Friday, February 19, 2016

The People

Winter 2016

In the middle of winter, the itch to travel returned. As Russell and I were walking around town one day, he offered to hitch southbound with me. We didn't know where to, exactly. Somewhere warm. I could only leave for a short while because of work. Sensing that this little excursion was something that we both needed, I agreed to go with him. The day of our departure, we both felt anxious. What were we getting ourselves into? We walked down the highway until we were outside of Moab, and then we waited for a ride. Eventually one came and swept us away, and we remembered again the joys and freedom we feel when we travel.

From then on, all of our rides were wonderful. It sure beats driving by oneself in one's own car, separated within its cage from the rest of the world. Throughout the journey we learned from all whom we met and rejoiced to be sharing with them in the experience.

We considered migrating to Sedona, or maybe Tucson. When we realized that we weren't to get a ride that far south, but rather stay in northern Arizona, we embraced that too. Even though we were in the midst of snow, the sun always shone upon us when we needed warmth. And so it was that the Navajo Reservation, a.k.a. "the Rez," drew us in, for most of our journey.

"May Peace Prevail on Earth." Kayenta, AZ.
A man who mines in Wendover, Nevada was returning home to his family on the Rez. He's one of many that we met who has to work out of state, and in doing so, loses quality time with his wife and children. A routine that's repeated almost weekly involves returning home for the weekend, enjoying what time he has with them, and then driving all the way back to Nevada. When I asked him what troubled him most about the Navajo and their future, he replied that the younger generation thought that they didn't need the traditional ways and so they were losing touch with their roots - their spirituality, language, work ethic, and so on. As we crossed the San Juan River and entered the Rez, this man gave us his phone number so that we could keep in touch with him about our travels. He dropped us at a convenience store in the midst of a different culture, where time seemed to stand still.

I consider Moab a quiet, laid-back place compared to where I grew up (with the exception of the tourists flocking in from all over the world), but the Rez was even more so. But it had a different feel. There was a sense of sadness about the place, but there was also beauty, strength, kinship, and a cultural and spiritual richness.

Russell stepped into the store for a bit, while I sat at a picnic table outside the front door with the packs. We would resume our hitching game when he returned. (We were taking turns sticking the thumb out to see for whom the ride would stop.) A woman and her grandmother strolled slowly and silently to their car. It took them ages, it seemed, to get in. Then the vehicle crawled gently over toward me. The woman rolled down her window, with an amused smile on her face. "What are you doing out here? It's cold!" She, Jackie, offered us a ride into Kayenta. (I won, and I didn't even try!) I loaded both of our packs then went inside to find Russell. Based on my upbringing I felt rushed in trying to get him to the car. But based on their demeanor, I think that they could care less.

On our way to Kayenta, Jackie pointed out "Baby Rock" and showed how all the formations looked like pregnant women and women holding babies. One of Jackie's children is so terrified of this rock that when they drive past, she covers her eyes. It's said that spending time near it means that you will have a baby, and her daughter doesn't want to get pregnant. Russell told them about the petroglyph-covered boulder near Moab called "Birthing Rock" and how he likes to sleep beside it sometimes. I warned him, "I hope you don't get pregnant from doing that!" Everyone laughed.

These murals reside next door to a convenience store, where we ate lunch, basked in the sunlight, and spoke with a shaman.
We reached Kayenta at night. It was so disorienting trying to figure out what to do next. The wind whipped around and the air was bitter cold. I thought of my warm room back in Moab and wished I would have just stayed there. What were we even doing here? Soon, I would realize the answer to that question.

Bypassing the idea of even trying to find a campsite in the dark, we settled for a room at the Kayenta Inn. Then we left the room to wander about and to get acquainted with the town. Now we had been warned by several of the locals to watch out for the drunks, who we were told often hassle the tourists. But who doesn't have a struggle or an addiction of some sort? We met them in front of the hotel, these beautiful children of God. They were looking for a warm place to stay the night, which we couldn't help them with. Russell left to get all of us some coffee from the hotel lobby, while I stayed and chatted with them.

They all noticed that I had some Indian ancestry and asked what tribe I was from. "I'm not a part of any tribe, but a very distant relative was probably Iroquois, most likely Mohawk, who once lived in in Michigan." One of the men exclaimed that he had traveled there before and had an Iroquois friend. Then a woman in the group piped up and explained to me that the Navajo call themselves the Dineh, "the people." "Navajo" is a term that originated from the Spanish explorers back in the 1600's. I responded that I understood and brought up the point that the same thing happened with the Haudenosaunee, "people who build a house." These days they are also known as the Iroquois. They smiled and hugged me and welcomed me to the Rez, one of them saying, "You are always a part of our tribe."

Concerned about their predicament that night, Russell and I spoke with Aaron, who had checked us into our room. He knows these people and said that they do this every night, and that the police always pick them up around midnight and give them a warm place to sleep. That was such a relief to hear. We returned to our room, and, hours later, we saw a patrol car's lights flashing outside our window. Just as Aaron had said, our friends would be okay.

