Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation

Some of you may have heard  me say that I had decided I'd rather have experiences than things.  Well, this was definitely an experience.  I lock my trailer door every night and every time I change clothes, take a shower, etc., but I've never been so immensely grateful for the deadbolt before.  It all ended up working out, but not before I'd been thoroughly scared.  I do talk about fear a lot, and I have a lot of fears, but it's pretty rare that I fear for my physical safety and it always shakes me to the core. 

I left my campsite at Sand Island outside of Bluff, UT on the morning of Friday, August 13th headed for Zion National Park.  I had decided not to stop at Monument Valley because it was a bit expensive for my taste at that point in time, but I knew that I would get to see some of it by just driving past & through it so I was cool with that.  I was up and on the road earlier than usual because of a scheduled phone call for work that ended up not happening, so it was only about 9:30/10am when I passed through Mexican Hat, UT (so named for the rock formation that looks like a sombrero) and continued down the road toward Monument Valley.  I was chugging along up a hill when a dude in a sedan passed me.  I thought nothing of it, as people are always passing me now that I've wised up to the gas mileage game and refuse to go any faster than 65...and I get pretty slow going up hills as well.  But this guy started waving out the window, and I soon realized that he was waving to get my attention.  I checked to see if my blinker was on or something, but no.  He kept waving at me so finally I pulled over to the side of the road behind him.  When I got out of the car, he was pointing toward my trailer, and when I looked back I saw smoke.  Another wheel bearing had blown, this time on the rear driver's side of the trailer.  It was literally smoking hot.  

I had just crossed into the Navajo reservation and there are no big cities less than an hour away.  I asked the guy where I could get this fixed around here, and he said his son was a mechanic so he would go ask him if he could help me out.  I figured that would be better than getting a tow truck, so I hung out.  Pretty soon, Shane, Lori and Winston pulled up in a pickup truck and said they thought they could help me out.  We started jacking up the trailer and taking off the tire, and as we did that a bunch of other people trickled in and out.  Shane also mentioned that they had run out of beer (remember, it was about 10am at this point).  I didn't have any beer, but I had plenty of wine, and I was happy to sacrifice some in the name of getting my problem fixed.  Names were flying at me left and right and I could hardly tell one person and pickup from another.  I now know that JJ was one of those people and the only one who was legitimately skilled and sober enough to actually get the job done.  He said he had the parts, but he was actually on the clock at the moment and he would have to come back after work.  He figured I'd be on my way at some point that evening. 

In the meantime, Shane and Lori offered to take me down into Monument Valley ("MV" as they call it) and show me around.  Because they're Navajo they can get in for free, and they just asked that I put some gas in their car. We locked up my truck and trailer and stopped at Shane's house in Halcheeta to pick up his wife, Pearl, who would be our designated driver, and their youngest daughter, baby Leah.  At the gas station, I handed over $40, most of which went for gas...but they also bought a 30-pack of beer, which they polished off in a couple of hours.  These guys (and girls) were some of the most serious drinkers I'd encountered in quite a while, and it did make me uncomfortable, but I rationalized my feelings by reminding myself that I was getting a free tour of MV, a free horseback ride through MV, and a super cheap fix for the trailer.  And I'd be on my way that evening, so it was no big deal.  I can deal with almost anything temporarily.  

They did take me down to MV and we sailed right through the entrance gate.  All four of these guys were tripping over themselves to give me a proper tour, pointing out the monuments and telling me their names, showing me where their family members live, etc.   When we got to the horseback riding place, I didn't realize it but they let the guys think that I was at least part native in order to get me a free ride.  Pearl's brother Kurdell got me on a horse and adjusted the stirrups, and Marlon took me out after giving me a few basics.  It was a short ride but really nice talking to Marlon, and he made sure to get some pics of me on the horse with monuments in the background.  

The rest of the crew just hung out in the car waiting for me while I went on the ride, and when I got back Lori was asleep in the backseat.  When she woke up she started asking to be dropped off at home, which irritated Pearl, who insisted that they had more to show me.  At some point, Shane must have caressed Lori's arm, which prompted the first show of drama I'd seen.  Shane and Pearl had a very loud and completely unproductive conversation, as Shane was completely wasted.  Soon after this, Pearl started drinking.  Since the beer in Utah is only allowed to be 3.2% ABV max, it takes several to get a buzz.  However, I certainly didn't realize how much she was drinking.She ended up having a six-pack before we got to Lori's house and turned around for their house again.  This was about the time that Pearl started freaking out because there was a Sheriff hanging out in town, and apparently their car wasn't registered.  OK, I thought, but we just have to make it back to my car, the guys will fix the wheel bearing, and then I'll be on my way.  It's not like I wasn't having any fun, I just wasn't into day drinking and these guys were super into it.  At some point, Lori told me I'd have to pull the trailer over to Shane & Pearl's house (just a mile or two from the pull-out off the main road where I'd initially pulled over), because it wouldn't be fixed until tomorrow.  I didn't understand why or when they'd even spoken to anyone to find that out, but at this point they were all so drunk I didn't want to push it.  I knew I'd get nowhere, and I didn't want to antagonize my only way of getting back to my car.  Plus, now it was late on a Friday and I knew that I didn't have any other good options for getting the trailer fixed.  I figured I could limp the trailer over to their house and that would be better than sleeping on the side of the highway.  

