Rain fell softly across the windshield of my truck as I crossed the cattle guard at the school entrance and drove out the empty dirt road northwest to Crownpoint. The sky was light over there, dark over here. Sun pulsed in and out of the truck windows. The rain lasted only a moment, but the air was wet and electric. A thunderstorm was brewing.
I just wanted to use the telephone. I would have used the pay phone inside the school, but the doors were already locked tight for the night and I hadn’t been entrusted with a key. I was restless, lonely, tired of being alone. I wanted to hear the voice of someone I knew. Sakura’s voice from across the sea in Hokkaido. Mary’s voice. My parents’ or one of my sisters’. Anyone’s.
In the Sun’s House chronicles one academic year of Caswell’s life during which he taught at a small elementary and middle school at Borrego Pass, a remote Navajo community in northwest New Mexico. Caswell struggles all year to earn respect in the classroom, as his students know that he is an interloper, just one white teacher in a long string of white teachers who come to the reservation with no intention of staying. As he gradually begins to understand his errors, Caswell attempts to bridge the gap he has widened between himself and the community.
A mile from campus I came to the Borrego Pass Trading Post. I pulled up in front of the squat brick building. It was tucked in close to the big sandstone mesa, and other buildings grew out from the sides and behind it, including a little barn and corral right up against the rock where it came down along the road. Deena, the receptionist at school, had told me that I should introduce myself to the managers, Merle and Rosie Moore. They were good people, she said, very friendly and helpful. They lived in a house behind the Trading Post and were almost always there. They sold gasoline from the pump out front and a little bit of hay from the barn. Inside the store, the Moores stocked canned goods and dry goods, basic hardware, ice cream, soda pop, and candy. They also sold and traded silver jewelry and other traditional arts, like kachina dolls, mostly made by local Navajo artists.
A kachina is a wooden doll carved and adorned to represent one of hundreds of Navajo and puebloan spirits (primarily Hopi and Zuni in these parts). These spirits are not gods; they are intermediaries between the people and the gods. They often live in the mountains, and they come to dance and restore harmony between all living things. The men who perform these ceremonial dances wear elaborately decorated masks and are said to become the kachina spirits they represent. The dances are especially important for fertility and for bringing rain.
I spotted a pay phone outside the front doors of the Trading Post. Maybe I wouldn’t have to go all the way to Crownpoint after all. I got out and walked up onto the front porch. The sign in the window read “Closed.” I peered in through the glass. A pale darkness covered the interior and the front counter of the little store. I could just make out the great collection of kachinas arranged on shelves along the back wall. They seemed to be looking at me. And in the glass case in front of them, rows of beautiful silver things—rings and bracelets, pendants, and concho belts—gleaming a little in the low light.
When I got the job offer at Borrego, I had called Sakura to tell her the good news. I was employed again, and off on a new adventure. We had parted in Hokkaido on good terms, making our vows to each other, our promises to see each other soon, and perhaps never again to part.
“Do you think,” she had said, when I told her the good news, “I could stay with you there in New Mexico? They have one of silver artists there,” she said. “I want to learn more about making silvers.”
She was an artist without specialization who loved to work in all kinds of mediums. She loved to paint, she loved textiles, and mostly she loved to explore.
“You want to come and live with me?” I asked. “Really?”
“I don’t have much here,” she said. “Just my little job and my families. I miss the States, and I could learn how to make those jewelries. I have some little money saved.”
“Yes, you could apprentice with some Navajo silversmith, maybe. Or learn weaving. Or paint every day.”
“And I could help you make a home there,” she said. “We could loving each other all the time.”
“Sounds like a dream,” I said.
I felt something cool across my back. The wind had picked up, and it had begun to rain again, lightly but steadily. Large round drops dotted the dusty ground around my truck. I remembered the pay phone. I put the receiver to my ear. Nothing. The line was dead. I hit the cancel lever several times. Still nothing.
