Navajo Route 20 is one of those roads you can only find if you’re looking for it. The epitome of rural, is stretches almost 40 miles from Gap, a town you won’t find on Google Maps, to Lechee, near Page. Only a few miles of either end are paved. The rest is a rough, washboard road that winds through the western desert of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. The only real marker of its existence is a flashing sign warning drivers that the road is closed — an attempt to keep curious tourists out.
The road cuts through the heart of the arid ancestral lands of the Diné. The desert between Tuba City and Page is perhaps one of the last true wildernesses in the southwest. The only signs of human habitation are the horses that munch on patches of sagebrush and grama grass, the cows standing under a windmill to escape the scorching sun and the road itself.
In places, the road is deep, loose sand. Gaping pits wait to devour unsuspecting vehicles. In others, the road is smooth sandstone that has been worn down by winter rains and truck tires. In some places, the road almost disappears entirely; swallowed up by the hungry desert.
Even in my SUV, the road was treacherous. The washboard texture rattles the frame and sharp rocks leap out to slash at tires. Smaller cars than mine would not be able to make the trip. The only reason to be here at all is to avoid the 3-hour detour around a section of US-89 that collapsed last month. Long forgotten Navajo Route 20, which runs parallel to the 89, is now the fastest way to Page. And the adventurous or foolhardy are trickling in.
Near Lechee, at the northern terminus of N20, construction crews are trying to level the dirt road in preparation for paving. Power lines loom on the horizon as they converge on the Navajo Generating Station to the north. The modern world is forcing its way in. There is pressure to make this road safe for travelers. The 89 is going to be out of commission for at least nine months to shore up the ground beneath the highway and Scottsdale elite want access to their houseboats on Lake Powell.
The desert, like everything else in Indian Country, is being tamed. But the desert has its own way of existing that puts it at odds with developers and governments that want to control it. Wind may bury the road in sand; a flash flood may wash it away.
Maybe they’ll succeed in transforming Navajo Route 20 into a corridor for commerce and tourism. Or maybe it will fight back.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer and driver of dangerous roads. He lives in Flagstaff, AZ and in the Series of Tubes, where you can follow him on Twitter: @jonnyeberle. Thanks for reading!
Wind whips along U.S. Route 160, a two-lane rural highway that stretches like an obsidian necklace across the sandstone hills and valleys of the Navajo Nation. Sand blows from one dusty shoulder to the other in long trails that twist and wriggle like ethereal snakes. A row of plywood booths is strung out from the road. Brightly painted signs try to entice drivers to pull over. “Art Sale,” one reads. “Native American Arts and Crafts,” reads another.
Susan Gregg, a resident of Tuba City, shares a booth with a friend, where she sells her handmade jewelry. She handpicks every stone and grinds and polishes each one. Such intimate contact with her work has given her almost encyclopedic knowledge about each one. All of her jade comes from Alaska. She finds picture jasper in the hills around Prescott and quartz from geodes on the Reservation. Most of the materials she uses are believed to have special healing powers, she explains. Juniper seeds were worn to funerals to protect mourners from the spirit of the deceased.
“I remember finding stones when I was a child,” Gregg says. “My grandfather let me herd his sheep when I was just a little girl. I would go out and take an old coffee can with me to hold the stones I found.”
Gregg retired from her job at the Social Security Administration in 2001, after which she taught herself to make jewelry from patterns she found online.
“I am one of those people who doesn’t like to be idle. I like to keep busy,” she says. She gets supplemental income from selling her work at the booth, but admits that times are tough, even during the holidays and tourist season.
“It’s a good hobby, but you don’t get rich doing it,” she says.
Gregg isn’t the only one who has noticed a decline in the economy of the Navajo Reservation recently. Entrepreneurs across the Reservation have seen a slump in sales. Some people like Genevieve Gonnie, who runs a food stand out of a trailer in Leupp, Ariz., blame the Nation’s restrictive leasing process for hampering the start of new businesses.