Well, we didn't immediately go and pick up my trailer.  We drove by it on the way to get more beer (remember, they had demolished the thirty pack they'd bought at noon) and determined that no one had messed with it.  Then we went back to Shane & Pearl's, had a beer (they had several), Pearl got some meat out to defrost and Winston and I went for a quick hike to the top of a nearby bluff.  I have to stop here and say that this is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.  The houses are very simple, and in MV itself there is no electricity or running water (Halcheeta has both), but the backdrop is incredible.  Stunning is one  word to describe it, but it stops short of doing this place justice.  I was thrilled to have been shown around by my new group of Navajo friends, and knew that none of it would have happened if I hadn't had that blowout, and if Shane's dad hadn't flagged me down to stop me.  I felt that everything happened for a reason and I was going with it. 

When Winston and I got back from our walk, Shane was passed out, and I knew he was the one I needed to help me get the trailer over to the house, so I just hung out for a few hours.  I drank more than I normally would have, influenced by the super heavy drinking going on around me.  I never got drunk, but I knew I wouldn't feel good the next day.  At some point after dark, Kurdell and Marlon showed up again and I was happy to see those guys.  Marlon had mentioned that he didn't drink very much, and he was a much better conversationalist than the glonnies ("glonny" is Navajo for "someone who drinks too much") I'd been hanging out with, all of whom were in varying stages of lucidity but none of whom were anywhere near sober.  This made me uncomfortable, of course, but I didn't know where else to go and I knew I was welcome to stay with them, so I did.  It was starting to wear on me, though.  I have very little patience for alcoholism after a lifetime with an alcoholic father and brother, and it brings me down to see people who don't take care of themselves.  

At some point, Shane woke up and we did get my trailer limped over to the house.  I figured I could go to bed pretty soon, but then another 5 or 6 people curious to meet their new bilagáana (Navajo for "white person") friend.  It had to be 11pm by this time and it had already been a long day, but now I had all these people talking to me at once, competing for my attention and asking me questions.  They also decided I needed a Navajo name - they didn't like "honey badger" as none of them had seen the video so they didn't get the reference.  They settled on Dahetihhe, which means "hummingbird".  In the midst of all this, somehow I ended up stuck in the kitchen babysitting Leah while Shane & Pearl had a big fight outside.  I resented being handed the baby, but with both parents so out of it I couldn't just hand her back.  The poor kid was so exhausted, but as we were in the kitchen and most of the party was outside she kept hearing her parents' voices and looking around for them.  She just couldn't relax, especially not in the arms of a stranger.  Eventually Winston came in and I handed her over, thinking at least she'd have someone familiar and maybe she'd be able to relax & go to sleep.  Soon after we got the baby to sleep, the rest of the party moved on to someplace else and I went to bed.  

I couldn't have been laying down for more than half an hour when I was awoken by pounding on my door. It was Shane, asking me if I had any wine.  I told him I didn't and that I was sleeping.  He commented on the nice big bed I had and asked if he could "chill with me".  At this point I was standing in the doorway and he was leaning in.  I was doing my best to block the doorway and make it clear that he was not invited in.  I told him no, he could not chill with me, and that I had been sleeping and he woke me up.  I told him I needed to go back to bed and he needed to go inside.  He eventually closed my door and left.  I locked the door again, turned out the lights, and went to sleep.  At 2:14 am I was awoken by more pounding on my door.  This time it was Winston.  I asked him what he wanted and he said he wanted to hang out.  I told him to go away.  He couldn't believe I wasn't going to let him in.  I said, "No! Let you in, for what?  I'm sleeping."  He said he wouldn't let me sleep until I let him, I told him that was "pretty fucked up", and he decided he had just been kidding and he went away.  I pulled my mask back on, put my earplugs back in, and dozed off again.  Couldn't have been more than ten minutes later that there was more pounding on my door.  This time it was Shane.  This was where I got scared.  He was alternately pounding and turning the doorknob and saying "It's Shane.  Let me in. It's Shane. Jen, let me in." He couldn't remember my name and had been calling me Jen occasionally all day, even though all of us kept reminding him of my real name. I was asking him what he wanted but he just kept pounding, trying the doorknob, and saying, on a loop, "It's Shane.  Let me in. It's Shane. Jen, let me in. It's Shane."  Finally, I yelled loudly, "SHANE!" This got his attention.  "What?"  I yelled just as loudly, "PLEASE GO AWAY."  He said, "OK," and left. 

