Peace in the Valley

Sonja Herbert

© Copyright 2006 by Sonja Herbert

  2006 Travel Nonfiction Winner

Photo by Yousef Salhamoud on Unsplash

Photo by Yousef Salhamoud on Unsplash

 After a divorce in 1989, I accepted a position teaching at the Monument Valley High School, in Monument Valley, Utah, and spent three years there on the Navajo reservation with four of my six children.This is the story of how living with the Navajos healed my broken soul.

 The day I got ready to visit Grandma Towne in Colorado, I had no idea how drastically my life would soon change.

I stuffed two small pairs of jeans into little Meagan’s suitcase when Daniel rushed in. He cursed under his breath, slapped the mail onto the kitchen table and said “Here’s your dang mail, Mom.”

 He ran outside again.

You need to finish packing if you want to go with us to see Grandma,” I called after him, but he chose not to hear me.

I sighed and stepped around Meagan and Liesel, who sat on the floor, not fighting for once. Three-year-old Meagan, tongue between her teeth, ran the green crayon in her pudgy hand back and forth across the page in the coloring book, while five-year-old Liesel stripped the other crayons of their thin paper wrapper.

I glanced at the jumble of advertisements and letters on the table, sifted through junk mail, put aside the utility bill to pay before we left in the morning, and found a letter from the Monticello School District. I stared at the envelope, biting my lip.

 Out of desperation, I had written them two weeks earlier when I found they had an opening for an English and Spanish teacher. Even as I got together my application package, I hadn’t been too excited about leaving everything behind and moving that far out to South Eastern Utah.

But I had applied to all the schools in this area, to no avail. It was the middle of summer and most had already chosen their new teachers.

 I opened the letter from Monticello with mixed feelings, read it and turned it in my hand, not sure whether to be happy or scared. The position at Monument Valley High School was still open, and they wanted me to call for an interview.

Eight-year-old Marit burst in, dripping wet from playing in the kiddie pool in the front yard. Her hair hung in damp ringlets around her heart-shaped face.

I need a towel. This one is wet,” she said. Water pooled on the tiles around her feet.

Liesel dropped the yellow crayon she had just peeled and got up. “I want to play in the pool,” she said. “Me too,” Meagan piped up.

 “Marit, you take them. And watch them closely. I don’t want them to run into the street.”

 Marit’s face fell. “‘Kay, Mom,” she said.

I took her wet towel and went to find three new ones. When I returned, the little girls had changed into their swimsuits, ready to go.

I picked up the crayon mess and returned to packing everybody’s suitcases. The letter from Monticello had to wait. I would think it over on the trip to see Grandma Towne tomorrow.


 I woke the kids at four in the morning to start the eight-hour trip to Cortez, Colorado. The kids promptly went back to sleep, and I had a few hours to mull over my predicament, driving an almost deserted highway through Price Canyon and on past Green River into Southern Utah. Every time we went to visit Grandma Towne, my ex-mother-in-law, we traveled through Monticello. In the middle of town was an intersection, and to go to Colorado we made a left turn onto Highway 666. If we missed the turn and went straight, we would travel through Blanding into Monument Valley, in the middle of the Navajo reservation.

I should have started looking for a teaching position nearer home earlier in the year, before my graduation, but things were so hectic then. I just hadn’t had the time, and had reassured myself I’d have plenty of opportunity after I graduated.

 I had received my BA in English, German, and Spanish, and a high school teaching certificate, just this June. But by then it had been too late. Most teaching positions were already filled.

My thoughts strayed to Gary, my ex-husband, but almost instantly I knew he wouldn’t be able to help. I couldn’t rely on him to support me and the four of my six children still at home.

But was I desperate enough to move us all completely out of civilization and onto the Navajo Reservation? Tiny Monticello still boasted a store or two. Farther South, Blanding dotted the desert sands, smaller still, and then there was nothing at all. After miles and miles of sand and sage brush, one might come across a trading post. Monument Valley High School had to be out in the desert, with no town near.

 By the time we arrived at Grandma’s house, I still hadn’t decided whether to call the school district or to just wait and hope another job would turn up. Once we settled in and I had a moment to catch up on the local news with Grandma, I told her of the letter.

 “Look at it this way,” she said. “Where you live now you can’t let the children leave the house without worrying about cars, gangs and bad habits they might pick up.” “That’s true,” I agreed.

