• Ursula Vari

ACROSS THE NAVAJO NATION: A TRAVEL ESSAY

Updated: Jun 19


Horseshoe Bend

With my two rescues riding shotgun, their bodies pressing into one another for comfort due to my peculiar style of driving, I set out to visit two “corners” of the Four Corners region. I have been planning the extensive road-trip for months, and my five, severely herniated disks finally allowed for longer drives. I have to credit it all to my rehearsal as a food delivery driver; somehow my back got strong enough for the 9-hour drive to Page, AZ on the first day. Driving through the desert with its blinding horizons, and drought, that makes one suffer from occasional nosebleeds seemed to be the exact medicine I needed.


Past the Valley of Fire, the colors become richer with each mile, until somewhere around Mesquite you step onto God’s land. By the time you hit Kanab the rock show off their redness with such intensity one can’t stop smiling at the generosity of Creator.


I reached Page just as the sun began his swift descent toward the horizon. I knew I had to rush to catch the last bits of his reflection over Horseshoe Bend.


Traveling with two dogs - especially one with special needs due to cerebellar Hypolplasia - poses its challenges, but it is something I am fully equipped to handle. My third dog, she had to stay behind due to severe car sickness. The path to Horseshoe Bend was crowded by people who opted out of the golden sunset. I put my special boy under my armpit, while Roberta galloped ahead on a leash as two of my cameras flew in every direction as we jogged to catch Father Sun’s last rays.


The overlook had a good mix of polite folk surveying the steep canyon with its massive walls and the tiny specks of a couple of canoes below us. We were mostly quiet with reverence for the land and my dogs were kind enough to allow for a few scenic shots. We hiked out with a couple of travelers from New York. I shared the little I knew with them about the Navajo Nation and their ancestral land we were standing on. The Navajo Nation stretches through an area of over 27,000 square miles on the Southwestern Colorado Plateau, it is the largest reservation in the U.S. The land’s majestic mesas, buttes and canyons were formed through thousands of years of wind and water erosions and volcanic activities. We shared travel tips and since they were headed to Los Angeles, I offered them some insight to my city.


The dogs and I retired early that night after a long walk amidst the quiet hills.


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On the outskirts of Tuba City

Day two found us on the road to Tuba City with a trunk full of provisions and coloring books for children. I planned to drive through the Hopi Reservation and hand out the food items and hand sanitizers. My parents taught me to bring gifts wherever I visited and that stayed with me throughout my life. I knew my gesture would be only a tiny speck for a community that has been decimated by the effects of Covid, largely because of the federal government’s underfunded healthcare for indigenous people. Pair that with the lack of basic infrastructure: many of the homes don’t have running water or electricity. The road from Tuba City to Chinle is a little under three hours but it felt like I was on it for days. My intermittent nosebleeds triggered by the arid land made my travel companions worried as they sniffed the bloodied tissues in the cup holder.

Dinosaur tracks, Tuba City

At the edge of Tuba City, the Dinosaur Tracks sign caught my attention. Although I didn’t include that in my itinerary, I turned onto the dirt road. A few feet from the graffiti sign I spotted a young native man, who was walking back and forth between the sign and the lone shack that pre-Covid housed local artisans and their unique pieces. He was squeezing his small water bottle and clenching his jaw. With my mask on I got out of my car, he asked if I had any water and I gave him a 3-gallon jug. It was only him and I standing on the dry, ancient lake bed, when a silver Corolla pulled up. Out of it emerged a native woman with a plastic placard around her neck. She asked if I needed a guided tour of the tracks for a small donation and I agreed. She was from the Navajo tribe, the People of the Earth, who refer to themselves as Diné People. She walked me and my canine companions through the deep tracks. The excitement of my childhood overcame me as I walked past the giant tracks of packs of Dilophosaurus. Elaine pointed at a few sizable fossilized skulls and ribs sticking out of the yellow dirt. Aside from a few bewildered “Wows!” the sight rendered me speechless and humbled. I was standing on an ancient watering hole for the once giants of the Jurassic world with a beautiful Diné woman who guarded and revered the tracks of her land.


