My friend Shirley and I are in a store in Tuba City, Ariz., stocking up for our road trip when I realize that I'm rushing around. Frantically searching for peanut butter, I look like I have somewhere important to be, while everyone else is moving at a casual pace. I smile to myself—adjusting to the local rhythms might not be so easy.
Navajo Nation is a self-governing homeland for the Navajo people that occupies 27,000 square miles across three states: Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The lives of the Navajo are difficult; many of the people live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is about 50 percent. I moved here when my husband took a job at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Ariz., near the New Mexico border. Shirley has lived here her whole life, but there are many things even she doesn't know about her land. So we're both pleasantly surprised by theExplore Navajo Interactive Museum, which teaches visitors all about Navajo culture.
We watch a movie on the Emergence Story, which explains how the Diné (the term the Navajo use to refer to themselves) believe the universe was created. At the Clan Wheel, Shirley enters the names of the clans she was "born into" (her mother's people) and "born for" (her father's people). She spins the wheel, and it gives her the names of all the Navajo clans she's related to. She has a lot of relatives! The Navajo believe it's important to know who your relatives are—in times of trouble, you'll know who to ask for help.
Before checking in to the Quality Inn Navajo Nation, we go shopping—but this time for souvenirs, not supplies. The Tuba City Trading Postis one of the few remaining trading posts set up by whites in the late 1860s, when the Navajo returned to their ancestral lands following their forced relocation to New Mexico years before, a tragedy known as the Long Walk. At the time, the posts were the only places where the Diné could trade with whites. Now run by the Navajo, the post sells crafts to tourists. I buy a bumper sticker that depicts Geronimo and a group of Apache warriors and reads: "Homeland Security—Fighting terrorism since 1492."
Driving west through the empty red-rock desert, Shirley pops in a tape of her father singing songs in Navajo. I've barely started to learn a few of the words when we decide to stop at an artisan's roadside stand on Highway 89A near Marble Canyon. There are stands like this all over Navajo Nation, where locals sell handicrafts to support themselves. Shirley is looking for jewelry, and sure enough, the craftswoman, Vera Yazzie, is selling juniper-seed necklaces and bracelets. According to the Navajo, the seeds offer protection from all kinds of evil. We buy six of the necklaces ($5 to $15 each) and wear them for the rest of the trip to make sure that nothing bad happens to us.
The Navajo Bridge is just up the road. When the bridge was constructed in 1929, it was the world's largest suspension bridge and the only place within 750 miles where one could cross the Colorado River. A new bridge has since been built for cars, but the original bridge is still used by pedestrians and bungee jumpers (though I later learn that bungee jumping is prohibited there).
As we drive intoGlen Canyon National Recreation Area, we see huge boulders strewn about, as if giants had tossed them at each other in a battle. The road winds around cliffs down to Paria Beach, where the green-blue waters of the Colorado are rushing by. This is where Grand Canyon rafting trips begin, and it's the only spot where you can drive to the banks of the river. Shirley and I rest on a rock in the sun and wonder why people work so hard—hiking or riding a mule—to reach the river from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. On the beach, we meet a Navajo family who had just caught three trout in the river.
The fish remind us how hungry we are. As soon as we reachLees Ferry Lodge, where we plan to spend the night, we order a big lunch—grilled trout for me and a burger for Shirley. Located on the edge ofVermilion Cliffs National Monument, the lodge couldn't be in a more beautiful setting. Cliff faces and narrow canyons have been carved out of the rose-colored rock over millions of years, exposing layer upon layer of sandstone, limestone, and shale. I feel like I can see for miles. And the silence! When I stop for a second, I hear nothing but the flapping of a raven's wings.
After a long walk, we return to the lodge. The restaurant looks like the kind of place outdoorsmen would enjoy—duck decoys and wooden fish carvings hang on the pine walls, and the backs of the booths are shaped like fish. Behind the bar, more than 100 types of beer are on display. Shirley orders ribs that hang over the edges of her plate and a Singletrack Copper Ale, while I opt for beer-battered cod and an Oak Creek Amber Ale. We round out the evening later with some stargazing on the patio. This is such a dark, remote area that the stars are among the most vivid I've ever seen.
