Salt Lake City is laid out on a grid. It starts at zero, Temple Square, and moves out North, South, East and West by factors of 100. Main Street is zero. State Street is 100 East. There are eight blocks to a mile. The story goes that Brigham Young ordered the streets be laid wide enough to turn an ox-cart fully around. It works well for current-day U-turns and for current-day four-lane traffic needs. From my suburban home at 3402 E. 8125 South, I drove, in May, at the end of my senior year of high school, downtown and parked my car at 100 East and 100 South, meaning that to get to the Temple, downtown, degree zero, I had to drive about thirty-four blocks west and eighty-one blocks north. Eight blocks equal exactly one mile, meaning downtown was about ten miles and several generations of Salt Lake City expansion away. My dad bought me a car for my 16th birthday, like all over-privileging fathers do. I had to maintain a 4.0 GPA to keep the car and I had to pay for my own gas but, really, it was very nice of him. He bought it maybe out of guilt, too. It’s easier to buy a car than it is to quit drinking. My dad liked to drink in defiance, he thought, of the degree-zero church’s stance on alcohol, but in actuality, he drank in due defiance of his health and his longevity, which turned out to be not very long.
The Navajo Nation is a semi-autonomous Native American-governed territory covering 27,425 square miles, occupying portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. In Flagstaff, where I live now, you can drive your car from the invisible “Arizona-USA” border to the invisible “Utah-USA” border in about two hours. In 2010, a census conducted by the Arizona Rural Poverty Institute at Northern Arizona University, found that the Navajo Nation population had dropped over the past ten years, by 5.7% in New Mexico, 5.0% in Utah, and 2.7% in Arizona, leaving 101,835 Arizonan members, 65,764, New Mexican members and 6,068 Utahn members for a total of 173,667 members of Navajo Nation. Although there are fewer Utah-Navajo-Nation members than Arizonan, when you drive through the Nation in the spring and summer, you drive under the sovereignty of Utah’s Mountain Day Light Savings time. Arizona does not follow daylight savings time change. It is an hour later on the Navajo Nation in June although you are still in Arizona. Do the members on the Nation consider themselves Arizonan or Utahn, then? Or, does the land feel truly Navajo-Nation to them? Does it feel semi-USA or semi-Navajo? Does it feel anything 100%? This “Nation” has been theirs since 1868 (not to be confused with this Nation that had been theirs before people trotting out the word Nation descended on their Arizona, their Utah, their none-of-these words). Although they were promised a one-hundred square miles in what was then New Mexico Territory, the actual size of the territory they received in 1868 was only 3,328,302 acres, slightly more than half of those one-hundred square miles. Unlike most American Indian territories, the Navajo territory has grown. As members returned to the area by the Little Colorado, the one part of the Nation with a reliable water source, the U.S. government extended the territory to include where they had lived before they had been interred in prison camps, before the Long Walk, before they had been sent to New Mexico. Now the Navajo Nation covers about a hundred square miles, now that the Little Colorado is drying up. The government is willing to cede non-arable land. The Navajo’s are willing to cede their Nation and move to regular Arizona where there is running water, piped in from the part of Utah where the Navajo Nation does not have any claim.
I parked downtown at a two-hour meter, to buy books at Sam Weller’s—a used bookstore near the Temple. The upstairs was dedicated to rare Mormon books but the basement had everything: aisles of fiction, rows of maps, piles of food magazines, whole corners of Utah history and two short shelves of books of poetry including, mostly white men: Mark Strand and Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot and e.e. Cummings. I memorized Eliot’s The Hollow Men. “Here we go round the prickly pear/prickly pear prickly pear/Here we go round the prickly pear/at five o’clock in the morning.” Although Eliot became a naturalized British citizen, the prickly pear secured him in my mind as a man from the American West where the Hollow Men seemed to be made out of tumbleweeds and unsecured dirt. I already owned Eliot’s poems. I bought a book of Heidegger’s criticism that I would never read and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. I was moving to Portland, Oregon, for college soon. I wanted to know what it was like to be out of some place.
