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Traveling Navajo country

“There’s not much there,” I was told about the Navajo country, by somebody in Utah.   That’s true in the sense that there is little in the way of tourist traps, adventure tours, and shopping malls.   But as it turns out, the absence of “things” is part of the interest of the area.   There are fewer signs of man, which makes the ones you do see more obvious.

The Navajo Nation is a study in the collision between traditional and modern life, and so almost every little thing tells a story.   Little hogans (traditional round houses) sitting next to 20th century mobile homes are everywhere. Everyone drives pickup trucks, but horses roam free by the roadside.   In canyons people live by traditional means, but just above them on the mesa their neighbors have a satellite TV.

Across from the entrance road to Navajo National Monument is a coal mine, which pumps out coal from the Black Mesa to feed the Navajo Generating Station in Page, 80 miles away by electric train.   The power station eats 1,000 tons an hour of coal, and it all comes from the mine near Shonto, in the heart of Navajo country.

navajo-country-route.jpgDriving east on Rt 160 from Navajo National Monument, you soon come to a turn in the road where you must decide if you are heading north to the famed Monument Valley (setting of many a western) and into Utah, or continuing south-east to Canyon de Chelly.   Since we started our great circle tour of national parks up at the intersection of the Four Corners, and are heading to Albuquerque, our choice was obvious.

The ride, along Rt 160 and Rt 59 is stark but beautiful. It is designed to bore children and people who are mostly interested in their next shopping opportunity, but we liked it just fine. We stopped in the small town of Many Farms at the intersection of Rt 59 and 160, and caught up on our laundry at the combination gas station/convenience store/ laundromat.

This was really the first time we’d been among the local people in a normal setting.   I don’t count the interactions with weavers and painters at the national monument, because they are sort of “on show.”   There’s nothing like a laundromat to bring everyone to the same level: we’re all just there washing our clothes, being regular people.   Like many towns, the people we encountered ran the gamut.

A panhandler knocked on the door of the Airstream looking for a dollar, while we were getting the laundry together.   From his eyes and general appearance I would have to say he was an alcoholic.   In the parking lot a crew of two was working hard on some maintenance task, in the convenience store a steady stream of people came and went (including Navajo, white missionaries in ties, and traveling businessmen from outside the reservation), and in the laundry young women were tending to their laundry with toddlers running around their feet.   In short, it was just a slice of modern life.

I may have been looking for something else, but really, at laundromat sitting at the intersection of two highways, there’s not much else you could expect.   The inner workings of the Navajo community aren’t on display everywhere.   So for a glimpse into the community, I bought the local paper (Navajo Times) and read that while the laundry spun.

The Navajo Times is surprisingly well-written, for what I would guess is a relatively small-circulation publication.   I’m used to local newspapers being total rags, filled with generic wire stories and relatively little local news.   What there is of local news is usually badly written by underpaid recent college graduates.   The Navajo Times exceeded my expectations.   It appears to hire reporters who actually do their research and write readable articles.

The subject matter, however, was discouraging.   Of the lead articles, most were related to various people attempting to scam others.   A real estate agent from out of state, already arraigned in court in Montana on bad-check and fraud charges, showed up in the community of Teec Nos Pos and scammed locals with promises of a resort development.   The Speaker of the Nation is embroiled in a scandal with an architect who says he was cheated out of $250k in fees “” it’s not clear who is scamming who.   A local woman who donated land to the airport now says the town has taken more of her land than she agreed to “” she doesn’t read or write but somehow managed to sign a contract.   It all sounds like history repeating itself.   Battles over land and money continue.

It’s not far from Many Farms to Chinle, the town that forms the gateway to Canyon de Chelly. We pulled into the national park campground, called Cottonwood in the early afternoon (carrying lots of fresh laundry at last) and settled into a site that has good sun coverage most of the day.   We’ve been running on solar power since a week ago Thursday, with great success, and we don’t expect to see a power outlet until at least Monday.

There is cell phone coverage in the area of the campground and visitor center, but it is an independent operator and so for most people calls will incur “roaming” rates.   We won’t be making any calls in the next couple of days.   We also found a pleasant surprise: the Thunderbird Motel, which borders the campground, provides free wi-fi.   We can pick up the signal from the Airstream since we are parked very close to the motel, so once again I can keep the blog updated in a place where I felt I would have no chance of getting online.   Today we will do some exploring of the canyon, and I’ll tell you about the unique features of this particular National Monument.

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