I have been warned about stray dogs and drunk Navajos by almost everyone since arriving in New Mexico. A week ago a man was killed by a pack of stray dogs just up the road from Gallup.
So I walk with a rock in one pocket and mace in the other.
Despite all the warnings, I have seen 3 stray dogs harmlessly searching for food or chasing prairie dogs and a number of pan-handlers who when I told them what I was doing, switched from asking for money to asking me questions about my mission. In all cases, they wished me well and treated me kindly.
Still, as I headed out of Gallup, I kept my little weapons handy, just in case. I don’t like the idea of being cornered by dogs or men.
“Excuse me mam.” I heard a man say as I passed by.
A short, burly man in a bright red AZ Wildcats shirt approached, looked over my gear, and said, “What are you doing?”
I explained my project and he said, “Can I walk with you a ways?”
“Sure, you can be my bodyguard.”
He smiled broadly and pointed to his chest, “I’m a marine. I’m a veteran. I’ll protect you. There’s a lot of people around here who… ” he made a gesture for drinking. Ironically, he also told me he was hung over from the night before.
We ended up walking 10 miles together. He took me into a Navajo craft store and then to the Fire Rock Casino. He told me stories of war: seeing friend blown up in Afghanistan, being knifed by an Afghani, saving a girl who was being raped, and coming home to divorce. After each gruesome or sad story he’d take off his sunglasses and say, “That really hurt my feelings.”
He showed me a long ugly scar on his arm, and promised several times to protect me. He pulled a bag of yellow grey powder out of his pocket and said, “I’m going to give you a Navajo blessing. Put finger in here, then touch it to your tongue, your head and then like the catholic cross.” I followed his instructions and then he spoke in Navajo. It felt like a moment out of time. He smiled, “It’s bitter huh? My son always says, ‘It’s too bitter, dad.’ My grandfather said that I’m here to protect people. He’s a medicine man.”
He also wanted me to meet his family, eat with them and stay in their home. I told him 3 times that I had friends coming to pick me up and that I promised to stay with them, but he ignored me. “It’s just up the road. I’ll take you there.” He also flirted with me and gave me a few too many compliments. His stories of killing people made me uncomfortable. I didn’t feel unsafe with him, but I didn’t want to go down a long dirt road alone with him.
So finally, I said, “I need to walk 4 more miles. You are almost to your destination. I need to hoof it up the road and make some more miles.”
“But we are almost there.” He said, looking very tired.
“I know, but I need to get farther up the road today. My friends are coming to pick me up soon. I thank you sincerely for walking all this way with me. I thank you for your blessings and for being my protector today.” I shook his hand.
As I walked away, he looked so forlorn. I picked up my pace a little and then realized that he didn’t have any water. We’d been given 2 water bottles back at the craft store. I still had mine, so I filled it up from my camelback and jogged back to him.
“Here. You will need some water. Sorry, I forgot I had this. Thanks again for walking with me. Really, thank you so much for being my protector.” I smiled and he returned a half-hearted smile. I knew he was tired… and sad that I wasn’t going to stay with his family that night.
In an hour, I’d made it 3 more miles up the road and my hosts came pick me up. On the way back, I looked for his bright red shirt but didn’t find him. I felt guilty for leaving him, for not trusting him. But I always listen to my gut on matters of safety. Also I felt worried for him: my protector, a marine, a veteran, a survivor. No doubt he made it home just fine, but it was more than that, I wanted to take care of those “hurt feelings” too. The broken bits left after war.
He is one of many veterans I’ve met along the way. All have treated me with kindness and shared stories that left them with “hurt feelings”. And they have worried about me and given me their blessings and advice… And in the end, I have kept walking, on to the next town and the next story, the next stretch of lonesome road with a rock in one pocket and mace in the other.