The median household income for the Navajo Nation is $27,389, which is approximately half that of the State of Arizona ($51,310) overall. 13% brought in $50,000 to $74,999. I made $51,000 at my job at the University in 2010, the same amount my dad made per year in 1988, but that does not account for my capital—my house, my car, my books. I am sitting on pile of my father’s and his father’s white luck. I am in Arizona because a job brought me here unlike the native household on the Navajo Nation which was born there, then forced off, then allowed to return, then encouraged to farm, then deprived of water, then told to move the sheep off the land to restore the native grasslands and to make a national park where the Navajo pay entry fees the same as I do even though the Nation is supposedly, semi-autonomously, theirs.
When I got back to my car, the engine wouldn’t start. No dashboard lights. No radio. The battery was dead dead dead. I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t turned the headlights on. It was the middle of the day. I turned it again. Nothing. I opened the hood. My boyfriends, both my current and my previous, could fix cars. I helped Monty change the flywheel, helped Darryn install a new carburetor. But their Volkswagens were air-cooled and this Jetta was newer and water-pumped and the engine looked perfectly intractable to me. Perfect as in impenetrable. Perfect as in nowhere to put my hands. Battery dead. Years before cell phones. Sears was on 800 South and State Street. Nine blocks away. I had a credit card. I started walking.
“Poverty rates on the Navajo Nation Reservation (38%) are more than twice as high as poverty rates in the State of Arizona (15%). Almost half (44%) of all children under 18 years of age are considered to be living in poverty, while one-third (34%) of tribal members between 18 and 64 also live in poverty. Almost one-third (29%) of persons living in families on the Navajo Nation live in poverty, twice the rate of families living in poverty in the State of Arizona (13%), for example,” cites the Arizona Rural Poverty Institute’s report. But those are numbers. My friend Beya, who works with the FBI to communicate with local shelters and children’s protective services, knows the numbers are worse than hollow. Isolation. Frustration. Hunger. Thirst. They can make people do things to each other that hit heavier than dust, that whisper louder than number on a report, that, had that noise and dust not been in your eyes, you might have seen your way clear of not doing.
I walked the blocks and asked the salesman at Sears Automotive what kind of battery to buy. He showed me the battery.
“Where’s your car?”
“Parked. In a two-hour zone.”
“You’ll need these.”
The salesman handed me a wrench, designed for car-battery replacement, and I started walking back to my car. I tried to go fast but the battery was heavy. The wind kicked up. Downtown Salt Lake on a Saturday was deserted, a modern-day ghost town, requisite tumbleweeds and dust devils. A speck of dirt lodged in my eye. I had to stop to rest my arms, put the battery down on the sidewalk, but I couldn’t stop for long. My two hours were almost up. The wrench, balanced on top of the battery, slid back and forth. I tried to hold it steady with my chin but that made the muscles in the arms twist in more-than-battery-carrying kinds of way.
By the time I made it back, the meter had expired but there was no meter maid around anyway. No one was around. I popped my hood, applied the wrench. I turned it to the left. Nothing. I turned it to the right. Nothing. I pulled and pushed with the wrench on either side of the battery. I did make any progress. Zero. Zero. Zero.
The median earnings for male full-time, year-round workers in Arizona is $33,858. For women, it is $28,397. In Utah, for men, it is $33,586. For women, $22,169. In Utah, 60% of the births are to women 15 to 19 years old whereas, for Arizona, only 40%. Does this make the Utah-Nation member more Utahn? In Utah, women give birth young. The Utah-USA women give birth old too, as do the Utah-Nation women members —60% of the women aged 39-50 giving birth are Utahn. As in Utah, on the Nation, Utah women give birth more often than Arizona women. This does not make them less Navajo, just more Utahn.
I tried to apply the wrench to the battery in normal wrench applying ways. It wouldn’t fit. I hit the wrench on the positive terminal. I hit the wrench on the negative terminal. This did nothing but make a lot of noise. I made enough noise, though, to summon a man from around the corner. He was Native American, layered in too-many clothes for this May day, although possibly the right amount for the wind.
“Let me see.”
He took the wrench from me. He turned a bolt I hadn’t even seen and pulled and lifted the old battery out. He bent over, picked the new battery up, pushed wire to terminal, twisted the wrench only half a turn.
“Try it out.”
