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~ Christopher Julian

“Your grandpa helped make this road,” Grandma said.

The two lane road snakes ahead through the red

Arizona dirt like an asphalt river.

“He worked on this road?” I respond, genuinely yet

cautiously surprised.

“Yes, the Arizona side.” Grandma answers.  That’s a relief to hear.  If you’re going to state with pride that you built a road, you want it to be the well-kept side.  We had just crossed the state line a few minutes ago and the New Mexico side still reverberates on our backsides.  I think a horse and buggy would’ve been a smoother ride.  Another thing you notice when crossing the state line is how the dirt changes red!  The dirt in the New Mexico is brown, you know, regular dirt.  So, ages before “Manifest Destiny”, nature already drew state lines.  

When you think back to when our ancestors first came to this land, what were they thinking?  Thoughts like this seep into my consciousness on long stretches of open road.  There is endless beauty for as far as the eye can see in every direction.  For starters, there are mesas that were precisely carved over millennia.  Dinosaurs once roamed this land, followed by the Space Odyssey apes.  The Anasazi were here for a moment and were gone in another.  But they left us their beans.  Navajos, we are told, were a nomadic people.  I’m afraid we are going to rely on our ancient indigenous gifts for traversing the land to find the man we are looking for.

What do we have working against us?  The reservation’s roads.  They do exist, that much is for sure.  Many of them have route numbers but honestly people don’t use them.  Instead of Navajo Route 1138, we are told to find the second turnoff past the water tank, the blue trailer with the hogan in the back.  There was either a Chevy or a Ford pickup in the address.  Besides walking up to the door, knocking at it and meeting the man face-to-face, we had no other way of getting in contact.  We are essentially taking a leap of faith.

That’s how the network worked, much like a referral system for doctors.  There was someone who has a specific specialty that would help you out – a ear, nose and throat doctor but with herbs.  I remember this one time, when I was a kid…

“Let’s stop here,” Grandma commands.  We’ve arrived in a little town with a single intersection.  At one corner is a laundromat.  Across the street is the United States Post Office.  We turn off at the Trading Post diagonal from the post office.  We park and Grandma turns to Grandpa, sitting in the back seat.  “[in Navajo] We’re going inside.”  Grandpa nods and takes out his comb.  Grandma always called him slow.  If there are two types of people – my grandparents were both sides of the coin.  Grandma was the no nonsense, take care of business type.  Grandpa was ever easy going, his movements were deliberate and his own pace.  No matter were we found ourselves, he’d always find someone he knew.  I don’t remember if it was before or after being a road builder, he was a real-life movie Indian.  He was in a band chasing a locomotive on horseback.  He once mused about the “ginomity” of the movie cameras they had on set.  He wasn’t shot by John Wayne, thankfully.

There would be many times where I had to be the one who had to retrieve him when Grandma was waiting.  I always hated to interrupt his conversations, which were always full of levity.  I’m a completely different social animal.  When I see someone I know, my eyes scan the room for the shortest escape routes in the chance we make eye contact.  I don’t think I know anyone out here.  My extended relatives are from a different part of the rez.  On my dad’s side, who knows.  They could be selling the jewelry outside the laundromat across the street for all I know.

Stepping inside the Trading Post is like you’ve stepped into a snapshot of time.  It’s a photograph of what was and what still is.  Behind the counter are the valuable goods -- turquoise and coral jewelry, guns, and various other weaponry.

“Get something for your sweetheart,” Grandma jokes pointing at the jewel case.  It was always encouraging to know that she had hope for me.  But my focus was on an old Coca-Cola machine humming all the way in the corner.  It was filled with ice and glass bottles.  I have never seen an actual Coca-Cola bottle, only in old photographs with Mickey Mantle or someone else like that.  I had to experience this sensation!  Grandpa had joined us and was talking to the Trader – verifying if the address we had was correct.  The Trader introduced us to a brother or an alias to the man we were searching for.  His address was another jumble of trailer colors and late model pickups. 

Thankfully we were in the general location, on a map of the United States, we didn’t have to adjust our pointer finger.  You know the Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the country, right?  It could swallow four New England states.  Without the map, I know we are still within the perimeter of the Four Sacred Mountains.  But down to micro, we’re close but no cigar.  Loaded up with snacks, we continue onward.

With the second set of directions fresh in our minds, we decide that would be the first place to check out.  The AM radio starts to pick up some faint signs of life.  It’s old country music.  Grandma knows them all on a first name basis – George (Jones), Lefty (Frizzell), and of course, Hank (Williams).  Grandma was also a first-generation rock and roller.  She and her sister, and my mother (as a baby), drove in the snow to see Jailhouse Rock on the big screen.

Those random stories make the long stretches of highway speed faster.  We tried both houses.  The first one was someone who had no idea who we were talking about.  I also had a moment of enlightenment at that first house.  You need a bottle opener to enjoy the Coca-Cola in the glass bottle.  I asked the old man at the first house for a bottle opener.  He said he didn’t have one, but by then he was already out of his range concerning us.   The second house, we assumed, was the correct house but with no one home except for some lethal guard dogs.  I don’t know if they would’ve had a bottle opener at this house.