I don’t know if there was ever really that much of a debate between Abu Dhabi and the Navajo Nation. The main source of uncertainty had to do with trying to figure out where God wanted me to be. I knew where I wanted me to be, but was that my own desire, or a God-given desire? Since this had been one of the more persistent interests in my life, and I had been praying and waiting for an opportunity like this one, taking the job on reservation seemed like the most logical option.
Most people have never heard of *Passing Sheep Valley. I’m really not even sure what it is classified as, other than perhaps a central valley where people decided to build a school. A “valley where little sheep wander”, it seems this location may have been chosen due to its closer proximity to at least five other small communities.
The roads leading to the school are now paved, more or less, and there are even a few signs indicating where to turn off the main highway… if you know when and where to look…and are watching carefully for said signs.
After many twists and turns, beautiful, vivid, multilayered, multicolored panoramic views of mesas, valleys, and arroyos, you arrive at the school.
The nearest shopping center is about twenty minutes away and so, surrounded by so much land, it feels as though the rest of the world doesn’t exist; as though you can slow down and hide away…
The week after accepting the position at Passing Sheep School, I made the twelve hour drive down from Kansas with my dad to sign the papers, expecting to return to the school in a couple of weeks to fully move in.
There were seven of us there signing the necessary forms to be an employee at the school – three Caucasian women who looked to be about my age and seemed to know each other well, a couple of Pilipino women, and a Navajo woman. We signed the papers mostly in silence, made a little small talk, and asked questions. I wonder where I’ll fit in.
Part way through some of the questions, and part way through the talk made by the woman in the finance department, I began to get the sense that I was missing something – like I was entering an important conversation in the middle. Not wanting to look as completely clueless as I felt, I waited until I could catch the finance woman alone.
“I need for you to confirm your city of departure for the conference,” she says, sounding slightly impatient.
“Ok, I know about the conference. It’s at the beginning of August, right, and so I’ll just fly out from wherever everyone else from flying out from.”
She looks horrified. “No! The conference starts this weekend. You need to leave from the Albuquerque airport on Saturday! I sent out all the information in that email.”
“Email?” I’m actually slightly relieved. At least there’s a reason for my current confusion. “I didn’t get an email about any of this.” Overseas flexibility mode kicks in – deep breaths – its ok, I can make this work. She’s still looking at me expectantly. I shake off my doubts and try to give her a reassuring smile.
“Ok, I’ll be there. Do they have housing for us that I can put all of my stuff into and move in on Thursday?” Never mind the fact that my “stuff” is comprised of two pieces of luggage and two carry-ons and that I don’t even have my own vehicle to transport it.
“Not yet,” she says, “But they should have it ready for you on Thursday.” She gives me names and numbers of people I’ll need to contact in order to pick up what I need.
My dad, in the meantime, has been doing his job as a dad – checking out all the technical and practical implications of living here – how to get telephone service, where any other service-related places are located, a glimpse of the houses…
I catch up with him as soon as I’m able to and inform him about the new plans – we have two full days, once we get back to Kansas, to find me a good, affordable vehicle, buy/gather some basics for setting up housekeeping, and finalize good-byes and any loose ends. My dad gives me an amused look that quickly grows into a full laugh.
“What else is new for you?” is his response.
Why can’t I ever have a normal transition somewhere?
“Well,” he continues, getting strait to the practicalities, “Let’s go get you a cell phone. I already talked to the people at the nearest cell phone provider and this is what they need from you…”
I go back to the school to get the necessary proof of employment and we leave for the fifteen minute drive to the nearest town and the location of the cell phone provider – located in the only major store for miles that serves as a grocery store, general store, bakery, deli, pharmacy, bank (there’s an ATM there), and cell phone service provider. Oh, and it also has free Wi-Fi.
The paper work to buy the cell phone is a bit tricky.
Physical Address: “Umm… I’m not quite sure where I’ll be living yet.
Mailing Address: “I don’t have one of those here, yet.”
Telephone Number: “I have a Kansas home phone number.”
