|Current day Oraibi--note the combination of original stone and modern cinder block
The woman at the water station ahead was shouting to all of the runners as they passed. We were in a lonely stretch of desert about three miles west of Oraibi, a small village near the western edge of the lightly populated Hopi reservation, which is surrounded by the U.S.'s largest Indian reservation (the Navajo Nation), which itself is located in the most remote corner of Arizona. To put it another way, we were in one of the most isolated places in the country without a significant polar bear population.
Another runner passed the woman.
I don't know many Hopi words but that one I recognized.
"Emily, do you know what that woman is saying?"
"She's saying thank you."
The woman was spending a hot Saturday morning handing water to runners along a remote dirt road in the middle of the desert, and she was thanking every one of them as they passed. Man, I thought, suddenly able to put my finger on what was so special about this race, these people are utterly unique.
When I reached the woman she handed me a cup of water and then tossed the contents of another cup on my back which had been baking in the bright sun. It felt great. I started to thank her but she beat me to it.
|Third Mesa seen from the east. Oraibi is just left of center; the ruins of the church are farther left.
The two hour drive from Holbrook to the Hopi reservation is the type of drive that makes you second-guess your vehicle maintenance. When we left I-40 a few miles east of Winslow, we were already in country straight out of an old Roadrunner cartoon or Pixar's Cars (Radiator Springs was based on Holbrook and other Route 66 towns).
|Oraibi in 1899
|Another vintage photo of Oraibi, this one from 1896
(You may notice that I don't have any pictures of my own from inside the village. This isn't by accident. As a general policy the Hopi discourage photography in their villages in order to protect the privacy of the residents. Considering the average temperament of the people I've met it's hard to imagine actually being called out on it, but given the incredible graciousness with which we were welcomed the last thing we wanted to be was rude so we left the camera in the car.)
We picked up our packets and then drove back to the Cultural Center on Second Mesa to pitch our tent. After that was done, we decided to have dinner at the Center's restaurant. The food was a combination of typical American (burgers, etc.) and the Mexican-Indian fusion that many Arizonans would recognize ("Indian tacos" and tostadas--tacos and tostadas on frybread). One thing I'd never had before was blue frybread (most Indian frybread is made with normal flour); presumably they make it with blue corn flour in addition to wheat flour.
It seemed like the middle of the night when the alarm on my phone went off. We packed up our campsite in the dark and got in the car. It was only when I started the car that Emily noticed that our car's clock was an hour earlier than what we thought the time was. Not again... My phone was apparently getting its signal from a tower on the Navajo reservation (which observes daylight savings time) instead of one on the Hopi reservation (which, like the rest of Arizona, doesn't). Oh well, at least we weren't going to be late.
Late we weren't. We got to Oraibi in time to see the sun rise over Second Mesa (a gorgeous sight). We had plenty of time to wander around, take in the scenery and meet people while the fun run and 5k started. The people we met were fantastic--quietly friendly and welcoming, with a wonderful perspective on running. Emily struck up a conversation with a middle-aged woman who talked about how the Hopi run for strength and prosperity rather than for finishing times. This certainly seemed consistent with what we were seeing. Instead of the atmosphere of your typical 5k/10k--a small bunch of semi-competitive men (always men, it seems) in singlets and expensive shoes jostling for a place at the starting line, a crowd of women in tutus (usually, but not always women) acting like they're at a party and on their third martini, local residents irritated at not being able to drive their normal route home--the atmosphere of this race was quiet and noncompetitive.
|Pictured: someplace at least 200 miles from Oraibi.
When the call came for the 10k we shuffled over to the back of the group. It was obvious that was where we were going to end up anyway. The largest percentage of the runners were Hopi and Navajo teenagers. All were very fast, at least one was wearing a Foot Locker regionals shirt, and many were wearing ratty old sneakers. There were a smattering of white runners as well but we were definitely a minority.
|The race took us past this church, which was burned down in the 1680 pueblo revolt
And probably no runners. The fact that we were allowed to come and run with them, here, was amazing to me. I felt honored, and very out of place.
And then people started thanking me.
It wasn't just that one woman. We were thanked by at least a dozen people. All the aid station volunteers were thanking everyone, including Emily and me, for running. We were both taken aback by it. From what I can gather, in the Hopi tradition running brings blessings to a village and by running we were bringing blessings as well, and so we were met with sincere gratitude. It was an amazing experience.
The post-race refreshments were an eclectic mix of Gatorade, melon, and piki bread, the traditional Hopi bread made from blue cornmeal and ash, baked paper thin and rolled up.
I can't wait to go back for Paatuwaqatsi.
Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?