We're up early for bacon, fried potatoes, and pancakes at the lodge, and then we're on the road, heading north for a tour ofAntelope Canyon. In the morning light, the layers of stone in the winding walls of the gorges glow in beautiful shades of pink and orange. We admire the high stone arches and twisting passageways in the rock. Bathed in this extraordinary light, the canyon is as spiritual as any cathedral.
The Shonto area southeast of Antelope Canyon is famous for Navajo pottery, but we didn't expect to find so many artists represented at theShonto Trading Post. A bit out of the way in a canyon, the post is still a place where artists can trade their wares for food and other goods. Shirley and I ooh and aah at the exquisite pots, baskets, and woven jugs before Shirley buys a $120 Navajo wedding basket.
By the time we arrive, theAnasazi Inn Café, just outside Kayenta, is packed with the local lunch crowd. Shirley has a delicious mutton stew, and I eat the beef soup—made that morning—and we share an order of Navajo fry bread, a puffy dough that is fried in oil. I eat so much of the bread on the trip, I probably put on about 10 pounds.
Reenergized by our lunch, we drive to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, near the Utah border. We've arranged to meet a Navajo guide, Richard Frank, for a tour of Monument Valley organized by his company, Simpson's Trailhandler Tours. Visitors can take a self-guided drive around the valley—best known as the setting for many John Wayne movies and Marlboro commercials—but Richard shows us the restricted area that outsiders can only visit with a Navajo guide. He points to a sacred alcove where he sometimes chants and plays his flute, and he tells us stories about his childhood.
After several hours, Richard takes us to meet his brother, Harold Simpson, at his family's hogan, a traditional Navajo house with eight sides that's built out of logs and packed with mud on the outside. The brothers rent out theirNavajo Traditional Hoganto visitors for the night. Richard and Harold make a fire for us and cook Navajo tacos, a delicious take on the Mexican dish that substitutes fry bread for the tortillas. As the moon rises, Harold starts chanting and drumming, and another man, Byron, surprises us by coming out of the hogan dressed in powwow regalia. He invites me to dance with him by the fire, and even though I don't know the steps, I almost feel Native American. Shirley is giggling so much, she forgets to take my picture!
Richard helps us get set up in the hogan, stoking the woodstove while we spread mats and sleeping bags on the sand floor. Lying on my back in the firelight, I look up at the logs framing the inside of the structure and think about building one. I'm envious of Shirley—she has her own hogan, which her family uses for special occasions.
Shonto Trading PostOff Hwy. 98, Shonto, 928/672-2320
We awake to fresh coffee and doughnuts outside the hogan, and Richard drives us out of the valley. On the way, we pass The View Hotel, the park's luxury hotel with windows overlooking the Mittens. Nothing against the hogan's sand floor, but Shirley and I agree it would be nice to try a luxury experience the next time we visit.
We want to make one last shopping trip in Kayenta at the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise, which we have heard is a great place to buy jewelry made of real silver, turquoise, and coral. When we enter, the clerk greets us and says that all the handmade items in the store are 40 percent off. The prices are already low enough—if we tried to buy this kind of jewelry in Tucson or Santa Fe, N.M., we'd pay twice as much. I finally decide on a pair of silver-and-turquoise bear-paw earrings for $18.
On our drive home, Shirley and I discuss the dissonance we've both been noticing over the past few days between the unparalleled natural beauty of Navajo Nation and the extreme poverty of its people. I've come away with a deep respect for the way the Diné have maintained their culture, language, and identity despite the hardships they've endured over the past 150 years—and continue to face today.
Finding the way
If you fly into Phoenix, the closest major city to Navajo Nation, the drive to Tuba City takes four hours. All the main roads in the Nation are well-marked and paved. Other things to note: Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time, but Navajo Nation does. And cell phone reception is spotty throughout the Nation.
If you missed the chance to contribute to this issue... you could be next!
Another lucky reader is getting the chance to write a Road Trip, this time for our December/January issue. Just fill out the form here. First, a few parameters: The trip can be anywhere in the U.S., but you have to be able to complete it in four days. Most importantly, we'll be drawn to an interesting story—either because it's about a part of the country that people don't know much about or because you have a particular take on it. The contest runs through June 30 (and you'll have to be able to complete travel by the end of August). Good luck!