Immediately after purchasing the cell phone, we call my mom to give her a heads-up about the very sudden timeline change. Quickly foreseeing and calculating all the work this new schedule is going to require, after an initial shocked, “WHAT? ARE YOU SERIOUS?” she gets right to work looking for a used vehicle that meets the following criteria – a 4-wheel drive to handle the roads on the reservation, is within $5,000 dollars, is still in good running condition, doesn’t make any funny or loud noises, has an air conditioner, heater, radio, and cruise control that all work, one that smells good on the inside, and yes, looks pretty on the outside.
I very willingly let her handle the bulk of the looking and evaluating since her standards tend to be higher and more specific than mine. I’d probably just take anything that started and stopped when I wanted it to.
But all of those requirements – in the same vehicle…found in two-day’s time -- Lord, we need a miracle here.
My dad and I looked at a couple of places mom suggested to us on the way back – stopping to look at least half a dozen car dealerships within a two hour drive of our small town. Our last stop was a car dealership mom called to tell us about at the last minute. She’d received a recommendation of this place from a co-worker who had a friend who was a friend of the owner (oh, small communities). Anyway, the owner had a good reputation as being very trustworthy and fair with his used cars and happened to have just received a Chevy Blazer from the daughter of a good friend who was also the friend of a friend of someone my mom knew (or something like that). My dad and I checked it out and were suitably impressed, but asked for some time for my mom to come look at it and give it a more thorough evaluation. I was already tired of car shopping and again, would have taken just about anything. My dad gave the mechanics of the Blazer a complete evaluation, but we still needed mom’s approval of the comfort and overall “niceness” of the vehicle.
We look at a couple of other dealerships to make sure we know our full range of options, and stop by the bank to get pre-approved for a loan…
“I’m sorry to rush this, but I really need this approved today so that I can buy the vehicle tomorrow because I need to leave on Thursday.”
“Oh, ok. I think we can do that for you. Just fill out this application for us.”
Basic Information – Address: Umm???
Telephone Number: Umm… guess I have one now.
Email address: Yes! Something I have!
Assets: Hmm… I have no car – that’s what the loan is for, no house, no appliances, no savings, no bonds, nothing with any high monetary value – I have a degree – and am a professional and … I’m beginning to feel like a nomad at best and a beggar at worst. I’m a roving, nomadic, licensed teacher.
I will always love small towns – especially when the bank knows my parents and grandparents and are willing to give a loan to an asset-less young teacher based on the credibility of her parents and grandparents.
We receive the loan and then my mom and I make the hour-long drive to check out the Blazer again. My mom approves it and is able to sweet-talk the owner into selling it to us for exactly $5,000.
It is a 97 red Chevy Blazer. The owner had just received it a few days ago, hadn’t yet done a full appraisal on it or done any work on it, hadn’t set a price on it, and hadn’t even officially put it out on the lot. The last owner hadn’t driven it much, had been careful with it, and had kept it in very good condition.
Maybe it was the story of “My daughter just got back from living in China for three years (that usually catches people’s attention) and is heading down to a remote area in New Mexico to teach.” Maybe it was her delivery. Maybe it was my appearance (something about me seems to bring out the protective instincts in people). Whatever it was, I am sure that it was God working to give me exactly what I needed in the exact time I needed it.
The owner was able to get the Blazer into the shop and have everything fixed and ready on it in a day’s time. It was a dual 2-wheel/4-wheel drive that would be able to handle the roads on the reservation, was exactly $5,000 dollars, was still in good running condition, didn’t make any funny or loud noises, had an air conditioner, heater, radio, and cruise control that all worked (plus a cd player), smelled good on the inside, and yes, was a pretty, shiny red on the outside.
We finish up the logistics on the loan, since we now know which vehicle we are buying and know the details of it.
There is also, now, the matter of insurance and temporary tags. I can’t very well, or smartly, make a twelve hour drive without insurance, but once I arrive in New Mexico, I’ll need to transfer that insurance to New Mexico Insurance and is it ok to have temporary Kansas tags when I’ll be living in another state and will I be able to transfer temporary Kansas tags to permanent New Mexico tags? Miraculously, again, we are able to get these matters figured out and worked out in a few hours’ time. There’s nothing like going into a place with a request like, “Excuse me, I need … and I need it by, today because I’m leaving tomorrow.” Things were so much easier with a bicycle in China…though, technically I guess I was supposed to have registered that, too, but never did.
