Navajo Nation

People seem to glide in and out of our lives at different times and for several reasons.   Sometimes it’s co-workers who we build a bond with through business hours, cranky customers and deadlines.  An element of “we are in this together” grows as the days pass. Sometimes it’s childhood friends who live in the backdrop of our entire lives, calling during the holidays to pick right up where the conversation ended the year before – always sharing a common link of growing up together. Sometimes it’s the strangers who walk from their campsite to ours, introduce themselves and invite us over to share a fire and conversation. Over warm flames and dark nights strangers become friends.  We shake hands and wonder if our paths will ever again connect.  Sometimes it’s new neighbors who bring a sense of home when home feels lost and out of place.  Our last unexpected move brought such unexpected neighbors.

Between hustling from the car loaded with housewares to the empty apartment in Alexandria, I didn’t even take a second to look up from the boxes in my arms.  I was on a mission to get the van cleared out and try to make the most of this tiny condo that we rented for 6 months.  We weren’t worried that the kitchen cabinets were not hung straight or that the fridge has started to rust, this was a short stop on our way to other things.  With a list of essentials that needed to be purchased (that comes with every new move) I headed toward the store –  can’t take a shower without a shower curtain!  I fumbled with the keys trying to figure out which one went where when I heard a voice behind me.  It was the neighbor coming over to say hello.

Over the next two years those hellos would ignite longer conversations exposing the intimate layers of our lives.  Our four neighbors – Jan & Robert (across the hall) and Amy & Angela (upstairs)  –  were the kind of neighbors everyone wishes, and sometimes gets very lucky, to have.  The kind who invited us to dinner parties, dropped baked goods at the door, left holiday treats, hung wreaths in the hallway, called just to say hello, and kept an eye on things when we were away.  Turns out this layover in our journey was worth the stop!

During the days, as I was working from home and in need of a break, I would head outside to stretch my legs and could sometimes catch Jan doing the same.  We would catch up on the daily stuff and then wander to other topics.   Jan spoke about her big family, her crazy friends, and missing the place she grew up.  Her long dark brown hair hung straight past her shoulders with a laugh that was infectious.  It was the only sound Colin and I ever heard from the other side of the wall, Jan laughing.  Which meant that we would start laughing… and then wonder what she was laughing about.  Jan moved to Alexandria to marry Robert, while everyone else she knew and loved were out west.  When Jan spoke about home she would close her eyes and describe this place as if the words transformed her from the patio, where she sat, to the high desert of Red Valley.  A place about 30 miles south of Shiprock on the Navajo Reservation that sat right on the New Mexico & Arizona line.  She spoke about the markets and the food; the earthy smell of dried corn, kneel down bread, and the fry bread hot from an oily pan sweetened with honey and sugar.  She described the Navajo culture and what it was like for a few years living in a Hogan with its round walls and dirt floor.  In a place that was far from anywhere else, it was calling her back from the memories that flashed alive once she began to spill these stories.  Her feet were planted in Alexandria, but her dreams were in another place.  There was never any doubt that we would be stopping in for a visit on our way west.  “You just have to stay with my dad and his wife!”

It’s not a sign that greeted us to Shiprock, it was the rock itself.  A towering solid formation rising up from flat red dirt with sharp teeth.  As if at any moment a dragon would circle the top and cast its flames to protect the noble king living inside – it was the perfect set for a movie.  From the rock, the road curved around a few big bends, a few more miles, another bend turned to gravel, and then a long narrow driveway that ended at a gate.   This was our first lesson on driving in Navajo Nation – nothing is close so get gas when you can.


Wild Horses & Shiprock

As we moved through the gate a large dog with a full winter coat barked once to announce our arrival. Karen was on the front porch waving us in and soon Timothy was by her side.  Jan’s dad, Timothy and his wife Karen, turned a two-room house built in the 60s into a very welcoming and cozy spot.  Over the years they added rooms, a second floor, an office, garden beds outside, “projects”  they would call them.  As we entered the front door the fireplace was crackling and its heat filling the room.  Two cats peered from behind a chair and that big fluffy dog was now inside and slowly stood up to check us out and approve of our presence.  The Christmas tree was glowing, the smell of roasted garlic was drifting from the kitchen and in the few seconds of taking in my surroundings I felt relaxed and comfortable.

After dinner we moved into their living room with the fire still glowing and listened to Timothy and Karen talk about their lives together and their own separate journeys.  Timothy spoke deep and slow in a tone that pulled you into his stories.  His dark hair was short and neat, he wore round glasses and on his finger a silver ring holding a round turquoise stone.  As he spoke he laughed and I instantly thought of Jan.  Timothy was born on the reservation but never knew his mother.  She, tragically, passed away after a horse riding accident when he was very young.  Timothy’s grandmother raised him from that time on.  He mentioned in one story that her words were like strong arms folding around him and pulling him in close. He felt loved and safe.

Never knowing much about his mother or his exact age sent him on a search to fill in these crucial details of his life.  This search lead to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.  There he poured through book after book studying page after page of records.  Days ended without a trace of his mother, which left him feeling disappointed.  Returning the last book and all hope of finding any answers fading, a page fell out and floated to the floor.  Timothy reached for the crinkled piece of paper and took a look.  Before his eyes on this missing page was the name of his mother.

The next morning we woke to the crackling fire and the beep of the coffee pot.  Timothy was parked on a small stool in front of the fireplace stoking the flames. I think that fire was going the entire time we were there!  We had breakfast and Karen drew us a map of the places we should try to visit.  Every landmark had a tale.  Every protruding rock formation was much more than evidence of the land taking shape, there was a story according to Navajo beliefs.  Once the story was told the rock was forever changed.

