Today we traveled to Tsé Yí Gai High School on the Navajo Reservation for our final day of volunteering in schools. We started our long day by waking up at 5:00am. We left the church about forty minutes later for a two hour drive to the high school.
The high school is in a very rural area. Except for teacher housing next door to the school and another school down the road, there was no other buildings in sight. We mostly volunteered in Ms. Sasson’s social studies classes. She had us work in small groups with the students and talk about different political cartoons with them. She had written questions on the board to guide our discussions. Many of the cartoons were about the economy and the recession since they had just been learning about the recession in class. Many of the students were well informed about what was going on in the economy. Some of the students were more talkative than others, however they all seemed interested in the cartoons and what us Lewis & Clark students had to say.
After we got through all the political cartoons, we had a chance to talk to the students about their culture and life on the reservation, as well as about college and our college experiences. We learned that almost all of the students speak Navajo and feel a strong connection to their culture. Since the school is located in a rural setting it draws students from a broad area. As a result, many of the students we talked to have to get up early for a long commute to school. Many of them live in houses with no running water and electricity. Several of the students ride horses and help their family raise animals. We also talked to them about their plans for the future. We learned that in the Navajo culture the people live in the present; they are not supposed to plan ahead because they believe that things won’t turn out the way they want it to. Nevertheless, several of the students did seem interested in college. We talked to them about our own college experiences and what they might expect in college. We told them many things such as how many hours we spend in class, that we get to choose our classes, and how we spend our free time.
We ended the school day by watching traditional Navajo dancing. The dancing was part of the school’s Navajo Culture Week. It was great to watch! There was singing and the dancers all wore traditional clothes. The final dance they did was the Circle Dance and everyone got a chance to participate. It was nice to see that Navajo culture is connected to the school.
After the assembly we met up with some of the Teach for America teachers and chatted for a little while. They told us about life as a TFA teacher in Pueblo Pintado. When saying our goodbyes they told us that it was snowing a little and that we should hit the road soon because the dirt road that leads to the school can become extremely muddy with precipitation. We laughed nervously and they assured us that it would be fine.
We walked outside and found what looked like a mini blizzard. Very small snowflakes were whirling quickly with the powerful Navajo wind in this part of New Mexico. It was white all around; we could barely make out the nothingness that surrounds the high school. We quickly hopped in our cars and started down the dirt road, Kirsten in the lead with the SUV; Dan following in the small 4-door sedan (still equipped with crank windows). We were in awe of the sight of snow covering this very red, rocky, dry landscape. It was beautiful. In Kirsten’s car we were talking about the day’s events while taking pictures of the quickly changing landscape flying by. We were slowly but surely making our way down the small road, checking in the rearview mirror pretty consistently for Dan. We looked out the window and saw a pack of horses standing close together, dusted with snow, looking very stoic. They almost blended into the landscape.
Kirsten did a routine check in her rearview mirrors for Dan, but he wasn’t there. Sometimes he lags behind a little in his old-school crank window sedan, so we drove on a little. But he still was not popping up behind us. Kirsten pulled the car over and we waited for a few minutes. The other car was nowhere to be found…to be continued…
Okay, I apologize for the prolonged anticipation. Kirsten bravely turned the car around and started heading back towards the school. While it was fun to imagine all sorts of things that could have happened to the other car, the most likely possibility was that somebody had forgotten something back at the school, so they had to turn around, but were unable to alert us to this fact because there was of course no cell phone reception. We were finally making our way down the last stretch of dirt road before reaching the high school when we see Dan’s car approaching us. We are relieved to see them. In fact somebody had left a bag at the school. They apologized, which was not necessary, but we did make them give us all the bags of food they had taken for the long ride. We were once again in possession of the cookies, which was the most important aspect of this trade.
Anyway, so then we set back out on the familiar roads, however the snow had remained consistent this whole time. It was sticking, and the roads were getting icy. We knew it was a race against time because it was only going to get worse, but we were forced to drive slow because of the poor conditions. By the time we made it to the next ‘highway’ we were sliding at times and having a harder time stopping. But both cars were doing well and charging forward. We were slowly but surely making our way down the road, slipping here and there, but making progress, hopeful that we were getting closer to Highway 40, which we knew would be in a better condition. However, we saw the cars in front of us stopped in a line of traffic. We inched our way through the line and saw that people were being turned around. We rolled down our window and asked a man in a truck what the deal was. He said that a semi had jack knifed on the road, and that cars were not allowed to pass. This was an interesting twist in a rural adventure that we were hoping was coming to an end.
Both cars turned around and as we slowly started driving back toward the school we saw that the man in the truck was pulled over waiting for us! We were so relieved. We rolled down our window and explained we were trying to get to Gallup; he said to follow him. We didn’t ask any further questions because he was our only bet, seeing as most of the country roads on the reservation are not even marked on the map. Both cars kept up with him through several turns onto icy, paved and snowy, dirt roads. After following him for a ways he pulled over and so did we. That was as far as he was going but he explained to us how to find the 40. We thanked him and went on our way.
Miraculously, both cars made it to the big highway, and all the way back to Gallup. We were all grateful for the hospitable, native man that lead us through the rural backroads, and to our brave drivers, Kirsten and Dan. When we arrived at a restaurant in Gallup and the waitress asked us how we were doing, Erika honestly responded with a smile “Glad to be a alive”. Although our little blizzard adventure was stressful at times, I think it makes a good story, and it was a great bonding experience. I love you guys!