Locked in a Frame

When I was a child, we always sped through the Painted Desert in the Navajo Nation on our way to my grandparents’ house in Sun City, leaving nothing behind but the tailwinds from the car. I scanned that vast expanse of land and sky, the colors of the soil rich with brilliant pinks, muted reds, and sage green, the sky always a clear, crisp blue, colors as uncontainable and free as the wild horses that inhabited the land. Colors like this will never belong in any suburban American living room, locked in a frame, especially when they are paired with teal highlights and cutouts of howling coyotes. They belong where they are, with the Navajo Nation.

As we raced down those desolate roads, I gazed longingly out the window at the wild horses, running free through the desert. I imagined myself riding one, bare back, only a long mane to hold on to, and running, running, running over the colors of the desert, to the end of the earth. I dreamed of those horses, their pounding feet, their painted hides, like the desert itself. I would occasionally notice a house or beg my mother to pull over at a roadside jewelry stand so I could check out beaded necklaces and bracelets, but the horses and the color of the desert were what always remained with me.

Fast forward to adulthood. I find myself once again speeding through the Navajo Nation, appreciating the colors, but also feeling very small in the huge expanse. This time, I notice not only the grand desert sweeps and the strong, independent horses, but the living conditions of the people who call this place home. Trailers, too many to count. Some from the previous century, leaning in the direction of the wind, particle board covering windows long ago broken, rickety staircases leading up to narrow front doors, and back doors that open to a three-foot free fall. Satellite dishes everywhere, some modern, some from the 1980s, with their huge silver faces pointing towards the sky. Used tires strewn across roofs to prevent the wind from opening up the living space like a can of sardines; they are everywhere. Trailers on stilts, sitting on top of years’ worth of old bits and pieces that no one could bear to throw away.

A creeping sense of quiet desperation fills me now, the one I get when I think I’m trapped. I wonder about the people who live here, what they find beautiful and enduring, and what they find challenging. I feel unworthy to know, even to wonder, as I did when I was a child, not understanding what it meant, just feeling a strong desire to get out of there, to move on to the wild flower meadows and pine trees of the Northern Arizona mountains. Graffiti, beautiful works of art, pop up and swiftly pass outside the car window, with slogans like “Energy without pollution” and “This is sacred ground, honor it.” I can only guess at what life must be like here, and I will probably guess wrong. Is it wrong for me to wonder, to try to piece together a way of life that has seen so much more adversity than I could ever imagine?

A pink patch of dirt materializes into a baseball field, indicated by a lazy set of bleachers, a rusted and bent-over backstop, the backfield circled by heavy metal stakes about four feet high with orange plastic netting, shredded to pieces, blowing in the wind. I see hard dirt-packed front yards with derelict dogs sunning themselves on the perimeter, and tiny children in muted colors carrying long sticks and attempting to play on ancient swing sets, decrepit and rusting. The pink of the land is still there in all its glory, the smooth blue sky looking down. The horses are still there, running free and beautiful. Not a whole lot has changed. Except me.