House at Walpi Village, Hopi Reservation, Arizona, c. 1918. Photoprint from nitrate negative, 10 x 13 cm., by Horace Swartley Poley. From the collections of the Western History / Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library, Denver, Colorado.
It was the summer of 1987 and I was returning with my friend Ed from my first and long-awaited trip to New Mexico–reluctantly, to say the least, because I had nearly instantly fallen in love with that state and didn’t at all want to go back to my regular life. My car was a gun-metal colored Volkswagen Jetta, which I had impulsively purchased new off a lot when a long period of economic austerity had ended with an inheritance from an elderly and kindly great-aunt. So I was rather carefree: new automobile, plenty of cash in my pocket, an enjoyable traveling companion and a great new enthusiasm which would periodically charm my thoughts for decades to come. All looked good. I planned to return to California, where a new job awaited, but to begin plotting my next vacation in the Southwest at the earliest available opportunity.
What I didn’t know was that the factory had sent a recall notice to all buyers of new Jettas. It was something to do with the fuel injection system, some small part whose name I have forgotten but which monumentally mattered when my car began to malfunction in the middle of the nearly 2 million acre Hopi reservation in north-central Arizona. I wouldn’t get the notice until I returned home, and meanwhile the stylish little Jetta would only go a mile or so at a stretch before coming to a halt. If I let it rest a bit, I could coax another mile out of it, but it was a rather frustrating and frightening way to travel. We drove about a hundred miles that way, miraculously managing to reach Las Vegas, Nevada, where the nearest suitable repair shop was located. And whence I had a very difficult time dislodging the enthusiastic Ed, who had previously railed against Las Vegas as representative of the worst in American superficiality and pointlessness, but who found to his surprise that he was charmed by the casino and resort atmosphere. But that’s another story altogether.
The three Hopi mesas are not to be forgotten. Unfortunately we saw them on a day of depressing gray overcast weather. I don’t think a single person was in sight at any of the tiny villages atop them which my Jetta crept through on uneven rocky roads. Eagles soared over vast plains below. Everything seemed to be made of jagged rock. We ate the traditional paper-thin ‘piki bread’, made of blue cornmeal paste smeared on a griddle, then baked quickly and rolled into dry scroll-like morsels. Walpi, a village which has only half a dozen permanent inhabitants today, is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the United States, founded in about the year 900 C.E. When the Spanish first came to the Hopi mesas in 1540, the Hopi priests had supposedly predicted the event many years before and drizzled a long thin trail of sacred blue cornmeal from top to bottom of one of the mesas to greet their guests. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s an image quite lovely to contemplate. I think about it fairly often.