 “The Navajo kids are a lot more mellow, and gangs are non-existent,” Grandma went on. “Also, where you would live, there probably wouldn’t be very many cars.” “It doesn’t sound that bad when you explain it like that, Mom.”

 Grandma smiled. “The kids couldn’t run away because there would be nothing to run away to or even from.” And that was exactly what I was worried about. “And they would be bored out of their minds, because they would have nothing to do,” I said.

 “You might be surprised how much children can find to do wherever they are. Why don’t you give it a try? Call them and make the appointment. Monticello and Monument Valley are only three hours from here. Talk to the superintendent and see what happens. Maybe they won’t offer you the job, and then you’d have worried for nothing.”

 “You’re right. And if they do, I can still say no.”

I went to the phone and called the number on the letter.

Two days later, to my surprise, I found myself driving south, past Blanding and on through the red desert. Trees and bushes grew smaller and sparser, and eventually I saw strange, almost unearthly red shapes silhouetted against an impossibly clear blue, cloudless sky. As I drove along the empty road, I thought back to the interview I had in Monticello just an hour ago.

 When I arrived that morning, one lonely car sat in the school district parking lot. I parked next to it and walked past the unattended receptionist’s area. I reached an open door and found myself face to face with the superintendent. The superintendent, an older man with a round face fringed with sparse white hair, greeted me, and confirmed my suspicion that the school was located in the middle of the reservation.

But a trading post is really close, and the nearest town is only twenty miles away,” he assured me. “The position is still open. It seems to me that you’re just what the school needs. And maybe this position is just what you need.”

 He explained that within the school complex, teacher housing was available for me. I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to live and would be in walking distance of the school. He assured me the housing was cheap and a large apartment waited for me and my children.

Why don’t you make the two-hour drive and check the school out? I’ll call ahead and tell them you’re coming.” Still I held back. “What will I do with my pre-schooler? I would need a babysitter.”

 “As it happens, one of the teacher’s wives baby sits. She’s great. You and your child will love her. You can walk your youngster to her home.”

 Now, driving along the sun-dappled desert, I shook my head. He really had made it sound good.

It wouldn’t hurt to check out the school and talk to the principal. I topped a rise and the vista took my breath away. On the vast, flat desert, fantastic stone monuments in ever-changing shapes lined the horizon. The red sand and clear blue sky gave the desert a surreal beauty. Three donkeys grazed along the road. I glanced at them, and as my brain processed what I had just seen I slowed the car and looked again. The donkeys were pink. Yes, definitely pink. How could that be?

 I shook my head and smiled. Somehow these pink donkeys seemed a good omen. What could go wrong in a place where the donkeys are pink? Eventually it dawned on me that the ever-blowing red sand of the desert might have painted the donkeys such a lovely color. Probably those were naturally white donkeys.

 I rounded a curve and before me spied a copse of small trees, their unexpected bright green contrasting with the red sand of the desert. They surrounded a collection of low buildings. At what must have been the only intersection in several hundred miles, I made a right turn and found myself in the Monument High School parking lot.

I unfolded from the car and stretched my body. The gently blowing desert wind swirled red sand around my feet, and the sound of a large vehicle made me turn.

A skinny man in his thirties drove a backhoe past one of the buildings. His light blond hair fluttered around his sun darkened face and he called to someone in the bucket of the backhoe. In the bucket, holding on to the teeth, knelt a black-haired, dark-skinned youth of about sixteen. He saw me and waved, a big grin on his face.

 This wasn’t at all like the inner city schools at home, where teachers and children at best ignored each other and at worst hated each other. In this place, teachers and students seemed one big family.

 I found the principal’s office. I don’t remember much of what he asked me, but I remember watching six Native teens through the window. With laughter and teases, half in English, and half in what I assumed was the Navajo language, they picked trash from around the building. The same blond man came around the corner with the kid that had ridden the backhoe bucket. They cradled soda cans in their arms, which they handed to the working kids.

I opened my mouth and was surprised when I heard myself say, “This is a good place. I feel as if I have come home. If you offer me the job, I’ll take it.”

 The principal, Mr. Macy, smiled. “You got it. It will be a pleasure to work with you.”

 The next several weeks I was alternately excited and scared. Finally the day came. I packed everything I owned into Gary’s one-ton truck, loaded up the three girls and Daniel, and, nine hours later, ended the trip in front of our new apartment in Monument Valley.