I drove on. The road crested and started down the northwest side of the pass. I wound my way through the stands of layered rock and earth, along a long deep canyon where the road fell away. From the driver’s seat I could not see the bottom of it. Bob King had told me that this narrow section of road along the chasm was not so narrow a few years back. During a thunderstorm, a big pickup truck carrying four Navajos up front in the cab, and a couple of children in the back under a tarp in the rain, came through this place as the sky cracked and blew. Water came down from the mesa and flowed over the road, washing under the truck and floating it up, carving a path beneath it. Perhaps the truck remained suspended there for a moment or two, the water unsure of how to handle such a big thing, and then just as someone might have realized the danger they were all in and made motions for the door—“Get out!”—the water surged and dragged half the road, the truck, and all those people over the edge. No one survived. The truck is down there still. Later on one of my long walks through the desert, I went down in search of it, and found it, at least I thought I did, mostly buried now, frozen in the mud by years of storms, the doors cracked and lifted like the shell casings of a desiccated beetle.
I drove alongside the canyon there and down through the sharpened pass, through a narrow opening in the mountain’s face and out onto the long, bumpy flats. I passed a few scattered hogans, dilapidated things, some with a mongrel dog or two tied off at a post or a makeshift shelter. House-sized stacks of firewood, not cut and split and stacked neatly, but whole trees leaned up against each other, standing like a pyramid. I noted the shiny new pickup trucks next to these sad dwellings, domestic mostly: Ford, Chevy, an occasional Dodge. A cluster of well-kept trailers rose up out of the desert, the rooflines dotted with tires to keep them from rattling in the wind. And as a companion to the empty land, a satellite dish, like a great ear, listening.
Like a good horse in the old days, my new pickup truck—a 1994 Dodge Dakota extra-cab, four-wheel drive, silver with black trim and 7,000 miles on the odometer—was both an essential tool on the reservation and a personal trademark. A truck defined the man who drove it, and many Navajos put their resources in their vehicles to the detriment of everything else. Electricity, running water, sometimes even groceries were optional, while a good truck was fundamental to Navajo life, a constant like the speed of light. It was the truck, not the telephone or the television or the radio, that was the real source of communication in Navajoland. If you wanted to know what was going on in the world or even next door, you had to travel, move, roam around until you found out. This was a world measured spatially, rather than temporally—here you might as well measure your age in miles as in years. To revise an old aphorism: a man without a truck ain’t a man at all.
Navajos travel great distances in their trucks, back and forth across the reservation, visiting family, shopping for supplies in town, attending powwows and ceremonies and rodeos, or just out seeing the country, going from place to place, covering ground. Several people might sit abreast in the front seat of a Navajo’s truck, with a few children huddled in the back, or a few hitchhikers catching a ride to the laundry or to the hospital or to drinking, in all kinds of weather. A good truck is like a Navajo family’s blood, and the roads are arteries connecting them to every corner and to the heart of Navajoland.
All this wandering about originated in the myth-time when the “air-spirit people,” who become the Navajo, made a series of migrations from the First World to this world, the Fifth, where they finally claimed a home. These migratory journeys were not completely voluntary, as the people were content enough in the First World until they began to quarrel with each other and commit adultery. The chiefs of the four directions complained, and eventually told them to go away, to leave the First World and never return. Away they went, up, up into the Second World, where yet another set of problems plagued them, and they moved on again, and then again, and so on. The Navajo story of creation is a story of migration from that primal First World deep inside the Earth to the Earth’s surface, where the “air-spirit people” evolved and changed into “earth surface people,” the Navajo. The story’s meaning and the great achievement of the Navajo is that through migration, through movement, the people seek for hózhó, a state of harmony, balance, and beauty between male and female, between self and community, between the community and the universe.
This mythical migration is paralleled by the anthropological story of the Navajo, who, along with the Apache, are relative newcomers to the Southwest. Both are Athabascan peoples who migrated southward from western Canada along the Rocky Mountains as early as AD 1100. By the time they reached the Southwest, they had splintered into several smaller groups, one of which became the present-day Navajo. Going deeper into the past, the ancestors of these Athabascan peoples migrated to North America over the Bering Land Bridge from Asia somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago. There is mounting scientific evidence for other scenarios as well, including multiple migrations of different peoples at different times, an earlier entry into North America, and other scenarios that are not yet understood. But the basic premise is still intact: the ancestors of the Navajo came to the Southwest from Asia by a series of migrations, and the Navajo are a traveling people.
Though widely accepted among anthropologists, these ideas have been rejected by many Navajo anthropologists and cultural experts. They believe the Navajo people have always been here, in residence between the four sacred mountains. But this belief does not negate the overwhelming energy and passion for movement in Navajo life.
