Across The Arid Highlands Of Arizona, The Mind Rolls On And On...
By Jeff Smith
TUBA CITY--UP until now I never gave a thought to how this place came to be called what we call it. The first time I came through here must have been 25 years ago, and it sounded appropriately colorful and colloquial and Stephen Vincent Benet. You know, "...Tombstone and Tucson and Mexican Hat." So I concentrated on finding a gas station and a Coke machine and thought ahead to Flagstaff.
Today I've got time to kill, so I'm parked outside a McDonald's eating an Egg McMuffin and realizing for the first time that there must have been a tuba in Tuba City's past.
What the Navajos called the place before the white men brought their musical instruments and their language to the rez I have no idea. This place might not even have been a place, as far as the aborigines were concerned. Maybe Tuba City is only here because of white capitalism.
There's an ancient trading post here. And where white capitalism went, the army and the Indian Bureau followed, to protect the dollar and eventually, fruitlessly, to missionize the heathen.
The town's core clearly is G.I.
Stone buildings of the Victorian period and style testify to mid-19th-century failure to impose WASPish civilization and sensibility on desert semi-nomads. The rock houses and offices of early government settlement stand empty and idle today. Today they still are the best real estate in town and yet the wind and not much else blows through them, an ironic commentary on wasted time and dubious intentions. A continuing waste of resource. Down the street toward the highway that crosses the rez, a jumble of trailers sits behind a billboard that proclaims, "All People Housing."
Populism comes at a price and part of that is living in recycled beer cans.
Across the road from All People Housing, three-quarter-ton pickups with gooseneck trailers are parked on a sandlot, peddling alfalfa hay for $7 a bale. As a man whose personal hay requirements approach two tons per annum, I'm interested both in the quality and price of the product. It looks to be good, third-cutting hay, 100-plus pounds to the bale, and cheaper than I can usually buy it in Patagonia or Sonoita. I pull up alongside a Navajo sitting in the back of a stock trailer and ask where it's from.
"St. George," he says. He knows I know that he doesn't need to explain that there's not much in the way of commercial hay production on the reservation. A tourist from New Jersey could tell you as much. Navajo rugs and blankets aren't the only reason the rez is sheep country. Arid doesn't begin to describe the climate and terrain. Anyway, they import horse hay from Utah, and according to my Native American informant, the Mormon farmers from St. George exact a considerable tariff on agricultural products crossing the border onto the rez.
By now I have a far deeper appreciation of Tuba City than the previous quarter-century had given me. A little curiosity and a single question can earn a man a lot out here.
Back on Highway 160 I picture the road ahead: Monument Valley and the left-hander at Teec Nos Pos, Four Corners and Cortez, Colorado, and then how far and how long to Hotchkiss beyond? Then it dawns on me that it doesn't matter. I remember the last time I drove this road; two years ago, heading west, from the same house in Hotchkiss that is my destination today. That time my destination was today's point of origination. Morse to Jones then: Jones to Morse now. Then, I stopped for gas and Gatorade at Kayenta in the middle of a monsoon. Then I was on my motorcycle, soaked to the hide, burnt to a frito from wind and intermittent sun, aching like a stubbed toe and wishing my ride were over. I asked a young Navajo man coming out of the Circle K if he could tell me how far it was to Flagstaff.
"Yes," he said. "Maybe about 110 miles. Maybe 300." He struck off walking in that direction. If it was information enough for him, on foot, it surely was sufficient unto my needs, with a hundred horsepower under my ass.
I was going to wind up at Jones' house in Flagstaff before I shut it down for the day: I was going to get cold leftovers, a hot bath and a pallet on the floor no matter what hour I arrived. These issues had been decided by or for me before I embarked, perhaps before I was born. So what I sought from the Indian shuffling down the side of the highway was superfluous information. It didn't matter whether Flagstaff was 110 miles and an hour away, or 300 miles and 15 hours distant. He understood that; what was my problem?
"You'll be there when you get there," I told myself, and turned off the radio. I thought of Chuck Bowden, the gawky guy I went to high school with, who became an amateur newspaper reporter and then a famous professional writer of trenchant social commentary in glossy national magazines. Not to mention books. I asked Chuck one time what he found so attractive about the ground between Yuma and Gila Bend.
"There's less to see there," he said. Deliberately Papago-sounding, I thought at the time.
Well I wanted to see and hear less too. Less FM radio and air-conditioning and the interior of a Dakota pickup, so I shut off the tunes and the air and opened the windows and gawked around at the sandstone and sagebrush and Maynard Dixon clouds in the blue blue sky.
Before long this minimalist sensory environment concentrated itself on the bridge of my nose where the pads of my sunglasses seemed to me to be restricting my breathing. A stream-of-consciousness ran through my torpid thought-processes something like this:
Pinched nostrils...pince nez...Nez Perce...from where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
Fortunately for everyone, not the least of whom would be you, the reader, the archetypal reservation vignette suddenly appeared before me.
A pickup truck pulled onto the highway a ways up the road. Far enough that I didn't run up on their bumper, but not so far I didn't have to brake and slow to follow them. Two young Navajos, a boy and a girl, teens or early 20s, sat in the back, staring at me staring back at them. Perfect.
I heard some stand-up comic on TV one time say that the hardest thing in the world was to look cool riding in the back of a pickup. I laughed then because I'd done my share of riding in the back of a pickup. I smiled now because these two Navajo kids didn't seem uncomfortable or uncool in the least.
I tailed them for 10 or 15 miles, and it occurred to me that some of the differences that white boys like me perceive between, well, white boys like me and Indians like them could be founded in, found in, these pickup trucks and the contrasting views they afford of the world around us. Here I sit, hand on the wheel, foot on the gas, rushing to meet a world that hurries toward me through the glass of my windshield.
And there sit the heirs of the Navajo nation: bare-headed under the summer sun, whipped by an unceasing wind, their backs to the momentum of an iron horse that hurls them toward an unseen destination...the world they know receding into the infinite behind them.
I think I better stop and take a leak.
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