Visiting my cousin Joe and his Hopi wife Janice on northeast Arizona’s Hopi Indian Reservation is always an adventure. They have no electricity, but they have solar power. They have no running water, although Joe insists they do: “We have to run to get it,” he says.
And when my son Matt and I arrived last Saturday, we found the outhouse (the quitucki) bashed in as if the rez had been ravaged by a hurricane. That picturesque one-hole outhouse with a scenic window was nothing but a splat of boards on the desert. It toppled over in a recent windstorm, Joe said.
Nearby stood a generic port-a-potty, the kind you see at road construction projects. Joe set it up a few years ago because, like Queen Elizabeth, their venerable beloved outhouse was nearing the end, but to me, that new-fangled heavy-duty-plastic contraption was no match for the exotic call of the wild offered by the quitucki. Trooping out to that thing was half the fun of visiting the rez.
Life on the rez is a lot like the Third World. Joe, now 75, was born and raised in Wichita, Kan. In the late ’60s, during the Vietnam War, he became a conscientious objector, so Uncle Sam sent him to a tiny Episcopal mission in Bluff, Utah, at the edge of the Navajo Reservation. He was sent out into the desert with nurses who did health care and to spread the Gospel, but Joe soon realized that the Navajo had their own religion and backed away from religious service. After a year, Joe was asked to leave.
He went back to Uncle Sam and said he still owed this country a year of service, but they said he was free to go. He got a job with Head Start in Flagstaff, Ariz.
He began visiting the Hopi Reservation to watch ceremonies and dances. He met Janice, daughter of a Hopi. Janice and he married.
They opened Tsakurshovi, an arts and crafts shop on the rez. They lived in a little trailer at first, then slowly built a house. To the rez, people can’t get bank loans, so they build as they go. The closest banks are in Flagstaff, nearly two hours away.
The first time I visited Joe and Janice was in 1992 when, living in Cleveland, I took my two children West for two weeks. We drove up to the rez, but Joe hadn’t given me his address, and I drove up and down state Route 264 searching. Humble houses are scattered like old debris along that main highway. Ancient Hopi villages are clustered on top of the mesas, like Old Oraibi, the oldest continuously established settlement in the U.S., built between 900 and 1,000 A.D.. and villages like Musungnuvi and Supawlovi and Soongopavi, where Janice’s clan is from. I finally stopped at the post office. “He told us you were coming,” the postmaster said.
Joe spent six hours taking us around the rez that day. I’ve been back so many times I’ve lost count.
Janice’s fry bread and pies are the best I’ve ever tasted. If I have a sore throat, she crumbles up a stick of bear root and boils it into a tea. The now-deceased Hopi medicine man repaired the strained ACL in my left knee, straightened my spine (“a realignment,” he called it) and eased some shoulder discomfort.
I miss Thomas. I miss that outhouse, too. I miss looking out its window onto the bone-colored Hopi mesas. I miss heading out there in the silence of night under a generous sprinkling of stars. If there was a full moon, I didn’t need a flashlight.
At dawn Sunday morning, I crept outside as the eastern horizon blushed with first light. I stopped to watch. I treasured the silence. I said a prayer for that smashed quitucki as I closed the port-a-potty door. Too bad I couldn’t watch the sunrise as I did what I came out to do.