In a world that sometimes seems to be spinning out of control, I try to keep my daily focus on being truly aware of my surroundings, the signs and blessings each day brings and to recognize and show appreciation for those gifts and opportunities when they present themselves. When two full blooded Navajo men, William Yazzie and his son-in-law, Shaun Martin, crashed Michael Lichter’s Art Show at the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, South Dakota, last year and came over and introduced themselves to me, I immediately knew I was in the presence of kindred spirits. But I had no idea of the magnitude that the experience of meeting them was about to unfold.
These two extraordinary Navajo men had just ridden their Harley-Davidson motorcycles to the Black Hills for the first time from Chinle, Arizona, which is in the far northeastern corner of Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. William told me he was the Chief Park Ranger at Canyon De Chelly National Monument, which is just south of my favorite roads in Monument Valley. Having ridden across a lot of the U.S. alone many times, I have been through many of our country’s Indian reservations, and have sometimes felt like an intruder. Much like traveling through a different country, I try to have respect for the Native people, their heritage, their cultural beliefs and ways and their right to privacy. I don’t just point my camera at anything or anybody with asking first. And I try to make my journey through their land without a trace of my having been there.
When Shaun and William suggested that I visit the “rez” for a guided tour on their favorite roads—the word “rez” being a colloquial use for reservation—I considered this an honor, and not only accepted, I immediately started planning the dates upon returning home from my summer travels. Within a month I was headed for the rez and told them I didn’t have a lot of money, or a lot of time, but to show me all that they could. I pulled into the dusty town of Chinle just as the sun was setting to find a camper complete with bed and kitchen all set up for me in Canyon de Chelly National Park. They had grilled a huge pan of fresh chicken and veggies for dinner and I got to meet their wives and children as we had a simple, healthy meal together watching the sun set over the rocky red cliffs.
Prepared to make the most of our time, they yanked my unorganized butt out of that trailer at the crack of dawn, and I was glad they did. It is not often that I find myself overwhelmed by more wisdom than I can wrap my brain around, but there is not a tree or a rock in the path of these two that doesn’t have meaning. Every single creation is a gift from the Great Spirit, and should be appreciated as such. All life forms have a purpose and a meaning. All living creatures are seen as souls, and the only thing setting humans apart are our 10 fingers and toes. Every place we would stop had a story and history with meaning behind it.
Along with this great wisdom came great kindness and generosity, but it was interlaced with silliness and humor. Our first stop was at a place they call “Butt Rock.” I have no idea why they call it this. However, I did learn after making a little bit too much childish fun of the rock, that it would behoove me to respect the history and sacredness of the Butt.
I wanted to stop every 10 miles to soak in the spectacular beauty of the land and the roads. The best part about life on the rez is the obvious lack of civilization. It is Mother Nature and the Great Spirit left undisturbed to do their fine work together.
We pulled over at Buffalo Pass Overlook to look out over “Shiprock” where we were headed, and it was plain to see that a lot of cars pull over to enjoy the view, and leave their mess behind. William pulled a trash bag out of his saddlebag and immediately began cleaning the mountaintop, and we all joined in. I have long hiked with a backpack for this exact purpose, so it warmed my heart to watch this “of-the-earth” family in action.
Shiprock figures prominently in Navajo mythology. It is known as the “rock with wings.” From certain angles it resembles a giant bird with folded wings, and it is said to have carried the Navajo from the cold Northlands to the Four Corners region. It was given its name because it is also thought to resemble a 19th century clipper ship. Johnny Depp had just been to Shiprock to film “The Lone Ranger” and Shaun’s whole family got to meet him. Shaun’s son, Maverick, was still imitating all of the many voices Johnny was sweet enough to take the time and do for them. And he did so all the while on the set of the movie and in full Tonto regalia.
We stopped in the town of Shiprock for a fry bread lunch so I could meet William’s youngest son, Justin, who was starting his first year of college, and is on the track team at Diné College. He is following in the steps of Shaun and Melissa, who are both long distance runners. In fact, Shaun holds the record for being the fastest guy on the rez, and runs about 30—yes, I said 30—miles a day! He was also just named Rural School Teacher of the Year, coaches the track team, and sets an incredible example to every kid on every rez. His father encouraged him to start running in races when he was just 5 years old, and Shaun quickly learned that with running came freedom. His own two feet became his transportation. Coming from a very poor family, he learned that this was his ticket to take him anywhere he wanted to go, on or off the rez.
Justin had just come from track practice, and was really excited because Billy Mills had just visited the team and signed his t-shirt. Billy Mills was the Native American Sioux underdog from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota who took home the Olympic gold medal for the 10,000 meter race in 1964, and became the second Native American to take home a medal. Meeting him was an honor for Justin, and it was clear to see that it made a huge impression.
By the time we reached the San Juan Inn and Trading Post in Mexican Hat, Utah, the sun was already on its way down, and I started to panic that it would be dark by the time we reached Monument Valley and I would miss the “golden hour” photograph—the sun setting on Monument Valley. We stopped for one quick picture in front of the motel that I fondly remember visiting in 2002 when I was part of the documentary “Motorcycle Women,” that aired on the Discovery Channel. That show is where William and Shaun had first seen and knew of me, which is how it came to be that we met.
We entered breathtaking Monument Valley as the sun was on its way over the horizon, and we only had time for a few photos before our long journey back to Chinle in the chilly dark of the night. The golden sun setting on the Monument rocks is without a doubt my favorite place to ride through in all of the United States. Every time I pass this spiritual place it’s as if I am seeing it for the first time. There is a good reason our Native people were drawn to this place. It has a sacred feeling. Even John Wayne couldn’t resist its lure. I am glad that it is a place that is sacred still—protected and respected as it should always remain.
After the long, dark, cold ride home I was happy to crawl into my warm sleeping bag in my little camper. I drifted off to sleep reflecting over the wisdom that William shared and how wonderfully his knowledge represented the culture and ways of his people. And now he is passing down that knowledge to his children and grandchildren so that the stories and history will never be forgotten. He also speaks to large groups of tourists at the local hotel, and teaches and informs us all about the ways of the Navajo so that we might have a better understanding of the native people. His goal is that one day we might all sing, dance and laugh together.
I thought of how equally important the roles of Shaun and Melissa are, who are inspiring and educating the youth of today, on and off of the rez. They are both teachers, long distance runners and Shaun is the coach of the high school track team. In addition to the national teacher award I mentioned earlier, he’s won countless marathons. But he tells me he runs mostly for the spiritual connection it gives him to his land and the Great Spirit. He is teaching these students a healthier way of life and showing them, by his example, about the value of self-identity and respect. Every kid in town wants to be like Coach Martin. Afterall, he is healthy and handsome, has a beautiful wife and children, can run farther than any man on the rez and he rides a really cool Harley!
In November 2012, Outside magazine did a feature story about Shaun’s many accomplishments. And Melissa’s role speaks to women both young and old, as she is a daughter of the wise, wife of the inspirational, mother of the cutest two kids ever, teacher, runner and above all else kind and humble. You have to be the master of balance to do all that this family does, and to make it look this simple! Ultimately their challenge is to have a healthy balance between the proud old ways of their heritage, and the progressive rhythms of the modern world.
There is much more to Betsy’s adventure on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Read part 2 here.
Backroads With Betsy: Riding the Rez, Part 2
Backroads With Betsy: Sturgis 2012 Reflections
A Biker is a Biker, a Brother, a Friend
Backroads with Betsy