Learning How to Fly On Your Own

Susan M. Breall

            It was a perfect day to get the hell out of Gallup.  Ragen refused to take a left onto route 66 and began arguing with the GPS, but we were still able to make our way north without a hitch. It was better to see her argue with a computer than with me. The snow had stopped falling earlier that morning.  As we drove, I watched the sun bounce off the mountains like magic rays, reflecting brightly from each butte we passed along the highway. Ragen figured it would take about two hours to drive to the First Hopi Mesa. I deferred to her in all matters involving driving, timetables, and schedules. I deferred to her in all things that really didn’t matter. My reason for taking the trip was to figure out a way to get along with her, no matter where we went, no matter how much she reminded me that she was the older sister and had every right to give orders, make decisions, hold the reins, and ride herd.

            Gallup New Mexico was a 1950’s time warp, a frontier trading post that featured cowboy boots and old black and white John Wayne photographs in every run-down motel gift shop that tourists drove past on their way out of town. Jayne Russel bra advertisements, maps of Arizona on silk-screened neck ties, saddle bags and sheriff badges could be viewed behind the dusty store- front windows. Early Bird Specials were announced on every motel marquee. I wanted to leave the moment I arrived. Ragen could have lived in Gallup forever. She agreed to drive out to Hopi if we were back in Gallup before nightfall.

            I had been reading books about the Hopi long before our trip began and decided to create a sixth-grade teaching curriculum about Native Americans for my students back home. The Hopi believe that Sotuknang, the god of creation, placed all the planets in order when he found the Earth wobbling in space. I mentioned this to Ragen as we drove through Arizona. I told her that I thought the Earth had started wobbling all over again, that the moon was slowly drifting away from the Earth, all because of global warming. I wanted the Hopi gods to push the moon back into its proper place and steady all the rest of the planets. Ragen was not concerned about the drifting moon, the wobbling Earth, or global warming.  She was on the hunt for katchina dolls, cowboy hats, pendants, and snakeskin belts at reasonable prices. She had an enormous souvenir collection that filled her entire apartment back home in California. The collection covered all the walls of both her kitchen and bedroom. Ragen’s knowledge of native culture came from her trips to Disneyland.

            When we arrived at the First Mesa, Regan was able to navigate the twists and turns with ease in our Range Rover.  She slowed down so that we could marvel at the strange topography of the region, and then began our ascent to the Second Mesa. We both wondered why there were no roadside stands, no electrical wires, no Hopi women or men selling art and artifacts along the route. We figured that the villagers probably had better things to do on a Sunday afternoon two weeks before Christmas than cater to the tourist trade.

            As we rounded the turn to the Second Mesa, our GPS instructed us to continue to drive on the same twisted road, even though a detour across a narrower path veering off the highway looked like the shorter route to civilization. The detour seemed drivable, the dirt hard packed from the previous days of ice and sun, yet something forced me to tell Ragen in a strong but modulated voice to follow the GPS instructions. We were not in a hurry and the scenery was beyond spectacular. Ragen yelled back at me that the GPS instructions were stupid.  She abruptly maneuvered onto the dirt path, and just as we entered the unpaved portion of the road our wheels started to spin out of control. We began to sink into a slick mud patch which had not been discernible from the paved highway, and soon found ourselves completely stuck and immovable with thunderheads looming. I watched the daisy- yellow sun, visible earlier that morning, disappear from the sky entirely like a rabbit jumping back into a magician’s hat.

            I wanted to scream at my sister.  I wanted to point out the fact that if she had listened to me, we would not now be stranded in the desert ice and mud. I longed to yell at her and finger-wag. Yelling would have felt unbelievably cathartic, yet yelling would have been counterproductive to the entire purpose of this road trip. My goal for the trip was to get along with Ragen at all costs.  My goal was to create a happy memory, a memory souvenir far more valuable than all the objects and postcards hanging on Ragen’s walls back home. So, with a herculean effort I remained silent. I had no cell phone service and a wave of panic overcame me at the thought of being isolated on that road with no help in sight. Ragen’s phone had a weak signal, but neither of us were sure who to call. I had the absurd notion of grabbing her phone, calling for operator assistance, and asking for a seven- foot tall Second Hopi Mesa tribesman, much like the character in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to come and push our car back onto the highway.  Ragen considered putting the Range Rover in reverse but was afraid it would become further entrenched in the mud.  After discussing our options, we got out of the car and began walking to the nearest inhabited structure we could find to ask for help.           

