We stopped at “Laundratopia” in Farmington last night because we were fast running out of clothes that didn’t smell as if they were worn by John Henry when he scored his Pyrrhic victory over that inhuman steam hammer.
I was stumbling about with a laptop slung over my back looking for an outlet after noticing that Laundratopia offered a wifi hotspot, which I have long considered a bedrock essential for any utopia, whether it includes 55-pound washing machines or not.
A man wandered over to me and halted my search by asking if indeed we came from Washington state, as the licence plates on the petroleum monster indicated.
He had deep pools of mystery in his brown eyes, and he introduced himself as Herbert Gray, a mixed-breed Indian of Navajo and Apache descent.
I asked if he’d ever been to Washington. He said no.
I was still wearing that computer on my back two hours later when the Grays, Herbert and wife Loretta, drove away in their Dodge Ram pickup truck.
You know you’re in a good road groove when strangers do the hard work of initiating the conversation. Herbert and I had chatted for a few minutes when he suggested we might strike up a correspondence. Unfortunately, I don’t think he does email.
So, after a bit of mixed-up confusion that ensued when I asked Becky to look for a notebook so I could scribble down his address, and Becky getting frustrated because she was unable to find that notebook, because that notebook was stuffed into my computer bag, we exchanged street addresses and phone numbers.
A few minutes into our conversation, I asked Herbert a loaded question about the never-ending impact the European invasion has had on the traditional life of natives.
He considered the question carefully, then spoke slowly.
“The question you asked, if we met again, maybe I could answer,” he said. “But we only just met. It’s sad. There’s lot of hard feelings.”
Herbert’s wife, Loretta, is a full-blooded Navajo and a fifth-generation master weaver. She said she’s supported her family for 45 years weaving traditional rugs, dresses, saddle blankets and more. She has extended the traditional artistry another two generations, teaching her 8-year-old grandson Tyren the intricacies of the art. She says he recently finished weaving a pretty cool mouse pad.
They had driven two hours over the Lukachai Mountains and through a maze of red rock to get to this cluttered outpost near the Four Corners. They did some shopping at Walmart and their laundry, but the main reason they came was so Loretta could deliver a traditional Navajo dress she had woven for a young woman who will be graduating this spring from nearby San Juan College.
Loretta’s father was a Navajo medicine man, and he taught her the prayers, songs and mysteries of the Navajo spiritual life. Her grandmother taught her the frustrating nuances of Navajo weaving.
They have a sprawling family, and Loretta, 62, joked that she lost count of her grandchildren at 22. While I escaped to the restroom, she told Becky she had 10 children, two of them deceased. One of her daughters was murdered last month, by her husband.
“I think it’s good there are songs and prayers and spiritual things that lift you up,” she said. “It helps your family, your children.”
Herbert says he’s lived amid the cacophony of modern civilization, in Phoenix and Salt Lake City among others, but he always yearned for the peace and quiet of the traditional Navajo life.
As if to underscore his point, the whine of fire engines passing out on East Main Street drowns out our conversation.
“The noise will make you miserable,” he said. “It will drive you crazy.”
So he returned as always to the vast expanse of northwestern Arizona, to Lukachai, where the 2000 census reported the median income was $10,179, but the peace of mind is priceless.
“There’s nothing out there but the howl of the coyotes,” he said. “It’s very peaceful. Sometimes in the summer we go up on the mountain and herd sheep.”
Herbert has invited us to visit Lukachai. He asked if I am religious, and I think he’s worried about our spiritual emptiness.
He said he’ll turn Max into a Navajo in six months. First I thought he was joking. Says he’ll teach Max how to hunt and fish with his bare hands. Well, God knows we could use a dose of spirituality in our lives.
So this morning we’re headed west, across the Lukachai Mountains and into the canyon of Herbert and Loretta’s ancestors. We’ll stay for a few months, learn about Navajo traditions, herd sheep in the mountains when the weather gets warm, and see what happens next.
I didn’t think to ask him if they’ve got an Internet connection there, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to chronicle our Navajo adventure.