Last week, as I was driving to Phoenix from my Boulder home, I stopped at Marble Canyon for a couple hours of sleep. Marble Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, and Cedar Ridge are all places on the Navajo Reservation in extreme Northern Arizona. I've been traveling across this reservation since I was about five years old, traversing back and forth from Southern Utah to Phoenix and other places in Arizona and Utah. It's one of my favorite places, a place I feel like time will stop if you have the courage to let it. The giant wall faces of the Vermillion Cliffs create the border to the North of the reservation, majestic and mystical, appearing to be the guardians of the reservation. There is a small motel build out of gray stone there, the halfway point of my trip. To the East of the motel and the cliffs is the great Colorado River, and further North on the river, Lee's Ferry, where I learned in my thirties to be the ferry which my Great-great grandfather once managed until he fell and drowned in the great river, another in my collective ancestory whose body was never found.
For several years, before I knew this story of my grandfather, I used to drive up to Vermillion Cliffs and spend New Year's Eve. At night, I would walk inside the small bar and restaurant, where they would let me play my guitar on a barstool in the corner for tips and dinner. Sometimes, the night would turn very long if I was having a good singing night. The restaurant crew would take me to their dilapidated trailers behind the restaurant, and we would drink whisky straight from the bottle and I would listen to the talk of the long season of winter on the reservation. On New Year's Day, I would make the drive to the ferry, and then down stream by the river and sit on the bank most of the day, sometimes taking a fly rod and fly fishing where some of the world's largest rainbow trout make their home. After one particular New Year's, I was telling my cousin about my trip and she told me the story of my Grandfather's demise near the very spot I would visit. I was amazed that I was drawn to this place all on my own, as if I was somehow caught up in the search, four generations later. As the story goes, after he fell into the river and disappeared, his son, my great grandfather, formed a search party to look for his body. The second night of the search, as my grandfather sat around the fire after crudely dragging sections of the great river, a voice spoke to him and said, "Search no further, you will never find me, I am fine, go home." (This story was told to me by my ninety-year old aunt one day in our many family history conversations).
So, the search for him ended, and his body was never found. Who could have imagined that three generations later, a similar fate would accompany my own father a hundred and fifty miles to the North West? Sitting there on the bank of the river one year after my father disappeared, I made this connection between the two men. I also started thinking about the many who have been swallowed up into the western landscape, never to appear again. Looking at the deep crevices in the great cliffs, and the dark green depth of the Colorado River, it's easy to see how men could walk into its majestic allure, never to be seen or heard from again. Perhaps this is the reason I find great comfort there.
Instead of stopping at the motel of the Vermillion Cliffs, I drove the eight miles to Marble Canyon, where I pulled my truck into a rocky parking spot and laid out my sleeping bag in the front seat of the truck. The monsoon clouds, lightning, thunder, and rain were swirling in front of the giant cliffs, and I opened the windows halfway so as I slept I could experience this great conflict between earth and atmosphere. The red dust of the reservation was kicking violently around in little dust devils, it was almost midnight, and I felt the pull of the collective kinship, comfortable and melancholy.
As I lay there in the front seat, I began listening to the wind, and catch the thunder roaring across the vast landscape of sandstone and desert prairie. Suddenly, across the street, I began to hear two or three men speaking in Navajo in front of the last place that seemed to be open, a restaurant bar amongst the several buildings of Marble Canyon, the small cobbled gateway village leading to the bridge that crosses the Colorado. At first, the men appeared to be laughing and pointing something out, like a wild dog or even a horse. It was only several seconds before I realized the men were extremely drunk, and then I could hear the shrill sound of chairs being dragged across uneven sidewalks, mixed with the ancient language the men were speaking, with bits of anger beginning to rise in the laughter. It was if suddenly sky and cliffs were bound to these men, whose ancestors had probably stood in the same spot, three hundred years before, when there was nothing to explain the way the violent sky moved.
I sat up from the truck's seat and turned my head to look across the street where the anger was turning into a strange staccato of Navajo words spitting out threat, bodies grabbing one another, and chairs and tables crashing together as the men began to fight. Looking across the highway, I could only make out the images, pushing against each other, the great cliffs rising in the background, and then one final crash. Then I could hear another man, beginning to speak in English and Navajo, the English words were cursing the men, the Navajo words urging them to stop with all the nonsense. It was only seconds after that I could hear the shuffling of the men heading off into the night, silent in their native tongue, probably going to a place a lot like mine, the front seat of a pick-up, or perhaps a motel room up against the wall of the cliffs.
I lay back down in the seat as the shuffling of the men's boots disappeared, and then it began to rain, with one thunderous clap of the sky. I kept the window down halfway, letting several of the drops make their way into the cab of the truck and onto my face and arms. I thought about the great river, a couple of hundred yards to the east, and the rain falling down into its canyon, hitting the surface of the water and joining the journey down towards the grand canyon. I thought about the motion of a human body in the river, tumbling over the rocks in the shallower parts after its spirit had returned to the sky. I thought about the way that luck it seemed, had no part of a life on the reservation, that all of it was just an endless repetition of violence between earth and sky. I thought about erosion. I wondered about the Navajo men, their relationship to each other, and how they would appear to each other at the rise of the sun. I thought about my future, the present past, and the thousand times I'd crossed this reservation. I thought about the great expanse of the reservation I'd yet to drive, down the center of Arizona, and the miles and miles of small houses and hogans of the Navajo nation.
It was two o'clock in the morning when I finally started the truck and headed south, the monsoon storms still looming in the distance, their great arms of lightning pointing out the way. I turned on the radio, checked the gauges and began to drive, listening to the radio voices mixed with the wind, the thunder, and the sound of plastic tarps beginning to rip as they attempted to cover the small little pile of possessions I had left after the fire. I was halfway to my destination, but at that moment, it seemed as though I would never arrive there, the night had taken everything from me, even though the sky was attempting to give something back. After I crossed the bridge, I was tempted to drive down one of the many dirt roads leading away from the highway, perhaps, to a trail that led down to the river,