We pulled into Tuba City, Arizona with little expectation. It was a dusty town with all the works: boarded up homes, a couple of gas stations, a handful of stray dogs, even a few tumbleweeds. I would need to find a place to hang for a while as I waited for my next ride, which would take me to the next town. A day full of “nexts”. We’d just come from Las Vegas and I could still hear the bouncing electronic beats of slot machines, still had cigarette smoke on my skin. Now, I was in the middle of nowhere and the wind was doing its best to wash away whatever was left of Vegas.
The middle of nowhere is relative of course; I was in the middle of the Navajo reservation and Tuba City was one of its capitals. For me it was the halfway point between the Grand Canyon and my final stop: Bluff, Utah. I was on my way to an Episcopal Mission in Bluff and the best way my husband could get me to Bluff and still catch his flight home to Indiana that same day was to drop me off in Tuba City. We had spent the night in the Grand Canyon amid the Asian tourists and not shy Elk. As we made our way east the population became sparse, the terrain more desperate, the sun more hot, until finally we had arrived.
After driving around for a while we find a place for me to camp out. It’s a newer coffee shop off a Budget Inn hotel, run by a couple of Hopi women who were kind enough to let me sit and write for the next six to eight hours while I wait for the Priest and his wife. I’m sure to buy plenty of drinks of course. I say goodbye to Isaac, with a smile, until he leaves and then I shed some tears. “Why does that happen?” I wonder as I write about it- what else can I do but write about everything? Time, I have.
After a few hours I can’t write anymore so I start reading The Valkyries by Paulo Coelho. I’ve read it before when I was living in Istanbul, but I decide to read it again because it takes place in the desert of California and Arizona, and I’m in that desert, at least I’m close enough. It’s a book about finding and speaking to your angel, in the desert of course, and the hard work the main character goes through in order to find his angel. Of course I think, “I wonder if I’ll speak to my angel out here.” That’s a thought. It passes and I’m bored again. I’ve been reading for a while and for some reason it’s hard to read the same book twice.
When we drove in that morning I saw a Navajo Culture museum so I decide to go there. The ladies in the shop let me leave my bags in the back and I head over to the museum. It’s hot and dry outside of the shop. I’m surprised to find I like it compared to the humidity I swim through every summer back home. On my way I run into a stray that is bathing in the small fountain in front of the museum. I say, “I don’t think that’s what they put that there for, buddy.” He looks at me and cries. Then he gets out of the fountain and comes to me, whimpering. I can see his ribs rolling around under his skin, he’s hungry and I have nothing to offer him.
Inside I find a young girl, maybe 18 and a young guy maybe 20 with long dark hair at the reception desk. They greet me and after paying to go inside the young guy escorts me into a dark room that has a large projector screen on the wall. “We would like for you to watch this short movie before you go into the main exhibit.” He smiles and carefully pushes play on the remote control. “Sure, thank you.” I say and nod to him. I think he’s going to stay with me but instead leaves the room quickly, his hair follows casually behind him.
“This is great.” I say to no one in particular as I sit down. After a moment the video pops on with loud drumming music and images of Monument Valley. It describes the Navajo creation story and culture of the people. I learn the Navajo are actually called the Diné which means “the people”. The meaning of the word Navajo is debated but I was told later that it means “thief” or “sharp knife” or “field”….hard to tell I guess. Nonetheless, Diné is the proper name and so I take note of this.
The creation story played out across the screen in illustrations of bright colors reminding me of a children’s book. First man and first woman were born into the dark world, called the first world. In this world things became difficult and conflict arose and so first man and first woman decide to take all the first creatures of the dark world and venture into another world: the blue world. In this world new first animals and beings emerged and all was fine until there was conflict and then they decided to venture forth into the next world after that: the yellow world. Here again, more first animals and creatures emerge along with the creatures that have now traveled through many worlds. Here they find conflict again which forces them into the next world: the glittering world. This world, the glittering world, is the one we are in now.
Four is the important number in the Navajo culture, similar to the way three is important in Christian culture I suppose. Four is important to the tradition because we are residing in the fourth world, having come into this world through three worlds prior. Four represents the four directions as well: North, South, East, West.
Four is what the tradition revolves around. This fourth world we are in is “glittering” but the fifth world is coming, and soon, the narrator says. The fifth world, the one we will come into soon, is called the shimmering world they say. I wonder what that will be like. If this is the glittering world what does shimmering look like? I find myself wondering about the definitions of the words and am distracted when the young man comes back to escort me into the rest of the exhibit.
As I go through the exhibit I learn about the importance and sacred nature of corn in religious ritual and daily life. I learn about the original dwellings called hoogans that come in gendered form. The male hoogan is used for religious rituals, the female hoogan for daily living and home life. Weird how gender roles work themselves out.
I read about the colonization, basically what the UN and US would define as mass genocide today, which occurred once Europe “discovered” the west in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is the part that hurts, this is the pain I thought I would encounter. The story of my anglo ancestors and their annihilation of a native people.
As I leave I ask the two kids at the front desk a little about the area and culture. I learn that the Navajo speak a language that is believed to have originated in Asia, at least they can trace it back to Alaska and Canada. The Hopi, Pueblo and Ute natives all speak a very different language than that of the Navajo. The cultures are extremely different and the land in which they once lived was separate. Today, however, they have been given a small plot of land to share, those that are left anyway.
I walk slowly back to the cafe. Time, I have. After a while of reading more about the adventures of coming face to face with one’s angel along with more thinking and writing on this, the priest and his wife arrive. After brief introductions we hit the road and begin our journey to Bluff, Utah.
Wow, Erin, I can feel the heat ,sand and loneliness … Tell me more.
I will release multiple parts to this trip, so stay tuned and as always, thanks for reading!
Erin, I am living in Yuma, AZ now and know what you mean by “the terrain more desperate, the sun more hot.” I am here for CPE. the transformation I am experiencing in the dryness of the desert is incredible. I stayed in Taos one night and camped in Mesa Verde on my way here and related to what you are saying here. I read about the Trail of Tears 25 years ago and that story has not left me. It is the American Holocaust. Then I was left with the thought “What if we (my Anglo ancestors) had found a way to blend with the cultures already here? We wouldn’t be in this ecological and humanitarian crisis we find ourselves in.” Today, I understand we cannot undo the past so I am asking myself “what can I do now to assist in blending the cultures and bring about peace?”
In Mesa Verde we toured the Cliff Dwellings. The complex structures of the people who came before us indicates a very sophisticated way of living unlike the “primitive” depiction we have been given in our history classes and popular media.