Coalmine Canyon

The midday heat was getting more intense with each step. I thanked my guide for her kindness and handed her my gift for her time and wisdom. She took the big bill in disbelief. I asked her if she had children, she nodded with tears in her eyes. I opened the trunk and gave her a big stack of coloring books, crayons and science books. I wanted to give her the whole world and opportunities for her children and running water and electricity and job security, everything the colonizers took and continue to take away. As an immigrant who was born in a small village in Romania and arrived to Turtle Island some twenty years ago ( the name used by indigenous peoples for North America) I continue educating myself on the injustices committed against the original people of this land and each time I learn more of the deep truth my heart shatters. I said goodbye to Elaine and pulled out my camera to take a photo of the flag atop the wooden frame when the young man walked into my frame. I asked if it was ok if I took the photo of him next to the shack. He nodded then asked if I had any food with me. I had oranges and apples in the trunk for the road, as they don’t perish easily. I gave him a good load of fresh produce and thought about the hard reality that there are only 13 full-service grocery stores on the Navajo Reservation, the 27,000 square miles stretch from northeastern Arizona into Utah and New Mexico serving over 300,000 people and how most families have to drive close to three hours just to buy food or otherwise live on chips and soda from nearby trading posts. I saw the vast food desert with my very eyes.


Somewhere on the outskirts of Tuba City

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After leaving Tuba city, human habitats became less frequent and spread out and the heat continued to burn up the asphalt. From the main road, at a distance, I could see a few homes and random hogans scattered through the dramatic landscape. No stores, no gas stations, no electricity, no running water or plumbing. Outhouses serving the needs of the inhabitants. Once in a while I would see a deserted chapter house along the road- and lone shacks in the distance.


Hotevilla is a quiet village, on the Hopi Reservation. It is one of the 12 villages of the three mesas of the autonomous Hopi Nation, “the Peaceful Ones” as the Hopi call themselves. They live by an ethic of peace and goodwill and work hard to hold onto their culture despite outside influences. It is known that photography of Hopi villages, people, ceremonies is prohibited and every guidebook emphasizes the observance.

Basketball is popular on the rez

When I drove into Hotevilla, aside from a small group of youngsters shooting hoops, there was no one outside the sparse homes lining the dirt road. Homes made from rocks perhaps hundreds of years ago stood the test of time. I was standing on ancient land in the presence of an ancient, wise culture with a trunk filled with provisions(rice, beans and lentils) and educational supplies to share. I got out of my car where the children were testing the rusty hoop. A little girl barefoot smiled with her almond shaped eyes, while a couple of rez dogs tried chasing me away with their peculiar bark until they realized I came in peace. I introduced myself to the youth, I told them I came from very far away to honor their culture and land and that I had some gifts to share. They didn’t want the food items, they said their neighbor needed them more, but they were happy to receive the coloring books. I watched Stephan, a young Hopi boy shoot bucket after bucket and wondered if he would ever get the chance to leave his village one day to play on real courts, perhaps on a scholarship. Everything seemed so far away from where we were, schools, grocery stores, hospitals, opportunities. Ariel, 17, a bright faced Hopi girl was watching Stephan’s dribble with amusement. I asked her what her village needed. “Things for the children”. As we stood there in the mid-day sun, I remembered my youth in my own village and how we gathered at the truck stop and waited for cars with foreign license plates to stop and hand out everything from chocolates, bananas, Wrigley’s Spearmint gum to matchbox cars and the occasional coloring books with a myriad of crayons. I remembered the joy and pride in my skipping steps as I showed my mother the kindness of strangers. But for Ariel, Stephan and their ancestors, strangers weren’t always of the heart nor did they come in peace.


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Old Oriabi or Orayvi as its known among the Hopis is the oldest continuously inhabited community on the Third Mesa. Abandoned homes made of rock on the outskirts of the village, perhaps built around the 1100s when the village was founded tell the story of the ancient times. I was greeted by Dienna, the Hopi guard who informed me that due to the pandemic no visitors were allowed onto village grounds. I understood and thanked her for her service to keep her people safe and offered her grandchildren school supplies and coloring books. She declined my box of provisions and asked that I give it to her colleague in the guard station. “ He needs it more than I do” she said, just like Ariel did in Hotevilla. I could see her heart through her eyes.

