(Excerpt from my book, Flame Spirals. Also available as an e-book, wherever they are sold.)
I’m driving cross-eyed to meet the dawn. It’s four a.m. I left Tucson seven hours ago. The sky is still black. I’m tired.
North of Flagstaff, south of Tuba City, I’m listening to Bruce Cockburn, singing from the boom box that’s sitting next to me on the passenger seat of my 1985 Yellow Nissan King Cab truck. I bought the truck new, but it no longer has any power to speak of. Can’t even get it to pass emissions anymore. On my third carburetor now, with 300,000 plus miles on the odometer. I’ll have to sell it soon, but it still gets me to places like Coalmine Canyon. At least I hope it does today.
I left Flagstaff an hour ago with a full tank of gas, plenty of smokes and a cooler filled with Diet Coke. I just cruised past the Cameron Trading Post but didn’t stop. Maybe I’ll stop on the way home. I’m sipping on a cup of fake cappuccino I got at a Texaco station in Flag. Getting closer to Tuba now. Transmission humming a bit too loud. Nothing wrong with it. It’s just old.
“Apartheid in Arizona, slaughter in Brazil. If bullets don’t get good PR, there’s other ways to kill. Kidnap all the children, put ‘em in a foreign system. Bring them up in no man’s land where no one really wants them. It’s a stolen land,” sings Bruce.
The Hopi pretty much escaped the boarding school system, I've been told by friends, but that wasn't the case for the Navajo, whose reservation I just entered at Cameron. Many Whites took in the Navajos or rather took the children, changed their clothes, forbid their language, cut their hair and tried to make them into little white boys and girls. It didn't work, not in the long term. Just angered the Navajos and left an even greater divide between the Anglos and the Indians. Some hurt, resentment and sadness exists to this day.
The Hopi and the Navajo were traditional enemies. Hated each other hundreds of years ago, and there are still some sore feelings between some of the members of the tribes. From the Navajo perspective, they immigrated into this area and just wanted to have a little land to live on. From the Hopi perspective, the Navajo were uninvited guests, who attacked them on their mesas and felt entitled to land that wasn't theirs.
Now that's an oversimplification of things. Today, many traditional and modern Hopi and Navajo, together, fight Big Oil and Big Coal, trying to protect their rights and their lands. A good friend of mine who is Navajo has been battling the oil companies for a while now, along with his friends and members of his family. And God bless them for that. But people are people, and much like some of my Southern brethren who still see “Damn-Yankee” as one word and smart when they think about The War Between The States, to this day some Navajos still mess with some Hopis, and some Hopis still trick some Navajos.
Just a few years ago, the Rainbow People were looking for a place to have their annual Smoke Dope/Have Sex/Be Spiritual/& Dance Till Dawn event. A Navajo woman said to the organizers, “You could have your gathering on my land.” The Rainbowers were thrilled to have it on Native Land. Only problem was, after hundreds of them arrived and set up camp, the local sheriff informed them that they weren't on Navajo land but on Hopi land, and the Hopis rightly wanted them to leave. The White boys and girls left, but not until after they deposited a couple of days of shit in holes they had dug on the Hopi property.
It's a complicated thing, the relationships among Hopi, Navajo, and Whites. Some hold onto old resentments. Some forgive and let it go. Some go about their business and don't make no never mind of it. People are People. Whites and Natives alike.
Cockburn continues to sing. “You’ve been leading me beside strange waters. Streams of beautiful, lights in the night.”
I’m approaching Tuba on U.S. 160. A line of dark gray is to the east. Just a hint of morning. It’s coming, but not for a while. The reds and purples of the Painted Desert aren’t visible yet, but soon they will glow. Now, the mesas are just deep black humps and lines against a slightly lighter black sky. I drive past a crudely painted sign pointing toward dinosaur tracks. I see the old laundromat that has unavoidable sand in its washers. I take a right at the Tuba City Truck Stop, which in any other little town would simply be a small breakfast café with a very big parking lot. The decaying carcass of a Rezzie dog lies off the shoulder at the crossroad. Many Navajos don’t talk of the dead, nor touch dead things, so dead dogs and cats often slowly rot along the side of the road and are eventually blown away by strong mesa winds.
The Hopi village of Moenkopi is off to the right, perched on the cliffs that overlook the cornfields below. No corn now. It’s early Winter, late in the growing year. Moenkopi is far away from the traditional three mesas of Hopiland. I’ve often wondered if the Hopi and the Navajo of Tuba City got along better, due to being forced to go to the same schools, the same Basha’s grocery store, the same Tribal Health Care Center.
The gray to the east is changing color to blue. Best beat feet if I’m going to get to Coalmine before dawn.
Coalmine Canyon—Coalmine for short—has been a sacred place for me since the mid-1980’s, when my friend Mike, who used to live in Tuba, told me about the place. At the time he asked me to promise not to tell just anyone about Coalmine, so if I’m a little vague on directions, that’s why. It’s not as if you can’t find it on a good Triple A Indian Land map, but you’ll have to do your own footwork. And be nice to the place, if you ever do go there.
Coalmine Canyon gets its name from a line of exposed strata, close to the top of the mesa, that consists of a very thin vein of coal. You can see parts of the canyon from the paved road if you look left at the right time, but the canyon doesn’t jump out at you. Coalmine is actually a number of smaller canyons falling off from a high mesa. It drops a good 800 to 1000 feet to the canyon floor. Its walls are pink, purple and white with a line of black, and the sandstone is so soft you can easily crush it under your feet. Neither traditional Hopi nor Navajo medicine men go to Coalmine Canyon for they believe it is haunted. It is said that on the night of a Full Moon you can see the Ghosts of Coalmine dancing on the pink walls. I’ve never seen the ghosts, but one time years ago when I hiked deep down into the canyon, I felt the energies of good and evil having a little battle. Maybe I was just too hungry or too tired or I just imagined the whole thing. Maybe not. I’ve definitely felt dead spots in there at times, and in those places I do not stay long. Whatever, the energies are strong at Coalmine, both positive and negative. For over fifteen years I’ve come here to pray, to shoot, to grieve, and to just be.