The Navajo language, too, is grounded in movement. The core verb in Navajo is “to go,” whereas the core verb in English is “to be.” One scholar worked out 356,200 variations of “to go” in the Navajo language. This linguistic footnote parallels a Navajo cosmology of dynamic change, a vision of the universe based on events in process. Nothing is static, especially not the self, which is continually changing, shifting, moving.
I felt like I too was continually changing, shifting, moving. I had never lived anywhere for very long, and each new place I lived or traveled in felt like the unveiling of a part of me I did not know. My father’s army days and tour of Vietnam and then his career in the U.S. Forest Service kept us moving every few years, from one beautiful land to another, mostly in Oregon. I came to depend on moving on, even at a very young age. Perhaps it was acculturated into me, or maybe I was born that way, but my dad’s announcement that he had taken a new job and we were packing up so roused my spirit that I came to live for those fresh, unborn moments when we flew off into another where and another when. I didn’t give our life of movement any thought—it wasn’t tragic or romantic or sorrowful to leave my friends and familiar country. We moved on, as we always had. I did not know anything else. Only later, only now, did I begin to see that those early days had come to define my life. My thirst for new places, new experiences, new people was both a blessing and a liability. I learned a great deal in each new place we lived, but it always came to feel stagnant after a time, and I yearned to move on. And when we finally took flight, and all my relationships with people, and places, and things fell away, then, only then, did I feel hopeful and free.
The sky grew increasingly ominous, black clouds and the deep belly-rumbling of thunder in the distance. I dropped out onto Highway 371 and pavement again. I was at the edge of Crownpoint, New Mexico, and the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation. I drove the soft mile into town, my tires rolling soundless over the civilized world.
Crownpoint is a village of some 2,000 Navajo people that grew around the establishment of the Pueblo Bonito Indian School in 1909. The Navajo name for this place is T’ííst’óóz Ndeeshgizh, which means “Narrow-leafed Cottonwood Gap,” after the collection of tall cottonwood trees that cool the streets in summer. A coal mine once operated here, as well as a radio station and a U.S. Weather Bureau station. From the highway, Crownpoint looked to be in decline, a sleepy little burg huddled close to Hosta Butte with the wind blowing through it. Trash and tumbleweeds collected against fence lines, and what trees I could see looked sad and thirsty for love. I drove by what appeared to be government offices, likely those of the Eastern Agency, and maybe somewhere in there was the tribal hospital. A small complex of government houses lined the highway, each painted a different bright color, blue and red and yellow, a couple of gas stations, a Bashas’ grocery store with a laundry next door, and a household supplies store where I would later buy four cheap forks and spoons that cut the corners of my mouth when I used them.
Hosta Butte, a couple of miles to the south, is visible from great distances and was likely a landmark along the ancient south road leading in and out of Chaco Canyon, that ceremonial center of the Anasazi people. Also sacred to the Navajos, Hosta Butte is the home of two deities, Mirage Stone Boy and Mirage Stone Girl. It is said to be fastened to the sky with Mirage Stone and covered over by dark clouds and thunderstorms.
I turned into the wide parking lot at Bashas’ and found a pay phone outside. Who was I going to call? I didn’t know.
I wanted to call Sakura in Hokkaido. I wanted to hear her voice and tell her I loved her, tell her I should never have left Japan, tell her I should have stayed to make a life with her there. But I wasn’t sure. Maybe this surge of passion for her was more about my little hardships here, and the growing loneliness inside me that I did not know how to handle. I was so frazzled by my first week, I wasn’t certain I could trust these feelings. I wasn’t certain I should be making overtures of love when I felt so weak and vulnerable, so out-of-sorts and lost. It was too risky. Not just for me, but for her too. I had to be careful. Why put her through the trials of my indecision? Before I call her, I thought, I need to settle in a little at Borrego, settle out, settle down.
I called Mary instead. We made plans to see each other over the weekend. She would drive out Friday afternoon. Maybe we’d make a long hike out into the mesa country around Borrego. We said goodbye, and the phone went silent except for a low buzzing sound I heard first in the receiver, and then somewhere behind me and above me. It was the charged desert air. The storm was building.