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My Prius slowly crawled up on the road leading to the second mesa’s Mishongnovi village when I spotted two sizeable boulders sticking out of the earth like giant co-joined tablets of stone beholding the wisdom of the ancients. I continued onward for a few minutes arriving to the village on the cliff, its houses made from rocks and all of nature’s materials. The village was closed to visitors because of the pandemic. I exchanged a few words with the Hopi guard and shared the provisions with him then headed back down pulling over by the giant tablets. The view from the high mesa was spectacular, I figured I’d take a few shots of the view, it’s all nature and rocks, not people or ceremonies, I reasoned with myself. With my eye at the view-finder I heard a vehicle barreling down the road from behind me. The red 1986 Camry sounded like a 12-cylinder locomotive. “No photos” yelled the young man from the car. “It’s just the boulders I am shooting” I howled. “That’s our cemetery! It’s a sacred site” he shouted. I lowered my camera, with it my head. That’s when I noticed at the base of the boulders several mounds covered with rock – some beholding the canes and walking sticks of the souls passed. Embarrassed for not seeing the sacred I got into my car and requested absolution from my dogs and the souls of the departed. Later I found out that Corn Rock indeed is a sacred shrine and the Hopis believe when the boulder topples over, the world will end.

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Keams Canyon

There were only two cars on the road to Keams Canyon, mine and a dusty truck following me at a safe distance. Dirt paths leading to distant hogans and an occasional hawk marking my path. I stopped at the trading post in Keams Canyon across from the community park. I saw a young girl holding hands with her grandmother and her younger sibling exiting the small market with a handful of plastic bags approaching their beat-up Honda Accord.


I quietly introduced myself and told them that I had come from far away. Elizah, her little sister, Penelope and her grandma drove from Low Mountain to Keams Canyon for whatever little food their funds allowed to buy. The drive is usually 35 minutes but in their car and on dirt roads it took over an hour. Since the Whippoorwill Chapter House that serviced their family near their hogan burnt down in April, they had no other option but to drive the distance. I opened my trunk and transferred the over 50 lbs of beans, rice and lentils into theirs, praying that their car would make it in one piece to their home. I gave all the coloring books and the 8 boxes of crayons to Penelope and asked that she shares it with her siblings. Her eyes glistened with joy.

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When you find out that over 10% of Navajos on the reservation live without electricity and over 40% of them have to haul their water and use outhouses you wonder where the power lines crisscrossing the vast open land carry the electricity, sometimes just a few feet from Navajo homes and traditional hogans. The powerlines traveling westbound provide to the inhabitants of Nevada and California, while the Navajos and the Hopis receive none of the electricity. You can come across these powerlines even in the most remote of open spaces. The Navajos also struggle to provide safe drinking water to their families. One in three Navajo residents don’t have indoor plumbing and as such they have to haul water hours away from their homes. Many of the wells, springs and groundwater have been poisoned as a direct result of uranium mining and processing on the reservation.

Water pipelines are hard to lead to the more rural parts of the reservation. According to the Indian Health Services it would take an investment of $700 million to provide every family on the reservation with safe tap water. Native communities have deliberately been left behind in a country where more emphasis is placed on space adventures than providing for the underserved. Bigger communities on the reservation like Tuba City or Chinle do have running water and electricity, their battle is that of addiction and unemployment. Life isn’t easy on the reservation and opportunities are few and far between, despite it all, their culture has persevered and the Navajos continue living in the “Beauty Way”.



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Spider Rock

When I pulled up to Chinle the scent of cottonwood trees instantly stole my heart. The sweetness of the air was anything I have ever known and smelled before. I drove up to my home away from home, the Navajo Operated Thunderbird Lodge nestled in the bottom of the red hill below the filling moon. I was still on Hopi time, a mere one hour behind. It was then I dropped linear time and stopped tracking days. Felt like I’ve been on the road for centuries, having seen more than my brain could process. I collapsed onto my king-sized bed with my canine companions. After some time, my adventuring heart awoke, so did my special boy, who was diagnosed with Cerebellar Hypoplasia a while back, which makes him sometimes restless, and often makes him walk like a tasered, drunken sailor. He woke my other sleeping beauty and the three of us stepped out to hear the silence of the hills. The rez dogs curiously eyed us, they knew we came in peace. Even my special boy, who is straight outta Compton, regulated his usually wild side and without a sound sniffed his Navajo relative’s rear. You could smell sacredness in the air as the light breeze brought the scent of juniper berries from Canyon De Chelly, my late afternoon destination. The joy seeker in me awoke with the setting sun. Once I delivered my canines back to our room I headed out for the Canyon. At a short distance from Indian Route 7, I spotted basketball hoop in the front yard of one of the Navajo Homes. Hoops seem to be a common phenomenon on the rez and I was inspired by what I saw given my basketball photography background.