This morning I’m going to the eastern part of Coalmine, an area I’ve been going to for only the past five years or so. Attempting to find the little dirt road that goes down into this section of the canyon is as much about sensing the road as it is about seeing it. In the dark I slow to less than twenty miles an hour and continue to glance to the left, trying to sense a break in the fence along the road. The paved road is straight in front and behind for probably four miles either way. No traffic. No surprise. Always looking left, suddenly I see it and turn my truck onto the one-lane track.
Dirt roads on the Rez are subject to closure due to weather condition as the maps say. Translation: If it’s been raining or snowing, getting back to Grandma’s hogan can be quite an adventure. The weather is dry this morning, but out of habit, I stop, get out, and check the ground. It’s good and solid. The earth here is a mixture of sand and dirt. More sand, less dirt. I get back in my truck and put it into gear. I go slowly but not too slowly. Too slow and I may get stuck in the loamy soil. My truck is a 2 x 4, not a 4 x 4, so I have to keep my speed up, but not too much, for the shocks on my truck are just regular shocks. Plus my truck sounds like a box of rocks as it is. Knock it too much more and new rattles will appear. The current rattles drive me nuts as it is. Slow but not too slow, Stu, but not too fast. The middle automotive path.
The one lane track descends down from the first level of mesa to the next level, but not the bottom of Coalmine. That’s way down there and miles away. No horses or cows in sight. No living creatures at all which is normal. The cows tend to be on the floor of Coalmine and the horses come and go as they please. I turn off the boom box. The bouncing of the truck tends to make the tape sounds yowwy, and now I must be present, to say the least. The drop-off to my right isn’t a couple of feet but a hundred feet or more. Slowly, I bounce down the track.
I level off at the bottom of the hill, or rather the top of this next part of the mesa. Coalmine proper is off to my left, still dark but visible as a space in Space, a blacker dark, and off to the east, the color black has more blue in it than it did a few minutes ago. The sun is coming. Good. I’m almost there.
Coalmine Canyon is the bottom of an ancient sea. On one of my earlier trips into Coalmine, I was shocked to find prehistoric oyster shells. Breaking them apart with my hands, I could smell the faint hint of natural gas. On the high mesas surrounding Coalmine and on the canyon floor, small premature quartz crystals are scattered about, along with tiny black basalt balls ejected a thousand years ago from a volcano 40 miles south. Coalmine is part of the Colorado Plateau that covers parts of four states—Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. The Colorado Plateau is one of the greatest places in the world to see sedimentary rocks. And here at Coalmine, it’s as if the rocks were just born, so soft and fragile and easy to harm. Like infants that never grew up.
The sun is coming. The black to the East has gone blue, and there is orange now too. After a few more miles, I come to a place I can park on sturdy ground. I open the truck door, grab my tripod, Rollei, and pinhole camera, and walk toward the rim of the canyon. The ground is soft with powdery loam that makes little clouds as I walk. The baby crystals can be seen sparkling even in the dawn’s twilight.
White peninsulas of sandstone jut out into the canyon like the bows of old sailing ships. I step onto one bow of sandstone to walk to a special place a ways out. I’m careful with my feet, as much as to not disturb the rock, as to not fall 800 feet to the canyon floor. I reach my own personal prayer spot, set up the tripod and camera. I see the shot. I compose the shot. I stop, and pray.
Little black Hoodoos, three inches tall, grow from the top of the white sandstone formation. [Hoodoos are rock towers that have more rock on top than at the bottom. Imagine a carrot sticking in the ground, big end up. That’s a Hoodoo.] I’ve placed the Hoodoos at the bottom of my composition. I now attach a number of red filters on the Zeiss lens. I think I’m ready.
Sun’s almost here. Lots of orange now in the eastern sky. My Zippo is in hand. I open the shutter and walk with a purpose to the Hoodoos, painting a flame spiral above the little towers. I return to my Rollei as quickly as I can and close the shutter—15-second exposure, tops. I advance the film, open the shutter again and walk back to the Hoodoos.
Suddenly, like a light switch being clicked on, the Sun rises above the mesa and cuts a bright yellow slice on the far western wall of Coalmine Canyon. I hurry to the Hoodoos and paint another spiral with the Zippo. I click the Zippo closed with a loud clack at the top of the spiral and move back to my Rollei and close the shutter. I pause, taking in the light and then repeat the process another couple of times. There. That should do it. The rising Sun could be visually too hot, for the flame spiral to show, but the sunlight in the canyon and on its walls, is glorious to see. And I do have a ton of red filtration on that lens. I smile, hope for the best.
I carefully stroll to the far bow of this ship of stone and sit. I sit for a long time. No photos. No Zippos. Just my eyes taking a picture for my soul to see.
I have a prayer I wrote for myself years ago, so I can get centered in the morning. Frankly I forget to pray in the morning as much as I remember, but on this morning, on the rim of Coalmine Canyon, I don’t forget.
To the East, God and Humanness,
To the North, Courage and Vulnerability,
To the West, Self-Awareness and Forgiveness,
And to the South, Feelings and Wisdom,
To the Sky and the Earth and All-There-Is,
Let’s do it!