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Navajo and Hopi Adventures in the Great Southwest; Life Lessons Learned on the Road
The Hopi Mesa Kids vs. The Draggin' Wagon.
Very thankfully the Indian Wars ended long ago. Often the battles were unfair and unjust. There was a moment however, when us kids, Kim, Nancy, Jim, me and Linda, thought our dad was going to start things up all over again. Mom may have shared our concerns.
Dad and mom wanted us to experience things a lot of kids would never get to. One year, the big plan was to load us up in our '64 Dodge 330 station wagon and take our, 'Draggin Wagon' trailer and tour the Southwest. That's exactly what we did. The Dodge was dad's first brand new car. He got it from Moss Motors in Riverside CA. We all loved it. The rear seat faced backwards so us kids in the back could watch what was going on behind us. When the trailer was in tow, we could fold the seats down and have an area to play or sleep. It had a small 318 V-8 that did an admirable job of pulling the Draggin Wagon.
Of course as kids, all we knew of the American Indians was from TV cowboy and Indian stories and from buying colorfully feathered Indian head dresses from the toy stores or seeing them at Halloween. There were also suction-cup tipped arrows and sheet metal targets, plastic bows and rubber tomahawks. Even the history we were taught in school was tainted with stories bound to make us wary of Indians. So, needless to say, we kids were a little frightened to go on this trip and even more scared to be staying in what we saw as an alien land. But dad and mom were fearless as they dragged the family into the abyss of the great Southwest. They taught us lessons no kid ever learned in school.
We traveled to the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings at Canyon de Chelly, pronounced canyon de shay. There we went to a real trading post and museum. The Anasazi Indians are there no longer and the Navajo's now live and farm there. We met a Navajo man named Ray. To our childish amazement, he spoke English just like us only slower and with a little accent to it. He was our historian, guide and naturalist all rolled into one. He wore colorful shirts, a black cowboy hat and turquoise jewelry. I had a black cowboy hat too so he was OK with me, and to everyone else it seemed. He didn't have a gun, bow and arrows, tomahawk or anything. He was real nice. So nice, we kids weren't sure he was a real Indian. Later we decided between us all that he was. Ray took us into the canyon in a Jeep I think. He told us stories of the Cliff Dwellings, the Anasazi basket makers and the modern Navajo inhabitants of the local area. The Cliff Dwellings were now vacant and preserved as an outdoor museum.He introduced dad and mom to a Navajo anthropologist named Shirley Sells. Us kids didn't pay much attention, we were in the trading post at the time and there were too many distractions. It was cooler inside. There were art works, blankets, pottery, silver and turquoise jewelry and other stuff for sale along with some familiar soda pops and snacks. It was quite an adventurous day. Maybe Indians were OK, at least the Navajo Indians anyway.
That evening at dusk, we had a small campfire going under cottonwood trees in the nearby campground. Tourists were still in short supply in the Indian country in those days so we got a lot of attention. Shirley Sells, no doubt at dad's request, came into camp to see us and tell us more history like Ray had done. Suddenly, I at least, knew for sure that the Navajo's were way better than OK. Shirley Sells was so beautiful, more beautiful than anybody I had ever seen. My instant crush on her was something I just couldn't hide, everybody had to know. Maybe I could move to Navajo country. A 15 year old boy with his first real crush must look pretty silly to the rest of the world but I didn't know it, or care. Unfortunately, my vision of a long and wonderful life with Shirley Sells was not shared by her. Being 10 years or more older than I, I suppose that was to be expected. Her departure that evening was, none the less, a painful goodbye for me.
I don't remember if it was the next day or several days later, but soon we packed everything in the Draggin' Wagon trailer and the Dodge 330 and headed for the Hopi Mesa country. I'm sure I was in the car with my brother and sisters but part of me stayed at Canyon de Chelly. The summer sun in Arizona was relentlessly hot. In the mornings when the desert air was still cool, dad would roll the back window down so us kids could enjoy the fresh air. There were two really neat little chrome wings, one on either side of the back window that directed fresh air into the car and kept the exhaust fumes out. My sisters, Linda, Nancy and Kim thought they were there so they could have mirrors. Kim was too short to see in them so she had to be lifted up. It was a little easier for Nancy, she could stand on tip toes and admire herself all she wanted to. Linda found them just perfect.
Mid morning that day, dad found a place to stay and we unhooked the trailer and set up camp. We visited a couple trading posts and a museum or two before we finally reached the Hopi Mesa just as the school bus was dropping the kids off for their long walk up the hill to their homes on the mesa. To our amazement, lots of them were dressed just like us. I guess we expected something different because of TV and movies. Some were dressed in their own kind of clothes too. I remember girls with long dark flowing skirts and different colored blouses of red, white or turquoise with pretty decorations on them. I think boys mostly wore jeans and white shirts. We stopped behind the bus and waited for it to unload so we could turn up the dirt road towards the mesa. It must have been between ¾ of a mile to a mile up to the mesa. It looked to me like many miles in the hot sun. Kids were laughing and smiling and waving to us as we past a few of them going up the road. I remember even though they were just kids, I was a little uneasy so I was glad we were in the car.