The morning of the first school day I got up early, glanced out the window, and forgot to turn on the lights. The night before I hadn’t drawn the blinds and what now greeted me through the window took my breath away. On the horizon, the two Mittens, fantastic sandstone formations looking like enormous mittens, lit up in gold and red against a cloudless, still royal blue sky. The rising sun clothed the Mittens in an almost supernatural glory and left everything lower than them still bathed in the velvety darkness of the waning night.

 I made breakfast with my eye on the window. The unexpected beauty I had found in this most unlikely place stilled my agitated mind. Peace permeated my soul.

The sun was higher when I walked the children to the school bus stop on the corner of the teachers’ compound. The desert sand took on its red color, the sky lightened to azure, and the Mittens and the other formations against the sky blended into the natural beauty of the desert. I waved as the bus pulled away with my and the other teacher’s children to make the 45-mile trip to Mexican Hat, where the children from hogans and trailer homes all over the desert attended elementary school.

I escorted Meagan to Rosalie’s house, where she would play with the other preschoolers until I came home for lunch.

 My first day as a teacher started. In the morning sunshine I walked to the high school building and entered my classroom. Twenty-seven bright-eyed fifteen-year-old kids fidgeted in their chairs. I had a sudden instant of complete and utter brain freeze. In the third row two kids whispered to each other. I couldn’t understand a word.

 I introduced myself and asked the kids to tell me their names. As class went on, I realized these kids behaved unusually well. They asked when they needed to go to the bathroom, listened politely to the first English lesson I ever gave without supervision, and kept their eyes down when they talked to me.

 One young lady, Cindy Black, loved to be contrary, however. She did what I told her to do, but she stared at me with unblinking, beady eyes, like a bird. Later the librarian told me that she was being disrespectful. In Navajo culture it is impolite to directly look at your elders.

 When school was over, Meagan and I waited by the bus stop for the elementary school children.

I spied a yellow dot, which developed into the school bus, driving along the black top road, and framed by the red desert sands.

The children tumbled from the bus. Mr. And Mrs. Heit’s little girl, Sundee, closely followed Liesel. Liesel waved at me, but took a moment to take Sundee’s hand and whisper into her ear, before she ran up to me.

 “Guess what, Mom?” she said.

 As we walked home together, Liesel told us about the nap she had to take and how Sundee wouldn’t quit crying until the teacher put her next to Liesel.

 “I helped her and she’s my friend,” she said.

 Marit told us about her wonderful Navajo third grade teacher.

 “I made a friend, too,” Daniel said.

I smiled. The children seemed to adjust well. I had seen little Meagan play with the other preschoolers, her blonde curls next to the dark head of a Navajo teacher’s little girl.

 As time went on, the children adjusted to the different ways their Navajo friends had.

 Sometimes, when Marit came home from school, she complained that the local kids called her “Billighana,” which means “white man,” but most of the time they got along fine.

One day in early spring my children jumped from the school bus to tell me that, during recess at their school in Mexican Hat, thousands of tiny frogs had suddenly appeared all over the playground.

 “We played with them the whole day,” Liesel declared, and Daniel agreed.

 “We had jumping contests,” he said. “My frog won.”

 As spring wore on, the desert warmed up. I didn’t worry when the children slept in their sleeping bags on the small front lawn. Nothing could hurt them here.

The girls abandoned the compound sand pile and carried their toy shovels (and some of my spoons and forks) into the desert behind the compound. They came home with tales of strange bugs that ran away from them. When I went out to check on them, I found them digging in the sand, busily building homes for the denizens of the desert, which were promptly spurned by the local critters.

 One afternoon, after I finished my lesson plans, an unusual smell greeted me when I entered the kitchen. Something smelled like fried meat. I looked around. The cast-iron pan on the stove was still warm. It showed a narrow ring of grease.

 Daniel and Casey burst into the kitchen. “We found a rattlesnake in the garden.” Daniel exclaimed.

 A rattlesnake! I searched Daniel’s face. His clear brown eyes held excitement and innocence.

We killed it and ate it,” he said.

 In answer to my worried questions Daniel explained they had found the snake in the desert past our little garden.

We weren’t scared, right Casey?” he said.

 Casey nodded, his eyes big.

