Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Frontier post

Paleface and chief

In visiting Monument Valley, Louis may have clocked up another state, but to be honest, staying a night in Navajo Nation, as the vast reservation belonging to America's second-most populous Amerindian tribe is known, felt like visiting another country. It wasn't quite the same as "visiting Canada" as the park ranger in the Grand Canyon had promised - no visa stamp for Louis's little passport for one thing - but staying there sure felt different from the rest of the US. 

That much was hammered home when Louis got sick in the middle of the night and we were seemingly miles from civilisation. (Sorry Navajos, but this is a new Mom speaking.) Okay, so apparently there was a doctors' clinic 20-something miles away in Kayenta, the nearest town, but the fact that "Kayenta" means "boghole" in Navajo might give you a clue as to how little I fancied checking it out. I know it wasn't exactly a safari in Africa, but as new parents I really thought we might have been pushing our luck in staying smack bang in the middle of the desert as I could feel Louis' temperature soaring. 

It was also strange being in America, which everyone feels they know so well, yet being somewhere where people respect entirely different customs. Like the not drinking (in theory at least: check out artist Fritz Scholder's controversial paintings of drunk Indians for a different perspective) and like the no photo rule. Luckily for the Navajo's tourist industry - and for DJ's click-happy finger - their no-photo rule doesn't stretch to the landscape as does that of the Hopi tribe. Even so, we stuck to snapping our little paleface with a statue of a chieftain in our hotel lobby rather than seek out the real thing. (Existential question for today's traveller: if you see something while on holiday but can't immortalise it on film then were you really there? And was there any point in going?)

Mostly, though, driving through the vast nothingness of that Navajo desert felt like stepping back in time. Okay, so we were hardly trundling along in our horse-drawn wagons, but just glimpsing that landscape helped give you a real sense of what frontier country must have felt like to the pioneers of yesteryear. I speak as someone whose interest in history was sparked by a project I did aged seven or eight with Mr Nevin (brother to erstwhile famous footballer, Pat Nevin) about the American West. We all had to take on the persona of a 19th century pioneer: I can still picture the back wall of our classroom, which was turned into a map of the USA onto which was pinned little cut out people and their wagons. I know burning across the landscape in a petrol-guzzling SUV is hardly the same thing but, hey, some poetic license, please.  

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