Tourist Services in the Time of the Virus
Tuba City in the Navajo Nation is seventy-eight miles northeast of Flagstaff. Twenty years ago, I came through here after an early April snowstorm. A ramshackle convenience store had pull-through sites out behind the building. Cold, road weary, I needed to hook up my trailer to the electricity to keep my heater running all night. At the counter, an older woman took my fee. I presumed she was a member of the Navajo, sometimes you’ll meet Hopi here too. Navajo are reserved, speak without extra words, do not indicate much with extraneous facial expressions, but still the woman behind the counter with her modest eyes was helpful and generous with her attention. In the howling wind I went back out to my trailer fixed supper, did my dishes, hopped on my bunk, opened a book to read, then after slept until dawn.
Last week I pulled off the two-lane highway into a parking lot in Tuba City. The small store I had stopped in twenty years ago had vanished with time. Instead there was a supermarket, in another adjacent building a hair salon and pizza parlor. A gas station at the corner occupied the space at the intersection.
Truck and Trailer Setup circa 2000
Navajo shoppers were waiting to buy groceries. Because of the pandemic the store was only letting a few customers in at a time. Everyone had to wear a mask. Shopping carts were being sprayed down with disinfectant then wiped dry. The Covid-19 outbreak here in the Navajo Nation has been disastrous. To avoid unnecessary risks before starting this trip I’d gone shopping for everything I would need for the crossing from California to Colorado. This is no way to travel, not anything I would have ever thought to do, but with the invisible enemy floating about I’ve had to adapt and adjust. “Be safe,” is the way we say this to each other.
A one-way road trip from Tuba City, Arizona to Gallup, New Mexico is 200 miles and most of this trip is within the sovereign boundaries of the Navajo land. One hundred and eighty thousand tribe members are scattered across 17.5 million acres. In my years of touring I have traveled up and down most of the Navajo’s paved roads and chanced adventures on many more that were not.
Students living at home take the bus to school, spending up to two hours’ traveling each way to attend class. The tribal elders decided after boarding their youth for some years that taking the children away from their mothers and fathers was harming family life. Much of what a young Navajo boy or girl experiences, much of the lessons to be taught, come from living with their family and speaking the language, known as Diné Bizaad. The Diné (means: people) believe there are two classes of beings: earth people and holy people, and it is the earth people that are sent here to preserve and protect Mother Earth. Ordinary day to day life is the most sacred form of being.
You’ll still see hogan’s scattered across the landscape, a small fraction of Navajo preferring to live in this traditional shelter. Here where modern life has encroached, conventional housing now predominates, but homes are modest, families are tight knit. Children grow and change. Life beyond lures the tribes youngest away, many returning disillusioned with the outside world and rededicate their lives to helping make the Navajo way flourish.
The Navajo Nation has a population of 180,000. As of last week, Covid-19 has killed 600. Seventy-five-hundred have recovered out of the 11,000 that have been infected. And now this great tribe because of how their culture weaves their people together is threatened by this new scourge. To halt this crisis, to be free and safe once more, we’ll all sacrifice and work together to that end. So there is hope, as the Navajo would say, “You cannot see the future with tears in your eyes.”