Squatting in Nola

I skipped my "hometown" and came to New Orleans a few days ago to take my mind off some things.

New Orleans is fucked up, and so am I, so we fit real good right about now. I spent the first night sleeping on a warehouse's roof. Luckily it didn't rain. Last night I found an old apartment building just west of the Central Business District on a very prestigious street. It's damn hard to get inside of, but that makes it very nice for me.

It'll keep me out of the rain and safe from some of the meaner tramps and crackheads who are wandering about this crippled city on the post-Katrina Gulf.


He picked me just outside of Shonto, a little town on the Navajo Nation’s western edge. The first thing he said was, “this is some revolutionary stuff, man!” He was waving his hands excitedly to the music blasting out of his stereo. “Stever Earl, The Revolution is Now.”

His name was Ron. First appearances – besides the initial talk of revolution – had me fooled. I thought he was a dyed in the wool, god bless America, good old boy type. But his words immediately gave a different impression, with talk of revolution, peace, and stories that show a more profound respect for all things and people.

As we ride toward Page he flips CDs in and out of his trucks stereo. He’s in two bands, one of them, Lake Powell City sounds like a twangy country-esque get up. The songs are about everything from bad break ups to river rafting down the Grand Canyon. His other band, called Justice and Faith, or something like that sounds much heavier, more metal. His girlfriend is the singer. He plays bass and does the arrangements. He says he’s lucky to be in a couple of bands because Page is pretty boring.

Page is boring. Ron drops me off at the library, bids me farewell and hands me a copy of his Lake Powell City. I’m in the town for no more than 1-hour. Getting out seems damn near impossible. The tourist on their way to Lake Powell or the Grand Canyon just roll by and stare at me. About one third of them look at me scared, another third laugh, and the last third work hard trying not to make any eye contact. Ron pulls up after a while and saves my day. He’s got to drive out beyond the lake, drop some parts off at the Ranger’s station, so he can give me a lift out of town he says. On the way to the lake we get a great view of it from above.

“See the water level?” he asks me.
“See how low it is? Global warming man. Maybe those cats in Washington think this stuff’s made up fairy tale, but it’s real. The water’s dropping and has been for some time now. Here, well stop at the damn so you can see that.” We pull up right before the Glen Canyon Damn, the massive wall of concrete that plugs the canyon and creates the sprawling Lake Powell. It’s terribly hot. Down below water rushes out of the turbines at the base of the enormous structure. Power lines dangle about all around carrying electricity far and wide.

After Ron drops me off on the edge of town I only manage to catch two rides which take me a very short distance. Finally a guy named Dan pulls over and offers me a lift all the way to the highway 9, where the road splits off through Southern Utah toward Zion National Park. Dan is wearing full army fatigues. The first words out of his mouth are, “you carrying any weapons or drugs, knives, or anything like that?”
“No,” I assure him.

“Iraq is fucked up,” he says. But he seems to believe that the USA can win it. Dan launches in and out of long monologues about military strategy replete with numerous anecdotes from the field. Never once does he discuss the legitimacy of the war. He says several times that he believes like the President says, “if we don’t fight the terrorist over there, we’ll have to fight them here. People don’t understand what we’re dealing with over there. These people are raised to want to die for their crazy religion. Well, like Gen. Tommy Franks said, ‘we’re [the American military] here to give them that opportunity!’”

Dan says the Iraqi people are subservient and sheepish and that it’ll take two or more generations to change this. As an example he describes a scene he was aware of. Two hundred Iraqi soliders and police freshly trained were on buses outside of Baghdad. Six men with AK-47s pulled their buses over. The men on the buses had no weapons, but they far outnumbered the six hooded men. “Nevertheless,” Dan explains “All two hundred men let themselves be lined up and shot. These people aren’t fighters, they have no sense of individual responsibility. Their religion and culture have trained them to want and need authority.”

