This blasted wind is all I have. It fills my head. It clouds my mind. It threads my clothes. It blows sand into my mouth and brings on black clouds, the smell of rain, and voices that stand out even above the howling.
I hear children’s voices, way off, in some place behind the beyond, but still clear, as though coming from lips pressed to my ear.
My partner, Edward McCain, walked off looking for the only thing photographers seek. Light. How strange to look at the world the way he does. To hunt light. To be consumed by it. To be in conversation one moment, and the light shifts, and something turns over in his brain, and he’s off, chasing one ethereal, always moving, always changing commodity. Light.
My own master is no less bizarre. A spirit.
I’m approaching a canyon on the western end of the Navajo reservation. This land, particularly Begashibito Canyon, is said to be inhabited by a benevolent force called the Good Spirit.
It’s a preposterous legend. Not a tale that could be told in my world without a nudge and a wink. Long beyond understanding.
But not up here, where the wind makes the rocks bow, a world of rust mesas, shimmering horizons that only get farther away as you move toward them, and moonlike ground so parched it could make a lizard weep.
I’ve been chasing the Good Spirit for almost two years. Several times I’ve come to this other world, searching. Now I feel as if I’m closing in. The children’s voices pull me forward.
We’re on foot, McCain and I. We had turned left off U.S. Route 160 some thirty-eight miles outside Tuba City, onto State Route 98 over Shonto Wash, then onto dusty reservation roads. We drove about thirty-five miles from the boarded-up Cow Springs Trading Post on U.S. 160 before we started walking.
They call it a canyon, but it’s so shallow it hardly seems to merit the description. The English name for this place is Cow Springs Canyon. Begashibito, pronounce ba-GOSH-ibito in Navajo, means “place where the cows water.”
The voices lead me down a split in the side of the wash that cuts the canyon, and I bounce on my rear end to the bottom. The wash banks are high, maybe twenty-five feet. They channel the voices and carry them to me, clear as the noon sun.
Still, I’m not sure they’re real. It might just be the wind talking.
McCain heads in the opposite direction, hauling his gear over fine sand, like he’s running in a dream. That’s what photographers do, run in their dreams hoping to catch fleeting light.
I go a long way. I don’t know how far, a mile, maybe, when a blast of thunder shakes the ground, and it occurs to me, for the first time, that I’m in danger.
I’m walking in a wash as though on a Sunday stroll, and there’s a storm building. Flash flood. The single most obvious peril of the desert didn’t occur to me until this instant, and even now that it has penetrated my consciousness, I feel no fear.
I keep walking toward the voices and out loud I say to myself something I don’t believe: “It’s the Good Spirit.”
My research brought me to one brick wall after another. Talking to a Navajo about spirits is a bit like being at the boss’s dinner party and mentioning the corpse propped at the head of the table.
Let me tell a story.
I’d stopped at the Old Red Lake Trading Post in Tonalea. A typical afternoon on the Big Rez. Pickup trucks whirled in, one after another, with bumper stickers that proclaimed: Rodeo!
Young men stepped out, shook off the dust, and strutted past, in uniform: slant-heel cowboy boots, turquoise rings, black Stetsons with rope hatbands and feathers dangling from the back brim. And that odd way Navajo men have of saying hello by pursing their lips. Those are the gregarious ones.
After an hour of leaning against the wall and watching the show, I went inside. The clerk was a young fellow, and beside him, at the movie-rental counter, stood three boys. They were imitating some variety of mayhem from the latest martial arts movie.
I wanted to ask about the Good Spirit. I had my presentation planned. My cover was a gum purchase. I dropped the gum on the counter. “Say, have you ever heard of a Good Spirit that inhabits the Cow Springs area?”
I swear, you would’ve thought I’d lit the fuse on a stick of dynamite and held it in his face. I’d noticed the corpse at the table. I pressed on, soothingly. “I read something about the Good Spirit of Begashibito Canyon. Gets people out of jams and such.” The clerk was so nervous, he couldn’t stop laughing. His shoulders shook. I took the hint and got out of there.
