Our first international experience with our children does not occur abroad, but in America, on the Navajo Indian Nation. It is our fifth summer and last stretch of our extended journey along the National Scenic Continental Divide Trail. We have already spent four summers llama packing across the Rocky Mountains from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border. After 2,500 miles of llamas trekking, we crossed into New Mexico and switched out our llamas for tandem mountain bikes and trailers. Because water sources throughout this state are as far apart as forty miles, and the greatest part of the unconstructed trail is on roads, self-propelled two-wheel travel makes the most sense.
We are cycling the remaining 650 miles to the Mexican border, using the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail. This route attempts to stick as closely to the actual Divide as possible, while staying on public lands.
The Navajos have a strong sovereign government with their own laws. As we pass through this 100-mile section, we are concerned about the trespassing laws. This open country does not allow us to inconspicuously get off the road and set up camp. Fortunately, we made friends with a Navajo woman at the post office and she invited us back to her home for the night.
I knead the fry bread dough while my Navajo friend instructs and hot oil sizzles in the pan. Outside the old trailer, her eight children, with bare feet and snotty noses, join our children in a game of hide-and-seek, a universal game regardless of the language barrier. Although Navajo children learn English once they go to school, Navajo is the preferred language among all ages. I tell my children to watch out for the barbed-wire clothesline that hangs dangerously at eye level. An American flag flaps in the breeze from a tin shelter hung there to welcome us, they tell us. The Navajo Indian Reservation is not public land but privately owned by another nation.
I snatch glances around the house as we cook. I see broken screen doors, duct-taped windows, and Scotch-taped countertops. I feel self- conscious of my apparent wealth, our ability to cut-out of regular life and pursue this multi-month adventure, even though this is my “job” in a great sense. I long to point out that back home, we live rather simply and especially on the trail, that we have more commonalities than differences. Perhaps she already senses this or she would not have reached out to us.
As we make bread together, Rose tells me that many Navajo still practice the old ways, despite religious groups who have come in to establish churches and teach them “a better way.” Some still live in hogans, take sweat baths, and hold dances for the sick and there are medicine women that still practice.
When the sun goes down, she takes me on a walk to her favorite lookout point. We pass her relatives’ broken-down trailers and modular homes. She recalls matter-of-factly a brother who abandoned his family, a sister-in-law who is in jail, a young boy who’s just been murdered in a fight. Poverty, alcoholism, and unemployment define their lives.
In the same breath Rose proudly points out sacred peaks, sandstone cliffs, pastel bluffs, all radiating beautiful color in this evening light. The Navajo are rich in magnificent country. Rose understands how these two realities of Navajo life are integrated and cannot be separated. We both can appreciate the beauty yet at the same time, acknowledge the pain.
I am moved that she feels trusting enough to open up and share such personal information. I believe it is uncommon and I wonder if it because of our mode of transportation- on bikes, and in the company of our children.
I found the same to be true while touring Amish country back in Pennsylvania, where horse and buggies and bicycles, not gasoline-powered vehicles are the means of transportation. There too, we were viewed as less threatening and these fiercely private people reached out to us where they historically avoid the “English.”
Cycling is a slower way to move across the land, enabling us to stop, reach out and connect. There is only one slower- walking. Both modes of covering ground demonstrate the fact that you care enough to want to spend more and quality time there. People open up, begin to share, and education begins.
As we load up our bikes the next day, the Navajo mother sorts through her children’s things for presents: a too-large blouse for Sierra, a broken toy for Bryce. Perhaps she wants to give us a parting gift to remember them by. Our whole family is quiet after this impoverished [only on one level] potlatch, for we are feeling so many emotions and trying to make sense of them.
Even though our material things have been pared down to the basic essentials on this bike trip, we feel tremendously wealthy next to our new friends. Even though our $3,000 tandem mountain bikes were free from the manufacturer in exchange for writing about them, we still appear and actually are quite privileged to be doing what we are doing with our family. In my mind, this encounter with her family is the kind of thing that makes us rich, not the tandem mountain bikes. We all have a new reference point of wealth, even my six-year-old, as we head out across the reservation road. Our Navajo visit is the topic of choice for many miles of pumping pedals.
And that question is simply, “What exactly is poverty?” “Are we poor?”
“There is a difference between a want and a need,” I tell them. “Your friends wear designer sneakers in school yet I would not think of ever buying them. I think designer sneakers are impractical and unnecessary. They are a status symbol, which I do not believe in. Your father and I chose to spend our money on adventures and traveling like this bike trip.”
“I’m happy to go to a second hand store for my clothing,” Sierra replies. “I like wearing clothes that other people out grew if it means we can have fun trips like this.”
“It’s all a choice, no matter how little or how much money you have,” I tell the kids. They get that. Children catch on fast if you take the time to talk and explain to them.
This experience on the Navajo Reservation laid the groundwork for understanding the difference between a need and a want. Material things other children their age deem necessary in order to be happy and be accepted, never enter their realm of childhood wants. I also think life on the trail showed them how very little material things they actually need in life in order to be happy, as well as the traveling lifestyle exposing them to what true poverty is at a remarkably young age. In-your-face illustrations like the Navajo reservation pound it home.