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  • Robert John Andrews

Rambling Snapshots: Tuba City



My Rand McNally afterwards


Next month: Chapter 15, Monument Valley and Intercalary: Driving Tips


Chapter Fourteen

Tuba City, Arizona

Mexican Hat makes perfect sense as the name for the town of Mexican Hat, Utah. After all, high above the town sits a gigantic rock formation that resembles a fellow taking a siesta beneath the shade of his wide brimmed sombrero.

So too the town of Grand Canyon. After all, there is a huge hole in the ground nearby.

Even Cow Springs seems an obvious appellation. You’ve got a herd of cows and, o’ look, there’s a spring of water bubbling up to which the cattle have galumphed over to lap up cool water on this hot day.

We can readily imagine why they named their town Desert View. From Desert View Point at 7,450 feet you look eastward and downward into the flat pan of the Painted Desert. Sensible.

But Tuba City? What? Did the Music Man perform here? Do they host concerts here on International Tuba Day (every first Friday in May)? Was John Philip Sousa born here? Is it the headquarters for the International Tuba Euphonium Association?

None of the above.

Amanda, a proud resident of Tuba City, corrected me the way Hootin' Holler’s school marm, Miss Prunelly, rolls her eyeballs and corrects Snuffy Smith’s hillbilly nephew, Jughaid. After all, Amanda is a Dickinson College graduate (from where my eldest daughter also graduated) and she has certain academic and intellectual standards to maintain amongst a world of yahoos and buffoons.

Who is this Amanda? She is the young lady whom Frank and I shall mooch off. We could use a good mooch. What are friends for if you cannot mooch off them? Frank and I had spent a long day admiring the Grand Canyon from the South Rim side. It being April and still the Ice Age over there, the North Rim was closed. We might have been able to find a campsite or motel room for the night had Frank not insisted on spending most of his time at the Grand Canyon pretending to be Ansel Adams reincarnated and photographing the same damn rock at least 888 times from 888 different perspectives. We were hungry, tired, and I was bored out of my mind admiring this giant hole in the ground. I -- cranky me -- needed respite. I needed escape. I remembered Amanda. After phoning her mother and obtaining Amanda’s phone number, and, after enlisting mom’s complicity because we were running out of cash and were wondering (hint, hint) if Amanda had a floor to offer, we made contact. We bribed Amanda by promising her that we’d (Frank) would buy her dinner.

At the restaurant in Tuba City, we were the only three non-Navajos in the room. I tried the Navajo Lamb Stew. Tasty but a tad thin. Okay, maybe there were a few Hopi’s eating dinner, but I couldn’t tell the difference. Even the Navajos, Amanda reported, mistake her Asian co-workers for being part Navajo. What is racial purity these days?

Try being the minority some time. It’s a peculiar experience. A lifetime ago, I remember driving a handful of my youth fellowship kids from my Amish country church into Philadelphia for a day’s outing at Rittenhouse Square, Independence Mall, and Wanamaker’s Department Store. To get downtown I parked at the church in Logan District where I once worked during the Bicentennial summer. While the Tall Ships were greeted with fanfare in Philadelphia harbor, I was working with youth from the slums who viewed the whole Bicentennial hoopla as curious but irrelevant theatre. I hiked my little rural charges over to Board Street where we picked up the Broad Street subway line. We were the only white people on the subway. My little ones huddled and stared at their feet. Intimidation can be very invigorating. When you go elsewhere, you can look at here differently.

To clarify further, Amanda may be a proud resident of Tuba City but she is prevented from owning property in Tuba City. She’s an ‘Anglo’ in Navajo Nation country. She, along with her Anglo co-workers, is legally permitted only to rent. From the restaurant, we followed her past the Tuba City High School (Go Warriors!) to her home. Her home is compact, squat, and uncluttered. It includes one bedroom, one bathroom, a galley kitchen, a small area for a dining table, a sitting room adequate enough for computer, couch, several cacti (one named Maverick), and a TV which lacks both cable and satellite reception. DVD’s only. Her furniture is all second-hand. You might think that someone who graduated from Dickinson would be more prosperous.

Pictures of her family decorate the walls, along with a Navajo Dreamcatcher, which ought properly to have been hung on the wall behind her bed. Dreamcatchers attract dreams the way spiders capture flies. The good dreams navigate through the center hole, they slip through, where they slide down the hanging feathers toward the head of the sleeper. Dreams that disturb, those nightmares -- they get tangled in the webbing of the dreamcatcher and, as the legend goes, burn up when sunlight dawns.