Suddenly dad stopped the car without notice. I remember mom saying something like 'Daddy, why are you stopping?' Dad had decided if we went slow, we could give a bunch of kids a ride on the back bumper of the car. We had the air conditioning on so we were driving with the windows closed. Dad touched the little switch on the dashboard and rolled the back window down making a perfect way for kids to hold on as they got on the bumper. I don't know how they knew to get on the car that way. Dad must have let them know it was OK. Now we had six or seven little Hopi kids clinging to the back of the car as dad slowly drove up the road. We weren't moving much faster than some of the kids walking. A few skipped along behind us and were able to keep up. The kids on the car were pointing at us and talking and laughing amongst themselves. Their smiles and friendly nature made us kids forget any fears we might have had about them. We could see they were no different than us on the inside. What a relief. Then suddenly it happened.
The dirt on the road was like a fine powder and it made it's way into the car like a cloud of reddish smoke. At first it was kind of funny and we kids didn't care. Soon though, it got to thick and made it to the front of the car. Dad had left the rear window down and the dust was being funneled in by the little chrome wings on the sides of the back windows. He decided he needed to roll the window up. That was a bad idea. The screaming began immediately. It came from inside and outside of the car. From our vantage point, in the rear facing back seat the problem was immediately made clear even through the cloud of dust still lingering in the air. Screams, wiggling fingers, tears and pounding on the roof of the car made the problem abundantly clear. Dad, you need to roll the window back down now!
Dad responded immediately. When he did, little kids dropped like flies off the back of the still slow rolling Dodge 330 station wagon. Dad stopped the car. Crying kids were scattered for several yards. They were comparing wounds. A few ran ahead up to the top of Hopi Mesa. Us kids were sure that their parents would be riding off the Mesa on painted horses with their war paint on, whooping and shooting bows and arrows, any minute. Dad and mom were mortified that such a mistake had been made. They worried that fingers may have been broken by the crush of the window. All us kids felt bad and worried the same thing. This was all just too much for us kids to handle. Now the TV movies were all going to happen to us. The ideas that danced in our heads went off like popcorn on the kitchen stove. First one pop, then another, and another, until complete chaos reigns. But moms and dads have wisdom.
As I remember it, we kids stayed in the car and mom tried her best to clear the visions of Indian warriors riding on painted horses, circling our Dodge wagon and scalping little kids. We had no cap guns, no rubber tomahawks and no bows and arrows of our own, we were defenseless. My Fanner 50 cap gun had disappeared years ago right after I hit a neighbor kid over the head with it. To that day I had no idea where it went. I bet dad knows though. But right now, he was tending the wounded and crying Hopi kids. Single handedly he had managed to wound five or six of them without firing a single shot. We hoped their respect for him would force them to sign a peace treaty. After a few minutes they did. We didn't see any smoke from a peace pipe or cutting of hands and clasping them together to signify that now we were blood brothers but there was peace. Even a little laughter. Smiles came back. The car doors mysteriously opened and kids piled in. Some still had the streaks of their tears on their dusty faces and they still rubbed their hands trying to sooth the pain but by now we were all smiling and laughing. Maybe the TV had it wrong all the time. The trip up to the Hopi Mesa started up again. Our little band of kids from entirely different cultures found we had almost everything in common other than our history and appearance. Even our language was the same most of the time. That was because it was mostly a language of laughter and smiles.
We finally reached the top of the Hopi Mesa. It was a foreign and mysterious place to a bunch of kids from the beach cities of Southern California. The buildings were made of stones and mud with a few pieces of wood in the roofs but not much anywhere else. There were some mysterious places there like the Kivas where spiritual ceremonies were held but we thought they were like our forts dug into the ground at home. Overall it was friendly and full of boys and girls and their parents wandering about and coming to greet us. This was not so bad after all. Mom and dad were teaching us life lessons. They were lessons that said these people look different and live somehow different than we do but inside, we're just about the same.
Mothers were looking at pinched fingers and cleaning tear streaked little faces. Other kids had gone on, playing chase and kicking an old beat up ball around. It was really just an older little dirt street with the same stuff going on that happened around our place at home. It's OK to be different than us we learned and we can be friends even after the Dodge 330 'Draggin Wagon' attack. When we drove away, kids and moms and dads waved goodbye and we waved back from the back seat of our car saying goodbye to new friends never knowing if we would ever meet again. It was a good lesson. God created us all the same on the inside. On the outside we're like the birds, we come in many shapes, many sizes and many colors. And we all do different things to be happy and live as best we can. On the inside, we all feel pain and hurt, we all need to have friends and we all need to love and be loved. So thanks mom and dad, you did good.