In the center of the room, beautifully crafted boxes were arranged around a large carving of a woman holding a basket of corn. To the left were display cases with buckles, jewelry, and precious stones. The back walls had three sets of shelving to either side of a central fireplace, above which was a kind of swastika-shaped mandala. I later learned it is called “whirling log” and represented the diaspora of the Hopi. The three shelves were mostly peopled with Kachina dolls carved of cottonwood, but some ceramic pieces were also displayed.
In the right corner of the studio was a man slumped in a metal folding chair, carving away at a figurine. He looked up from his doll and said hello with kind surprise. He was sort of sad looking behind his glasses, carving the wood away revealing the character within. Another man sat to his right on the north wall, also carving a doll, but he seemed more energetic in his knife work. They both had black hair and clean brown skin. A third man, considerably older, stood to the left by the fireplace. Where the first man was in sweats and a t-shirt, the second in shorts and t-shirt, the third wore jeans and a tucked in button-up shirt, bolo tie, and a baseball cap. They were all speaking when I walked in and didn’t hide their topic.
“Oh, we were just talking about the hardships of the Hopi,” said the first man. Shaking his head, “Don’t know how we’re gonna make it.”
“Here, let me get you a chair,” offered the old man, reaching for a seat and opening it.
“Can we get you some tea?” asked the first man.
They brought me a cup of hoihoisah tea, made from a common local herb and lots of sugar.
“Thanks.” I said.
“Not a problem, it’s what we’re here for,” said the first man.
I inserted myself in the conversation. Dan, the older man, owned the studio that Sam and Michael peopled with Kachina figurines. We went back and forth, and to my surprise, it was very easy to be a guest here. They had warmth to them, gallows humor and real dilemmas. There was the sensation of saying several things at once. Dark subjects seemed at times hilarious, and matters of tradition somewhat oppressive. Without a real explanation, I fit right in.
I sat next to the second man, named Sam, to see his work closer. Since we were near the subject, I decided to ask about clowns. Hopi clowning had been of interest to me since before I could recall. I don’t remember where I first saw the image of the famous Koshari clowns – their bodies striped black and white, bells on their limbs and twin corn husk horns jutting from the crown. I knew nothing of the way Hopi practiced those ceremonies today.
“When a Hopi dresses as a clown, is it like acting or channeling?” I asked the second man.
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“I mean, does the man pretend to be the Kachina or does he let his body act as a conduit for the spirit of the Kachina?” I said.
“Yeah, that one, the second,” he nodded, “He’s a channel for the spirit.”
I perused the Katchinas exhibited in the shelving. They continued to mull over serious issues in the Hopi culture, from interfamily matters, to men and women relations, and contact with non-Hopi peoples as threatening influences to Hopi ways of life. Their willingness to reveal the conditions of life on the reservation made me feel trusted, if not familial. There was no lack of gravitas, yet they didn’t take themselves terribly seriously. They seemed almost willing to laugh every threat off. By not taking things too seriously, or by switching to funny things intermittently, they were able to share their communal concerns without becoming debilitated.
“How many Kachinas are there?” I asked.
“Oh, about 400. You just missed the last ceremony that was open to the public. The Kachinas are gone now, back to San Francisco Peak – next to Flagstaff. They’ll return in February.”
“I drove through Flagstaff,” I offered.
“Oh yeah? How’d you like it?” asked the first man.
“It was surprisingly green. You look at Arizona on a map and you think desert.” I say, “But Canyon de Chelly was amazing – I camped there last night.”
“That’s a beautiful spot there,” offered the third man. “The Navajo run it.”
“I found a carving on the ground there.” I went to the car and got Kokopelli from the cup holder. It was a carving of a character playing a flute on a slab of red rock the size of my palm, the opposite side painted turquoise.
I didn’t understand symbols like whirling log, Kachinas, or Kokopelli from the Hopi perspective. Those ideas had been framed for me by marketers and the one Native American Studies class I’d taken at junior college.
