Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Nation

Monday’s drive through New Mexico and beyond proved difficult for a number of reasons – beginning first with the fact I dropped off Annie and Josh early and the morning, returning me once again to the drudgery of traveling alone. After nearly a thousand miles of their conversations and wit, I was keenly aware of their absence. I dropped them off south of Santa Fe, shoveled down some breakfast, and continued towards the western edge of New Mexico (specifically Gallup).

While there is something attractive about the high desert, buttes, canyons and washes, there is a point at which I, as a tourist, quickly grow tired of it and look forward to other scenery. Usually this is several hours, if not days, before I have moved to another area. From nearly midday to 7PM last night, I was trapped in the high desert. I had also made the mistake of wearing a black shirt, which did nothing but suck in the sunlight all afternoon.

West of Albuquerque, I was hustled – for the first time in quite awhile. Sara Morales was nervously pacing the parking lot of McDonalds when I pulled in. As I stepped out, she briefly explained that her boyfriend was, “being an asshole,” and she needed to call a friend to take her back to Albuquerque…could she have a dollar. To my amazement, I actually had one, so gave it to her. Unlike most hustles, however, she didn’t disappear immediately. She asked where I was from, what I thought of the desert (she declared that it sucks), and why on earth I’d want to visit the southwest.

She is actually from Chihuahua, Mexico, but immigrated north with her family when she was only three. She’s lived in Albuquerque since then. At barely 32, she is about to be a grandmother. She told me how surprised she was that her daughter made the same mistakes that she did. As she walked off and I walked in, she told me to avoid El Paso, Texas at all costs.

“It’s SO windy down there, and desolate.”

She walked off, her long, black hair blowing in the 40mph high desert crosswind.


The remainder of New Mexico was astoundingly disappointing, and as I headed further west, billboards spent less time advertising products and more time telling the reader to show leadership, not let your children drink underage at home, buckle up, don’t beat your wife, don’t beat your kids, etc. Even the ads on the radio had evolved into public service announcements: mostly about identifying if you’re in an abusive relationship. Road signs every couple of miles reminded us to buckle up. Some may have been double-captioned in Navajo, too.

My chosen route from out of New Mexico into Utah carried me through the full length of Navajo Nation land in the northwest corner of the state. Right outside the nation to the south (in Gallup), I was met with higher-than-average gas costs, an ugly bloom of payday loan businesses, pawn shops, and other evidence of economic hardship, mismanagement, and despondence. Then I entered Navajo land and it only grew worse.

Hwy491/Rte666 directly north/south is the only major road connecting northwest New Mexico with Cortez, Colorado. It also travels through what I consider to be the most depressing portion of the country I have yet seen.

At the southern end, another pawn broker occupied sprawling acres. There wasn’t just a building with odd trinkets and valuables; there was another lot across the field (at least 4 acres) full of cars, trucks, and an equal number of horse trailers. They were all available for purchase.

On the nation’s land there is virtually nothing between the southern end and Shiprock, 80 miles to the north. There are scattered trailers and shacks, most of which have the roofs weighted down with a profusion of used tires. At least half are abandoned, and the other half have parking lots full of cars. There was evidence of agriculture at one time, but most fields, still fenced, lay fallow, and all the barns and corrals have long since collapsed. There were a few horses, a few cattle, a dozen sheep, and one llama. All this over 80 miles of high desert ranch land. The fences mostly serve another purpose now: collecting tumbleweeds and trash.

Missionaries may have visited the Navajos at one time, but every evangelical church I saw along the roadsides had since fallen into total dilapidation or was converted to storage for an old car or two. The missionaries were probably chalked up as more white man nonsense and quickly dismissed.

Shiprock itself, the only town in New Mexico Navajo land, is a hillside covered in government shacks (mostly about half the size of a mobile home), government schools, medical centers, and trash. At least half the buildings were abandoned, missing doors, broken windows, etc. People stood around in the vacant parking lots, mostly older women, no doubt only in their 40s or 50s, but looking much older, stooped, and scorched by desert sun. Every place of business besides a single gas station was closed, boarded, and vandalized. US flags were decidedly scarce. I saw one shack proudly flying one next to a stop sign patching a hole in the fence around their yard. There were also several small ones in the graveyard beside the highway, a forgotten little smattering of crosses, trinkets, and sundry fabrics tethered to sticks – surrounded by 2,500 square miles of desolate buttes, high desert, and sparse grasses. There was no evidence of commerce anywhere, or initiative, plentitude, or even hope.

While it sounds extremely insulting, I need to say it: I see more potential, hope, and promise on the IED-ridden streets of Iraq than I do in Navajo country. I drove through the entire area without stopping – intentionally. And I’m now left with a number of questions I want answered. Was this the Navajo natural territory before it was a reservation? Could the US have “assigned” them land any more useless than this vast tract? Does the US think they’re helping the Navajo with subsidized living? What do the Najavo think of living off a government check? What would they say is the purpose for their existence? Do they call this satisfactory living? Why is there more hope (to me) in Iraq than in Navajo country?

