Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A pleasant interlude in northern Arizona...

I was just reading Tony Hillerman's latest, Skeleton Man (btw, if you are likely to read the book, don't read the blurb on his web site - in my opinion it's too detailed). It reminded me of a motorcycle trip I did from California to Claremore, Oklahoma, about fifteen years ago. My grandmother lives in Claremore, so this gave me an excuse for a long ride. It was a lovely two-week trek. I think one reason for going on a trek like this is to deliberately put yourself in a situation where stuff will happen to you that isn't what you'd intended - to allow fate an opportunity to broaden your horizons. Afterwards, we call these experiences "adventures."

For me, on this trip, one broadening that occurred was my discovery that once you get out of the confines of civilization, the things you want aren't very readily available. I grew up in a rural location in western Massachusetts, so I'm familiar with being a little way from civilization, but it was only five miles from my house to the nearest gas station, for example, and since we had a house, the lack of a decent motel in town wasn't a problem for me. My first discovery when crossing Nevada was that I could no longer count on the availability of gas - there were stretches of U.S. 50 where the distance between gas stations was nearly the capacity of my tank. Fortunately, I figured this out from reading the map, rather than from running out of gas in the middle of the desert.

On the way home, I discovered another problem: not every town has a place to stay. I was sticking to the back roads, because I like back roads - when you're on a motorcycle, a winding country road is just a lot more pleasant than an interstate, because the journey is the entirety of the experience - you don't have a CD player to listen to, or a traveling companion with whom to chat. I came back through Shiprock, because I wanted to do the tourist thing and stop at the Four Corners. The Four Corners are overrated, but Shiprock is pretty cool, and so are the mesas on the other side of the highway, at least if you go in for that sort of thing, which I do.

I got to Shiprock pretty late in the day, and took a nice back country road that looked good on the map, and was good in reality. The road went through, if I remember correctly, the Navajo reservation. It wasn't any shorter than the main road, but it was inspiringly remote - it had the quality that I figured it would probably get me where I was going, but there was a chance I'd wind up someplace else instead. I ran into another motorcyclist on a beautiful green Kawasaki at a gas station along the way, and he mentioned that he was heading for the Grand Canyon, so as I was continuing west I got the idea to go there too.

There are a few towns along the road there - Kayenta is one, and then Tuba City is another. I got to Kayenta just after dark, and I was pretty tired - I'd come from Durango that morning and stopped in Mesa Verde on the way. So I thought I'd stop at the Holiday Inn, and they had room, but it was $60/night, and that was more than I felt I could afford - I'd been shooting for under $40/night. So I kept on going, thinking that since Tuba City looked like a bigger town, there'd be a cheap hotel there. No dice - I could see any hotels from the highway. Maybe there were some in town, but I was still not aware that I was in trouble, even though I was getting tired and cold, so I kept going.

One other little tidbit contributed to my trouble at this point - I was on a bike, and I was in a hurry to get where I was going, so of course I wasn't looking at the map. I had a pretty good idea of what the map looked like, and where the major towns were on the map, and I figured that Page had to have a hotel. And I knew that U.S. 89 went to Page. What I didn't remember is that U.S. 89 is a weird road - it has two completely separate branches that split off south of the Grand Canyon, and don't reconnect again until you get up into Utah, at Kanab. When I got to the split-off point, I should have stopped and checked my map, but by this time I *really* didn't want to have to turn off my electric vest, so I went left when I should have gone right. I realized that something was wrong, but the signs didn't clue me in, so I wound up turning north on the western loop of 89, thinking that that would get me back in the direction of Page.

There was a partial moon that night. It was very dark, but there was enough light to see the outlines of the land, and to see buildings, without much detail. The land along the road was spookily beautiful - there were what looked like huge heaps of dirt on either side with rounded tops and stripes, and I passed a lovely old barn with a windmill on the left as the road descended toward the canyon. The air was rich with moisture, and I smelled freshly-cut grass of some kind, but couldn't see clearly enough to tell what it was - it just smelled wonderfully of farming.

I kept on riding for what seemed like quite a long time, although on the map it's about ten miles. I finally got to a bridge at a place called Marble Canyon. By this time it was very late, and it was clear to me that I was not on the road to Page, and that if I turned around and tried for Page it was going to take a really long time to get there, and I figured it would be better to press on (I still hadn't looked at the map at this point, by the way). But when I crossed the bridge, there was a motel on the right. It didn't look like much from the outside, but beggars can't be choosers, and the light was still on, so I stopped.

It turned out that it was really very nice inside, but still I figured that since we were out there in the middle of nowhere, it wouldn't be too bad. When I asked, the price was, if I remember correctly, $55. I was really disappointed - I didn't feel I could afford it, so I glumly said thanks and started to leave. The person behind the counter stopped me, and said he (I think it was a man - it's been a long time) would let me have it for half price because it was so late. I was grateful in that "oh boy, I got a bargain" kind of way.

Why does this come back to me just now? The Tony Hillerman book I was reading touches on a number of Native American tribes down there - the Hopis, the Navajos, the Havasupai, the Hualapai (apologies if I missed any or got the names wrong). I'm pretty sure the owners of the establishment were Native Americans. I finished the Tony Hillerman book just before bed, and then I have some nighttime practices I do before I go to sleep, to try to work on my intention for how I want to be. After doing these practices, I turned off the light to go to sleep, and suddenly this whole incident flashed back into my mind.

At the time, I was certainly grateful to have a comfortable place to sleep that night. I thought I'd scored a minor coup by getting the room for half price. Looking back on it, it occurs to me that the reason I got the room for half price was because the man behind the counter knew that if I got back on the motorcycle, at nearly midnight, I was going to have to do about a hundred miles of straightaways and grueling switchbacks, followed by a long trek across the Kaibab Plateau, where there would be no place to stay. By the time I got to Zion, I was going to be too late for any motels there, and it was going to be difficult to find camping in the dark, even if there were spaces available. And I was going to freeze my butt off.

And he didn't want me to have to go through that. Maybe I would have been okay, maybe I would have gone off the edge of one of the steep dropoffs on that section of highway 89. I don't know. He probably didn't know either. Here I am, as caucasian as they come, child of his grandfather's oppressors. I have a nice credit card, a nice motorcycle, I could totally have afforded the $55, but I was too damned stubborn to go for it, and I was going to make myself suffer to avoid paying it, so he took responsibility for my happiness and let me stay for half price.

There was nothing even remotely fair about this transaction. It was a good person deciding that kindness was better than fairness. I didn't really appreciate what he did at the time - to me it was just a case of hard bargaining winning out. It may be that the reason I'm here to write this today is because that man decided to be kind to me. I don't know his name, I don't remember what he looked like, I don't know if he even still lives at Marble Canyon. I think it's highly unlikely that he'll ever read this. I have no way to pay him back, except to tell this story.


Blogger Patricia said...

Wonderful story! But don't forget that you have Cherokee ancestors.

Saturday, May 28, 2005 4:23:00 AM  

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