“Oh, that’s Kokopelli,” said the second man, as if it were a picture of a community member. “Where’d you get him?”
“It was in the bushes by a trash can,” I said.
He examined it. “The Navajo were probably selling it and left it behind.” He handed it back to me.
It is said that a clown shows us how to be a good member of society by demonstrating the opposite behavior. The Koshari, a subset of clowns, are known to make havoc and display socially irresponsible behavior. They are gluttons and louts! They invaded the most sacred of rituals to fart and belch. They do not respect personal boundaries. In a sense, they goof-off to instruct the people how preserve the way of life that can endure life on the mesa.
I asked about Kachinas and spirits, gods and Kivas, dry cropping, marriage, dances and the dead. Bodies were buried on the land of their matriarch in a rocky hollow, curled on its side facing the east. Dan explained that the land was the man’s but the crops were the woman’s. There’d been recent contention over that definition of ownership. I was lost in the dialogue as the sun sank beyond the valley and the old man returned. To my shock and delight, they offered to let me sleep behind the studio. I had imagined camping on Third Mesa for years. As they loaded a cot onto the car for me to use, I thanked them again.
“Not at all — it’s what we’re here for,” repeated Dan.
It is odd how intimidating generosity can feel. As we get into the car, I wonder if I have been rude or inconsiderate. Just being white, inheriting the legacy of hegemony over Hopi lands, had me concerned. By coming to native land, I wondered if I were a symptom of a greater ill, under falsely innocent pretenses of “world travel” or “escaping to finding myself,” regardless of my intentions.
We drove down the dirt road behind the studio, into a narrow canyon. The road was a keyhole shape that went under the limbs of two low cottonwoods with a fire pit and ample stacks of gathered wood. The green leaves shimmered in the diminishing golden light. The wind lifted off the mesa east towards Kykotsmovi Village and over the expanse of the valley towards Second and First Mesas.
Dan told me the land had been in his family for many generations. At the back of the canyon was a spring, but I never could find it. Up the northern tiers of the canyon were pottery shards, a toy car, some pieces of trash, bullet casings, petrified bone and wood fragments. I hiked the rest of the afternoon on the upper mesa cliffs, overlooking the valley and campsite. There were approximate tire tracks that had been barely used since cars had been invented. Stacks of stones made squat monoliths against the horizon without any explanation. A small retaining wall was built between buttery smooth boulders that stopped prevailing winds. It could have been stacked by some sweethearts to protect from the wind back when people were first learning English and buying pickup trucks, or when they were still pre-contact and fighting the Navajo for control of the mesas.
I build a fire and eat a curry packet from my kitchen tote. The fire flickers on the leaves as cicadas whirl their tunes. Beyond the leaves, the stars climb higher and brighter than I have ever seen before.
I leave the fire and walk up the canyon. Rattlesnakes hunt at night, so it is a cautious ascent. Danger inspires a caution that absorbs our manic impulse to rush from place to place — right now, the night may be magical, but it is also potentially lethal.
From a perch half way up, the Milky Way sweeps with unfathomably ancient grace across the pristine desert plateau. The wind carries sweet smells in her fingers, stilling my worries which hide in the dark. More than loose rocks and deadly snakes, I fear the future. I haven’t been able to express the dread of graduating from college to anyone. Graduation day, in several respects, had been a very disappointing experience, lacking finality and answers. I had nothing except debt and a mostly useless degree to help pay off that debt off. I had no direction. The stars were navigational tools for some, but now drifted ornamentally. These worries don’t leave; they carry on with the cicadas in the warm night wind, strangely less alone.
I left the next day and headed north for a place called Valley of the Gods in southern Utah. Before leaving, Sam and I talk about their plans to make the canyon into a campground. Though it felt heinous to suggest monetizing their priceless canyon, I brainstormed with them how to do it. I had no qualifications, other than extensive travel. Mostly, we talk about how to use the internet to draw in business. I am happy to help him, but feel unequal to their generosity. They had been so kind towards me, and I did not understand why. As I walk out, I felt I had not reciprocated fully. I had come looking for the opportunity to be still and reflect, and these Hopi had provided that to me. Maybe helping others to sleep under the stars of Third Mesa would be a small restitution to history’s guilty conscience.
