Rear View Mirror

(1) Mystery Valley Radio:

On the high desert the wind and sun don't leave anything enough moisture for rotting. Three couples have come in the line wagon for the tour of Mystery Valley. I am working for a magazine, looking for a story line on which to hang a travel piece. It's uncannily quiet. nobody is allowed here by the tribal council except as members of official tours, so there are no motors running now that ours is shut off for awhile.

The driver is a burly Navajo in sunglasses and a Stetson, and he doesn't have much to say beyond answering questions about the birds and the plants and the weather.

The silence is the background color, and on top of it is the cleanness, the absence of any scent of moisture at work. A corpse is quickly stripped down to the bone, here; the water in it is greedily consumed by the sky.

The most popular tours go to nearby Monument Valley, where the spires of red rock create a one of a kind landscape. In Mystery Valley the attraction is more subtle, because the name doesn't describe the landscape, but the uninhibited nature of the local spirits. This is a tricky place if you fall asleep.

There aren't any soaring cathedrals here, only a squat, ordinary cathedral, shaped like an ear. One of the couples is walking up a trail, toward it. They get to the base of it and sit down on a rock. They begin to talk about the rest of us. They don't have anything good to say about anybody.

We are eating sandwiches and drinking water, smiling at each other, not speaking of what we are hearing, not giving them any warning their filthy little hearts are broadcasting loud and clear on Mystery Valley Radio.

(2) The Hopis are Laughing:

I am trying to take a picture but I can’t lift the camera because the Apache pilot is banking the plane around too sharply and there are g-forces. I am in the front beside him. Behind me are two members of the Hopi Tribal Council. My suspicion is that they’ve had a few drinks, the way they are yukking it up back there. We swoop down again, skimming the top of the sage as the pilot chases some coyotes who are pestering a hobbled horse.

I want to take pictures because it is something to do, and if I don’t pay attention to my job I might start wondering about how the pilot is doing his. We are patrolling for Navajo herders encroaching onto Hopi land with their sheep. But the coyotes and the horse got the pilot’s attention and now he’s chasing them with the airplane. I am strangely calm. It is not in my hands. In the back seat the Hopis are laughing.

(3) Like in Japan

I am driving on the Navajo reservation and I pass a hitchhiker. I pull over and give him a ride. He is Japanese, and he tells me he’s been out here for a long time, living and working with the Navajo. “I have just published the first book in Japanese about the Navajo people,” he says. He is on his way home to Japan.

I tell him that I spent a year in Tokyo about five years back, and we talk about the Shinjuku District night clubs to establish some common ground.

As we drive and talk his story unfolds.

He was a schoolteacher in Japan, and it is customary there to stay with your job. Going off to be a writer is seen as a kind of insanity, and it brings dishonor on the family. He had brought such dishonor on his family, and he had suffered a mental breakdown because of it. He had lost his wife and he had been institutionalized.

Still he wanted to be a writer and not a schoolteacher. So he came to America and he went to the Navajo. He didn't act like me, and other journalists on a magazine deadline. He didn't ask them questions or pay for interviews. He just began to work alongside them, until they accepted him as one of them.

“Now that I have published this book,” he says, “my family and friends have accepted me back. Now I am a person with status again.”

I tell him that in the American west people change careers all the time. “But one of these days,” I add, “everything will be regulated, and once it’s all regulated, it’s just a matter of time until it’s like in Japan.”

Posted: Sun - February 12, 2006 at 02:57 PM