Naomi and Bucky

I was trying to manoeuvre my body to take the best shot of the hoop when the man of the household, Filvert Kinlichee walked out of is home and invited me in. Naomi,7 walked beside his father. She told me she wanted to be a doctor. My heart smiled knowing that one day this Navajo girl will give back to her community through a life of service. Naomi introduced me to her friend, the now retired, former rodeo stallion, Bucky and his sidekick, Senior Carrots, a mild-mannered pony. Filvert and I spoke about basketball, and how his son plays for the Chinle Wildcats. He shared much wisdom with me about his people, how the Navajo do not watch the lunar eclipse – which was happening that night- and everything made sense. Indigenous people have a profound reverence for all things sacred, the elements, Mother Earth and life, they behold the wisdom of the sacred balance. They live in “The Beauty way”. I remembered the prayer my now departed Navajo friend, Gerald taught me a few years back: “Beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty below me, beauty above me, beauty all around me. I walk in beauty.” Every word resonated with me as I drove up the South Rim at Canyon De Chelly to visit the Tsegi, Junction and Face Rock Overlooks, since the Canyon floors were closed to visitors. Canyon de Chelly is entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation. There are about 40 Navajo families who still live in the park and from the overlooks with profound walls I could see random pick-up trucks driving below, through the belly of the canyon. Silence is thick in the canyon and you could feel history with every gust of wind.


The time the US Government sent Kit Carson to defeat the Navajo resistance. Carson conducted his “scorched-earth campaign” burning villages, crops, slaughtering livestock and destroying water sources throughout the Navajo Nation, eventually starving the Navajo into submission in 1864. During the “Long Walk” 8,500 Navajo men, women and children were marched 400 miles to the Bosque Redondo Reservation, New Mexico through harsh winter conditions. The march lasted for close to two months and hundreds of Navajo died of cold and starvation. Many more died after they arrived at the reservation that functioned more like an internment camp. After three years the government acknowledged the failure of the camp and the surviving Navajos were allowed to return to their land, many settled in and around Canyon De Chelly.


Canyon De Chelly’s silence beholds the tragedy many don’t know but the people of the land remember the sorrow of their ancestors.


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Spider Rock, a sandstone spire in Canyon De Chelly, rises 750 feet (229 m) from the canyon floor. The taller of the two spires is the home of Spider Grandmother. The Navajos say, she was the one to weave the web of the universe. She also taught her people how to weave and how to create beauty in their own life. The air gets really thin once you get to the overlook. But the profound beauty got me to stay way after the sunset to soak in the power of the canyon. I was alone awed by the spires, far from everything, yet close to the most sacred. I scattered tobacco on the overlook thanking the land for receiving me then headed down the narrow road with its unexpected turns through the dusk back to my lodge where my two expectant canines devoured their dinner. The moon was full above the red hill adjacent to me temporary home. My companions were unusually quiet, too busy sniffing horse manure and trails of unknown game around as a small figure appeared from the dark. Lizah was in her eighties, in her hands, remnants of her modest dinner, she was on her way to feed the rez dogs past the lodge. She asked me where I had come from. With her sweet and encouraging words she wished me a safe journey and dissolved into the dark while the cottonwood trees gushed their scent into the night.


With my travel companions, I climbed the red hill in the bright moonlight, ahead of me, a grandmother with her grandchildren walked the narrow path with ease toward her village across the hill. I took a rest on the flat rock at the top of the hill glancing at the moon soon to be darkened by Earth’s shadow.