“Iraq is a clusterfuck.” Dan says foreign nationals have largely been hired out to drive the trucks around the country to supply the war effort. Turkish men, Bulgarians, all sorts of wierdos from all over. He says these men are insane. To make his point he tells me, “I seen this one time, this guy was amazing, he had Afro-rigged, no, no, Hadji-riggeed a line with shoestring and a belt to his engine’s throttle switch which had broken. He’s leaning out the window opening up his throttle by pulling on this string. He’s doing this at night in a heavy downpour, wind whipping against his face, you can just see him gritting his teeth in pain.”

He asks me what I think of hurricane Katrina after I tell him I’m a sociologist who’s studied it. I tell him a few things, mostly critical of the federal and local government responses. He says, “okay, not to be racist,” but those black people have hurricane parties and they just wait till everyone else leaves town, then after the storm comes through they just go out and loot everything.”

Dan drops me off at the highway junction. I’m glad to be finished with his company. But I know this nation is full of young men like Dan. It’s a frightening thought. I climb a small hill above a wash overlooking a gas station and several motels. On top I spread out my sleeping bag and lie down beneath the stars of southern Utah.


Tuba City, Dino Tracks, Uranium...

Truckers rarely ever pick me up. Mostly it’s because they’re on a schedule and need to make good time to their destination. A few more than usual picked me up on this trip. Out of Flagstaff a young trucker named Cody gave me a lift into the Navajo Nation past Cameron.
“Where you headed?” he asked me early in our conversation.
“Tuba City.”
“What’s in Tuba?”
“I’ve never been in that part of the Navajo Nation, I want to meet some folks, see some things. They’ve got this new interactive museum out there and some historical sights I need to see…”

Cody must have thought I was crazy. “Be careful in Tuba City, I’ve heard some horror stories from other truckers about those crazy Indians out there, drunks and weirdoes, you know….”
“I’ve never had a problem,” I replied. I wanted to say a little more, I wanted to call him out on his bullshit perceptions of the Navajo, but I rarely challenge anyone who gives me a ride. You know, it’s all smiles, uh-huhs and laughs. I rarely do or say anything to upset the driver, to let him in on my views about the world and my brothers and sisters, black, brown, queer and colorful. But it’s hard to let so much racist and sexist bullshit fly. I’m sorry to say it, but truckers that have picked me up have for the most part fit their stereotype: white men who are quick spit on “niggers, Indians, and Mexicans,” and even quicker to crack a joke about rape or women’s inferiority and call any man who doesn’t fit their model a “fag.” And they usually expect their hitch-hiker to laugh and concur. I mostly just nod and bit my tongue, change the subject.

Cody dropped me off at the junction to the 160 to Tuba City. I only had to wait 10 minutes before my next ride. A young Navajo man named Luke, about my age, stopped for me. He said he’d take me into Tuba city, but was also surprised to see me headed there. “There ain’t much in Tuba,” he explained. On his center consol sat a glass pipe and lighter. Luke smoked weed. He asked me if I did. I said sometimes. He said it’s natural. I agreed. He said alcohol is poison, he stays away from that stuff. It’s killed and fucked up too many Navajos for him to touch it. Besides, it’s banned on the reservation, and marijuana is practically easier to come by.

Luke turned down a tiny dirt road off the highway. “Here, I’ll show you the dinosaur tracks,” he said playfully. Sure enough a sign on the road advertised “Dino Tracks!” We stopped by a few roadside stands where some elder Navajos sat under shade selling rugs and silver turquoise jewelry. Just a few meters away were large tracks embedded in the sandstone, some kind of enormous three toe-ed monster from the past.

Luke and I got back in his truck and headed to Tuba. “See, on this side,” he said pointing left to the North, “this is Navajo land. On that side, that’s Hopi,” he explained. You’ll see, it’s funny. The Hopi don’t have anything on their side, not even a store. They’re always complaining, trying to get more land from us, but they’re not going to.” Luke said there was tension between the tribes over land, always had been. He said the Hopis were angry because the government left the Navajo with more land, some of it that was Hopi.