I went inside Bashas’. The store was outfitted for the local lifestyle. Camping equipment and household items lined the shelves: lamp oil, shovels, canning supplies, white gas for cookstoves, monstrous cans of green chilies and pinto beans, and great sacks of sugar and flour, Blue Bird flour from Cortez, Colorado. I selected a few things I thought I might need over the next several days and made my way to the checkout counter.
“You the new teacher up there?” the woman at the register asked me. She was tall and heavy, with a wide, friendly face, a smile beneath her sharpened, hooked nose. She wore her bangs cut just above her eyebrows so that they seemed to tickle her, annoy her.
“Yes,” I told her. “I started just a couple weeks ago.”
“I gotta daughter goes up there,” she said. “She’s in the sixth grade. You might know her.”
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Marcella,” the woman said. “That’s her.”
I did know Marcella. She was hard to miss. She took a lot of grief from the other kids at Borrego, especially the sixth-grade boys. She weighed at least twice what they did, and she had wide, powerful shoulders. I had seen the skinny little boys taunting her at recess, staying just out of her reach, fast and quick on their feet, as she swung at them and grunted and steamed in her anger. They would call her “grandma,” perhaps because she wore little pink glasses that forever slipped down her nose, and to mock her they would stoop over as if with age and hobble around as if leaning on a cane. This dynamic had probably been in play as long as Marcella could remember. Even so, she still responded just the way those boys wanted her to, and they likely never tired of this terrible game. Meeting her mother, I felt a little closer to her troubles, to understanding how she must feel about being taunted as the school fat girl.
“You her teacher?” the woman said.
“Yeah. Her language arts teacher,” I said, and I gave her my name.
“I’m Betty Brown,” she said. “Why don’t you take care of her up there, okay?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll look out for her. Especially for her studies.”
“Thank you,” she said. “She’s real smart, you know. Maybe you know that?”
“Yeah. I can see it.”
Betty finished ringing up my order and packed my things away in a paper sack.
“It’s gonna rain,” she said. “You better hurry back up that road. It can get real nasty out.”
“How nasty?” I asked.
“Well, really nasty,” she said. “You don’t wanna get caught out on that road under a sky like this.” She looked up into the ceiling of the big store.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll get going. Nice meeting you.”
She nodded at me as I left the store.
Outside, the sky rumbled deep earth sounds. The tone of it, the rhythm was somehow comforting, familiar, old. I imagined that the people in this dry country had always lived inside a daily hope for rain. This impending storm was a blessing, but I was rather hoping to get back to Borrego before it broke and showered the forsaken desert. After I was safely indoors with supper cooking and an afternoon cup of tea, then it could rain all it wanted.
“Yá’át’ééh!” I heard behind me. “Hello.”
“Yá’át’ééh!” I returned.
“Oh!” he said. “You speak Navajo?”
“No. But I know that word.”
He smiled and laughed. “You should learn it,” he said. “Like me. You can talk like me.”
This fellow who had walked up behind me stood near the open passenger-side door where I loaded in my groceries. He seemed to be moving toward me like he was going to get in, but he caught himself, and staggered back the other way, taking a step to keep himself right. His cropped hair went in all directions. His clothes were clean, but tattered and unkempt. He was visibly drunk. He leaned in, and I could smell it on him.
“I’m Charlie Hunter. Charlie’s father,” he said. “Charlie Hunter? You know him up at school?”
“Yes. Nice to meet you.”
We shook hands.
“So you’re both Charlie Hunter?”
He grinned, showed me his perfect, white teeth. “Charlie told me about you,” he said. “I figured you were you.”
“I am,” I said.
He looked into my truck at my sacks of groceries. “You wouldn’t be able to spare a few dollars?” he asked. “I mean so I can get something to eat?”
I didn’t want to give him anything, but I had a few dollars in my pocket, change from my purchases. “All right,” I said. “For something to eat, right?”
“Right. For food. I’m not gonna go out an’ buy beer or nothin’.”
“Of course not,” I said. I gave him all of it, three ones and a few coins.
“You’re a good neighbor,” he said. He reached to pat me on the shoulder, but the distance was farther than he expected. He patted the air a few times and then pretended he was waving. “Goodbye, then. So long. Laters,” he said, walking away. Then he turned back. “That’s English,” he said. “Laters.”
