Travels with Punker and Spunky, Part II

After seven hours we reach Kayenta, Arizona, and the ritual begins

Ellen Hamil

The desk clerk at the motel in Kayenta, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation, hands us the keys to our room that is on the first floor of a two-story building, separate from the main building.  It faces the highway and looks north towards Monument Valley.  My husband enters the motel and finds the room.  He signals from inside so I can park my van outside.  I take out the overnight suitcases and hand them to him through the sliding glass window.  Now it’s time to get the cats into their carrying cases.  I open the cage and take the first cat I can grab and put him or her into a soft carrying case.  I repeat this and then hand them both through the window.  

Whether they are welcome or not, we are careful to put down a king-sized sheet so they don’t spread the kitty litter over the carpet and we bring in their scratchers so they don’t go after the upholstered chairs.They have a litter box, their food and water and are happy to be out of the car and cage.  

Once at a Holiday Inn Express where pets were allowed on the top floor, we wheeled our caged cats onto the elevator and found ourselves face to face with a German Shepherd also bound for the top floor.  He was well-behaved and stayed “sitting” until the top floor where he thankfully was lead off in a different direction.  This was a good overnight experience for the cats as the room was under the eves where pigeons roosted and the cats sat on the window sill and watched them until dark.  Other rooms have not had the entertainment factor and our curious cats are under or behind beds and furniture and on window sills behind drapes so they can see the activity outside (but this means they can also be seen if they have been smuggled in).

There is, however, one problem we encounter in every room, and that’s the underside of the box spring.  Usually there is a flimsy cloth that covers the bottom of the box spring, but in most cases these don’t remain intact.  Any tear in this cover provides access for a cat wishing not to continue the trip.  

In the early morning we can hear them moving around.  They’re not unlike us. They visit the kitty litter box first and then take a look at what food is available.  After these activities and somehow, knowing it’s morning and another day on the road is required to make our destination, they discover the underside of the box spring.  

We rise, shower, dress and drink a cup of coffee and then pack up and are ready to get on the road.   Now it’s time to find the cats.  On hands and knees I look under one bed – nothing.   I look under the other bed.  Funny, there are a couple of big lumps in what has become a stationary hammock.  No one responds to a call of, “here Punker, here Spunky”.  Of course not, they’re cats. I don’t have a broom to poke them with so now we become the room wreckers, not the cats.  We remove the bedspread, pull the mattress to one side, and try to gain access to the underside of the box springs.  One cat, usually Spunky (the female) crawls out and allows me to grab her by the nape of the neck.  My husband is standing by with carrying case ready for me to plunge her inside.  Once inside the case is zipped up and placed by the window.  It can take up to ten minutes of antics to get Punker out and into his carrying case, which is also placed by the window.  Again, everything goes through the sliding glass window.

In April the Sunday New York Times had an article about Monument Valley, “Out Where Earth and Sky are Endless”.  It noted, “Americans are becoming strangers to a great American landmark.”  From our experience, we can agree. Despite the fact we are usually here at “off season”, the occupants in the dining room are predominantly Asian or European while the wait staff are Navajo.  We are the only people speaking English.  My husband once remarked that he felt he was in the twilight zone.     

The Rio Grande as seen from Gorge Bridge, only eight miles from home.

By 8:18 a.m. on May 1, we are heading east on Rte. 160 to Shiprock and Farmington.  There are not as many complaints from the cats on the second day.  We pass sheep and horses grazing but no cattle.  We pass Chapter houses that I am told are similar to city halls.  This is where births, deaths and other civic matters are handled or recorded.  Following the highway are large electric transmission towers, symmetrical and man-made.  They remind me of the Navajo Yei, a stylized deity.

I remarked to a Navajo friend that I have never seen a church on the reservation.  She told me there is no word in their language for religion.  The Navajo religion is traditionally the way you live.  You pray at sunrise or when you awaken, before and after meals and before retiring for the night.  It is important to keep in balance (harmony) with nature.  When things are not in harmony, there are healing ceremonies conducted by a medicine man.  She said churches are beginning to appear on the reservation as more Navajos adopt Christian beliefs.

