On 10th August, I drove north on US-163 toward Monument Valley (on the Utah-Arizona border). We had spent the previous night in Kanab, UT, and thus, in keeping with the Hollywood western theme, were headed for a rendezvous with John Ford‘s playground. I had noted that the Valley lay within the Navajo Nation, that the ‘Monuments’ were located in a Navajo Tribal Park. We were driving through the Nation in the afternoon, and lunch beckoned. Like all good travelers today, we checked our Yelp app for local recommendations. We were informed that we were in a ‘food desert’ and that the only decent eating establishment was to be found in a chain hotel. We checked that venue out but were told it was closed and would only open, much later, for dinner. A little later, we spotted a sign for a restaurant and pulled over. The interior decor was unsurprisingly, uninspired; the menu’s offerings even more so. Rather startlingly, they were quite expensive. (Among them was a ‘Navajo taco‘ priced for ten dollars; the story behind the Navajo taco’s fry bread is well worth a read.) We settled on a ‘mixed’ plate that would let us sample a taco and a tamale.
To put it mildly, the food that was served to us was inedible. We were looking at a plate of ‘poor people’s food’: singularly non-nutritious, and expensive too, just to add insult to injury. The meats on it were tasteless (indeed, we were not sure that the substance we were consuming was ‘meat’), the breads limp, the sauces watery, and the ‘salsa’ served on the side had been prepared from tomato paste. That last item made our food edible for we were able to smother the plate with enough of it to add some flavor; without it I would not have had the courage to wade through its offerings. We were also, incidentally, in a ‘dry’ locale so I could not wash down my lunch with a beer.
We looked around to see if this ‘restaurant’ was only frequented by tourists able to afford its offerings. Not so; a few locals were also seated around us. At that moment, it all came together; the heat and the glare outside; the ugly sprawl of buildings, shop-fronts and pick-up trucks; the bad food. The grimness of the ‘Nation’ was a little unrelenting. Somehow, we forced a few morsels down our gullets, settled the check, and, still a little shaken, left.
The immiseration of the Native American is supposedly well-known to us but to be confronted with its various manifestations is still an experience that has not lost its capacity to induce shame. There, in the simple business of a lunch at that eating establishment, we had come face to face with it.
Later that night, we drove into Moab, playground of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers of all stripes. After checking into a motel, we found a microbrewery and drove over for dinner. As I drank my first beer, a rather delicious Belgian ale, and perused the menu’s sundry offerings of salads, sandwiches, steaks and the like, I pondered my distance, physical and circumstantial, from the meal I had been served earlier that afternoon. We were just a few hours north of the Navajo Nation, but seemingly on a different planet.
The American West remains one of the most beautiful places in the world, one still containing testimonials to staggering acts of cruelty committed within its confines.