I was on vacation in Utah with my husband, driving us down a dirt road through the middle of the Valley of the Gods when an ear-piercing screech came from the left front wheel of the van.
I pulled over and stopped and there we were, on a washboard road with a cell phone reading “No Internet Connection,” 105-degree sun pressing down, and a serious cat fight going on in the front wheel.
We climbed out of the car to look underneath it as if either one of us could fix whatever it was that was wrong.
I straightened up and looked around. If there was still a place you could call the middle-of-nowhere left on this earth, the place we were in definitely qualified. We had only seen one car the entire three hours we had been on that road.
After some discussion we decided that, no matter how loud the screeching got, we would drive either to our bed and breakfast, thirty miles ahead, or until the wheel fell off, whichever came first.
I put the key in the ignition and, shading my eyes, leaned out the driver’s window, straining my ears for the sound of a car—for the sound of anything but the sound of the wind.
Out of habit I glanced into the rear view mirror before I turned the key and that was when the light bar that was mounted to the top of the tow-truck appeared just over the crest of the hill behind us.
To say that I couldn’t believe my eyes would not be exaggerating.
The next day I was sitting on the edge of a blue rubber canoe, my black umbrella against the sun, drinking from a can of beer that the four Navajo boys who had parked next to our truck had offered me.
That was how one of the boys described the tow-truck driver.
“That weren’t no real people, that was a skinwalker. Not really a flesh and blood person. A ghost-person with skin so’s you could see him. He was just followin’ you. Watchin’ you.”
The water in the San Juan River was the color of milky coffee. It ran slowly by. The foot bridge overhead creaked on its wire cables.
“N-a-a-w,” the boy on the edge of the yellow canoe opposite me deadpanned. “It was the Lone Ranger.”
“Yeah, well, huh. That weren’t the Lone Ranger,” one of the boys teased. “That was a medicine man.”
Someone objected, saying that I had said he looked like a Mormon Bishop to me.
“Medicine man—Mormon Bishop. Same difference to a white lady,” another one of the boys said and they all laughed the soft Navajo laugh.
They were in their late teens, going out to the river together to just hang out. Each had his own small rubber canoe and paddle and they were sharing their beer and sandwiches. My husband had gone for a hike and crossed over the suspension bridge that hung out over the river. I had unashamedly admitted to the boys when they were unloading their gear that I couldn’t get over the bridge—I’d had a panic attack and froze after only a few steps when it swung back and forth under my weight.
One of the boys said that happened a lot to girls and that if the bridge scared me I should have just walked across the river.
“You don’t need no bridge,” he said. “It ain’t very deep.”
He gave me a shy smile up from under his dark lashes.
“What were you gonna do while you were waiting for your husband?” One of them asked?
That’s was when they had offered me the beer and I took my umbrella down to the river’s edge to sit with them.
“I seen you writing up there,” the shortest boy spoke out. “You write any poetry? My friend Frank here, he writes rap. And Rudy, there? He writes regular poems.”
“Yeah, huh,” this from another boy. “Give her a poem, Rudy.”
Up in the dusty parking lot, a pink and white family spilled noisily out of their over-sized vehicle. Car doors slammed. Kids ran. Parents shouted. I was looking down at the old ammo box at my feet where the Indian boys kept their beer just as Rudy, unprompted any further, began reciting his poem.
“I yearn for life and living, I yearn for years spread out before me…”
Rudy recited as naturally and evenly as the breeze, delivering his prayerful, soulful wish for his future like he wasn’t a big gangly youth with a faded t-shirt and untied high-tops dangling from a cheap rubber canoe on the side of a muddy river.
“I wanna have a long life,” he recited. “I wanna live to sixty.”
I thought how far away sixty must have looked to a teenager and suspected that he didn’t have any idea how old I was.
We sat and listened as Rudy voiced his lyrical hopes for himself, for his future and for the future of his people.
There was a moment afterwards, when Rudy stopped, and we all more or less just let the rain of his poem fall down gently around us.
The boy standing to my left had his head down as he ground out a cigarette with his shoe. He waited for the vibration of Rudy’s words to stop then looked at me like he wanted to tell me something.
“What?” I said, encouraging him.
“You know that tow truck-driver?” he said. “I was thinkin’. I maybe outta tell you.
“Tell me what?” I said.
“That weren’t no ‘Skinwalker.’
“Nah, huh.” he said. “It weren’t a medicine man neither. That were my uncle. He drives that tow truck up and down that road every day.”
“Yeah, huh,” said one of the other boys. “We were just giving you an April Fools’.”
And they all laughed the soft Navajo laugh.
I felt their kindness. Their honesty. Their softness.
I felt that here were four Navajo boys telling me that if I was afraid to walk across a bridge, no matter, walk across the river.
Here was a Navajo tow truck driver who appeared out of nowhere saying it was merely a rock caught in the wheel-well, just keep going, it would smooth out.
Here were the gods in disguise, telling me there was more than one way to overcome fear and that the road ahead wasn’t as dangerous as it seemed, just keep going, things would work themselves out.
And here they all were, telling me that life was a poem to be sung out under a tree by a river while they all laughed their soft Navajo laugh.
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Emma Ruffin
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