Monday, June 15, 2009

Judy's Advice

Judy's advice is to make sure you have a sure-footed animal underneath you.

As she said this we were poised on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I'd spotted her a few minutes before, sitting all alone, away from the crowd, on a shelf of yellow rock jutting a few feet beyond the safety rail. It was still early morning and cool in the desert; she wore a light, official-looking jacket with a corporate logo embroidered on its sleeve; her hair was neatly coifed, every short, brown strand in place, her head erect, business-like. She sat perfectly still, looking into all that airy, layered space, her square chin raised, her hands folded level across her knees. I wasn't sure I should disturb her; she seemed to have found a way to be alone and at peace in a Canyon bubbling with tourists. Then she turned her head slightly toward me, and our eyes met.

Judy, it turned out, was a financial advisor from Bangor, Maine, recently arrived in Arizona for a business convention. She'd come several days early so that she could venture deep into the Canyon, and the day before had completed a mule ride to the bottom and back. And that was how she could recommend solid hooves and steady focus to me.

What I wanted to know was what sort of advice she was giving her clients in Maine.

"Buy, buy, buy," she said emphatically, still with her hands folded across her lap. "Don't listen to the media. Keep calm. Don't panic. Keep buying, if you can."

I thought it best to take all of this with a grain of salt. I mean, that embroidered logo glinting on her sleeve, Ameriprise, 10,000 financial consultants nationwide: what else could I expect?

Then Judy said something else:

"The other thing we have to do right now is listen, listen, listen. But not to the talking heads. We have to listen to our best selves. We have to communicate that to each other. Communicate, communicate. Then we're going to be okay, I think."

I asked her if she thought the mood at the convention that week was going to be as positive and hopeful as her own outlook. She assured me it would be.

"Because the glum people don't come, you know. They don't think to get out and look at all of this."

She swept a hand across the bluish-gold horizon, then pointed down to show me the distant thread of trail where she'd taken the mule ride the day before. The name of her mule had been Maud. Maud, frankly, had been terrifying. Maud, it seemed, had a penchant for stopping and eating snips of vegetation . . . snips that happened to be perched on the edge of sheer cliff ledges. Yet at all times Maud was completely, stubbornly confident. After a while, Judy had to force herself simply to hang on tight and stare down into the pit of the desert while her ride went on about the business of living.

"Sometimes," Judy counseled, "you just have to trust that the mule knows more than you do."


Monday, June 1, 2009

Of Cows and Men

Priscilla has lost her cows. This is not a good thing, not for a Navajo. For a Navajo, cows are income, cows are livelihood, cows are why you bother to get a grazing lease in the first place. Priscilla's family has had cows for generations. They should have about a hundred head right now. Instead, they have eighty. Twenty of the herd have been playing hide and seek for a while. Well, for about four years.

I met Priscilla in the Twin Rocks Trading Post, Utah, where she works during the day. She lives about seventeen miles from the post; when I asked her if I would know the name of the town where she has a house, she said,

"Nope. Just out in the big wide open. Out on the reservation."

Priscilla had just been explaining to me the difference between some of the Navajo baskets on display at the Trading Post. The wider the weave, the more elaborate the work, and therefore the more expensive, she said. Baskets made with a smaller weave cost much less.

"That's hard to understand," I puzzled over this (they all looked equally beautiful to me). "Isn't the smaller work much more labor-intensive?"

Not the point at all, it turns out. The dramatic, larger weaves are more sought after; the narrower weaves are rather everyday, originally made for household use.

Priscilla's family has lost twenty head of cattle down in Chinle Wash, and now the rebel herd won't come home. Every year her father, husband and son mount an expedition to get the runaways out. The cows simply retreat into the tight weaves of cane and thorny underbrush. "They just go into these little tunnels that are way too small and tight for people to go in," Priscilla told me, throwing her long, straight hair back, "and like, disappear." They take refuge in the harsh desert canyons; but since there was plenty of food and water in the wash, the cows had been doing just fine, year after year. They had no interest, apparently, in the everyday business of being rounded up, sold, and trucked off to die.

Last year, the annual cow-hunting expedition took with it a trained border collie purchased from an expert rancher in Colorado. The herding dog immediately took off after the delinquents, went into the narrow, thorny weave along with them . . . and never came out. Priscilla looked and waited for days, but eventually had to accept the dog had gone AWOL, too.

This year Priscilla and her family are having two Australian cattle dogs specifically raised and trained to work as a team to bring the animals home. At this point the pups are still too young to go into the wash, and Priscilla is nervous about them going in, anyway. She doesn't want to lose any more animals--especially dogs. I pointed to my own border collie, waiting patiently outside the trading post, and told her I could understand that perfectly.

"You know, somebody once advised me," she told me, "that if you lose a dog like that, you should leave behind some material that smells of you in whatever place you last saw the dog, and the dog will come back and lie down on it and wait for you."

I filed that away, just in case. "Do you think your dog is still okay, down in that wash?" I asked. "Do you think he might still come out?"

"That's what I tell myself. I hope so. But I don't know . . . and I don't know how much more we can take," she sighed, sitting again behind the cash register. "My dad is getting real old, you know, and all he wants to do is get them out before they come and take him away into the narrow place too."

I nodded, trying to picture it, an old man being folded into the wash with his cows, a single strand into the coffin of the desert.