Dolly Lane is the Principal Economic Development Specialist at the Navajo Nation Regional Business Development Office in Tuba City, AZ. Her second story office overlooks a small, nondescript strip mall. Multiple windows in the building have been broken and covered up with sheets of plywood. Shards of glass litter the ground below and glitter in the late afternoon sun.
Lane is one of the people tasked with packaging all of the business leases for the western region of the Navajo Nation. She admits that getting permission to start a business on the Reservation is hard.
“First, you need to get permission from the people who have grazing rights on the land; who have livestock,” Lane says. “After you get land consent, you need to get a supporting chapter resolution. The Chapter members need to vote to approve it.”
Once business owners get permission from the other land users and from the chapter, then they have to get surveys conducted by the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department and the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife before the application is sent to Window Rock, where the lessee must pass a credit check and get approval from the Department of Economic Development. If there are no problems with their application or their credit, the president must then sign off on each and every lease before a business owner can break ground.
Lane estimates that the entire process can take one year if everything goes smoothly. Leases for new business sites last 25 years and usually come with an option to extend it for another 25 years.
“We’re encouraging communities to withdraw land and conduct surveys now to shorten the process,” Lane adds. Pushing lands through the review process could dramatically shorten the time it takes to get approval for a new business site.
Once businesses are approved, owners must still pay rent to the nation, though some businesses can get their first three years of rent waived if they’re building on the site, in an effort to help small businesses recoup their investments.
The combination of a long and complicated application process and the prospect of paying rent to the government is enough to dissuade many entrepreneurs from seeking legal status, preferring to set up temporary sites on the side of the road.
Nash Myers sells roasted, salted pinions and red chile tamales out of a cooler in the back of his red Ford F-150 on the side of Leupp Road. It was too hard on his family for him to be commuting over 100 miles per day and too expensive to pay for gas and maintenance on the truck, so he gave up his job in Flagstaff as a river runner.
“We’re doing pretty good now,” he says. “As long as we have money to pay our bills and put food on the table for our little girl, it’s good.”
Myers believes that the rural nature of the Reservation makes it easier for people to get jobs in border towns and harder for people in remote areas to get work.
“A lot of families only have one vehicle. So, if you have to go in to work one day, your husband or wife has to take the car and get gas and supplies. It’s tough,” Myers says.
Back in Flagstaff, Mandy Metzger believes that the root of the Navajo Nation’s economic problems is a lack of infrastructure. Metzger represents District 4 on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, which includes much of the western half of the Reservation.
“Some of the things we take for granted as pretty basic services are very hard to come by,” Meztger says. “It’s so far behind. Can you imagine communities not even having lights and water? I think if there were good roads and there was broadband; if there was power and light and water, then I think economic development could really flourish.”
“We’ve had a contract with [the Bureau of Indian Affairs] to maintain the roads, but because the BIA hasn’t been funded, they haven’t paid the county and so everything has stopped,” Metzger says, shaking her head as she points out some of the communities in her district on a large map covered with checkered squares designating private land and trust land.
“With winter coming, it’s a pretty critical situation, but we have to wait for Congress to provide the funding to the BIA to pay for the work. We need to have some funding for the tribes so they can actually catch up with the rest of the world.”
Metzger has only been in office for three years and has never known a Reservation economy that wasn’t struggling.
“It’s never been good while I’ve been in office. I’ve never known good times. I don’t know what they’d be like,” she says. However, she is optimistic that the new casino at Twin Arrows will help generate jobs for 600-800 people.
Sharon Doctor is the Assistant Director of Native American Student Services. She isn’t convinced that the casino is a good idea.
“I’m Navajo and from the get-go, I’ve been opposed to the casino. I’m very concerned that people on a subsistence income will spend it on the casino instead of buying the food they need.”
Doctor thinks the Navajo Nation should be trying to bring more businesses to the area, especially the green energy industry.