Next on the to-do-right-now list is to buy some basics for my house – wherever that ends up being. Some of these items include things like: a camping chair (I have no furniture), trash cans, dishes, basic cleaning supplies, bedding (even though I don’t even have a real mattress yet), and a couple of books.
We stop by my grandparent’s place to say good-bye. My grandmother is very excited to just have me stateside again and as usual, expresses her hopes at me finding a man now that I’m back in the U.S.
I spend a last evening with my parents, finalize the packing of my few possessions – namely clothes, books, and the recently acquired household items, and wallow in my regrets of having to leave again so soon.
My dad drives me out to pick up my newly finished used vehicle. We put on the temporary tags, and put the temporary insurance in glove box. Then my dad and the salesman work together to go over every part of the vehicle with me – what it is, where it is, how to refill it, how to check it, when to check it, how to know if I need to check it, and answer my questions of “What happens if…”
I think I’ve got the gist of most of the mechanics, but I’ll keep my cell phone close by and definitely keep on the look-out for any mechanics in the area.
I’m sorry to have to leave so soon, but am now impatient to get on the road. The excitement of beginning another adventure comes over me as I get into my new pretty, red Chevy blazer, and turn towards the highway.
The drive is long, but beautiful as it takes me down through the Rocky Mountains. I make calls when I can to find out about the status of the housing, and receive little positive report. Most of the people in the office who would know about that are away and won’t be back for over a week. There is one person still around who may be able to help me, but he can’t be reached at the moment.
As I near a decently-sized town about an hour from my destination (it has a Wal-Mart and some hotels), I finally learn that the housing won’t be ready until tomorrow. Feeling tired, disappointed, but still on adventure mode, I decide to stay the night at one of the hotels in this town. I like the atmosphere and it seems like a good place to come to for any needed services. I need to find a State Farm and a mechanic since the windshield wipers have inexplicably stopped working the last couple of hours and it has been softly raining off and on.
Exhausted, I checked into the hotel, deciding to enjoy the novelty and luxury of it for the night and not think about the more pressing practicalities until tomorrow.
I wake up early to catch breakfast, get my bearings, make a plan, and spend unrushed time in devotions, with the goal of getting right to business as soon as the businesses opened. If the way things have gone so far with this school is any indication of the future, I’m going to need all the help from God I can get.
As I’m sitting in the breakfast area with my Bible open in front of me and various other guests are milling about, one of the hotel workers approaches me.
“Excuse me,” she hesitantly says, “I noticed your Bible and was wondering if you would read me a Word.”
I’m pleasantly surprised and definitely taken off guard. My heart begins to pound as I pray about how to respond and what to share. I quickly settle the latest passage in the Psalms I just read.
I can’t remember now which one it was, but I do remember the joy and assurance of God’s purpose and love that flowed through me as I read aloud God’s Word and promises. When I finished, I looked up at the woman and saw those same sentiments and more reflected in her face. Her eyes seemed to be on the brink of tears and she looked as though a weight had just been lifted. We spent a few moments sharing our lives, and then she left to continue her work. I spent a few more moments reveling in the amazingness of God and storing the experience in my heart. When things began to seem impossible, I wanted to be able to pull out this moment and wrap myself in the knowledge that I was where God was leading me, wherever, whenever, and to whomever that may be.
Reluctantly, I gathered my things, checked out of the hotel, and began the process of taking care of life. The State Farm agent was of the small town quality I loved and was accustomed to. She eagerly and patiently listened to my complicated situation and offered to do everything she could to help me get the insurance taken care of. When I described where I’d be living and working, she expressed shock and caution of the people and area. This surprised and alarmed me. I wondered how someone living only an hour away could hold such opinions – as though that place was another world rather than another stateside community.
In standard small-town methodology, after we had finished the insurance business, I explained the issues regarding my blazer and asked for a recommendation on a mechanic. In standard small-town practice, she not only gave me a recommendation for someone she knew well, but also called him right then to see if he could fit me in and then let him know I was on my way.
When I arrived at the mechanic’s, I found him busy, but willing to help me immediately. In small-town fashion, we exchanged background experiences, and even discovered a common Kansas connection. He also expressed surprise at where I was headed and again I sensed the protective instinct. My Blazer was quickly evaluated, the part sought and found, and the problem fixed. He showed and explained to me where and what the problem had been, and then charged me only half of the price for the entire job, including the part.
