August 5, 2016: The Oldest Towns in America
I was on a road trip to Northern Arizona with my friend Scott. We had both been to the Grand Canyon numerous times and wanted to see other things in the area. The night before, we drove from LA to Kingman and had intended to climb Humphrey’s Peak, the highest peak in Arizona. We woke up to discover that a severe thunderstorm was passing through the area and, being the highest peak in the state, would be a prime location for lightning strikes. We decided to call and audible and go east of the storm to the Hopi Reservation, about two hours east of the peak.
Thanks to Scott’s quick driving, we reached forested Flagstaff in just 90 minutes. From there, we left the freeway and headed on two-lane roads into the Navajo Reservation. Immediately we sensed a change, as the forests gave way to a wide-open plain as far as the eye can see. Decrepit huts and small compounds sparsely dotted the landscape.
After 120 miles of nothingness, we finally saw some buttes, mesas, and a small village. We stopped in the seemingly empty village. None of the buildings had any marking or signs, save for one large sign identified a building as an art gallery. We tried to go into the art gallery, but it was closed.
Disappointed, we continued on. The road forked to two points unknown. We picked the left fork and drove up a mesa to another village. Once again, we saw a sign for an art gallery and followed it off the highway and onto dirt roads through the village. Unlike the last one, this village had some semblance of life, as people were walking around.
We stopped outside a group of unmarked buildings unsure of which one is the art gallery. Eventually, a lady walked outside and beckoned us in. There, she showed us around the tiny studio where her husband was creating silver jewelry. Apparently the Hopi are known worldwide for their unique style of silversmithing called the Hopi Overlay. The Overlay is made using two pieces of silver. The design is cut out of the top layer before being soldered to the bottom layer. The process is painstaking, but creates some of the best silver designs in the world.
I quickly looked at the prices- $250 for a small bracelet and just over $1,000 for the coolest bolo ever seen. Way out of my price range, but certainly cheaper than anything in a retail store. Because they were so nice and we would have felt bad not buying anything, Scott bought a bookmark for $3.
It was now close to noon, we were hungry, and wanted to set up a tour of the villages. So, we drove over to the only tourist facility on the reservation. It was on Second Mesa. I walked into one of the gift shops that offered tours. I asked if they could run a tour for me and Scott. The lady picked up the phone and called a couple people on their cell phones before saying that everyone was out of town, but that she would try to find someone and in the meantime we should get lunch.
I ordered a stew of hominy and beef and some frybread. It wasn’t all that tasty, but then again I have no palate reference to base this off. While we were eating, an older lady walked up to the table and asked if we still wanted a tour guide. We said yes, and she said she would be our guide for $30 per person. The catch was that we would have to drive her in our car as her car was somewhere else. We agreed and after paying the bill, we took off with our new friend.
As this was the most informal of tours, we had no set itinerary and she did not have a script. It was essentially an opportunity to just talk with her while driving around the mesas. We first drove over to First Mesa, home of the best-preserved Hopi Villages. As we drove into the 1,000 year-old mesa-top village, she pointed us to a large sign warning us not to take photographs of the village. There was no explanation, but I can guess that this is to avoid turning the Hopi into an exotic photo show that could lead people to consider them lesser or more primitive humans. While discouraged by the elders, many Hopi children apparently have smartphones and use applications like Snapchat and Instagram. We were free to take pictures of the beautiful landscape from the village.
The inhabitants of the mesa-top villages live as their ancestors have for nearly 1,000 years- without running water and electricity. As a result, modern towns have been built at the bottom of the mesas. I asked whether the population of the towns have decreased as a result of technology and mobile phones. She seemed to misunderstand the question and responded by saying that young people are entering the world and old people are leaving the world at about an equal rate.
We were going to walk around the village of Walpi, apparently the best-preserved village, but it was closed to tourists due to a 15-day ceremony. Instead we drove over to Third Mesa to the village of Old Oravi. This village claims to be the oldest continuously occupied village in the United States. They were also very strict about not allowing pictures. Additionally, visitors were only allowed with a guide. There was also a strongly worded sign telling people to not go to the church. In 1680, the Spanish forced the Hopi to convert to Catholicism, but the Hopi successfully revolted. In 1901, the Menonites established a church in the city, but in 1942 it was struck by lightning. Twice. The Hopi consider lightning to be a bad omen, thus being struck by lightning twice is most certainly a terrible curse. Therefore, the church is strictly off-limits to everyone and all churches are now banned in Old Oravi although ironically there is a Menonite church in nearby Kykotsmovi.
Our final stop of the tour was the Prophecy Rock, a petroglyph about a mile outside of Old Oravi. The rock had petroglyphs of people with canes. This is a metaphor for the Hopi people. While the world moves fast and empires rise and fall, the Hopi move through time slowly. They do not die out young and hope to live long enough to need a cane. They have survived in their homeland for nearly a thousand years and they intend to stay there forever. That is why they shy from visitors, why they do not adopt a modern lifestyle- if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
We then drove back to Second Mesa where we dropped off our guide. After paying her and a quick goodbye, she unceremoniously walked away. Driving away, Scott and I were both in awe of being able to get a brief window into one of America’s least understood and reclusive groups. For anyone looking into a unique adventure in northern Arizona, I would highly recommend a visit to the Hopi reservation.