By David Feela
A couple from Montezuma County decided on a Christmas trip to an ancient site known as the Montezuma Well, over 300 miles away in Arizona, not in their own backyard. The drive across the Navajo reservation unfolded beautifully and uneventfully until an accident along Highway 160 near Red Lake blocked traffic in all directions.
The snarl threatened to consume half the day, and to highlight the feeling of helplessness while trying to remain in a Christmas spirit, the woman started singing a chorus of, “Oh well, no well, oh well, no well….” The driver glanced rather Scrooge-ishly in her direction, which is when a Navajo man approached their driver’s side window.
Eventually I’ll have to admit to being the driver, so let me say right now that the experience made me feel like a character in someone else’s Christmas story.
It was the second time the same Navajo man had stopped to offer a curt native editorial about the impasse. The first time, on his way to talk with a Navajo grandmother in the car behind me, he simply said, “Go around” and he pointed vaguely to the north. The second time, after returning from, presumably, the scene of the accident, he urged me more adamantly and with greater detail, “Go to the wash, then go around.”
The Navajo man fired up his engine, did a U-turn, and sped off in the direction from which we had come. We glanced at each other for a fraction of a second to consider how stupid it would be to follow him, then we followed him.
At the bottom of the hill we left the pavement, along a sandy track that paralleled a dry wash. Initially I felt relieved, remembering the mention of a wash in his last set of directions.
His truck veered suddenly to the right and headed up a steep incline, careening like a madman was at the wheel, or maybe a shaman on a mad quest. If it hadn’t been for his invitation to follow, I would have sworn he was trying to shake us loose. I put my truck into four-wheel drive and stepped on the gas.
Here I should pause to mention that the truck I was driving had been a recent purchase. I’d checked to see if the four-wheel worked when I bought it, but I hadn’t been faced with an opportunity to really test it. I couldn’t help feeling a bit excited about the off-road way things were developing. I even glanced at Pam, strapped in beside me, who’d stopped singing her makeshift Christmas carol and was smiling.
Every trip I’ve ever taken across the checkerboard reservation has been on pavement. Well, once when I had to pee badly, I pulled to the shoulder and scrambled down a bank toward a stand of sage, but that had been my only off-road excursion. Yet this wispy maze of dirt tracks our shaman sped along served an entire community, paths that must be wired like synapses into their brains. After the first five minutes, I had no idea which direction was north. We had to trust our guide.
At one point I thought I’d lost him and would have to find my way back to the wash on my own. Then we came around a great dune of dirt and saw the Navajo truck parked beside another pickup, the two drivers talking to each other through open windows. We stopped a respectable distance away and waited.
I know for a fact that a wave of tension surged through my brain, an unknown fear of not belonging, combined with a giddy rush of excitement, its polar opposite. Eventually the two trucks started their engines and headed off over another dune. Lucky for us, the newest truck positioned between ours and the lead one drove a bit slower. Our faith in the journey had been restored.
Zig-zagging through the red dust, feeling a little like we were touring the planet Mars, we started to relax again as this expanded caravan of three men, two of them wise, sought a route around the unseen scene of the accident.
Half an hour later our tires touched pavement again, and looking to the left we could see in the distance an impatient knot of vehicles still waiting to be untangled. To the right, the road to Tuba City, straight and clear.
As for the Montezuma Well, a 15-milliongallon watermark on the parchment of the Arizona desert, we finally got there, and it was rather magnificent, but in a quiet sort of way.
The desert we’d just crossed contained so many more mysteries I wanted to explore, a thirst that water doesn’t even begin to quench.
David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/.