            As it turned out, the nearest structure was only about a mile up the road.  We saw a sign that read “Takershovi Traditional Hopi Arts and Crafts and Cultural Items.”   At first the place seemed deserted, but eventually after calling out “hey,” and “anyone here” several times, we saw a tall, middle aged, man with a full head of white hair saunter out from a dilapidated wooden structure behind the shop.  He had a wide welcoming grin and introduced himself as Joseph. He told us that his Hopi name was Nistaseya, which he pronounced like the words “nice to see you.”  He also told us that almost everyone, including his wife, had gone down to the Second Mesa Christmas parade taking place in the village. His wife had gone to the parade in order to sell some of the bright orange and green Don’t Worry, Be Hopi t-shirts that were designed by Joseph and which had become a big selling item at all the festivals.  Joseph stayed behind to take care of any customers who might come by.

             Regan needed to pee, so Joseph directed her to the outhouse located a few yards to the north of the shop. He proudly mentioned that his facilities had the best view of any outhouse on the Second Mesa. In fact, one could see all three Mesa plateaus from inside the wooden structure. The view was especially striking at night, and we were welcome to come back after dark if we ever had an urgent need. As Regan walked towards the outhouse I walked with Joseph into the shop.

            As soon as I entered, I became entranced by the hundreds of Katchina dolls lining the shop walls. These dolls did not look like they were made for tourists.  They were actual carved totems that had been given to Hopi girls to instruct them about the spirit world. Some of these Katchina dolls represented the natural world, some represented the cosmos, all of them represented the spirit life that filled up the universe. A few were newer dolls, but many were thirty, forty, or even fifty years old. I found myself transfixed by one doll with a wolf’s face and vertical lines under both eyes. Joseph told me that lines drawn under the eye represented a warrior’s footprints. The doll was painted with a variety of colors symbolizing all the colors of life.   By the time Ragen returned from the outhouse I was in the process of handing over a big wad of cash to Joseph.  I had not yet arranged any help for our car.

            Ragen looked displeased. She abruptly interrupted the sale taking place and began explaining our car problem, describing the Range Rover sitting out on the road as though it were the Tin Man about to rust and become immovable forever. She thought that its wheels could get further entrenched if it started to snow. Joseph told us that most of the neighbors able to help push the car back onto the highway were down at the parade. Many Hopi, including Joseph’s son, joined the military, and each year numerous military floats competed for a grand prize at the Christmas parade. The parade could last hours. He suggested we wait in the shop where it was warm. He was unable to leave the shop unattended.

            I recognized the irritation in my sister’s eyes.  She was frustrated by the problem of the car, and she was annoyed that I had been souvenir shopping, rather than figuring out a solution to this problem. Of course, I did not exactly see my newly purchased wolf-doll as a souvenir. For me, Wolf-Doll had already gained the status of sacred totem, a treasure that would bring peace and harmony to me and my sister throughout the rest of our long trip together.  Our journey had only just begun, and such protection was vital.

             I watched Ragen start to move about the shop in a manner that those unfamiliar with her might find strange, but which I knew to be her normal way of displaying anxiety.  She began to pace back and forth, just the way she would during recess in third grade when other kids refused to throw her the ball in the schoolyard, or when our mother would yell at her and call her stupid. “Stupid” was the word Ragen used quite frequently now when yelling at the GPS.  I wanted to calm her down and suddenly imagined drawing vertical lines under both of our bottom eyelids with an eyebrow pencil in order to create warriors’ footprints– in order to instill in both of us the native courage and strength needed to get back to Gallup.

             I did not yell at her or even try to encourage her to stop pacing. I remember feeling terrible as a child whenever our mother screamed at Ragen. Instead of protecting her I used to run and hide in the hall closet. At that very moment inside the Takershovi Traditional Hopi Arts and Crafts store I felt like apologizing to Ragen for never leaving that closet, for never trying to protect her when we were much younger, never telling our mother to stop her yelling and name-calling.  Standing there I could hear our mother screaming, telling Ragen that her behavior was “unbecoming,” telling her she stood out like a brown stain on a white jacket.

I am not sure whether it was the positive karma of the shop that caused Ragen to settle down, or Joseph’s own placid demeanor, but Regan eventually stopped pacing and began looking up at the dolls hanging from the shop walls. The placement of each of those dolls along the walls reminded me of Ragen’s own apartment and the colorful and studious placement of her souvenir collection around her own plaster walls. The orchestra of shapes and forms surrounding us in the shop seemed both strange and familiar.

            Ragen took a long time studying every doll as Joseph finished wrapping my purchase. He placed bubble wrap around the delicate parts of the carving and began talking about his life in Hopi. He came to the Second Mesa as a young child with his Protestant missionary parents.  He learned the Hopi language as a boy, but only became fluent after he met and married his wife; whose English name was Mary Anne.  His wife was born on the Second Mesa and was a full-blooded Hopi. I asked him the meaning of the name Nastaseya. He told me it was a nickname given to him by his wife’s family, and that it meant “Man with No Money.” I told him he would have to change his nickname now that I bought the doll.

