I ran into Jimmy in the summer of 1969 when I was hitchhiking to California. I was standing by the side of the road just outside of Gallup, New Mexico, hoping to catch a ride at least as far as Flagstaff before it got dark. As the sun kissed the rim of the earth, turning the western sky a bright, fiery orange, an old beat-up pickup truck screeched to a halt; the driver leaned toward the open passenger window and said, “Where ya going?”
“I ain’t going that far, but I can get you down the road a bit.”
I threw my kit in the back and hopped inside. The guy hit the accelerator, lurching the truck back onto the asphalt, spewing rocks and pebbles in its wake. Before he hit second gear, and with his eyes still on the road, he said, “My name’s Jimmy. Glad to meet ya.”
I told him my name and we settled into a comfortable silence as we raced toward the setting sun. When you’re hitching, you go with the flow. Most people pick you up because they want someone to talk to, but this guy seemed to like things quiet, which was fine with me.
Forty-five minutes later, he spoke for the second time, “I turn off up ahead and it’s getting dark. You wanna crash on my couch for the night? I’ll drive you back to the highway in the morning.” I didn’t have to think twice about it. If I couldn’t catch a ride, a couch would sure beat sleeping on the side of the road. It gets cold out there at night in the high desert.
We turned off the highway and headed north down a bumpy dirt road. Eventually we came to a trailer sitting all by itself. That’s when Jimmy told me he was a Navajo. “We live in a corner of the reservation, away from the others. The reservation is 27,000 square miles, so there’s plenty of room. The only problem is, there’s no electricity in the section,” said Jimmy.
As we walked up to the trailer, Jimmy informed me he lived with his grandfather. “He’s a medicine man and speaks very little English. His name is Ti՜éhonaa՜éi Lizhini—Black Moon in English. I will interpret for him.”
It was kinda dark inside the trailer, the only light coming from a lantern sitting on the kitchen table. Off to my right, an old man stood at a propane stove, stirring something in a large kettle. “Yá’át’ééh, Análi,” said Jimmy. “I just said, ‘Hello, Grandfather.’ Why don’t you go sit on the couch and I’ll explain to him that you will be joining us for dinner and staying the night.”
As Jimmy’s grandfather did his thing, Jimmy and I made small talk. He told me a little bit about himself and I told him a little bit about myself. Then the talk turned to the war in Vietnam. We were both draft age and both dreaded getting called up. We knew the war was bullshit. If the Viet Cong were storming the beaches of Miami, I’d grab a rifle and defend my country, and Jimmy felt the same way. But they were not invading our country, we were invading theirs.
Soon, the meal was ready – a delicious deer stew – and we were called to the kitchen table. As I dug into my stew, I said to Jimmy, “I’ve never met any Navajos before.”
“We call ourselves The Dené. It means The People. We got the name Navajo from the Spanish. They called us Apachu de Nabajo. It means “Apaches Who Farm in the Valley.”
When my bowl was half-empty, I smiled at Black Moon and said, “Good.” He smiled back and nodded. Then he started talking a mile a minute in the Navajo language. Of course, I could not understand a word he said, but Jimmy interpreted for me. “Grandfather wants me to tell you how the Navajo came to be on the earth. I will tell you the short version because I do not want to bore you.”
“You won’t bore me. This is why I’m on the road. I wanna meet new people and learn things.”
“I may not bore you, but the whole story is too long. We’re gonna have to hit the hay soon. My grandfather needs to be at the Sacred Mountain before sunrise. I’ll drive him there and then take you to the highway.”
As I finished my stew, Jimmy started in on his story.
“Basically, our creation story goes like this: The first world is Nihodilhil,or Black World. The whole world was pitch black, but there were four clouds in the sky: the Blue Cloud, the Yellow, the Black, and the White Cloud. The Blue and Yellow Clouds came together and formed First Woman. Then the Black and White Clouds did the same and formed First Man.
“Seeing First Man’s fire, First Woman made her way to him. He asked her to live with him and she agreed. They did not want to live in the darkness forever, so they searched until they found the path to Ni՜hodootl՜izh, the Blue World. They climbed the mountain path until they emerged into the new world.
“Once there, they found many animals that were at war with one another. Coyote also lived there. He traveled in the four directions of the four winds and saw that the beings who lived there were not happy and wanted to leave the Blue World. This he told First Man.