I waved to him. “Laters.”
“Teach them boys good up there,” he called back to me.
“All right, I will.”
I wondered where he would spend the night.
I scanned the sky. It was immense and dark and still, an ominous nothing readying to break open and wash everything away. I considered that I might be wiser to wait the storm out here in the parking lot. Of course, I risked getting stuck in Crownpoint for the night. I didn’t know if the roads would be passable after such a storm, and how long it might be before they dried up. The sky hung there close over my head as if waiting for me to decide. Nothing happened. I climbed into my truck and headed up the long dirt road toward Borrego.
All roads leading in and out of Borrego were dirt, and so there was no avoiding the hazards of desert driving. In August and September in the Southwest, the great monsoon clouds roll in to crack and blow at the earth, turn the washes to raging rivers and steam and charge and carry away trees, old car bodies, sometimes horses, cattle, and unfortunate people. To the Navajo, these violent thunderstorms are known as male rains, and they live in the East and the West. In winter, I was plagued by stories of stray, drunk Navajos who broke down and froze to death in the desert night. Such stories didn’t seem to worry the people who knew this land because they motored on through the greatest of storms. Or maybe worry wasn’t it at all, but rather, a proper life was trusting yourself to the desert. When Navajos put a car, a truck, a school bus even, into the muddy ditch, they just got out and walked home, or maybe caught a ride from someone who was faring better that day. They would return to get their vehicle the next morning, or in a few days when the mud dried up.
The sun was another problem with the opposite effect. On a dry day with the quiet sky stretching on forever, you can drive for hours, even days, lost in the maze of dirt roads that run helter-skelter across Navajoland and nowhere find water. Or your truck might be tested by a rogue sand trap piled in the roadbed by the wind. Still another hazard was the debris that rose to the surface of the road after the grader came through. The big blade churned up nails and broken glass and shards of sharp steel, artifacts of the modern world. The grader smoothed out the track and improved the ditches for drainage, but it also ensured that a certain number of tires would go flat.
For my part, in anticipation of the unanticipated, I took to carrying two gallons of water in my truck at all times: one for the radiator (it was a new truck, but I took no chances) and one for me. I kept a pair of boots in the extra cab, a fleece jacket, and my sleeping bag. I never knew when or where I might have to spend the night.
I drove on past the hogans, the chickens scratching freely in the roadside ditch, the sad dogs lying out in the dirt chained to posts. A few derelict cars parked forever at the end of a trailer. No one stirred anywhere. I was the only vehicle on the road. Was that a bad sign? Ahead I could see the steeper, narrow slot that was Borrego Pass, and ahead of that was the sky, a blue wafer at the front of the storm. Behind me, black thunderclouds closed in, so black and close it was hard to know where the sky ended and the earth began. I turned on my headlights. It was that dark.
The rain came softly, just a few drops at first against the windshield like the intermittent wreckage of summer insects. I rolled down the window and breathed in the fresh metallic smell of the desert in the rain. I hung my head outside in the open air, catching raindrops in my hair. I heard the wind rushing past, and the desert seemed to say: Who are you? Who are you?
I didn’t answer.
The rain momentarily stopped (a drawing in of breath), and then it came all at once. The black cloud consumed my truck as the rain broke over the dry land. In an instant, the road was awash in flowing water.
The dirt road transformed into a wide swath of clay and mud. It stuck to my tires and built around them as they turned. The mud grabbed at the wheel wells, caught and released, caught and released and spun off, kicking up waves of heavy mud that arced and splattered the side windows. For a moment it was fun. I was four-wheelin’! The truck was doing me right. I bore down on the accelerator, picking up speed, then slid sideways in the road, slowed, leaned, and turned into the slide to keep the truck straight. The fun passed as I realized I wasn’t sure anymore if I was on the road or in the ditch. What would I do if the truck stuck fast in the ditch? Curl up and go to sleep until the sun returned to dry up the world? Or would someone in one of these hogans open their door to me for the duration of the storm? I didn’t want my truck in the ditch, that most of all. Not because I was afraid for my safety—I wouldn’t mind a little adventure. Rather, the truck was my lifeline in and out of Borrego, my connection to the outside world, my safety net, my stability. The truck was all I had.