 “We got Casey’s dad,” Daniel went on. “He helped us kill it, and showed us how to gut and fry it.” Daniel licked his lips. “It tasted just like chicken,” he said, perfectly serious.

I smiled. What a great experience for my son. Since we moved here, Daniel had forgotten the bad words I heard him say in the city. He had become more patient, even with his sisters, and almost everyday he told me of another great adventure he had experienced in the desert or with Casey.

 I thought of my little girls outside, so much happier too, with no cars speeding up our street, no strangers to fear, and no frazzled mother who didn’t know where to turn in her overloaded life.

 And I didn’t have to worry about being away from the kids. They went to school when I did, and returned after I came home. In the evenings I watched satellite TV or a movie, rented from the trading post just up the road. I visited with my fellow teachers while watching the children play in the compound, or read a book, sitting on the bench by the sand pile. Maybe Rosalie, the shop teacher’s wife and Meagan’s baby sitter, would join me. Bubba, the single black teacher in the fourth apartment might come and sit with us. We would talk about God, the world, and the reservation while watching the children play.

When the sun set and the compound lights turned on, we watched the bats come out and circle around the lamp posts, catching fat moths that congregated in the light. One evening Daniel came from the apartment with a slice of baloney in his hands, which we ripped into small pieces and threw into the air. The bats unfailingly caught every single piece.

 I seldom went to a movie. If I did, I took the kids, and we made the three-hour trip to Blanding for an afternoon out on the town. I never went to a restaurant, except for Burger King in Kayenta, twenty-five miles away across the Arizona border, which I frequented with my children after we finished shopping at the large supermarket across the street.

 On the weekends when we didn’t make the four-hour trip to Cortez, Colorado, to spend the weekend with Grandma Towne, we gathered with the Heit family, or Mr. Roberts and his daughters. Together we would walk through the desert to the closest sandstone formation. There we’d scramble to the top and visit old, undiscovered Anasazi ruins and challenge each other to climb out of the deep sandstone holes which everybody called Anasazi playpens.

 At the beginning of the school year I got together with the school’s Navajo liaison, Don Mose. In his four-wheeler, we made the trip across the rutted desert paths, to the various hogans or trailer homes where the families of my students lived.

Don, also a Navajo, seemed to know everybody within fifty miles. He introduced me as the new teacher, and the woman, in an English heavily accented with the Navajo glottal stops sounds, greeted me.

 Widely spaced on the desert sands, the hogans and trailer homes the native families lived in dotted the landscape. Sometimes two or three car batteries leaned against the outside trailer or Hogan walls. These batteries connected to a small generator that gently purred and provided the family with just enough electricity to run their lights, TV, and video player.

 I remember the first time I set foot into a Hogan. I stepped from the glaring sunlight into a dark place, with two beds pushed against the softly rounding walls. An easy chair stood at the foot end of one bed, where the mother of one of my girls sat, knees apart under her voluminous black and red skirts. She held a milk bottle out to a goat kid standing between her legs, furiously wagging its little brown and white tail while sucking on the bottle.

 Everywhere I went, the parents of my students greeted me politely, but with distance. I knew not to look directly into a new acquaintance’s eyes, and realized the respect the older people gave me when they did the same.

 Once I visited a Navajo tribal meeting. It was slated for Sunday afternoon at twelve o’clock. Don Mose warned me that it would probably not start until much later. I arrived at one o’clock to a completely empty hall in Oljeto. By about three o’clock, some of the elders showed up, talked informally to each other in Navajo, and by about five o’clock the meeting was called to order. Everybody spoke Navajo. The blond teacher I had first met on the backhoe when I applied for the job, was the only white man who spoke fluently Navajo. He stayed on until I don’t know how long, but I went home a bit after five, worried about my children.

 I had a completely different way of life here, and I liked it. The constant peace of the desert immersed me and slowed my churning mind. As the months passed, I grappled with the fact of my divorce and slowly came to accept that I was okay, in spite of everything. I was a good mother and had found a way for my children and me to live peacefully and protected. It was not the way it would have been had I stayed in the city, but it was a good way, and it showed me the direction back home to myself. I felt the quiet acceptance of the warm land, the approval of my fellow teachers, and finally accepted who I was. When vacation started, the children spend the summer with their father, away from the reservation. I wasn’t surprised to find them ready to return to the desert when school started again. After all, they were coming back home, right here onto the Navajo Reservation.

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