“My husband and I went to California and we saw those huge wind turbines to generate electricity,” she says as she props up a piece of poster board in the window to block the glare on her computer monitor. “He said, ‘Why can’t our tribe do that?’ We need to attract businesses to the Nation, not the casino.”
Jonathan Yazzie agrees with Doctor. Yazzie, like many Leupp residents, commutes to Flagstaff for work. He works for Developing Innovations in Navajo Education, Inc. (DINE, Inc.), a non-profit corporation that is “trying to get people back to farming,” he says. “We want to educate people about traditional farming methods. We recently spoke to the head chef at the new casino to see if we can get them to use local produce.”
Yazzie believes that the future of the Reservation is agriculture, not an increased emphasis on casinos and tourism. He is worried about the state of the economy, especially with unemployment rates hovering between 40 and 50 percent.
“I don’t believe in casinos,” Yazzie says. “If we’re going to have jobs for people, it’s good. But a casino? It’s a bad thing.”
Back at her booth on the side of Route 160, Susan Gregg doesn’t have an opinion about the casino. Her fledgling business is a more immediate concern.
“It’s not very good right now. The cost of living has gone up,” she says. “People want the quality; they want the silver, but they don’t want to pay the price.”
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer and really curious person living in Flagstaff, Ariz. He travels extensively, immersing himself in new cultures and experiences whenever possible. His thoughts on anything and everything are available in 140-character increments on Twitter: @jonnyeberle.
You can see Leupp from miles around, where it’s perched on a small plateau overlooking the high desert. Surrounding the town are dozens of small houses, each spread over several acres. Cows look up from grazing on small patches of yellowed wild grass to watch my car speed down the rough, two lane road leading into town.
On Leupp Road — the only named street in the tiny town of 1,605 — across a two-and-a-half foot deep trench filled with rainwater, sits an 18-foot trailer with a flashing LED sign in the window reading “Open.” Behind it, the Leupp Boarding School looms like a fortress and the spire of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pierces the clear blue sky. In comparison, the trailer looks insignificant, but it is the home of an unlikely success story. The smell of hamburgers and deep fried onion rings wafts over the whole area around the trailer, attracting several dogs. One car after another braves the deep puddle to get there. I follow suit, figuring that the locals know best.
Inside, Chris Begay and Genevieve Gonnie are busy preparing a brown bag special for a customer. In between orders, we chat about their business.
“We’ve been doing this for what? Three… Four… Four-and-a-half years?” Begay says, looking to his business partner.
“Yeah, four-and-half years,” Gonnie confirms.
Begay and Gonnie are the co-owners of L.A. Fresh Grill. They started by offering free fry bread to people who filled out credit applications back when they both sold cars. They soon found that they could make more money selling their food than they could on commission and so they set up on the side of the road one day with some fry bread. Three hours later, they sold out. Eight months later, they had enough money to buy their trailer.
They consider themselves fortunate to have done so well for themselves. Some of the other vendors parked around here have been selling the same thing for 20 or 30 years and still drive the same broken down vehicles, Begay says.
L.A. Fresh Grill has become a staple in Leupp. Regular customer Jonathan Yazzie is quick to inform me that the onions rings are “the best.”
“We had a couple older ladies drive all the way from Ship Rock just to come to our food stand,” Begay says with an air of pride. “We’ve sent fry bread to Miami —”
“—And Canada,” his aunt, who often comes to visit, interjects.
When asked about the state of the state of the economy in the area, though, their smiles fade a little. L.A. Fresh Grill has seen a decline in its clientele over the past year.
“It’s the economy,” Gonnie says, shaking her head bitterly.
Still, things are looking up for the pair. They have hopes of opening a permanent cafe, but it’s hard to get around the bureaucratic red tape.
“There’s a lot of favoritism with the Navajo Nation,” Gonnie says. She leans a little closer to the small window. “There are a lot of people who want to start things, but it’s hard to get permission to do it.”
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and social media manager in Flagstaff, AZ, where he enjoys referring to himself in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter at @jonnyeberle.