The day was bright but chilly.  Rocky buttes like walls traced our path, the rich red ground seemed endless meeting a blue sky at the horizon.  Wild horses cantered in groups and after just one day we knew why Jan missed this place so much.  The colors, the silence, the peace.


Towards Red Valley – Navajo Nation

About 40 miles later we reached a rough road that led to Toadlena Trading Post.  A weaving shop and museum.  The museum was small but interesting, however, the real education came from the young gal who was working at the shop when we arrived.  She talked about the Navajo rugs, the weavers, the amount of time it takes to complete a rug…sometimes months, sometimes years.  As the weaver grows in experience the rug follows.  Patterns come from inspiration and stay locked in memory, not on paper.  She was also a weaver who learned from her mother, but started to carve out her own weaving path.  Our budget allows us to purchase a very tiny piece – a rug by a weaver who lives close by.  We are given a picture that shows the weaver holding the rug we just purchased.  She is smiling bright and proud at her finished piece

From Timothy and Karen’s driveway we can see the canyons of Red Valley and the sun slipping behind the clouds – its every shade of red & blue from a big box of crayons. { I imagine Crayola comes here to find inspiration for the names of these colors; Raw Umber, Magic Mint, Bittersweet, Burnt Sienna, Shocking Pink…all actual names of crayons.}   We fill them in with our finds and our day.  The rug we purchased looks like a coaster compared to the rugs hung on their walls that are museum pieces.  Over homemade vegetable soup and corn bread the subject of Tony Hillerman comes up (Colin loves these books, but I haven’t read a single one…add it to the list!).  Tony Hillerman is the author of several best selling detective novels all based on the Navajo Tribal police.  Timothy and Karen had a guest who was a huge fan of Hillerman and asked how actuate his books were.  Timothy mentioned that the books were pretty spot on except for a few points.  Those points went from Timothy’s mouth into a letter from the guest who sent it directly to the famous author.  Not long after the letter was sent, a returned response came from Tony Hillerman who got right to the point, “Timothy is Navajo. Timothy is right.”  Karen chuckles and shakes her head as she remembers that guest.  Originally from Michigan, Karen was making her way through school when she jumped at the opportunity to visit the Navajo Nation for her studies.  She fell in love with the people, the landscape and the culture.  Karen has learned a lot about the Navajo history and is immersed in the community.  She speaks a few words in Navajo and I wonder if she knows the language fluently.  I ask and she holds up her fingers to show me a “pinch.”  The language is extremely complex and hard to pronounce – every tone changes the meaning. Together they tell us about their involvement with the community. Timothy has been on the Navajo counsel and fought for health benefits for the uranium mine workers. Karen was a part of a committee to navigate road construction – where the roads can be built depends on sacred ground, getting permission and working with the land owners, and several other factors.  The Navajo Nation is a large place – about the size of West Virginia – and just in our few short days we know we need to come back.  The map Karen drew a few days before has landmarks and x’s on places we meant to go but ran out of time.  On our last night, Jan calls to say she has arranged a meet up with her brother and his wife, “You just have to meet Jerry and Jennifer!  You will love them! You can’t say no!”  We meet them on a Saturday morning at the market in Shiprock.  It’s everything Jan has described.


Sunset Near Shiprock

Jerry and his wife, Jennifer, along with their son walk us through the market and point out what people are selling and some of things we should try.  Blue mush is being sold in small styrofoam cups for $2.00.  It’s like grits only blue.  “I always add a lot of sugar, ” says Jerry.  The fry bread bubbles in oil, turns toasty brown and served on a few layers of paper towels – two please.  It tastes really good with some honey and sugar.  We buy corn bread that’s dense but moist and sweetened with raisins and then spend the last of the cash we stuffed in our pockets on tamales from one of their friends.  As we stroll they introduce us to their family and friends as they pass.  The market is packed and Jerry confirms what I was thinking “people come here to eat but also to socialize and see friends.”  Everyone seems to know each other.  By the time we leave, we are hugging Jerry and Jennifer like our own family.  It feels that way.  They invite us to come back and it’s not just a nice thing to say – they mean it.  I call Jan as we part ways with her brother and she is almost in tears,  “I miss them sooooo much!”  I wish she was here with us, but I know that when she closes her eyes she comes right back.

5 Comments on “Navajo Nation

  1. Carrie, you transported me back home. I could hear the voices of my dad, Karen, Jerry and Jennifer. I could see and feel the fire in my dad’s fireplace. I cried reading your entire post. I could feel the dust on my face as you walked through Saturday market :). Thank you for your beautiful words. Words have power and your words made me cry with longing and love for home and family. Thank you!

  2. Carrie, I am in tears as I read your neighbors comment above. I too, loved your blog! You have really sparked by interest in learning more about the Navajo Nation. If we would just listen and learn from them, we would all be much more at peace, within and beyond!
    I hope you are keeping a diary of “special” people whom you meet along the way!
    Lots of love,


  3. Carrie, I’m friends with Pam and Kerry, who suggested I follow your blog, and I have to say I love the way you tell about your travels. You make it so vivid, and your photos are gorgeous. Many years ago when traveling across the country to a new posting in California, we took our three kids (very little at the time, now 52, 51, and 49) through White Sands and also the Navajo area near Four Corners. You brought back memories.

    • Christa, Thank you for your kind note! We fell in love with New Mexico and the people there. Originally we had planned to just pass through, but that state took us by surprise and we ended up spending a few weeks. Thanks for taking the time to follow along!!

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