The truth is, stories are told of the Good Spirit. At least they’re told in print. A half-century-old magazine tells of a man riding through a sandstorm along what he thought was a trail into Begashibito Canyon.
But he got lost, and the storm grew violent. He felt his horse shake in fear beneath him. Squinting, he caught sight of something moving through the swirling air ahead of him. He had no idea what it was. Desperate, with no choice but to ride or die, he urged his horse forward.
The horse, suddenly finding its legs, followed whatever it was to safety. It was the Good Spirit, the man claimed later.
Three Navajo boys wandered from their mother’s sheep camp and got lost. Night fell. A search party was organized. When dawn broke, the children were seen walking serenely toward the camp. Asked how they found their way home, the oldest boy looked surprised. “Why, the man in the long coat came to us when the big star arose. We followed him.”
An old woman, also on horseback, was in the canyon when a rainstorm blew in, and with it came a tremendous roar. Soaking wet, she listened to identify the sound. Just then she saw the figure of a man walking out of the bed of the canyon wash. His head was bare, and he wore a gray robe tied with a rope at his waist and grass sandals. “I’d no sooner cleared the wash,” the old woman said, “when a great wall of water swept past, overflowing to the depth of several feet the place I had just left. I would have been slain by the Water Monster.”
The clouds hang low now, black beasts hovering above me. The wind blows relentlessly, almost painful as it hammers away.
As I struggle against it, I’m thinking about those published legends. Preposterous, inexplicable. But I realize again, as I always do on this great and unknowable reservation, that this isn’t a land of answers, only questions.
When McCain and I were wheeling along State 98, we drove over a pair of work gloves. Nothing around them, no other traffic, just two gloves.
They were on fire. Smoke rose off them, fanned by the wind. Neither of us said a word as we passed over them. A few hundred feet down the road, I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Did you see that back there?” I asked.
“I sure did.”
“What the heck was it?”
“Gloves? I don’t know.”
McCain turned around to get a look, but by then I was swinging into a U-turn. They were exactly what they appeared to be, burning black work gloves. Only by the time we got there, one of the gloves was gone. The other was still burning.
Preposterous. Inexplicable. Like the white saddled horse we saw tied to a range fence with no rider in sight. And no place for a rider on flat landscape without buildings or concealment to the farthest limits of our vision.
Here we were chasing a spirit, and we came upon burning gloves and a riderless horse. We did what people from our world do. We joked about it, had ourselves a good laugh.
The wash zigzags across the Earth, its walls revealing deep gashes from previous floods. The sand on the wash bottom shows red, and that makes the pile of animal bones stand out. They’re bleached white, scattered at my feet.
I step over them. Lightning splits the sky. It seems to bring the voices closer than ever. McCain catches up, and we crawl out of the wash and climb a hill and lie on our bellies to have a look.
Until this instant, peering over flat red tundra, I wasn’t sure the voices were real. Now I see them, three children, looking tiny in the distance playing and giggling in the wash. Nearby stretches a cornfield, with two women working it.
The scene appears idyllic. Like a painting. Peaceful to watch.
McCain and I kick around the idea of approaching and asking about the Good Spirit. But that would be foolhardy, two strangers appearing out of a wash to inquire about an apparition.
Reluctantly, feeling we again have failed to find what we were looking for, we drive on steep dirt hills out of Begashibito Canyon to Shonto Plateau and Indian 16. The long-expected downpour starts the moment we reach pavement.
“Wow,” I say to the racket of the rain beating on the car.
“Yeah,” says McCain, “if we hadn’t gotten out of there when we did…”
He looks over at me, and his voice trails off. Nothing more is said. But I can see the realization in his eyes. I recognize it because I have the same thought: Those children in the wash were protected, and they knew it. So were we, only the dictates of our world concealed it from us until just now. In following their gleeful voices, maybe we found the Good Spirit, too.
We stop joking about the burning gloves and the riderless horse and the rest of it. We don’t understand what any of it means, if there is anything to understand. But we no longer laugh. We drive on quietly in the rain.