Two white rental vans drove through the blackened night and paint chipping sandstorms of Arizona in search of Tuba City – one of the destinations selected for the alternate spring break volunteers from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
I was riding shot gun watching road signs rattle against the sweeping winds that rocked our van side to side between lane lines- no other drivers were dumb enough to be on the road. My knuckles were turning white as I gripped the inside door handle-my eyes trying to perceive through the darkness of the storm.
Even under these conditions, the city would be hard to miss. It was the only city with traffic lights for miles and we had been told that we would be getting close if we saw a sign that read, “Dinosaur Tracks, this way.”
All 22 volunteers’ expectations of a hot and dry desert, a blazing sun, and shorts and tee shirt weather had already been proven wrong. Arizona was a shmorgishborg of extreme climates. In a five-hour drive from the airport we had passed through the warm cactus painted landscapes of Phoenix, the cold snowcapped mountains of Flagstaff and the windy arid plains of the Navajo Reservation. Outside the van, I could clearly see snow flakes whipping around amidst the sandstorm when we stopped to pick up a late night dinner at the local Sonic.
Why had we come to such a place for our Spring Break?
To make a difference. But like our expectations of Tuba City, our actual experience would be completely different from anything we had anticipated.
We worked our way through the dark and freezing night, eventually finding our lodging accommodations. We would be staying in octagonal huts called Hogans, which were traditional Navajo dwellings used as living spaces, ceremonial chambers, and men’s club houses (of sorts).
There are two styles of Hogans, designated as being male or female. We only had female styled ones, but to keep with tradition our grounds coordinator divided us into assigned male and female Hogans. The Navajo believed the male Hogans were a place of bad energy: hunting, warring, killing, and debate. Unlike the Navajo, our men’s Hogan would be a place of jest and farting, or for wholesome discussions of who we thought was hot on the trip.
Our Hogan was spacious, though half of it was used for storing lumber that the grounds kept for renovation. Our cots were mounted to the walls as bunks and there was a single tiny space heater in the center of the room that was on its last leg. We relied mostly on a box full of mothball and sawdust covered blankets that we found in one of the corners. That night we almost froze.
The first morning the guys volunteered to prepare a pancake breakfast large enough to feed the team and a handful of Navajo church goers. Tony and I were quickly labeled the head chefs being that half of the men’s Hogan never woke up early enough to start preparing meals when we had to.
Tony and I didn’t mind. If we cooked all of the meals we would eat at base, we negotiated, then we wouldn’t have to do any other chores around the Hogan grounds, including cleaning the pile of dishes we used in meal prep.
The plan for the first day was to visit the Grand Canyon. The afternoon sun had melted the patches of snow and the roads were clear. Tuba City’s locals took to the streets in rustic cars and patch-paneled pickups. They were dressed as if it were still the dead of winter even though temperatures had risen to the mid 60’s. Considering it was snowing the night before, I think this was a huge improvement.
Shortly beyond the city limits the scenery took shape around us. The red sands and bold, colorful rock formations stood as testament to the endurance of America’s native people.
Despite the beauty and majesty of the land, it is a feat of pure perseverance that the Navajo have survived in an area as arid and destitute as this. There was literally nothing to be done with their land. They couldn’t grow crops if they wanted to. To raise livestock they had to purchase feed, because there was no where for their animals to graze. Their traditional way of life was impossible to live, and prospects for any form of productivity were pretty grim.
We experienced this first hand one day when we helped and learned how to run a ranch in this dry land. We had to handle baby sheep and goats while hand-feeding them with bottled milk; we had to move the adult herd out to giant half-tires filled with feed; and had to separate a wild mother sheep from her day old lambs. It was an enlightening experience, but just driving through Navajo land gave us a strong sense of their struggle.
The Canyon itself was a site to behold. I looked down the layers of painted stone, and all I could think about was how to climb to the next highest shelf of Paleozoic rock. My daring bouldering efforts earned its fair share of oohs, ahs and heart palpitations, but most importantly it provided me with an unmatched view of the four-mile wide trench in front of me. The Canyon paralleled the momentous week ahead and the work we would start the following day.
We were participating in a program under the Amizade organization. Usually its volunteers worked within the Navajo boarding schools, tutoring students. Luckily, the Navajo school system was also on spring break, so we had the rare opportunity of working with the local Boys and Girls Club to assist in its program and activities. Through this, we got to play the role of a “Big Brother/Sister” for the Navajo children.
