Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Christmas Tale

Navajo Basket

Lost; with a fast moving winter storm approaching, I was totally and hopelessly lost in the wilds of southeastern Utah. To add insult to injury, I had left the house that morning without the essential tools needed to manage such a brutal encounter with nature. For years, I have purchased neat little gadgets guaranteed to ensure my survival in any situation. Space blankets; fire starters of every shape, size and intensity; a pinpoint GPS system; flare guns; satellite phones; and even a downed airplane beacon, you name it, I had it. The problem was that all of that nifty gadgetry was at home in the closet, safely stowed in a backpack ready to be dispatched in case of emergency.

Well, this was clearly an emergency! I was cold, tired and confident I would be spending the night snuggled up next to an unloving cedar tree. I had left the house early Christmas Eve morning, figuring my family would take advantage of the holiday and sleep late, which would give me a few hours to slip away and enjoy the pleasures of the outdoors. I was intent on driving west on U.S. Highway 95 and motoring across the juniper-encrusted flats which are broken up by alluring, outrageous canyons. During my drive, I found myself drawn off the pavement by a scenic dirt road that ambled through a dense cluster of gnarled junipers.

The drive was sensational to say the least, and the beauty of this natural world easily inspired my sense of wonder. The dirt track took me through clusters of trees interspersed with open areas of stiff, stumpy yellow grass and sagebrush of exceptional height. As I made my way north, I began to notice rock bugaboos. Those sandstone creations of wind and rain are what had brought me to my current predicament. I stopped the truck and wandered over to the nearest red rock upthrust and rubbed my bare hands over its exterior. I could easily sweep away the weathered outer surface and feel the form and texture of the base rock.

Looking around, I realized I was on the outside edge of a pocket of these strange formations. Their numerous and unusual shapes drew me in. The forms reminded me of mythical beings, grotesque to the point of sublime. Wandering through this natural stone garden, I became entranced and lost all sense of time. I was so engrossed in the variations of light and shadow playing upon the jumbled spires, fragrant junipers and mixed vegetation that I completely lost myself for several hours. When dusk arrived and snowflakes began to tickle my nose and eyelashes, I was caught completely unaware.

Hearing the distant hoot of a Great Horned Owl, I stopped dead in my tracks, looked around and recognized the danger of my situation. As the reality of my predicament sunk in, I realized I had been seduced by nature and was about to experience how cold and cruel she can be. Although I hate to admit it, when I discovered I had no idea where the truck was, I panicked a bit; okay, a lot. I took stock of my resources and shook my head in disgust; I was wearing only blue jeans, a light sweatshirt and walking shoes. I dug in my pockets and came up with fifty-six cents in change, a set of keys, a miniature pearl-handled pocket knife and a small turquoise stone I always carry for luck. I chuckled cynically to myself, and thought that after tonight I might have to find a new talisman; one that really works.

Stumbling forward, I looked for a cleft, crevice or depression in the rock to hole up in and fortify myself against the night that was rapidly approaching. As I made my way toward an outcropping of boulders, I was surprised by a flash of yellowish-tan fur. Jumping back with fright, I recognized a coyote skulking under a nearby tree. I wondered why the creature had not run off and left me to become tomorrow's meal. I heard a faint whimper among the rocks, and the coyote circled back, closer to where I stood. Looking down at the ground, I saw a myriad of tracks and realized I was near a den. I thought, "There must be another coyote in there; possibly one that is sick or injured." The coyote and I stood looking at each other in the gloom of the evening and maze of lightly falling snow.

As I studied the animal and it studied me, the story of the Navajo Long Walk came to mind. I recalled reading how, after spending five devastating years at the Bosque Redondo, a Navajo leader had received a vision telling him that a coyote would lead his people home. In response to the message, the People captured a coyote and held a sacred ceremony involving the beast. During the sing, the Navajo participants placed a gift of turquoise in the animal's mouth and released it, promising to follow in its tracks as soon as possible. The coyote quickly left the scene heading in a northerly direction. Soon after, the People were released from their internment. Following the path the coyote had taken, they returned to Dinetah; their homeland.

Reaching into my pocket, I felt the smooth, polished surface of the turquoise and wondered at its magic. The coyote was sitting on its haunches, watching me closely, so I quietly spoke to it, saying, "What do you think, do you want to show me the way home?" The animal looked at me warily and licked its lips. "That's not nice," I said out loud. I took the stone from my pocket and slowly made my way towards the den. The coyote became extremely agitated as I approached the pile of sandstone. I talked to the creature in a soothing manner, telling it the turquoise was an offering; informing the coyote that I could really use some help getting home for Christmas.

It was snowing hard by this time, and growing ever darker. I was cold, frustrated and had begun thinking I was really stupid for talking to a coyote and assuming it was able to understand my situation. Why would it even care. I backed away from the turquoise until I could barely see the stone through the darkness. I spoke to the coyote under the tree, saying, "I would love to spend Christmas with my family. Will you please show me the way to my truck?" The coyote moved forward in a slow cautious manner until it reached the piece of turquoise. It sniffed the blue mineral, and looked curiously in my direction.

Navajo Basket

The coyote slipped back into the rocks where its mate was hidden, and I guessed that would be the end of the story. In a moment, however, the coyote reappeared, eyed the turquoise and inspected me from head to toe. I must have looked like the Abominable Snowman by then, since I was plastered with snow and shivering mightily. "Please," I said to the coyote. "It's either that or you will have me as a house guest this evening." It seemed the coyote considered my statement and found the prospect of me staying unappealing. The creature shook its head and began to move away. I stood there watching and wondering, until the coyote paused and looked over its shoulder. The look it gave me seemed to say, "Well isn't this what you wanted?"

Shaking the moisture from my head, I started after my wild guide. It was completely dark by now, and snow was falling furiously. There were times when I could not see the coyote at all; with only the fresh tracks on the new fallen snow to guide me. I had been tracking the coyote for some time when serious doubts about the sensibility of my decision began to creep into my head. I thought I must be out of my mind to be following a wild animal in the middle of the night. If the coyote was as intelligent as I hoped, he was probably leading me to the edge of a cliff, which would solve a number of his problems in one single step.

I peered into the darkness and asked out loud, "Where are you leading me ancient one?" I brushed the snow from my eyes and squinted deeper into the night. To my utter amazement, I recognized the outline of my truck. Looking down at my saviour's tracks, I saw they led right past the front of my vehicle. I could not believe my good fortune, and scrambled to locate my keys, unlock my truck and fire up the heater to defrost myself and end my uncontrollable shivering. When I finally warmed both the truck and me, I hit the lights. There in the low beam, surrounded by whirling snowflakes, sat the coyote. Our eyes met, and I said with reverent gratefulness, "Thank you . . . and Merry Christmas!"

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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