This is one in a series of entries recounting the 2009 trip that Phil Rose and I took to the desert. We are hoping to fund another such trip; for more details or to help out, please check out our Kickstarter. The beautiful photography present in these posts is courtesy of my friend, the very talented Phil Rose.
The Navajo Nation was one of the saddest and most beautiful places that we’d visited. We felt that we were guests here; we had been allowed to stay overnight, free of charge. We packed up camp early in the morning, loaded the car, and made sure that everything had been cleaned up.
The reservation was like a moonscape. It was not the classic desert you see in most photographs, with the gorgeous rock formations and brilliant colors and blooming cactus. It was a place of shacks and sheds and corrugated tin. As we drove down the other side of that bluff, things got worse.
The place looked empty, except for dilapidated trailers and rough built sheds that stood so distant from one another that it wouldn’t even appear to be a village, much less a town. I knew there had to be livestock here; many of the fields were not locked up but instead secured with cattle gates… T-shaped structures that would allow people in and out but which even the cleverest of cows could not negotiate. But I didn’t see any animals either. There were places where it was difficult to see a single living plant. The land was neither hills nor dunes, but piles… as if some giant hand had lifted different colors of sand from the earth and let it slowly fall from its fist, creating varied, conical heaps. We pulled over; neither of us had seen anything like this before. There was garbage everywhere; from rifle brass to beer cans.
We came out on to a long, straight piece of highway. It was bordered on either side by stands and sheds. Folding tables were set up and were being laid with jewelry and other wares. We stopped, enticed by the brightly colored buildings and by the need to spend some money here. There was beadwork and some really exceptional leatherwork. I had considered a beaded bag or something, but I knew I would never feel okay with wearing anything that I purchased here… it would feel somehow exploitative and untruthful. Instead, I picked out two pairs of silver earrings, one with green stones and one with red. I would take them back for my mother and my aunt, and decided not to tell them about the place that they’d come from.
One stand in particular was painted read and yellow, with bold lettering spelling out, “Chief Yellowhorse. NICE INDIANS.” It was this that emphasized how much a stranger I was here, and how completely different my world was from this one. I was astonished at how kind these people had been to us, just by letting us stay, free of charge and of harassment.
We decided that breakfast was the next order of business. We hadn’t wanted to start an actual fire at last night’s campsite, just in case we had stayed somewhere by accident that we ought not to have, so all we’d managed before breaking camp was some coffee on the little propane camp stove. We intended to stop at a diner that was still on the reservation; we wanted to leave money here if the chance arose.
We found an enormous gift shop with a diner attached. The waitstaff were all dressed up in white shirts and maroon vests with black ties. Almost all the Navajo waitstaff there were badly overweight. A product of the modern American diet crowding out all traditional ways of eating.
I had more runny eggs, more greasy hashbrowns with ketchup and black pepper, and I ordered a plate of fry bread which Phil and I shared. Fry bread is a food born of desperation; it was what could be made with the rations provided to reservation residents, and sometimes consisted only of flour, water, powdered milk, and some baking powder. What we were served was a more prosperous version, fried fluffy in huge rounds bigger than the plate that they were served on. It came with butter and plastic tubs of honey. It was a tremendous amount of bread… even the two of us together couldn’t finish it, and the plate cost around two dollars.
I remember the Navajo Nation fondly, for their hospitality and their willingness to chat. We would find later on in our journey that not all tribes would be so welcoming.