Their clubhouse actual suffered a bad fire that decimated a whole wing of the building. The club had to move its services out on the streets, meeting in community parks or in rented trailer offices.
The first day we met our kids, we experienced the nicest weather of the trip thus far. Many of us underestimated the intensity of the sun while running around in the park and suffered sunburns that would accompany us the rest of the week.
What surprised me most, being a past B+G Club member myself, was that they were minimalistic and not only made do with what little they had, but reached out to the community through exposure.
They pulled kids off the street and out of the skate parks to play games with us. We ran relay races, played soccer, and learned a Navajo game that was like a combination of Simon Says and Musical Chairs. I think it was called “Sweep the Hogan.”
This game was a lot of fun. One of the counselors would yell out a command and we would have to perform mini scenes with a set number of people. If players were too slow to find a group and fill the scene with an appropriate number, you would be eliminated. We performed scenes of baking flat bread, looking for sheep, driving the firetruck, and of course, sweeping the hogan.
The week as a whole was non-stop. We talked to the children about the foreign idea of attending college and played a giant softball game in an abandoned lot that lasted a whole day and intensified our sunburns. We also helped organize the B+G Club’s storage units so that they could begin repairing their buildings. This was the most grueling day of all. We were tasked with moving much of the furniture and equipment inside the ashen building into these already jam packed tin sheds.
After hours of moving dusty furniture and torn bags of dry concrete, we kicked up so much soot and crap, that we had to don face masks in order to breathe. They must not have opened these units in years with all that dust. That evening, I was blowing black soot from my nose and scrapping the dust out of my ears.
After a day like this, most of the team was happy just to return to our Hogan grounds. There was never a dull moment though. Most nights we gathered around our camp fire and told ghost stories while looking up at the stars. We pulled our fair share of pranks on each other as well, usually just trying to scare the living hell out of one another.
We even befriended a pregnant stray dog that lived in our compound. We dubbed her Ninja because she was always appearing out of nowhere. We also built her a dog house to raise her on-the-way puppies in, against the wishes of our grounds keeper, “Preaching Pistol” Pete. He was one of the most eccentric old men I have ever met. When high on his own brand of mountain smoke, he often told us crazy tales of being a white man living on the Navajo Reservation. He also was the man who led church every Sunday for the converted Native Americans (the ones we made breakfast for).
Our service was supplemented with evening cultural experiences. One of the most memorable for me was participating in a Sweat Lodge. The traditional Navajo have many ceremonies and rituals; one of the most commonly practiced is a Sweat, where people can expel their misdeeds and bad energy by praying and communicating with the “Grandfathers.”
Our ceremony instructor, David, explained that the ritual is physically arranged to represent the body of a woman. Outside, there was a pile of wood representing the mind or hair, the fire pit that cooked the rocks was the heart, and the altar that held the ceremonial instruments represented the naval, making the burrow where we would sit, the womb of Mother Earth.
David filed all 22 of us into an earthly hallow, no bigger than an office cubicle, around a pit of heated volcanic rocks which he threw water on top of to create an intense sauna-like setting. After passing along a ceremonial pipe of mountain smoke, he pulled down the curtain to block out all light and began singing and banging on a drum.
I found myself disoriented, lacking any of the senses I had brought in with me. Only the hypnotic orchestra of prayers and chanting flooded my mind.
We asked the “Grandfathers” for selfless things, we prayed for the world, and sang. I sweat buckets on the two girls lucky enough to be sitting next to me. I was far from comfortable, but as soon as the four rounds of the ritual were over, I emerged from the earth’s womb into the cool purple sky of the desert and admired the bleeding sunset, feeling reborn.
That night I forgot about my problems back home, I forgot about the stress of my senior year, I even forgot about my peeling sunburn on the tightened skin of my arms, neck and forehead. David, like our B+G Club “littles”, held open a door of discovery.
That week we also visited Monument Valley, Coal Mine Canyon, and cultural museums. We shared stories of skinwalkers, danced to Navajo songs, and were taught the native language.
Every morning I woke up with energy and excitement no matter how late I stayed up the night before. I was renewed with endurance that I have only ever experienced in this place and within the people I met and worked with on this trip. It was impossible to give more to the Navajo people than I had received, from a people that expected the best of your humility and soul. And, you could never lose sight of this expectation in a place that greets you with the words Yah’ ah’ tee – walk in beauty. Walk in beauty.