“First Man made four wands. One of black stone, one of turquoise, one of abalone, and one made of shell. Using those wands, the beings of the second world followed First Man and First Woman into Nihaltsoh, the Yellow World, where they found the Four Sacred Mountains.
“First Man planted a reed and it grew to the sky. First Man, First Woman, Coyote, and the other beings used the reed to climb into Nihalgai, the Glittering World. That is the world in which we live.”
When Jimmy had finished speaking, his grandfather reached across the table, patted my hand, and said something in the Navajo tongue.
“My grandfather likes you,” said Jimmy. “He says you are young and you will live a long time. He wanted you to know our creation story so that you can tell it to other White Men. He has also invited you to watch him build his sand painting in the morning. It is an honor that he has asked you, but I will tell him that you must continue on your journey.”
“Not so fast, Jimmy. I’ve got nowhere I gotta be and no one waiting for me when I get there. I would love to see him build his sand painting. Although I do have one question. What’s a sand painting?”
“I will tell you in the morning. Now we sleep.”
The next morning, Jimmy shook me awake before dawn. “Are you ready?” he asked. I was still half asleep and had to think for a moment. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee brought me around. “Sure. As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Then help yourself to some coffee. The cups are on the counter. Sorry, we have no milk or sugar.”
“Good. Grandfather is getting dressed. We’ll be leaving in about ten minutes.”
I poured myself some coffee and took the cup outside to take in the cold desert morning. The stars in the sky blew me away. Having been raised in a city, I had never seen so many stars. I drank my coffee and enjoyed the view. Soon the door opened, and Jimmy and his grandfather came out.
We piled into the truck and took off down the same worn dirt road that we had come in on, but this time going farther onto the reservation. After a few minutes, I asked Jimmy to tell me about sand paintings.
“They are used in our curing ceremonies to attract The Holy Ones. They’re made with crushed stone, ground minerals, and pollen. And sometimes, flowers. The ground is first prepared, then the medicine man sets about building his painting. Once it’s complete, he will chant to sanctify it. Then the sick person sits on it, and the medicine man does a ritual chant to bring forth the healing powers of The Holy Ones.”
Just to say something, I asked where we were headed.
“We’re going to Doko’oosliid. It is one of the Four Sacred Mountains. Nowadays, most medicine men build their sand paintings in a hogan, but my grandfather likes the old ways. He says that doing the ceremony in the cave of a sacred mountain hastens the curing process.”
We pulled up to the base of a mountain and Jimmy announced that we were at our destination. Black Moon smiled at me as he got out of the truck and took me by the hand. He led me off to the right. Jimmy yelled after us that he would catch up as soon as he filled the lantern with oil.
When we got to the mouth of the cave, Black Moon pointed to the ground and said, “You stay.” He then went inside. A few minutes later, Jimmy walked up holding a lantern.
“I feel like a dog. Your grandfather told me to ‘stay’.”
Jimmy smiled and lit the lantern. “My grandfather needs some time alone to say his prayers before he starts his work. We’ll give him a few minutes and then go in. And when we go in, please do not say anything.” Five minutes later, we walked into the cave. About fifty feet in, a yellow light reflected off the far wall.
We continued on to where Black Moon sat on the ground, focused on his art, with seven small bowls within arm’s reach—each filled with a different substance, and each substance a different color. I couldn’t believe the detail, the vibrant colors, the majesty of the thing. For two hours, I watched him work. It was a profound experience. Presently, Jimmy nudged me and tilted his head toward the cave entrance. It was time to leave. The whole time we were there, his grandfather did not once acknowledge our presence.
It was now daylight outside. Jimmy extinguished the lantern and started toward the truck. After a few steps, he said, “You are the first white person my grandfather has ever allowed to see him work. He wanted you to know that our religion is as strong as yours, and that we worship the same god.”
“What happens to the paintings once the ceremony is complete? They are so beautiful.”
“They are destroyed and the materials collected and returned to the earth. They are only meant to exist for a few days.”
“It is our way.”
Jimmy got me back to the highway, we shook hands, and I continued on my way a different person than I had been twenty-four hours earlier. But is that not the way of life? At the end of each day, should we not be a different person? Perhaps know a little more than we did at the beginning of the day?