To most of America, we were way, way out in the sticks, miles from any McDonalds or Comfort Inn, at a seemingly namless spot on the Navajo Indian Reservation, which is, mostly, windblown rock, gigantic mesas, cedars and pinions. Here and there sit scattered homesteads, each of them with an extra truck or two, a few outlying buildings, and a hogan, which may be old or new or middle-aged.
I asked a Navajo man about a mesa cut straight as a flattop haircut not two or three miles off, and he said the Navajos called it Tsnizhoni or “Pretty Rock.” By GPS we were somewhere north of Church Rock---both mountain and community—and somewhere south of Mariana Lake, where there is no lake, except what forms during occasional monsoon season gully-washers. Like I said, to most of America, we were nowhere.
My host and guide was an 83-year-old retired school principal, who’d spent his whole life in the area, a man who told me earlier a great Christmas story I wanted to write. To do that, I wanted to visit—I wanted to see the exact spot where his father, one Christmas, had distributed “mission barrel” clothing to the Navajos in the neighborhood, mid-Depression, circa 1935.
I don’t think he’d been back to the place he called Pinedale for a few score years, because the school where the event took place wasn’t where he thought it should be anymore. When we didn't find it, we went hunting, stopped a guy in a little Ford when we met him along a dirt road.
“The old school?” my friend asked. The man nodded, told us to follow him.
Sadly, the guy—maybe 30—had no idea there even was an old school. He led us to the chapter house, a new place along the west side of the road, and, from his car, pointed at a school. Sure enough, there was one, all right—but it wasn’t old.
The chapter house parking lot was packed with cars, and my tour guide was not to be denied: we were going to find the place, period. So we got out of the Jeep and walked up the chapter house. Now I’m conscious of the fact that there’s no other white face within 25 miles or so, but my tour guide doesn't seem to be. We walk through the gate.
There’s a young dad sitting there, his little boy drinking from the can of Coke he' holding for the kid. “The old Pinedale School?” my tourguide says.
“I’m not from here,” the guy says. “I don’t know. Go inside and ask,” he tells us.
I'm not sure I want to do that, even the two of us white guys could hardly have posed a threat—our median age being 70-something.
But in we went. There’s a young lady with a child hunched on her hip just inside the door. “The old Pinedale school,” my tour guide asks again. She shakes her head. The baby grins fearlessly.
What we’ve interrupted is a graduation party for some local girl, and people are dressed up for the occasion. In Navajo land, that can sometimes means rich velvety skirts and blouses for the women and colorful shirts for the men. Everyone’s dressed up, shiny boots, and no one is without their best turquoise and silver—earrings, necklaces, wristbands as wide shirt cuffs. Rings—gorgeous rings—adorn every brown hand. Honestly, for a minute I thought we walked into a travelogue.
An old woman comes up. My tourguide knows the language; he tells her quickly who he is and what he is looking for. She mutters something that her granddaughter translates, and points us back up the road.
My tourguide thanks them kindly and makes some joke in the Navajo language.
And then, suddenly, the men are there. We’d been talking to the women, but suddenly there are two men right in front of us. Once again, my tour guide introduces himself in Navajo. The men smile and answer in English.
“Maybe you two would like to join us for something to eat,” he says.
I’m not kidding.
Not only did they not know us, we were—and still are—a couple of white men. Instinctively, I thought--goon squad.
“Maybe you’d like to join us for something to eat?” he said. I swear it. Tons of food was lined up on picnic tables in the chapter house.
Now, I live in fly-over country, on the edge of the Great Plains, in a place most of America would call “the sticks.” My tribe is the Dutch Reformed, who aren’t as clannish as they once were, just as the Navajos aren’t. Some old walls are breaking down. Nonetheless, when we gather to celebrate things like a graduation, the crowd is often pretty pure.
But as I walked out of that chapter house compound, I wondered what might happen if a couple of Navajo wayfarers would have broken up a graduation party in the local Christian school—or church. I wondered if, first crack out of the box, some uncle of the graduate would walk up and insist the two strangers sit down and break bread with the rest of the righteous. I don’t know.
But their kind and gentle welcome was the highlight of the afternoon of discovery. We could have been serial killers, hateful racists, instant trouble. “Maybe you’d like to join us for something to eat?” the man said.
I don’t remember what he looked like, only that he insisted.