Shiprock, the mammoth geologic monolith, looms ahead on the horizon.  The sky is hazy, possibly due to our close proximity to the San Juan Generating Station.

In the town of Shiprock we turn onto Route 64 and head for Farmington, 30 miles away.  This is a 4-lane divided highway, still on the reservation, and both sides of the highway are full of commercial enterprises, including Trading Posts and an abundance of pawn shops.   This is a fertile valley irrigated by water from the San Juan River.  We pass a campaign sign, “Re-elect Joe Shirley, Jr., President of the Navajo Nation”.  He’s wearing a dark open collar shirt with a turquoise necklace.    

Next we pass through Hogback, a small community where three execution style murders occurred last year.  Three suspects have been apprehended, a fourth is still on the loose.  The official word is that the crime was drug-related. Sadly methamphetamine has made its way onto the reservation.  Shortly after Hogback, we leave the Navajo Reservation and Arizona and enter New Mexico.

We stop in Farmington for breakfast at Sophie’s.  My husband has Huevos Rancheros with green and I have a breakfast burrito with Christmas.  You order your chile by the color – Christmas just means that I get half of my burrito covered in green and half in red.  It’s tasty.

We are traveling through oil and natural gas country.  Conoco Phillips is a large presence here with pick-up trucks adorned with small, square, red flags attached to the antenna.  The road is narrow, hilly and winding and the flags are a safety factor to make it easier to spot the trucks.  

There is not much traffic this Monday morning as we wind through the beautiful hills and forests to the town of Dulce on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. Entering town we  pass a herd of buffalo, a small casino and three gas stations that sell gas cheaper ($2.92 today) than what’s available elsewhere.  

From Dulce it’s a short drive to Chama, a mountain town in the southern Rockies with a terminal for the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad, a narrow gauge railroad that goes from Chama, N.M., to Antonito, Colorado.  Built in 1880 for the mining industry, it now hauls sightseers from late May to mid-October.  

Leaving Chama we head for the pass, a well paved road with many switchbacks that tops off at above 10,000 feet.  It’s not uncommon for us to encounter snow in the fall at the top when we’re heading in the other direction (Taos to Las Vegas) but usually by early May we can expect clear sailing.  Last year, however, it was raining when we left Chama and by 7,000 ft., we were fishtailing through 6 inches of unplowed, mushy snow.   Thankfully, today it’s clear.

Once in Tres Piedras (three rocks) it’s 30 miles and a straight shot across an open range to Taos.  We cross the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge (above), the second highest man-made bridge in the U.S. built in the early 1960’s.   It was called the “Bridge to Nowhere” as the State ran out of money to complete the road on the west side.  At its dedication on September 10, 1965, at 3:00 p.m., there was an official ribbon-cutting ceremony on the east side of the bridge. Then a procession crossed the bridge of Indian dancers, Spanish conquistadores, Spanish dancers and musicians, “Kit Carson”, Smokey the Bear and Governor Campbell and then the public. This set up what is called a harmonic and, according to the local newspaper, “the whole bridge started walking” causing people to feel sea-sick, stagger and appear drunk, or “hit the deck”.  What they didn’t realize was that the movement was natural; the bridge was designed to move.  The National Guard performed a fly-over.  A picture of the event showed “the bridge almost buried with people during the dedication.”  

The Rio Grande is 650 feet below.  Many people have gone over the side of the bridge into the gorge, some of them already dead, but most alive.  The Southwest Ghost Hunters Association’s website reports that “locals say the bridge is haunted by ghosts that tempt people into jumping to their deaths.” One day last year we emptied an urn containing ashes of a friend (at her request, I might add).  It’s important to first check the direction of the wind before doing this.  

We’re almost home.  Our final one-third of a mile is on a dirt road.  The cats remember this part.  All of our animals seemed to know from the rattle of the car that they were getting close to home.  We pull into our driveway and I’m quick to open the cage.  Punker and Spunky waste no time exploring and becoming re-acquainted with the house, yard, mission bell and cat door. They’re quick to adapt, although I notice they spend a couple of days sleeping longer than usual to recover from the stress of the trip, but then so do we.


July, 2006