As I left the town, I felt myself slightly overwhelmed by God’s presence and obvious hand in everything that had happened that morning. How good He is to stock us up on this assurance, right before we encounter less-than-encouraging situations!
I arrived at Passing Sheep School ready to face anything.
“I’m sorry, you’re house isn’t finished yet. It’s still being cleaned and worked on, but you can unload you’re things there and stay there tonight if you’d like. They’re actually going to be renovating those places, so I think they’ll be putting you guys in housing at C--.”
Deep breath. Think. All things considered, I politely thank the man in charge of the facilities, and decline, opting instead to make use of my local family connection.
After picking up my checks for the travel and required conference, I call my uncle and explain the situation. He enthusiastically agrees to allow me to stay over at their place and says it’s no problem for them to take me to the airport.
My uncle Tood is from the Navajo side of my family. Like my dad, he’s half Navajo but has an almost Mexican look about him. His marriage to a Navajo woman is what brought me down to the reservation the first time. In the traditional Navajo way, they now live on the land granted to his wife’s parents. His wife, Rita, takes care of her elderly mother, and they continue to care for the herd of sheep her father had carefully raised and managed.
In this unfamiliar new life, I’m loving the novelty of having family within close driving distance – only a couple of hours away.
I’m excitedly greeted by my cousins, whom I haven’t had the opportunity to see regularly for at least a decade. It’s a blessing for all of us to now be so close.
Their house is located at the top of a mesa. You can look all around and the only things you see are hills, mesas, skies, and a few lights and power lines – infinite quietness and infinite turmoil.
My uncle and one of my cousins take me to the airport and send me off with deep prayers. Not being certain of how many Believers will be at the school or in the area, I am so thankful to at least know I have the fellowship of my family to count on.
I’m alone as I check in and walk to the waiting area. It occurs to me that although I know there will be other people from the school on my same flight, I have absolutely no idea who they are or what they look like. I decide to keep my eyes peeled for any Navajos.
As the time for departure draws closer, I begin to see some trickle in. I watch and listen as they sit together and begin to converse, sometimes in Navajo, sometimes in English. I’ve traveled the world, spoken without hesitation to all kinds of people from all kinds of places, and suddenly feel shy at the thought of approaching the group and saying, “Hi. Do you happen to work at Passing Sheep School? I’m a new teacher there. Nice to meet you.” That is, however, what I finally get up the courage to do. The initial awkwardness over, they openly welcome me and introductions begin. I take a deep breath of relief and begin to feel the reservations I was beginning to feel towards the school slowly decrease. They’re Navajo, familiar, almost like family to me.
I’m very accustomed by now to flying, and then realize how much I’ve begun to take this part of my life for granted. I listen to the excitement of some of my co-workers as they board an airplane for the first time. For a few of them, it is the first time they will have traveled outside of New Mexico. On one of the flights, as I’m buckling myself in, I hear the stewardess stop at the exit row in front of me and address one of the Navajo women.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” she says slowly, loudly, and carefully. “Do – you – speak – English? Can – you – understand – what – I’m – saying?”
My mouth literally drops open in surprise. Do they actually do that here in America? I mean, I can understand when the Chinese stewardesses approach me in a similar manner, but I definitely do not look Chinese and not many people who don’t look Chinese can actually speak Chinese. My apologies for now sounding like a pompous International, but really America?
The Navajo woman merely nods her head and answers in the affirmative. I wonder what she’s thinking.
After the stewardess moves on, I can’t help but to lean forward and laughingly ask Elane if she speaks English. Fortunately catching on to the fact that I’m laughing at the stewardess and not at her (sorry stewardess), she laughs with me and lets loose very fluently just what her thoughts were about the exchange. The passengers sitting in the seats around us quickly catch on to the full import of what happened and we are soon joined in our amusement of the entire episode. Aw, random stranger bonding.
I look forward to meeting and getting to know the rest of the staff. And a paid week of training in Oregon doesn’t sound like too shabby of a deal either.
(To Be Continued In Part 3 -- whenever I can get it written)