During the fall of 2009 I was living like a nomad and working my way through a series of 5 week internships. I was accustomed to scrounging whatever sleeping arrangements that find for a few weeks before packing everything I owned into a few duffel bags in the back of my van and moving along. That October I was ready to head out on my grand adventure, a two month, 11,000 mile road trip out to the Navajo reservation and wandering my way throughout the country on the way home. This week one of my favorite people is setting out on a similar adventure, this is for her. Here are the things that I wish I would have known and the celebration of the things that I did find.
Beware the Altitude: The reservation is one of the highest places in the country, Chinle where I stayed was over 7,000 feet, combined with desert dryness. For the first week I suffered terribly from dehydration and the thin air. Headaches, being out of breath, nosebleeds, it wasn’t fun. The key is to drink a lot of water and wait to adjust. Water, not purple gatorade, it may have electrolytes but it isn’t as good as just plain water (plus as we all know only blue gatorade works). Buy a humidifier and put some vasaline inside your nostrils and keep hydrated, this too will pass. Also be aware that your visions of “It’s a dry heat” don’t apply in the high desert, it will be cold, during the 5 weeks I was out there we got more snow in Arizona than my parents got in New York. Dress warm.
Red Rocks: When you transition from the plains to Texas into the desert the most striking thing is the change in colors. Gone are the verdant pastures, instead everything is red, even the trees have a red tinge. After years of reading Tony Hillerman books I thought that I knew what it is going to be, but it is so much more. It can take your breath away, especially watching how the light hits and changes the colors. It is amazing to think about the time that it takes to grind for air or water to grind the stone and carve these amazing landscapes. As a side effect red dust is everywhere. It is in the tap water, it is in your eyes, it was still caked into the nooks and crannies of my car when I sold it 4 years after I left the reservation. No beauty comes without its own cost.
Beware the tourist trap: Maybe I was more susceptible because I drove out alone along route 66, but tourist traps are everywhere. Every rest area you stop at or place you want to hike there will be people trying to sell you garbage. This is a common thing on the reservation because it is an easy way to generate cash from tourists, so don’t give in. I do love doing touristy stuff, but it gets old really fast so space it out and talk to people so that they can point you to the legit events and the authentic places that you have to check out. The stuff that people are selling off blankets isn’t all garbage, I got some amazing rock carvings and a bear stone necklace that I wore for years. The key is to have an abundance mentality, because there will always be more chances, and if you find something haggle over it. Sometime if you are feeling like having a weird adventure it is cool to pick a place off a billboard and explore, if you have no expectations then you can’t be disappointed. If I didn’t do that then I couldn’t brag about going to a wolf sanctuary where George RR Martin later adopted a pack of wolves.
Hit the National Parks: Teddy Roosevelt did amazing things for this country by preserving so many of our national parks. Growing up in the East we underestimate the size and scope of the country, but out West the world is so vast and the National Parks have some of the best vantages to see the world from. It costs a few bucks to enter, but it is worth every cent. I have amazing memories of hiking in Arches, and the Petrified forest, climbing the rocks of El Morro, and eating a burrito on the edge of the Grand Canyon. There are dozens of other parks that I wanted to visit, but that just means that I need to go back.
Listen: Navajo is one of the most amazing languages in the world. It is a lovely sing song cadence that sounds amazing. I spent a lot of time working through interpreters and was able to bask in the sound of my words crossing cultural barriers. It is important to not get caught up in the cultural differences. The Indian Health Services system is established on the 1870s ideals of the white man helping the poor despondent native. Add this to the normal medical professional to patient distance it is hard to connect with these people. It is important to remember that they are just people. Also don’t use one person as a representative for all Navajo, especially if that person is an old lady hits you with her cane for not wanting to buy a rug.
Life of Poverty: One of the most striking things about living on the reservation is the poverty. There is very little industry and a lot of federal handouts that are seemingly misspent. I was often reminded of driving through the desolate small towns of upstate NY and seeing brand new trucks parked in front of run down trailers. There was a big culture of panhandling and selling things in parking lots that took me by surprise. Everywhere you look there are pawn shops because many Navajo traditionally use jewelry to store wealth rather than keeping it in banks, but when I first got out there I couldn’t shake the feeling of seediness. Contrasting the economic depression of the towns are the federal facilities like the hospitals which are literally gleaming beacons in the desert which serve as a perfect exaple of federal waste. It is enough to give you whiplash.
Addiction and Lack of Self Care: As a medical processional, and as a human being, it is hard to watch people destroy themselves. But you can’t live their lives for them. The reservation is a dry territory, but booze still makes its way in. The roads to and from the towns like Gallup, Moab, and Durango which are just outside the reservation borders are littered with beer cans. Hitchhikers make their way into these towns every weekend to indulge their vices. A lot of people just don’t take care of themselves despite free medical care. Basically everybody had diabetes and heart disease from eating frybread with every meal, and the labs that I saw shocked my idealistic self. It hurts, but you can’t live their lives for them. We all have our own lives to live and our own bodies to take care of, and I am certainly not one to lecture on that.
Embrace the Silence: I have never felt so alone when I was on the reservation. I was not in a good place at that time, and the silence made it worse. I was alone in a government trailer after driving out by myself. I made no effort to connect with the people at work, one guy tried because of our fraternity connection, but I kind of pushed him off. I traveled by myself every weekend, hiked by myself, and eventually became fine with it. I embraced that silence and made peace with myself, which is the greatest gift that I have ever received. To this day I am fine alone, I can fill my own head and heart, and have developed a self reliance that has served me well. Once you leave the glow of the town streetlights you will be plunged into a complete darkness and silence. Your mind will struggle to fathom it and invent stories that live in the darkness. It isn’t hard to fathom how an ancient people were able to create such amazing stories and gods to fill that landscape. It may be scary, but by knowing that darkness and that silence you will be able to know yourself and will come out the other side a better person.
I sat down to write a little list, but instead I have spewed 1500 words of stream of consciousness. There are dozens more things that I can say. Don’t drive fast at night or you might hit a horse. Go to Antelope canyon and Bryce Canyon National Park, I always wanted to go there. Flagstaff is the Burlington of Arizona, Durango is the Burlington of southern Colorado, I should stop comparing places to Burlington. Know that big area on the Verizon map where there is no service, you will probably be right in the middle of that area. Don’t do meth. Watch out for snakes when hiking. And a million more tips.
Go new places, do new things, meet new people, bring fresh eyes to ancient places. Have an adventure.