The fattest, widest, and bulkiest speed bumps I’ve ever seen or ever had to surmount were installed every thirty feet on all of the streets throughout her neighborhood, a neighborhood where most of the Anglos have gravitated and congregated. My low slung Miata could barely manage these Navajo replicas of the Himalayas and only when I approached them nearly parallel at 3 miles an hour. But then, we also didn’t notice many sport cars in town. There are, however, plenty of monster trucks with monster tires with high suspensions. Which makes sense, as Tuba City is a blue collar, agricultural town. Crops. Sheep. Crafts. A few tourists visit the Dinosaur Tracks five miles outside of town.

If you live in Tuba City, you travel for miles. Miles and miles. Amanda drives the 79 miles it takes to get to Flagstaff simply to purchase the bulk of her groceries. You carry coolers in your trunk for the frozen foods. Amanda recounted how a registered nurse at the local hospital travels two hours every day to get to work – that’s by vehicle. It takes her an additional hour by horse to get her to where she can meet the pick-up truck. I also saw there what I hadn’t seen since my last visit to Honduras: hitchhikers. Given the hot sun, given the poverty, picking up hitchhikers is an essential courtesy. The fellows stand by the side of the road. If you can, you pull over and let them hop into the bed of your truck.

Now, you cannot always accommodate this custom, especially in a Miata. Back up in Mexican Hat, after an early lunch of a shared steak sandwich served on Navajo Bread at the Old Bridge Grille overlooking the rushing Gypsum Rapids of the San Juan River (and the only Utah State Liquor License in 100 miles), we fueled up. At the gas station two Navajo young men staggered over, mumbling something about a ride. Frank was seated in the passenger seat. The rag-top was down, but on top of the folded roof of my car we had lashed down with bungee cords our tent, Frank’s boots, two blankets. Puzzled, I replied to them, “Not a lot of room, fellows. Sorry.” The two wandered away to lean against a concrete light stanchion. If I had put a match to their lips, they both would have blown up. Alcoholism is as bad a scourge here in Navajo Nation as it is among the Honduran villages I’ve worked in.

The restaurant where we ate dinner with our friend Amanda served only non-alcoholic beverages.

Actually, I should stop referring to Amanda as a friend. First, she’s too young, only three years older than my daughter and that would be just plain creepy. Old guys old enough to be her father and young girls? Makes the skin crawl. Second, she doesn’t even know Frank. Now we’ve got two guys old enough to be her father. Doubly creepy. Third, I am her pastor. Amanda is a daughter of the church -- devout, dedicated, devoted – whom I’ve watched grow up from her singing arias in the junior choir to her timidly going off to college after those awkward High School years. She’s more accustomed to viewing me as her venerable, erudite, esteemed, distinguished the Reverend Dr. Andrews than having me call her up out of the blue and ask if Frank and I could sleep on her floor.

But, to be fair, boys don’t faze her. Amanda’s additional virtue is that she is the only daughter of four children in Mike and Kathy’s family. Boys will be boys, she says with the tolerant if not forbearing tone typical of her gender. Besides, being a physician, few things anatomical or behavioral fluster her anymore.

Amanda, like her father, is now an MD. Dad works in the Emergency Room in our hospital back in Danville. Amanda chose Internal Medicine. As bright as she is, she could have chosen pretty much anything she wanted. As gifted as she is, she could have served in this country in any hospital or clinic she wanted (Dickinson graduates are like that). Plus, she is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson Medical School, residency in Richmond.

So how on earth did Amanda end up in the middle of the Arizona remote desert in a place orchestrally named Tuba City?

While visiting an old doctor one day (a Neurologist who once taught Amanda’s father when he was a rookie resident) he and I had the brass to solve the health care crisis. He had much to recommend. After all, he had been practicing the medical arts for over sixty years.

He suggested how we missed an opportunity back in World War II when the debate then centered on nationalizing the doctors themselves. Think about it: doctors entering the profession as you would enter military service. Imagine free medical schools. Of course, you’d have to make admissions very rigorous, admitting only the best of the best. You’d accept only those who loved medicine more than most everything else in the world. But nationalizing doctors didn’t happen, which allowed the drift into our current cash driven entrepreneurial model of medicine. Well, I can’t blame the docs for hustling for big bucks – how’d you like their debt load? How’d you like to be sued for 2 million dollars because you consulted a case? Or can I blame them?

Since when did health become a commodity to be sold? When did hospitals start shilling themselves on billboards, competing against other hospitals for customers? When did doctors stuff a cash register into the pocket of their white coats along with their stethoscope? For that matter, count the number of commercials you see on TV hawking drugs as magic elixirs to save you from weight gain, depression, erectile dysfunction, or any other possible disease you never thought you had (side-effects include nausea, headaches, diarrhea, blindness, numbness of limbs, and stupidity).

So while Congress brays and the fake TV journalists bleat about health care, while the nation argues about which policy changes will create a better system, let’s flip the debate from the kind of changes we need to make from the outside-in around to us talking about the kind of changes we need to make from the inside-out. There are those who expect the world to change, then there are those who change themselves.