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The next day Filvert and his wife, Bernadine invited me over since Naomi had some gifts for me. I arrived an hour late as I was still on Hopi time, my phone didn’t make the switch. I had tears in my eyes when I received the bag filled with Navajo art, among them the scarf I saw and longed for on Elizah’s head in Keams Canyon the day before. It reminded me of my departed grandmother’s scarf who always wore her traditional Transylvanian village regalia. The Kinlichee’s generosity rendered me speechless. Despite the tragedies of genocide, broken promises, broken treaties, forced assimilation, cultural genocide in boarding schools the people of the land remained strong in their humanity with their hearts filled with kindness and generosity. I met Aiden, Filvert’s 13-year-old son who wants to study computer science. He writes code and is building his first computer from scratch with his father’s help. In awe I said goodbye to the family and promised to return soon.


Aiden, Naomi and Filvert

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View from Gouldings Lodge

My close to two-hour drive from Chinle to Goulding’s lodge became a drawn-out meditation and prayers of gratitude. The Prius was surprisingly still running, the bottom of the car still unscathed, my periodic nosebleeds stopped and my canine travel companions finally understood that play doesn’t happen in the car but on lodge grounds and dirt paths. I must have a dose of insane in me, I thought, to venture on roads where GPS often doesn’t work and where there’s no cell service for hours, then again I am the same person who ventured in the depths of the Amazon by myself. Once I spotted the butte giants of Monument Valley I reached the tourist’s climax, based on what guidebooks have predicted I would. Although the Tribal Park was closed and a couple of polite rez dog guards ushered me away from the park entrance, there still was a lot of ground to cover a few miles away.


Our room wasn’t ready yet so we headed to Mexican Hat and the Valley of the Gods. During the turn off from the main road to the dirt path leading to Mexican Hat we almost lost the bottom of the Prius, frequent potholes tested my herniated discs and my canines’ peaceful nap. Our short drive to the sight resembled a rocking crib during the 1977 Romanian Earthquake.


Scott and Potter at Mexican Hat

As we pulled up to the peculiar butte topped with the hat-like slab I heard the out-of-place country music blaring from the lone RV parked at the bottom of Mexican Hat. A man in his early sixties sat comfortably in his camping chair, across from him another chair cradled a small canine, his only travel companion. Potter, the 18.5-year-old terrier joined Scott, his human on the peculiar roadtrip. They have been on the road for six months. Originally from Seattle, Scott was a carpenter for many years and eventually transitioned into real estate development. He worked hard for twenty years as a successful developer when in 2019 he lost twelve of his friends to heart and stress related causes. It was then that he asked himself “How much money do I really need”? Losing his friends and much self-reflection prompted him to retire early and enjoy the abundance he built up through the years. He bought an RV and set out to enjoy life on the road with Potter, his senior dog. His face showed a man at peace. He invited me to join him for a drink and to slow down but I was too busy yearning to see the Valley of the Gods. Politely, I declined. “Don’t forget to be good to yourself.” He roared as I got into my car.


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Valley of the Gods

In the Valley of the Gods in southwestern Utah time stands still. This is a place where you could be driving for miles on end without seeing another traveler. But what you see are the incredible, isolated buttes reaching sky-bound with many resembling faces of ancient gods at the very top. The 17-mile dirt, sand and gravel road seemed to go on forever. I was far from everything associated with modern life. There were no cars, no stores, no gas stations, no cell phone service, nothing else except the moonlike terrain with its sandy road and deep potholes, and steep drops that made for an interesting rollercoaster ride of a drive. I was glad to have emergency supplies in the car but even with that I wondered how long it would take before another car filled with clueless wanderers would drive by. After the close to two-hour bone-breaking drive I decided to turn around and head out as the sun was about to kiss the horizon.

Shanythia Saltwater

Once I arrived to the Monument Valley grounds, I stopped at a small Navajo crafts stand. Shanythia Saltwater, a talented artist and jeweler who lived in the nearby community of Chee, at the base of the buttes explained to me about her dream to open and Etsy store and with her talent, I knew she would do well.


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My phone was still on Hopi time at Monument Valley and I almost missed having the best meal of my trip. At the Goulding Lodge’s restaurant, I tried the Navajo Frybread, which is essentially a flour-based flatbread deep-fried, topped with beans, onions, tomatoes, chopped lettuce, shredded cheese and sour cream. I skipped the sour cream and cheese. Despite it, the sizable, 10-inch diameter meal tasted heavenly and as such, I devoured it all. “ You were either very hungry or the flatbread tasted amazing”, noted Dustin, the young waiter as I rolled out of the restaurant.


