This semester, I have had the life-changing and humbling experience of taking a Watauga Residential College class called “A Walk in Beauty.” The first half of the semester was spent furiously reading book after book about native culture and history of the Southwestern United States. My favorite book, and now part of my ever-growing Permanent Collection, is called Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland by Terry Tempest Williams. She is a storyteller and a storymaker--one of those people who draws you in and keeps you until you come to the last page and realize that you’ve read the whole book in just a few hours. I want to write like her. But more importantly and even more urgently, I want to see and be a story in the way that she is, honest and simple.
“There have been mornings in Utah when I appreciated the Wasatch Range. Many when I have not. The mountains are always there. It is I who fade in and out of the valley.” - Terry Tempest Williams
This quote is everything for me. Over Spring Break we traveled to Arizona and New Mexico to live, work, and learn with host families in the Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni Reservations. Our ten-day pilgrimage was a journey of getting lost and half-way finding ourselves again. Our life there was real and simple. Each morning, we would wake up, “bathe” ourselves with those travel packs of face wipes, and head out the the sheep corral. For hours we stood on that blessed square of land, digging out four years of accumulated sheep poo. I would like to say, just so you know, it was at least a foot-and-a-half deep. And I’ll never forget it.
We saw the Katchinum come. We watched them dance, a rare and oh-so-special opportunity. We noticed how the entire crowd, sitting on rooftops, moved their bare feet, dangling over the plaza, in unison to the beat of the drum.
I burned my fingertips on a smoking-hot, stone griddle trying to spread the blue corn piki batter thin like Jessica, our Hopi host mother, could. We worked in the Women’s Garden, on an intricately terraced hill surrounded by spring houses carved out of stone. We were there as the sun set, slipping behind the towering walls of Canyon de Chelly, drinking slightly-sandy tea made with water from the stream. We shivered in the cool desert air as Andrew, our Navajo host father, spun a tale of nameless skinwalkers and remembered his days of high school basketball.
And then, we showered. For the first time in over a week. It was glorious. My white washcloth turned brown as I scrubbed dirt and sweat (and probably sheep feces) off of my skin. There was a moment in between stepping out of the shower and collapsing into the hotel bed where I could see myself, just two weeks ago. It was a moment where I had a choice even though I didn’t realize it until later.
Let it all go, let it flow down the drain with my shampoo. And begin to forget, overwhelmed by this world of clean sheets and microwaves. Or see it. Let it wash over you, smoothing your rough edges, giving you vision like you’ve never known before.
I loved it. We all did. It was medicine. It was just what I needed. We earned each meal with our sweat and truthfully, our tears. We savored every drop of precious water. I think we all saw Beauty there. I now know what it feels like...to be beauty, to be in it. The challenge is bringing it back home. Taking apart each day, separating out what matters, what means something. And putting the pieces back together again, renewed, refilled, remembered.
Written by: Grace Bowling