A Road Less Travelled ~ My car and I travel the Navajo Reservation.


There are three horses at the foot of the mountain. Very tiny, indeed!

 ©2009 Liz Anderson

In April, 2009, I spent a day and a half in Piñon, which is situated on a remote portion of the Navajo Reservation. On Monday, I returned home to Phoenix with a badly limping automobile. The underside sounded like a giant medicine man’s rattle. You know the kind: they are used by the Shamans to cure major illnesses like bubonic plague. (Oh yes, bubonic plague is currently endemic on the Indian Reservations adjoining the Four Corners Region of the United States. But, as is sometimes said, that, my friends, is another story.)

           Instead of driving directly home, I brought it straight to my repair shop around four o’clock. After a quick examination, I was told it would take several days to replace the metal pipes, pans, tubes, and anything made of rubber on the underside. 

           I was flabbergasted. “What the tarnation?” I gasped. “What happened?” 
            Mike, my mechanic, asked me how fast I had been driving on the shortcut.

            “About thirty miles per hour.” I said, somewhat puzzled. “You know that road is not a speedway and not paved.”

            Mike exploded and startled me with his vehemence. “I know the road, Liz! Hellroad is a twenty-three mile short cut meant for high clearance vehicles! Your car has been shredded – shredded! – by quarter-mile- long potholes and flint stones. Flint! Liz, flint!. It’s used to make knives, cutting instruments, spears, and arrowheads! Your top speed should be fifteen miles an hour. What the bleep possessed you to take the Hellroad? You doing your museum program for the school in Piñon? Jeez, even Extreme Home Makeover had problems when they went up there.”

            I nodded assent, but, actually, I was stunned. Mike had never been angry with me before, even when I drove the rattletrap dirt trail to the summit of a local mountain and lost two tires in the process.

            “I saved three hundred and twenty miles on the round trip, Mike. Otherwise it would have been a two day trip up and a two day trip back home.”

            Mike actually growled, and said nothing at first. “I had my say. You go that way again, and I won’t work on your car. Period.”

            The adventure began the previous Sunday. I was supposed to leave at 4:30 am to make a six hundred mile trip. The day hadn’t started out any too auspiciously. Over sleeping often leads to late starts. There was no time to make breakfast, so I stopped at the local Dunkin Donuts for two hazelnut flavored black coffees. Then, I also purchased a bagel with cream cheese. It was to be my breakfast on the road. When I carried my order to the car, two Boston Crème donuts were waiting in my bag. On a hunch, I checked the coffee. Oh, my! I found cream and sugar, but no hazelnut wafted to my nostrils. Rectifying this series of errors required almost twenty minutes.

At least the freeway north wasn’t crowded. The truck accident a few miles up the road only caused a forty-five minute delay. Some hundred or so miles, and an hour and a half later, I arrived in Flagstaff at seven am. As I made the turn toward the reservation, I heard the thunkety-thunk of a flat tire. Luckily, it happened in front of a Honda Dealer with an open service department, and the service staff fixed it for me with due speed.

By the time everything was settled, my schedule was off by almost three hours.

Five hundred sixty miles to go. I won’t get there until way after dark. Perhaps, I thought, I should take the shortcut some eighty miles to the west. I had taken it once whilst returning from the reservation six months previously, and was sure that with the GPS, I could retrace my steps. So, I pulled over to the side of the road and checked my road map. It looked fairly simple, although the smaller roads on the two reservations – first the Hopi Nation, then the Navajo – I needed to traverse were not marked with numbers on the map.

Without further ado I set my GPS, which, to this day, is an integral part of my cell phone, and set out.

St. Christopher, guardian saint of travel, must have been with me, because I found the critical correct turn without further ado. Terrific! I will be in Piñon long before dark, and I will have saved myself over one hundred sixty miles each way.

Sixty miles further on, I entered the Hopi Reservation, and, from there, wound my way up to the higher elevations on curving mountain roads with sheer drop offs. They’re paved, Liz, don’t complain. The shortcut road is only twenty-three miles long. This is turning out to be a great day after all.

Soon after I left the Hopi Reservation, made a right turn at a corner gas station, and within the next twenty miles made a half dozen turns until I came to a sign welcoming me to the Navajo Reservation.

As I passed the boundary line, the telephone and the GPS went dead.

Hmmmmm. Now what?

The radio worked, but only two stations were now available: the Hopi Tribal Radio Station and the Navajo Radio Station. The Hopi’s faded out within the next ten miles.

This was disturbing, as I had been listening to my usual radio stations until I arrived at the turnoff. Then I tuned in to the Navajo Radio Station, enjoying the native announcers and music played on ancient instruments.