I was relieved that he had gone away but now I was scared.  I didn't know for sure what he wanted, but he was a big dude, and I was a woman alone in a trailer.  And it was the middle of the night.  One can imagine several possibilities, none of which were desirable to me, and I wasn't at all sure that he was gone for good.  I couldn't relax.  My heart was pounding, and the meditation and breathing exercises were just barely taking the edge off.  I thought about what weapons I had available - basically just some kitchen knives, but they were in the drawer right next to my bed.  I thought about just taking off right then, but I didn't know how far I'd get or where I could even go. And I figured they'd find me - I'm pretty conspicuous with the red pickup, hang glider, and travel trailer.  Plus, I still thought they'd fix my damn trailer in the morning once they sobered up.  So I stayed put.  I kept my earplugs out and my mask, off, and I woke up and froze every time I heard a sound...this was often as people let their dogs roam freely and there are other animals around as well, but I managed to cobble together 45 minutes here, an hour there.  

By the morning I was just as exhausted and really wishing I had someone to call to come save me.  I thought about what I would tell anyone else who called me in this situation, and I would tell them to get out of there.  I had been able to limp the trailer in there, so I should be able to limp the trailer out of there.  I had heard Shane leave the house around 8am (who knows how he's able to stand up at that hour after all that drinking) and the house was pretty quiet, although I was pretty sure the rest of the family was still home.  I hung out in the front seat of the car for an hour or so, looking up the distance to Mexican Hat on Google maps, knowing that if anyone caught me (that was how I thought of it at that point, like they were going to catch me doing something offensive in preparing to take off) I could just say I was charging my phone...which I was.  

Eventually I figured it was quiet enough that I could make it out without a confrontation, and it was less than 3 miles into town...just a couple of miles till I'd be off the reservation.  I knew that they all went to the gas station in Mexican Hat for beer, though, so I wanted to at least get past that point so I'd be less likely to run into them while I waited for the tow truck.  I limped into town and past the gas station and pulled in at the only RV park in town, Valle's. I went in and Jesse came out and said "Hello".  I felt like such a prejudiced asshole for being so happy to see that he was white and not Navajo.  My voice kept cracking as I told him I needed to call a tow truck and I was just hoping that I could wait there for it.  He was compassionate and kind and got me a glass of water and gave me a pack of cookies as he figured I probably hadn't eaten yet.  I told him the story and he knew those guys and knew how much of a drinker Shane was, as he said Shane came in there every morning, hungover and looking for more beer.  I called Good Sam for a tow, and when they said they couldn't get me a tow until Monday, he pulled out the phone book and started reading off numbers of the local guys for me to call. While we were waiting for Good Sam to call back, sure enough, Shane and Kurdell walked in.  Shane said he thought I'd be at Zion by now.  I resisted the urge to ask him how the fuck he thought I could possibly have done that since he hadn't actually fixed my trailer, and told him the truth.  I said, "Honestly, you were banging on my trailer last night and you made me really uncomfortable."  He said, "I'm sorry", really quick like someone who was used to apologizing but didn't really grasp what he had done.  I said, "You did it twice."  He said, "Oh really?"  Kurdell looked at me and said, "Yeah - tell the truth." I said, "Yeah, that is the truth," looked at Shane and said, "You scared me."  They left after paying for a...you guessed it...30-pack of beer.  Kurdell shook me hand and told me it was nice meeting me and that I'm pretty cool.  I told him, "Likewise."  

We weren't able to get in touch with any of the family members of the local towing & auto shop, so Jesse suggested I pull around back and take a nap while he continued trying to get in touch with the local guy ("local" being Blanding, UT, about an hour away).  I paid for a site so that I could plug in and turn on the AC, and he gave me bathroom keys so I could shower.  I had completely forgotten about showering! He made sure to tell me I didn't stink, he just figured I might like to take one.  And I showed him the dirt ring around my ankle and laughed.