Maybe I should skip travel writing and go into marketing.
I drove back through Navajo Nation and into Monument Valley. The road descended into the valley between the wide-set mesas. On the side of the road sat an abandoned jewelry depot made of old wood, its corpse wasting in the desert heat. Commercial ventures, one and all, are like the shark teeth in our economic jaws. We raise new buildings and draw new plans as old structures break off like old teeth. Raiders and wayfarers strip out copper wire and draw graffiti on the walls like microbial decomposition. Still, the greater jaw is the desert, toothlessly tearing at our bodies and infrastructure in time’s long mastication.
Valley of the Gods is a scaled-down version of Monument Valley. It was the kind of landscape that cinema uses in western films because of their relatively small scale, capable of being fit into a camera frame. Spires and mesas are much closer together, and the road is barely visible below the terrain. Lightenin’ Hopkins twangs away on the stereo over red earth like rusted sand. I parked my car at the base of a sheer-faced mesa and cooked dinner.
As the sun sets the red desert is maroon except for the mesas and spires glowing gold. Their backdrop is the lapis horizon and reminds me of gazing into deep water. Strange how a land that once held an ocean still retains the feeling of depth and mystery even after the ocean is gone.
The next morning I continued out of the valley towards Indian Creek, Utah. High up the canyon, I found a man limping down the 261. He wore dirty blue jeans, a black t-shirt, and a pair of scratched dark glasses. He was Navajo. I slowed down as he lifted a tired arm at me.
“Do you have any water?” he asked.
“Sure, let me pull over at the switchback.”
I pulled over by the guard rail overlooking the tremendous drop into the valley. From the turnout, the world drops to the red valley floor below the blue horizon. He was limping that direction. I poured an electrolyte packet into the single liter and gave him a handful of corn tortillas. He reminded me of the beggar at the 7&11, wearing almost identical dark glasses. However, he had no pimp or enforcer. He apparently didn’t need them to go about his day.
“Thanks. No one has given me any water.” He was very unsteady. I nodded and apologized for not having more water. His body swayed faintly.
“Anyways, thanks again,” he said.
I wished him well and left. After ten minutes, I turned around.
There was nothing for us to commiserate over really. In a way, I felt embarrassed for electing myself to be his taxi across Valley of the Gods. It seemed sensible and good to do it — my European ancestors also had “sensible and good” things to offer the Native Americans. I cannot say if one person giving another person a lift across a strech of desert is a pernicious affect of imperialism. The heat was probably familiar to him, but I was not comfortable telling myself that he’d handle it against all odds. I found him half way down the switchbacks.
“Were you, uh, gonna drive this way?” he asks, getting in.
“It’s been a long drive,” I explain. “And it’s not a significant detour.”
He was more laconic than any cowboy I’d ever met, never taking off his glasses. His work was some 13 miles across the desert in the town of Mexican Hat, Utah. He’d been limping because of the blisters on the feet.
We drove over a small bridge that connected two sides of a chasm.
“You see that right there?” He said, pointing down into the gully.
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Few years ago, a tour bus went into there. The driver fell asleep!” he tells me, “It was the middle of the night… I was at a bar with some boys when a guy comes in and shouts, ‘Volunteers! We need volunteers!’ So I went and hauled bodies out with a bunch of guys.”
“Yeah, most made it out – not the driver though.”
At the intersection, a line of cars waits as workers lay fresh oil on the asphalt. His destination is a little up the road, but we agree the line is too long. I spent the same money in gas driving him as I did placating the beggar back at the 7&11. With a light hand shake we go our separate ways. The man hobbles south as I turn back north.
Names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.