I turned the ignition. The lights lit blue. The engine roared.
I left the car on and jumped out.
“Oh my god, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I hugged him because this story is yet another example of me overstepping my boundaries. Of my gratitude lacking grace. Of my awkward attempt to get my point across with any sort of subtlety. “Is there anything I can do to thank you? I thank you. Thank you.”
I didn’t have any cash. I didn’t have anything but my Dorothy Allison and the Heidegger and my car.
“Can you drive me to the liquor store?”
I hesitated for longer than was cool or kind.
“Sure. It’s on the way to Sears anyway. I have to drop the wrench back off. And return the battery. You have to return the batteries. For the environment. Leaking batteries kill the birds.” I talk too much too. For awkward. For friendly. For maybe someone will know what I’m talking about some day.
“It’s true. They rot right out of their containers. Leach the toxins into the water. If you have any water.”
I left him in the car while I ran into the garage at Sears to return the wrench. The salesmen looked through the garage doors at the man in my car. “You be careful, now, Miss”
I shook my head at him. It wasn’t until I looked at it through the salesman’s eyes that I saw what my mother would see: stranger in car. Bad as picking up a hitchhiker. I got back into the car. I have terrible gut instincts but even if I had thought bad thoughts, I didn’t care what my gut said. I’d still be stuck on 100 S. and 100 East. Now, I’d made it to the liquor store on the 205 West and 400 South. I couldn’t go in with him. I wasn’t 21. I didn’t have any money. So he thanked me for the ride and I thanked him for the help and it was the very least I could do.
Alcoholism on the Nation runs rampant. American Indians and Alaska Natives die from alcoholism at a rate 514 percent higher than other Americans, according to Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim’s address to the New Mexico Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee meeting in June 2012. Although the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota have voted to repeal the prohibition on liquor on their reservation, the Navajo Nation says they have no plans to follow suit. Repeal might lead to more crime. There are not enough police on the reservation. Legalization may not be the answer. The towns that border the Nation in New Mexico, Farmington and Shiprock, would stand to lose a lot of business if liquor was available on the reservation. The Daily Times, out of Farmington, New Mexico, reports that one Shiprock resident, Laverne, who did not want to use her last name, said that she sees drinkers gathering on street corners and young women getting into different cars every day. She speculates that some people even resort to prostitution to fuel their alcohol habit.
“If they can’t get liquor then they drink mouthwash, hand sanitizer — whatever will get them high,” she said. “(Legalization) isn’t going to do anything. People can talk all they want, but I don’t think anything’s going to change while alcohol is sold down the road.”
The shrinking Ogalalla aqueduct takes its name from the Sioux. The Little Colorado is out of water too. The Navajo Nation is shrinking in population if not by acreage. Their water is gone. When I think about the guy who helped change my battery, I wonder, was he there the whole time? Did I only see him when I needed help?
I never really left 100 S. 100 E. Although now I live in Flagstaff, I am still counting blocks, counting books, counting cars as they drive past on Route 66 looking for an America that exists only in jukeboxes. Here, in Arizona, my daughter goes to a tri-lingual school but while the Spanish and English students take turns learning each other’s languages together, Diné students are driven in by their parents from the Nation to take classes by themselves. There is some attempt to preserve their language but teaching them English to take the standardized tests takes precedence. I’m not sure if their Dine kids’ parents are looking for a way out of Arizona for their kids or looking for a way in to Arizona or just looking for a way beyond statistics.
I think we should all move to Portland, Oregon, where there is plenty of water and plenty of plenty but the Navajo Nation would probably prefer to keep their Nation, hard won as it was, water-less as it is, and Portland, I’d imagine, does not, if I recall from living there, love the idea of everyone in the world moving there. Portlanders use the rain as a barrier but at some point, it will look like nothing so much as an invitation. You can trek far and heavily if you’re desperate enough.
NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July. Her favorite road is possibly Highway 6 toward Tillamook, Oregon, because it takes her to mushrooms and to cheese. She also likes Highway 89A toward Sedona because it takes her to Red Rocks and warmth and heat. But perhaps regular 89, north, from Kanab to Panguitch, because the desert is green along the Virgin River and the road takes her halfway home.