Though I couldn’t understand the words, it was fascinating to listen to the half-hour news spoken in the ancient Navajo tongue. English words were said in English. So, a description of the previous night’s basketball game was amusing to listen to, and it almost made sense. I thought of the Navajo Code Talkers during WWII.

Well, I had better get some more information before I push forward, I thought, and retraced the miles to the gas station. As soon as I passed the reservation boundary line painted on the road, the telephone, GPS, and radio all became operational.

By this time, my gas tank was somewhat lower than when I had begun, so I decided to fill the tank to the top. The way the day was going had me somewhat uneasy. I knew there was a gas station in Piñon, my destination, but I couldn’t shake my apprehensive feelings.

The owner of the gas station was a Hopi. The two tribes have adjoining reservations and there is bad blood between them. Actually, the Hopi Reservation is completely surrounded by the Navajos. He filled my tank, and I told him my destination and purpose, and asked him about the radio and telephone.

“Damn Navajos,” he sputtered. “Gets ‘emselves a golden contract with a Canadian company and they’re in an electronic prison! Nothing except their own radio station and only Altel phone service. All other cell phone services are blocked. The TV people refused to pay the cost of broadcasting in TV. The Canadians had told them Indians the radio stations and cell phone providers would be lining up to pay high fees to have their services unblocked. HA! Then they (Tribal Council) goes and gets some computer service from outer space, and the tribal elders ordered every home on the rez to get free phone and computer and radio service. They got it. And it don’t work too well. There’ll be more hell to pay when the Canadians pull out! So ya gets to the welcome sign, and you are back before the white men came.” He kicked the dirt viciously and spit on the ground.

Parenthetically, the Hopi’s prediction was exactly what happened in 2008, leaving the entire Navajo nation without cell phones, television, and computers. The block was removed with the Canadians, so radio service, at least, was restored. As of this date, the internet, telephone, and television problems have not been solved.

After the man finished filling my tank and went back into his store, I called my contact at Piñon on his Altel cell phone, and he confirmed what I had just heard.

“Hey! We’re short of water here. Pick up two to three dozen bottles at the gas station.”


“Naw. Uranium poisoning from the mines on the Hopi Reservation. The uranium reached the water table. You can’t drink or bathe with tap water. We’re back to bringing in clean water from outside the rez by tanker trucks. Basha’s Supermarket in town has two aisles of bottled water, but we’re running low until new supplies come in on Monday afternoon. The only thing we use our tap water and wells for is for irrigation and toilets.”

“But, Rick, uranium makes the crops radioactive!” I shout.

“Yah. #*&@ happens. Damn hay lights up under UV light. So do the cattle.” He was not joking.

Without further ado, I pushed forward, easily found my shortcut road, and arrived in Pinon by five o’clock. The gas station was closed. A hand-lettered sign on the front window read, “MAKE DO. MORE GAS COMING MONDAY.”

Driving another half mile, I arrived at the guardhouse and the high security fence that surrounded the housing, showed my identification to the armed guards, and signed into the tribal housing, drove to my unit, unloaded my car, and then collapsed on the bed. I wanted to turn the TV on and watch movies until I fell asleep.

There was a knock on the door.

One of the guards welcomed me and handed me a can of insecticide. “Things have changed since six months ago. Ya got bedbugs here. Shake out the bedding and spray it before you sleep, or they’ll eat you alive.”

“After my experiences in the tropics, I know what to do. I’ll put water in the dishes and pans. It will form a moat around the bed.”

“Good idea.” He grinned. “And don’t worry about safety. We shoot to kill.”

Quietly, I wished him a good night. After dinner, I set up my moat, washed myself with some of the bottled water, I once again collapsed on the bed. Wearily, I used the remote to turn on the TV.

The TV reception was not working.

I listened to Navajo Radio until I fell asleep. The bedbugs kept their distance.

Before leaving for the school the next morning at six am, I sat in the overstuffed chair and drank my leftover Dunkin Donuts’ coffee.

By afternoon, and a successful series of programs behind me, I left on the short-cut route, but felt itchy. Checking it out on a roadside, I was able to count about fifteen bites. Stupid chair! No, stupid me. I had forgotten about spraying the chair.

Later that evening, after getting a ride home from the auto shop, I collapsed into my bed. I vaguely wondered if my TV was working, so I checked it. Yes, it was.

A few days later, I picked up my refurbished car, which cost over a thousand dollars to repair. The mechanics had treated everything inside it with insecticide and heat. A handful of dead bed-bugs preserved in a sealed glass jar was shown to me to admire. I was told the shop was keeping them as a souvenir.

“Guess your Sunday wasn’t made in heaven, eh?” chuckled Mike.

I smiled weakly, and thought, some days it never stops.

The following fall, I took the long road, and once more traveled to Pinon through Ganado.

The water, TV, and bedbug situation hadn’t changed.

Going home, I avoided the shortcut and traveled the long route.


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