Lower Antelope Canyon.
Me and Russell.

In Page, AZ (we had made a turn for the north to go to Antelope Canyon), the dumpster proved to be a reliable source of food, and we enjoyed several meals from there. On one of my morning hunts, Russell walked along with me to observe. He interviewed me and documented the whole search with an Aussie accent. All this for my very own T.V. show, which features guest stars as well. Daniel Suelo was joining us that day, as the show couldn't afford to actually pay anyone.

A couple that we met at Antelope Canyon brought us to Horseshoe Bend.

Though we had gone north to Page, we still had the intention to wander further south. So we tried again to hitch in the general direction of Flagstaff. Russell and I played charades along the highway and resumed our hitching game. After quite some time, no one was stopping. Then arose talk of our mutual friend, Will LaFever, in Escalante. He and Russell had hitched together in the past, around Kanab. Perhaps he was in Kanab again. "Where there's a Will there's a way!" Russell exclaimed. So we crossed the road and attempted to cross into Utah, and this time, we got a ride.

One of our hitches, from Washington, shared stories of their travels and then ate lunch in Kanab with us.

After our meal at the Lotsa Motsa Pizza buffet, we wandered up the main drag in Kanab and compared motel prices. At Rodeway, we met a plumber with whom Will talked, while I chatted with an Aussie (of course) at the front desk. Then, as recommended by both of them, we turned around and headed back toward the other end of town. Several blocks away, we realized that Russell wasn't carrying his sleeping bag. And so we turned around, again. But thankfully someone was thinking of us and we didn't have to go all the way back. The plumber found us. He pulled his truck over on the side of the road and handed the sleeping bag to Russell. I asked the man what his name was. "Will," he responded (of course).

Russell and I definitely had some great moments together. But once we were returning to Moab from Page, we had gotten on each other's nerves. West of Kayenta, a pickup truck pulled over for us and we hopped in the back. With no need to entertain the passengers, we vented much of our frustrations. I cussed at him and he went silent. Then we were dropped off at a convenience store, still west of Kayenta, and we stood along the road, me arguing and him being silent. I was in a hurry to get back to Moab for work the next day, yet I knew that we had to find some peace with each other, or else we weren't going to get a ride.

Just then, an injured dog limped over to beg for scraps, with a look of suffering and desperation in her eyes. A trucker and I gave her some food. Then, as I backed away, I realized that the dog was a sign. Russell and I were both suffering too, each for our own reasons, and we never intended to hurt each other. A wave of forgiveness washed over me, and I grabbed him by the arm and we went in to the store and sat down at the table to make peanut butter sandwiches. Russell left his pack outside.

Once we finished our sandwiches, a man entered the store and asked if we needed a ride to Kayenta. We loaded our packs in their truck and hopped in to meet them. Harrison and Virgie told us the story of how they had stopped for us. While we were hitching in front of the store, they had passed by. Then God instructed for them to turn around. They returned and saw Russell's pack outside and thought, "Oh, they're inside warming up. They're okay." And so they left again. As they drove along, God insisted again that we needed their help. So they returned. That's when Harrison walked into the store. He felt such compassion upon seeing us there as he realized that the store wasn't heated and we really weren't that warm. And so that's how they came to drive us to Kayenta.

As amazing as that story was though, I was still concerned about getting to Moab. Hitches had only been taking us short distances at a time and I was about to give up, thinking that I would just call in the next day. As we pulled into a gas station in Kayenta, Harrison said that as they were retired, they had nothing to do and were willing to drive us all the way to Moab, but they had no "funds or fuel." That was the answer to my prayers, and immediately I knew what to do. I filled up their tank and we were off to Moab.

This couple, as they opened up to us about their lives, radiated such love that Russell and I found healing. Virgie shared stories of a few people that were healed through her, and so she was led to become pastor of a church. And at that time, she herself was struggling with the belief of having an illness, something I have done in the past. And so I shared my experience with her and got the chance to encourage her to reach out to God and heal.

Somewhere between Monument Valley and Mexican Hat.
We passed through a snowstorm in Monticello, and though I insisted for them to drop us there and turn around, the weather didn't faze them. We kept on going. Three hours after we met at the convenience store, Virgie and Harrison were with us in the familiar Moab Valley. I payed for their return fuel and we went out to eat. Then they brought us to Pete's front door. With a smile, Virgie gave me one of her handmade ceramic vases. She invited us to stay at their home anytime we are back in the area and offered to take us horseback riding and to see one of their people's "private monuments." We got our packs out of the truck and waved to them as they turned to drive more than three hours back to their home.

Now Virgie's vase sits in my room, a reminder of all of the powerful lessons learned and friends that were met during our short time with the Dineh. God-willing, I will return.

"I have been to the end of the Earth.
I have been to the end of the waters.
I have been to the end of the sky.
I have been to the end of the mountains.
I have found none that are not my friends."
--Navajo proverb