(Note: Close friends Joan Trabucco and Valorie Marshall attended their first food run in August of 2009 at Oljato and Navajo Mountain. Click here to read Joan's account of their experience.)
"Want to go with me on a Navajo food run?" - - - "A what?"
And with that my friend Joan opened a door which we stepped through into one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives, the August 2009 Oljato-Navajo Mountain Food Run.
Places like Oljato, Navajo Mountain, Chinle, Mexican Hat, and Monument Valley seemed so far away from our California homes.
I had never heard of "Adopt-A-Native-Elder", but Joan had already adopted an Elder, Zettie Smith.
Joan's a git-er-done type. And because she is, and because she's a buddy with whom I share a love for Native Americans, we signed up for the Oljato food run.
In preparation for the food run Joan did all the legwork. She kept in close contact with Linda Myers, and although Joan never exactly said so, I think to assure us a spot on the run Joan volunteered us to do any job, transport any thing, climb any mountain, or ford any stream.
When she told me our food run assignment was to haul 86 bags of onions from California to Utah I was only mildly surprised. (Now we know that we could have picked them up in Chinle, but we weren't the seasoned food runners then that we are now.) And the onions made the trip in excellent condition anyway.
We gave ourselves a couple of extra days before we were to meet Linda and the other volunteers in Mexican Hat. We stayed the first night in Kingman, AZ, enroute to Chinle.
A word of caution: beware of depending on a GPS for navigation. There were many, many, many routes to our various destinations, and the GPS seemed to favor the longest routes and dirt roads. But Joan had also taken advantage of AAA's travel planners who provided foolproof Trip-Tiks with clearly marked routes to our main destination and home again.
Our GPS did guide us into some incredible country. An example is Indian Rt. 23/7 on the way to Chinle from Kingman. The Chinle Holiday Inn IS waiting at the end of that route - - - it was just that our GPS was much more certain of that than we were, but it was a beautiful journey off the beaten path.
Basha's is the only grocery store in Chinle, and they close at 7 p.m. SHARP. There's also a Wells Fargo in Chinle and, and one in Kayenta. In Chinle livestock roam free on the highways so be mindful because they seem to be everywhere, especially in the evening when they're making their way home.
Joan had a surprise for me in Chinle. She had booked a private tour of Canyon del Muerto. Our personal guide was a Navajo storyteller, and he told us much about Navajo history and life in the canyon. From our very first hours on The Land we knew our lives were being touched by something precious and good.
From Chinle we traveled to Mexican Hat, UT, a tiny little settlement. Don't expect to buy groceries there, only staples. We checked in early at the San Juan Inn where we met up with the other food run volunteers. Like nervous schoolgirls we were dressed early for our first meeting, which is a good thing because we learned that if a meeting is called for 4:00 p.m., that pretty much means 3:45. If you're told you'll leave the parking lot at 8:00 a.m., be ready to roll at 7:45, and so on. We caught on real fast.
A ceremony was conducted outside the first evening. As we entered a private grassy area, one by one we were smudged, sat in a circle on the ground, and everyone told a story and brought a special item to be blessed. In those moments, during that sharing, the stage was set, my nervousness dropped away, a peacefulness settled in. While Linda spoke and we shared our stories, I sensed that whatever the next few days would bring I was exactly where I was intended to be, with exactly the people I was intended to be with.
The weather for the August food run was quite warm, but not too uncomfortable. Definitely carry a good supply of drinking water.
We delivered Rainbow Boxes, clothing, and wool for the weavers to the Oljato Senior Center and to the Chapter House at Navajo Mountain. We had Navajo interpreters with us because many of the Elders speak only Navajo.
We were given "thank you" gifts made by the Elders. Mine was a necklace. When I wear it, people admire it. When I tell them it was a gift that came from a food run to the Navajo reservation, most say the same thing I had originally said - - - "A What?" - - - so I tell them where they can find out all about the food runs and ANE, and then I tell them my story.
There were Navajo blankets and hand-tooled jewelry and trinkets available for us to buy. I bought a Navajo rug from Emma Valentine, woven from her own wool and dyed with herbs and vegetables. One of the interpreters told me that Emma will use the money to pay for food this winter for her animals.
At Oljato, Joan got to meet Zettie. That was the very, very, best surprise.
Zettie is in her 80's. She had walked to the meeting place that morning. We learned that Zettie is a medicine woman. Because of what we'd read, and out of respect for the Navajo culture, we weren't sure we were supposed to touch her, but Zettie took Joan's hands and held them for the longest time, and gave us warm hugs. There could be no doubt that Zettie know exactly who Joan was.
In all honesty we'd talked about that and wondered how many of Joan's letters Zettie had received. Does she receive the packages Joan sends throughout the year? Any doubts, the miles, the difference in cultures, the language barrier were all erased. This is what Joan had come here for. She got to hold her Elder, look into her eyes, laugh with her. Some of Zettie's family told us they read Joan's letters to Zettie, and that, yes, Zettie has gotten everything Joan sent.
Joan and I hope to be part of another food run someday. In the meantime, almost every day I think of our trip, the Elders we met, and our group of volunteers. We were blessed.