For I sure hope my doctor entered medicine for other reasons than to become rich. Now, I have nothing against making a buck, just so long as we realize that nobody deserves to be rich. I hope my surgeon and my physician (my nurse and my medical technician too) entered the medical profession responding to a calling to heal and comfort those who are afflicted. It’s more than a job. It’s a profession. There is a difference. A job you do because you have to or because it feeds your ego. In a job, you keep looking at your watch until you get to do what you want to do. When called to a profession, you do it because you love it. In a profession, you profess what you value most. Do you feel called to what you do?

Amanda serves as an employee of the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation. Since 1975 the hospital has been owned and operated by the Navajo Nation -- 73 bed capacity covering a 4,400 square mile service area. The illnesses? Diabetes. Kidney dialysis, without resources at home for cleansing the equipment or refrigerating the medicines. Obesity. A higher incidence of rheumatoid arthritis. Rampant alcoholism. Recently there was a big meth bust in town.

The logo for the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation, which can be found on their website, brochures, stationary, and signboards, depicts the Sun God, the Giver of Life, ascending from behind the Sacred Mountain. Eagle feathers shoot out in all directions as sunrays, for the Eagle who soars free and high between earth and heaven is the Protector of Life. Yellow Corn, the sustainer, grows tall in front of Sacred Mountain. Rainbow God, arcing from desert floor to sun and beyond, tells us of Father Sky who nourishes, shades, and waters Mother Earth. Wings -- according to the description of the logo written by Phil Coolie (the emblem designer) supplied me by Amanda -- fly up the rainbow that we may travel together in harmony.

Some divide the world between two types of people. Humorist Jean Shepherd joked that there are those who skin and those who get skinned. Some say there are takers and givers. If you are a giver surrounded by takers, don’t be surprised by being taken all the time. Others prefer how philosopher C.S. Lewis described how there are men with chests and men without chests. We’re talking about torsos, not dresser drawers or pirates.

People without chests. They have the head, brain, thinking. They have reason, the mark of the cerebral human: us as intellectual being. And they got the belly, appetite, the mark of the visceral human: us as animal being.

Amanda said she could have returned home to work in our town’s hospital. That would have been easy. She could have chosen any number of pleasant towns in which to locate and work. Instead, it was either here in Tuba City or someplace in Africa. Mom is glad she at least stayed in this continent. Amanda appreciates that the folks with whom she works have chosen to come to the Tuba City hospital because they are committed to being there.

Both mind and belly have merit. But where is the chest, the torso, to connect them? People without chests lack an allegiance to core universal virtues -- “the seat of magnanimity,” the truths and affections, the duties and principles of mercy, justice, beneficence, the Way of the good -- that connect the intellectual to the visceral, bringing moral purpose to both reason and appetite. A chest-less wonder is the physician who checks out early because he'd rather go clubbing (a real incident – I do have inside sources).

But hold it. We find them among the rest of us. I’ve heard of pastors who, when the phone call informs them of a parishioner being rushed to the emergency room, have replied, “Sorry, it’s my day off.”

What about chest-less teachers who spend school funds for union training under the pretense of continuing education, when it has nothing to do with teaching but everything to do with contracts?

The chest-less ones among us ask: It is legal? Is it permissible? Is it within my rights? Then there are those who ask: am I acting with integrity? am I acting for the greater good? am I doing right?

If Amanda weren’t such a blue-stocking Presbyterian, newly joined with and already elected Treasurer of the Tuba City Presbyterian Church, she might very well be the type to glue a statue of Saint Jude onto the dashboard of her car. Saint Jude is the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes, Lost Causes, Desperate Causes. Out in her fenced-in patio the size of a dish towel and the color of barren, Amanda tenderly nurses several attempts at ground cover, along with an elm sapling, a cottonwood, and an Arizona ash, in the desperate desire that green might prevail.

Throughout the entire night, with Frank sequestered on the couch and me sleeping on the floor, Amanda’s three cats stalked. Well, one hid – Lucy, the Siamese. One sniffed gingerly – Dakota, the older fellow. The other attacked all night – Spider, the young crazy one. All three are her rescue cats. She dare not let them prowl outside the house. Wild packs of hungry, snarling dogs patrol the backyards of Tuba City. Few cats survive the hunt.

Oh, Tuba City? Here in Tuba City they’ve celebrated 30 years of Navajo self-government. But Tuba comes from the name of a Hopi village chief who in the late 19th century converted to Mormonism late in life. His name was Tuuvi (or Tuve or Toova or Tuvi). No one is absolutely certain what the name means. A few say it refers to a child’s game. The Hopis insist that it means ‘the outcast,’ ‘the rejected one.’

Amanda, the patron saint of lost causes: plants in the desert, abandoned cats, and us.

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