The night was quiet and dark and the nearby gargantuan buttes kept any outside noise away from us. When morning broke, I packed up my excited canines to start our journey back to home, stopping at the Wahweap Overlook by Lake Powell, then at Paria Canyon for a hike and in Las Vegas for a night’s rest and to break up the twelve-hour drive.

Wirepass Trail

By the time we got to Paria Canyon the sun was high and the temperature 85 Fahrenheit. My dogs were happy that we had our beach umbrella with us so one of them could walk in its shade while the other was rocking on my chest in his carrier. We were quite a spectacle. The Wire Pass Trail had a long stretch of desert, with its shrubs and decorative boulders and just when you think you are about to take your last breath, nature rewards you with a spectacular slot canyon where the cool sand and canyon walls bring life back to the weary and overheated traveler. After the close to three-hour hike, we had our leftover steamed vegetables and rice from New York Teriyaki - a great little joint, if you are in Page- and embarked on our 5-hour drive to Vegas.


The drive was longer than expected with traffic picking up on the outskirts of Vegas. I called La Quinta where I booked a room for us the night before. I remembered my pleasant stay at the one in Palm Springs sometime back. Jeremy, at the reception informed me that my booking was cancelled. It was 9:30 pm at night. After 30 minutes of back and forth I convinced Jeremy to provide me with the same room, which he eventually did. We rolled up to LA Quinta around 10:00 pm amidst lost souls shooting dope in the parking lot, which wasn’t what I remembered the caliber of La Quinta to be. Jeremy handed me the key to the room. The stench of the hallway reminiscent of dive-bars in the Valley, stains on the carpet and cigarettes smoke staining my eyes and walls. I stepped into the room. It wasn’t any better. The odor of dog urine and feces was overwhelming and the myriad of stains on the carpet told me we weren’t staying there that night. I called the front desk and asked them to give us a different room. Jeremy met us in the piss-scented dwelling and walked us to another part of the hotel, into a suite, which I though was an upgrade. That’s we set foot in the room. My intuition led me straight to the bedroom. I have never done that in my whole entire life as a traveler, until that moment. I lifted up the mattress only to find several different species of bugs, amongst them bedbugs and a crumpled-up paper towel with yellow stains, beholding the memories of someone’s sex-crazed night. Welcome back to “civilization”. I backed up as if I had seen a ghost, washed my hands, sprayed me clothes and luggage with alcohol as well as my dogs, loaded everything in my car, then went to Jeremy with photos and videos of my findings. He refunded me the money. It was 11:30 pm at night. I was exhausted after nine hours of driving and a strenuous, close to 3-hour hike. The idea to look for a hotel in Vegas with two dogs at midnight didn’t sound appeal to me. I am a problem solver and very much an independent woman but in that moment, I turned into a damsel in distress. Uncle Nick, the godfather to my dogs stepped up and saved the night. He lives in Vegas part-time and part-time in Los Angeles, where he currently was pet-sitting my first-born canine, Ruby. Uncle Nick has a beautiful flat in Henderson, 20 minutes from Vegas. At midnight he walked me through the slightly confusing but super high-security building’s access route and we ended up spending the night in his beautiful condo, on an oversized bed.

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Las Vegas is the epitome of human disconnection, a congregation of societal ailments on steroids. I couldn’t have had a starker contrast between the “Beauty Way” of the Navajo and the chaotic debauchery introduced by the colonizers.


Once I smelled the Pacific Ocean my heart smiled again. Some minutes later, I rested my body in Uncle Nick’s yard with Ruby on top of me, forever grateful for all that I had seen, the people I had met, Filvert, Naomi, Elizah, the kindness and grace of the Navajo, the beauty of the land, and each breath Mother Earth allowed me to take.

Monument Valley Tribal Park

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If you feel inspired to help the Diné people- the way the Navajos refer to themselves, you can support the following individuals/ organizations who bring direct assistance to people of the Navajo Nation Reservation.


https://www.instagram.com/amartin2727/


https://www.facebook.com/ChinlePlantingHope/


https://www.navajowaterproject.org/