By R.J. Howe
Hot acrid piss. It’s funny what triggers a memory. But, apparently it wasn’t that hot. By some scientific oddity, there was a steep enough temperature gradient between the piss and the scorching vishnu schist, upon which it fell, to produce steam. Now, before you judge, this act left no trace. Except for the pee-pee steam that momentarily wafted through the air. The liquid vaporized. Mmmmmaromatherapy. Namaste.
This June day in the desert was hot. How hot you say? It was so hot that the mythical “WaaaWaaaBraaaaaaaaaaaWaaa” legato of the digeridoo played steady in the back of my head and everyone present had that “WaaaWaaBraaaaaaaaaWaa” expression on their face coupled with the characteristic slow movement of large homo sapiens in an arid environment that showed little regard for their recreational endeavor.
This was someone’s vacation, and it was my job to have fun, keep it cool and get these folks back to the boats safely. Big desert canyon, the grandest of them all, is still really fun in the summer. Seriously, I’m not being sarcastic. It is so good! Even in June. At the very least, this was what our crew tried to tell the folks as they stumbled on loose rock, found delightful cactus piles and listened to the soothing sounds of the “dij” play a concert, not quite in the back of their heads, but more down near the brain stem (in that monkey part of your brain that, I think, is called the hippocampus).
Anyhow, amongst all this fandango, I couldn’t shake the hiking conversation, with an old guard boatman, out of my mind;
Tom: “Are you sure you guys aren’t pregnant?”
Me: “No, Tom. No, we are not.”
Tom: “So you guys aren’t trying.”
Me: “Well, kinda.”
Tom: “What do you mean kinda? You’re either trying or you’re not, you ignoramus! You guys are definitely pregnant.”
As the days in the ditch passed by and the wonderful rhythm of landscape and water took over, I still could not stop thinking about Tom’s words. It didn’t help that he would occasionally drop a, “Morning daddy.” Or a “Are you sure you’re ready?” But, Tom is a gentle enough mentor and a father himself. He slowly took me under his wing, and one night he told a story that will remain an inflection point on the trajectory of my life.
Tom read a Hopi legend about a boy from Tokonavi, near the confluence of the San Juan River. This legend is long. It comes from a tradition of oral history from the oldest inhabitants of the desert Southwest. It is tale of a boy who becomes a man as he travels down the length of the Colorado, in a wooden boat, to the Sea of Cortez and further into a multidimensional world that can only be digested with a Hopi frame of reference. As stars twinkled, hinting at the mysteries of our universe, Tom concluded the telling and said, “If you guys have a boy, you should name him Tiyo.”
“We’re not pregnant Tom. Good night.”
Driftwood plays a major role in Tiyo’s story. From his home on the rim, he watched glacial-like piles float through Glen Canyon on their way toward a void of unknown. His ancestors used beefy cedars, from the river, as kiva beams and headers for their T-shaped door ways. His father carved ceremonial and practical driftwood sticks, called pahos, that he would later use on his journey. And, ultimately, Tiyo convinced his dad to build a boat. Some versions of the story say the boat was made of driftwood logs, while others tell of a more ornate cottonwood sarcophagus pole-driven dory mixed with a kayak.
“What’s that in the water?”
“Hey Dan, grab a hold of that thing!”
Dan and I reach over the edge of the boat and pulled up a beautiful 10-foot driftwood cedar beam. This thing had been carved by countless rapids, flashfloods and preserved in water. It had sparkly pea-gravel lodged in its nooks and crannies and a sign that it was not an antiquity, staples holding down a fragment of poly-pro tarp. “It’s coming with us.”
We strapped it down as a spare oar and rowed downstream. As we hit shore, my buddy Rico exclaimed, “Who’s Tiyo log is that?”
Each night, I slept on the boat and lay my pillow on the log. The dreams that followed we’re beyond my comprehension. During one vignette, I was a tiny beetle on a beach near the mouth of the Little Colorado River. Part of the legend played out before me. Spider Woman called out to Tiyo. She told him to step through a portal in the sand. He said, “It’s too small, I can’t fit.” Spider Woman encouraged him, “Just try.” So he tried and passed into another world.
As an American of prestigious Euro-trash-mut lineage, my connection to the landscape of the West only goes back so far. Eighteen-ninety-eight, to be exact, when my great-great grandmother Maggie Weatherly and her husband, John R., arrived in Hutchinson County, Texas. They filed on four sections of land and lived in a stone dugout for seven years before they built a home, family and got into ranching.
They eventually established the town of Granada and opened a store, cafe, early telephone exchange and the first post office in the county. Maggie was the post-mistress. In 1926, John R. convinced some oil barons to further convince the railroad to build a spur to Granada (or Isom, Texas). But the boom promptly busted, and they went back to ranching.
My family stayed in cattle ranching until the late ’70s, when my grandfather Elbert died in a tragic accident that sent shock waves through the whole brood. His boys are still trying to figure out what to do and their girls and boys aren’t sure what any of it means. Yep, that’s it. Just over a hundred years of connection and understanding passed down through pictures and stories. Oil and ranching. But somewhere in there, the landscape of the West has shaped us all more than we are aware of. Like river stones slowly working their way to the sea, becoming a new shape with each turn and tumble. I can only sense it.
Tiyo, the boy from Tokonavi, came from an oral history culture that has its roots in the tail end of the Pleistocene. Hopi ancestral heritage goes back at least 3,000 years. He did not just sense landscape. Tiyo had a deep-rooted understanding of the physical space and ecological foundation that supported his existence. This understanding, passed down through generations, shaped his frame of reference and reality.
The dreams continued each night. The boy becomes a young man and a hero. He traveled through a multiverse of magic to an island in the Sea of Cortez. Tiyo and Spider Woman meet a snake-human deity, who tells them of the snake people who live in a land to the south. He eventually returns home with knowledge of the snake dance and a means to bring plentitude to his clan.
I wake from slumber and the dream of a river trip. As I drive toward home, over a red carpet of desert outback, the earth takes on a different shape beneath my feet. Daydreaming and a long road bring me to bed late. Deep sleep is broken by a scuttled noise in the bathroom. I walk in with fat eyes and see my love. Beautiful and shaking. “We’re pregnant.”
The blur that followed still hasn’t come into fine focus, but nine months and one day later, we came home holding a baby boy with no name. The nurses at the hospital did not like it, and the grandparents were pissed. He lived without a name for about three weeks. We tried other names like Jupiter Moon Beam and Paul, but nothing seemed to fit. So, after reaching out to a Hopi elder to make sure we weren’t crossing the line, we named him Tiyo.
It’s hard not to feel like a cliché honky. A trespasser who’s conveniently appropriated a culture that my ancestors squashed under their boots and pretty pallor shoes. But, I have to repurpose this fucked up old energy somehow. Sending it spiraling to the heavens in a profoundly positive direction. A prayer of respect. A recognition of a proud tradition and a hope that we can do better in the days to come.
Little boats in desert sand
Folds and fissures of our momma’s hands
These rusted ramparts and our bones
Shaped and softened into river stones
Time has her way with the lot
And there that remains is all we got
So, let’s live a little while we can
On little boats in desert sand