Sure enough, on the Hopi side of the highway there were only a few scattered houses. They were farming corn on the banks of Moenkopi Wash. On the Navajo side were stores and many more houses, little to no corn, and a few corrals holding sheep and cattle. “They complain, but they’re not getting any of our land,” Luke said bluntly. I asked Luke about uranium mines and mills. He said there were a few mines close to town, now closed up, sealed off with concrete. The old mill was beyond the edge of town. “Man, as a kid we used to play in that, in those buildings, in the dust and stuff. We didn’t know any better. Nobody told us not to.” Luke looked about my age, mid-20’s. So if only 10-15 years ago he was playing in abandoned uranium mills, around tailings, dust, radon and other elements, how big and unknown a crisis is this still brewing in and around the Navajo Nation?


Day one began in Flagstaff. I wandered around town mostly looking for a free lunch and dinner. Flagstaff is a great western rail city. The trains scream through the town every few minutes crying out loud with whistles and the squeaking wheels over iron rods, twenty-four-seven, non-stop. Flag is full of travelers making it a pretty fun town to drop through. The cops are mean, but easy enough to avoid if you take care. The city’s tourism and university economy make it easy to live on the cheap or for free. And Flag is surrounded by beautiful pine wooded forests making camping out at night a pleasure. In the summertime it's a hobo's paradise. Watch out for the winters, they're bitter cold.

Up and down the main strip of Flagstaff, the old Route 66 that has become built up with shopping centers and corporate stores I wandered looking for food or other freebies. There’s few good places to rest, but a lot of places to look for a meal, and many places to steal from. I like to steal. I shoplift from corporations only. I never steal from individuals or small businesses. My kleptomania is for the sake of anti-capitalism, not for the sake of itself. WalMart, Target, Barnes and Noble, Safeway, Walgreens, fuck em’ all. I steal from them like no other. I mostly take food, but also other necessary supplies like maps, tools, medicine and whatever else I can use at the moment.

Flag’s houseless population is composed of two main groups. One group is mostly older white tramps and hobos. The other is mostly Dine men, young and old, alcoholics mostly wandering off the res, looking for something they can’t find. Then there are travelers like myself who bounce through town. The jail in Flag is full of Navajos and Chicanos. I’ve met a few white men who’ve given me rides around the area, men who’ve been in the jail for drunk driving and other crimes. The first thing they all remark about is how the jail is filled with “Indians and Mexicans.” The racism of the police force is notorious among people of color who live on the streets around Flag. Unlike me they cannot rely on racial privilege to blend in, to avoid being stopped, interrogated, locked up, brutalized.

The next several days I spent wandering about Flag, dumpster diving at several bakeries and food stores and resting and reading near the old town tourist district….

The painting in this post, "Flagstaff Bound," is a work by Shonto Begay: “Born on a Navajo reservation sheep camp to a weaver of Tonalea storm patterns and a respected medicine man, as a boy Shonto was removed from his Hogan home and forced to attend a government boarding school away from his family and culture. Now he reclaims his identity through his art, balancing the harsh realities of reservation life with the amazing beauty found among its canyons and mesas. “I am very mindful that painting has saved my life many times over,” says Shonto. “It is how I’ve been able to dilute and even heal my own personal tragedies.”

The bug

Every now and then the bug hits me, the bug, the thing… it, that urge or feeling beyond anxiety, beyond need. It’s a feeling that propels me to travel, to seek it out, whatever it is. It usually leads me to hitch hiking. Thumbing rides from state to state, park to park, city to city with nothing but a sleeping bag, change of clothes, maybe a few books and a harmonica. Sure, it’s silly and romantic, but I’m shameless about it. It’s my one white/male privilege I abuse and use beyond reproach. It’s my absurdly beatish and wannabe bluesy past time. My thumb, backpack, a few dollars, and a smile cracking on my face as I skip down the road, place to place.

There’s no greater feeling to me than riding hundreds of miles a day through desert heat, high mountain passes and dense forests, landing in some unknown countryside or town, meeting random folks, experiencing the kindness of strangers and the all to familiar sting of the mean and distrustful hordes. It’s real. It’s tiring. It’s thrilling.

The next few posts are about a recent trip I made through the US Southwest.... Enjoy....