            When Ragen was finally done looking up at all the dolls she gave Joseph a wide grin and asked him if she could buy the entire collection.  Joseph gave a loud long husky laugh. Without answering her directly he told her to find a doll she liked the best and that he would sell it to her. He went on to tell her he did not sell dolls to just anyone. He only sold them to those special customers, native and non-native alike, who could understand their Katchina, a word which actually meant spirit. He would sell only to those who could understand the true spirit hidden inside the doll.

            Ragen chose two dolls, a Great Horned Owl and a Red Tail Hawk, which she made Joseph retrieve with a stick from the corner of the ceiling where they must have been perched for many years,  given the amount of cob webs and dust  he had to blow off of them after their retrieval. He sprinkled blue corn powder and shreds of dark wood, known as bear bark, over the wings of each doll before he wrapped them. The powder and bark, he said, would bring good luck and good health on the rest of our journey.

            Ragen stared at Joseph as he wrapped each Katchina doll, and finally asked him if the dolls she chose would help her fly like the Red Tail Hawk and the Great Horned Owl. He told her that each doll could help lift her spirit high up in the sky, but that she would have to learn how to fly all on her own. I could tell she was impressed with his answer. I asked Joseph if we could call for a tow truck, but he said his wife and her brothers would be back soon to help us and that the nearest tow truck was quite a distance out of town. He invited us to sit down on a hand carved wooden bench near the entrance to the store.  We waited obediently with our packages on our laps, like two children waiting for someone to pick them up from school.

            Mary Anne eventually arrived looking so small and frail that I thought the wind might blow her all the way back down to the First Hopi Mesa.  After speaking to her, she agreed to walk back to the car with us and assess the problem.  Joseph would wait at the shop. We walked back quickly, pushing through the bitter cold, and saw that the Range Rover was exactly where we left it.  Mary Anne asked for the keys, got in the Range Rover, and turned on the motor. We stood off to the side as she began to slowly back up the car. At first the car wheels spun, just as they had done earlier. Undaunted, Mary Anne continued to maneuver the car with extreme caution and gracefulness until, inch by inch, the vehicle’s wheels were able to move over the mud groove and reconnect with the asphalt highway.  Ragen applauded the maneuver, and once Mary Anne got back out of the car I went over and hugged her tiny body, practically lifting her up in the process.  I had been wrong to assume we needed a strong capable man to get our car out of the mud and help us back on the road. All we really needed was Mary Anne.

            By this time, I noticed that the clouds had become darker, denser, and that they continued to push the sun away like a forgotten stepchild. With each minute of absent sun a deepening twilight emerged. We gave Mary Anne a large box of chipotle chocolate wafers we had purchased in Arizona, bade her farewell, and started the slow descent out of Hopi. Even If we drove quickly we would not make it back to Gallup in time for the early bird special.  The oldsters and early birds would have to eat without us. By the time we drove past the Hubble Trading Post and out of Arizona it was snowing.

             I fingered my neatly wrapped package which lay on my lap as Ragen drove us into New Mexico.  It was now completely dark.  Ragen lamented the fact that she was not bringing home a snakeskin belt.  I reminded her, however, that she was bringing back a Great Horned Owl, a Red Tail Hawk, and a Hopi calendar that instructed on the best times of the year to harvest.  I also reminded her of the aromatic bear bark sprinkled on each of her totems, and how these totems might finally help teach her sprit to fly. She smiled at me and I knew she was remembering the time she once jumped out of the second story window of our parent’s house when she was six, because she thought the wind would carry her into the air and help her fly. She told me years later that she thought everyone could fly back then. I smiled back at her, turned around, and set my carefully wrapped doll under the seat. I was now in possession of a sacred doll representing the moon, the sun, and all earthly vegetation, a spirit warrior doll that would put the moon back in its rightful place and stop the Earth from wobbling. I was in possession of a spirit warrior that would guide us throughout the rest of our journey together and keep us both on the right path. At least, that was my hope, as we continued left on Route 66, and headed back down the long highway to Gallup.

By day Susan M. Breall handles cases involving abused, abandoned and neglected children. By night she writes short stories. Her stories appear in numerous anthologies including: Impermanent Facts, Paragon Press Martian Chronicles, The Raw Art Review, Running Wild Press, vol.3 and vol. 5, Dreamers Writing, vol.1, Two Sisters Writing (2021), The Write Launch, and JewishFiction.net

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