I motored on, the mud catching and giving way, building and letting go. I crossed the flats and started up the steeper grade. The storm was ahead of me now. I could no longer see that thin blue line of sky. It was all black clouds and rain woven with lightning. I drove straight into the belly of the storm.
Up along the deep canyon now, the road bent around the arm of the mesa and narrowed into one lane. There was no room here to pass another vehicle, and on a corner like this, I couldn’t see ahead of me. If I met someone here, someone else foolish enough to leave home in this storm, I’d have to back down the steep incline and risk sliding over the edge.
I rounded the corner as carefully as I could, but pushing hard enough so as not to lose momentum, and there, pouring off the cliffs on my right, was a river of rain speeding over the road. I stopped, the engine humming under the sound of the pounding rain. This didn’t look good. It didn’t look good at all. The water flowed fast, carving a path for itself in the roadbed as I watched it, a great gap widening and deepening before my very eyes. I thought of Bob King’s story. This is it, I thought, this is how it happened before. I watched as great boulders came down, stumps, clumps of vegetation torn from their moorings, rusty man-made things dropping off the road cut, and all of it washing over the edge into that monstrous hole.
Rain slammed the windshield in waves, the wipers cranking at a furious pace. I had two options: back down the precipitous road to the flats and wait for the water to subside. Or go for it. I couldn’t sit here any longer. The whole mountain seemed to be coming undone. Another boulder, a chunk of something, came over the cliffs through the air, hit the roadbed in front of me, and was swept away over the edge.
I jammed the truck into four-wheel drive, engaged the clutch, and, lurching forward, gained as much power and speed as I could. The truck hit the rushing column of water, and mud splashed up on both sides, mud and water and noise. The engine whined. My hands clutched at the wheel. I felt the force of the water pushing the truck sideways in the road toward the canyon edge as it seemed to reach up to swallow me. I cranked the steering wheel over toward the wall, turned the truck against the force, and pushed, pushed, pushed forward through the flowing mess until I felt the water against me soften, then release, and I slipped out safe on the other side.
I drove the rest of the way in and parked in front of my little cinder block duplex. It was still raining hard. I stepped from the truck into the pooling water on the asphalt. My legs were weak, adventure-woozy. Was I standing on dry ground? Water flowed down the roadway in front of my place and dumped into the ditch at the cattle guard. I took up my bags of groceries and hurried inside.
Leaving the bags in the kitchen, I returned to the front windows to watch the storm. My big blue canoe, a college graduation gift from my father, lay upside down in the hallway. The irony of hauling my boat into this desert was not lost on me, yet somehow I felt comforted by it. I had grown up in a country of water and green trees, and just because I lived in a waterless place right now didn’t mean I had to give up hope. Good thing, too, because for the moment, there was water here. There was water everywhere.
I stared out the windows at the flowing water, water flowing out the drive, deeper and deeper moment by moment, faster now, and more powerful. I watched as it gathered around the rear wheels of my truck, pillowed up against them, pushed at them as the truck vibrated and rocked with the water’s force. A river! A real river with waves that curled back and frothed into white caps, right in front of me, flowing down the road. A big pickup truck appeared in front of my windows, the water up to the running boards. I could see the driver at the wheel, Dean West, the maintenance supervisor. He drove out to the cattle guard, and then turned the truck around and motored back up against the current. The berm behind the school must have given way, and now the rain collected by the big mesa behind us flowed through campus instead of around it.
I watched as the water rose higher and higher, almost to the top of the rear tires on my truck. For a moment I wondered if the whole truck wouldn’t be dragged out and swept away. I saw pieces of plywood borne off down the road, a Styrofoam cooler and its lid, a broken lawn chair tumbling in the current. I panicked, opened the front door, and looked on helplessly. What could I do against water like that? Hours passed. Minutes went by. A raven flew overhead. The water slowed. The waves settled out. And soon that river flowing down the road smoothed into a broad plain of trickling water, washing the desert clean.
Read additional writing by Kurt Caswell appearing in Terrain.org, including his Letter to America, poems with Japanese prints by Ando Hiroshige, “Getting to Gray Owl’s Cabin,” and “The Road to Crownpoint.”
Header illustration by Susan Leigh Tomlinson. Photo of Kurt Caswell by Rachel Veale.