I have no answers for any of these questions, and I’m certain that responsibility for this condition lies with lots of parties – most of whom are now dead and gone. I just needed to escape, which I did – onto Ute Indian reservation land in Colorado. Before long, however, I was in Cortez, CO.

Driving through familiar country from Cortez to Durango for the evening, I stopped to pick up another hitchhiker. His name was Albert, and he answered a number of my questions.

Himself a Navajo from Shiprock, he soon turned down the subsidized reservation life and departed for Salt Lake City. I asked him if he missed the reservation at all. “Hell no. Everything’s controlled by the government there. Everything. I don’t like it. You don’t have any freedom. I want to work, I want to earn what I make. America is about doing what you want to do, not having somebody dictate it for you.” He loves his country.

He and a dozen other Native Americans all enlisted in the military in 1971, Albert ending up in the 101st Airborne division, and deployed to Vietnam. A year after his first twelve-month tour, he volunteered for a second. After being dropped into the jungle on one mission, they were all ambushed, where he was hit by enemy fire repeatedly between his knee and hip.

“I thought, ‘this is it. I’m gonna die.’” After his leg gave out and he crawled for awhile, he doesn’t remember much, except waking up in a hospital. He has worn a leg brace ever since and limps slightly. The VA, despite his purple heart, combat injury, honorable discharge, etc, lists him at 50% disabled. I, without a legitimate injury, am rated at 60%, which makes me feel awful.

When Albert was discharged in 1974, he returned to Salt Lake City, stepped off the plane, and was immediately pelted by anti-war demonstrators throwing things and calling him a child-killer.

“I politely saluted, and tried to just walk away, but then I got hit by something. I don’t know what it was, though. But I felt the blood trickling down.” He still carries the scar above his left eye. He showed it to me. Thirty-five years later, he still wonders about the dozen other Native Americans with whom he enlisted. He never saw any of them again.

Albert met his wife, a Canadian Creek, at a Crow festival in Montana. She died in 1996, leaving behind Albert and their five children. Though he rarely has much contact with them, they’re scattered throughout southern California, west slope Colorado, and Utah. He and his children are all devout Mormons. One son, a Marine, is currently in Afghanistan. Albert hasn’t seen him since he enlisted almost four years ago.

“They keep sending you guys to war, Ben. It kills me. And then you come back and get treated awful. It truly hurts me. It hurts my heart.” When he thanked me for my service, I felt even worse. I, and we as a nation, are the ones that owe his generation of warriors.

When the economy took a downward turn a few years ago, Albert’s 401k dropped in value to $84, and he soon found himself living in a shelter in Salt Lake City, but still working. “I WANT to work. That’s why I’m going to Durango. I hear there’s a good bit of work there. Do you get high?”

I told him I did not.

When we arrived in Durango, I asked around, made some phone calls, and eventually found a shelter where Albert could stay for the night. Taking a wrong turn, I ended up at a ex-con halfway house across the street – occupied by the most courteous, friendly lot of 20-something convicts I’ve ever encountered.

The shelter itself is operated by the Volunteers of America, and filled with men of all ages (though mostly older middle-aged). Albert would have taken their last available cot, were it not for the fact he could not pass a breathalyzer test. Very sweetly, the young, single, well-dressed woman working as the shelter counselor explained that he couldn’t stay, but welcomed him to come back in the morning when he had no more alcohol in his system. “I can give you some blankets for the night if you want.” They expected him to simply hack it somewhere in Durango for the night.

“That’s okay. I have a Navajo blanket, and a jacket, too. I’ll be okay.” He asked if I could drive him somewhere he could sleep for the night.

As we walked back outside, an ancient golden retriever wandered up to the building, immediately drawing a crowd of homeless men eager to talk to her and pet her. “Hey there, sweetie. I haven’t seen you around here before. Are you lost?”

The dog loved the attention, and I felt more certain of the safety of the young woman working alone upstairs. These were all good men.

When I dropped Albert off at a nearby city park, he leaned back in the car. “Ben, every time I’ve been hard up, it’s always been grunts [infantry] that’ve helped me out. You guys are all angels. And you’re a sweetheart. You’ve done so much for me.”

Shaking my hand, he heaved his pack onto his shoulder and limped off to find a darkened corner to sleep. Soon thereafter, I found a darkened parking lot and curled up in the back seat of my car to do the same. I’m 29, camping in my car (and complaining about it). Albert, at 56, is nearly as old as my father, far more a veteran than I, and sleeping in the elements. And he has no home, a disinterested family, a war injury, and a lower disability rating than me. I’ve hardly helped him. I’ve successfully passed him off on some other city, some other shelter, and some other person more compassionate than I.

But if a grunt doesn’t know how to help another grunt, how can I expect anybody else to?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved


  1. Good Ben. Good.

  2. Remember when I said yesterday that you never know what the day will bring when you wake up in the morning?

    There is a destiny that makes us brothers:
    None goes his way alone:
    All that we send into the lives of others
    Comes back onto our own.
    Edwin Markham

    I think that your time spent with Albert was not an accident.
    This was a very good story with a very interesting message.

  3. Thank you so much. Excellent.