After a shower and a two-hour nap, I felt a little better and extremely hungry, so I went back up to the office/snack bar for some food.  Jesse let me know that one of the guys had called back and said he'd be out the next day to tow me.  I figured that was cool as it was still better than Monday, so I got some lunch and then went over to the gas station for some drinks & snacks, planning to hole up in the AC and watch movies for the rest of the day.  Sure enough, as I was leaving the convenience store I ran into Lori and her son.  I told her I was going to just get a tow truck and her face fell, but she said it was nice meeting me, I returned the sentiment, and I was on my way back to the RV park.  However, when I got back to the RV park there was a big white pickup I sort of recognized and it followed me to my site.  I thought aloud, "Oh Fuck! What now?!", got out and saw JJ standing there.  He told me had entirely meant to fix the wheel bearing yesterday, but he didn't "like that guy"...he meant Shane.  He hadn't known where to find me and didn't want to contact Shane, and he had other jobs to do so he just figured it had either gotten fixed or I'd gotten a tow truck.  He offered to still do the job and said he was pretty sure he had the parts, but if he didn't, he was willing to take an hour ride with me to Cortez, CO to buy the right parts.  I was extremely tired, and although I felt guilty about it, I was unable to trust the Navajo at that point.  He said he'd go see if he had the parts at his house, though, and I figured that was fine.  While he was gone, I cleared my head and evaluated my gut feeling about him.  Shane had always made me a little uncomfortable but I'd brushed those feelings aside.  JJ, on the other hand, seemed completely above board.  For one thing, he was sober, and for another, he disliked Shane.  That could have just been coincidence, but to me at that moment it gave him credibility.  JJ came back a little over an hour later with the right parts and got to work.  He also didn't mind me sitting with him and explained what he was doing as he went along.  We soon figured out that some of the parts we needed to reuse had been left behind, so we went together back to the pullout where I'd originally pulled over.  We found a spring and one lug nut, but none of the other parts - in particular, we needed to find the nut & washer that held the wheel bearings one.  He took me to his house, where he took those parts off of his own trailer, and also showed me the eight or ten classic trucks he was in the process of restoring.  When he's done he's going to have an entire fleet of beautiful automobiles.  And I think he will get it done - he works seven days a week, building a dam up in Blanding and then working construction and maintenance on weekends, and doing side jobs like mine in his spare time.  JJ is a solid guy and I'm glad to have met him.  

By the time we were finished getting the tire back on the trailer, it was around 7pm, so I decided to just wait until the morning to head out.  I had a 5 - 6 hour drive to Zion ahead of me and I didn't want to tempt fate by driving alone through remote territory on the reservation late at night.  JJ didn't know what to charge me, so I threw some money at him and hoped it was fair.  I went back into Bluff to what I knew was the best restaurant for many miles, Comb Ridge Bistro, had a nice dinner including a salad and the State Pen Porter I first discovered in Albuquerque.  I got out of there before 10am and pretty much held my breath until I got to Kayenta, about 40 miles south of Monument Valley.  Still on the reservation, but far enough away from the source of my discomfort that I was able to relax again.  Stopped for a nice lunch in Page, AZ and took a couple of hours to get my thoughts down.  I still needed to write up Big Spring and the few days afterwards in New Mexico and Utah, and I was dying to get to Zion...but it was important to me to get these thoughts down while they were fresh in my mind.  

I'm still processing everything that happened. I know there are a lot of lessons to be learned here and I'm pretty sure I haven't realized all of them yet.  For one thing, though, I need to call the tow truck first thing.  If I'd done that on Friday I probably could have been on my way some time that afternoon and I wouldn't have lost more than a few hours.  As it was, trusting a bunch of strangers wound up costing me two days.  The other important thing to note is that Shane made me uncomfortable from the beginning, and several things that happened throughout the day increased my discomfort.  JJ said he almost said something to me at the time, but then didn't.  I can see how he was in a tough position - he would have started a confrontation with his stepsister's husband and I was a stranger he'd probably never see again.  He'd been perfectly willing to help me but had other things to worry about as well.  So I should have trusted my gut, which was telling me I should probably call a tow truck.  Instead, I listened to my wallet, which was telling me to accept the free tour and the promise of a cheap fix for the trailer.  I also learned what all the parts of the wheel are and what they're supposed to look like.  And now I know that my wheel looked absolutely terrible and there was no way I would have made it much further driving on that thing - metal had been grinding on metal, all the grease was gone and some of the parts had melted together.  I'll be religious from now on about checking all my wheels for any heat each time I stop, and I'll be more likely to listen to my intuition about new people. 


  1. I can just imagine how frightening it was being woken up by someone banging on you door... several times. I'm just glad you're all right and have such a good attitude about it.

  2. Well!...I guess you burst out of that middle-class bubble now! What is it about trailer wheel bearings?! - I mean that's the ONLY thing they have to do - roll! - no drivetrain to worry about - and they always seem to get hot... With due regard for self-preservation, I hope you will still find yourself able to accept kindness from strangers. - Hugh

    1. Seriously...ugh, I hate wheel bearings with a passion right now! Doing my best to keep an open heart :)