Dave and I have different approaches to fueling a car. He is comfortable running on fumes, while I see a half-tank as time to get gas. The drive from Arches National Park to the Grand Canyon was going to be our longest — over five hours — and I had no interest in a nightmare desert-stranding adventure. As we left Moab and passed through Blanding with its welcoming gas stations, I said, “Let’s be on the safe side and fill up.”

“Nah. We’re good,” said Dave.

A glance at the gauge indicated over half a tank, so, uncharacteristically, I didn’t argue, and off we went.

At first, the sky was unsettled, dark clouds competing for drama with snow-streaked mountains and windmills slicing the air with skeletal blades. We passed rundown homes, battered cars, and a dog running down the side of the road with a dead rabbit drooping from his jaws. Wild horses pranced across the plain, stirring dust clouds around their hooves. One broke away, galloped across the road in front of us, jumped the bank, and reared up upon encountering another horse. Whoa.

Contributed photo.

It sounds stupid, but I had to remind myself that we were out west. Out West! After seeing video clips and posters at the Hollywood Museum, I should have needed no further convincing, but the National Parks seemed a category unto themselves. Now, in spotting riders on horseback trotting across scrubby land in the distance and a dead horse on the side of the road, it sunk in.

Contributed photo.

The land stretched open and increasingly barren to either side of us as we neared Tuba City. Only an hour to go before we reached Maswik Lodge at the Grand Canyon, but I needed to pee and by this time, I was insistent about filling the tank. Dave agreed and pulled in at a pump behind a black pickup truck. In my race to the restroom, I had one leg out the door … when the truck backed into us.

S—.

A diminutive, graying woman climbed from the truck, her face crumpled in misery. “I’m sorry! So sorry! I didn’t see you there.”

We got out of the car and walked around front to scrutinize the hood and fender. Fortunately, the damage was minor, but since the car was a rental, we had to get the woman’s insurance information.

She did not have it with her. Of course.

I went inside the service station to use the bathroom and call the police. Dave tried to calm and comfort the woman who was increasingly distraught as she called her son on her cell.

When I returned to the car, Dave’s mouth was set in a thin line. He looked at me and grimly shook his head. The woman was still on her phone, one hand covering her eyes.

“Her husband passed away a year ago, and she doesn’t know her passwords or how to get the insurance information,” said Dave. “Poor woman. This is the last thing she needs. If this were our car, I would forget about it and go. Ugh. What a drag.”

We waited. The woman’s son, Jeremy, arrived, but no police.

We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and described what had happened.

Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, his hair cropped short, Jeremy was friendly, but serious. Like his mother, he was Navajo. While Dave and I had keyed into the bleak land, forlorn houses, and battered vehicles — the legacy of U.S. policy toward indigenous peoples — we’d not realized we were on the Navajo Reservation.

“How long have you been waiting for the police?” Jeremy asked.

“Maybe half an hour?” said Dave.

Jeremy sighed, took out his phone, and tapped in a number. Within minutes, a white SUV emblazoned with “Navajo Nation” pulled in. Clearly, Jeremy had the juice.

Contributed photo.

I was quietly thrilled. “Dave,” I whispered. “Don’t be so discouraged. Think of it! When would we ever have a chance to talk with Navajos?”

Jeremy, Dave and I greeted the officer and filled him in. He spoke to Jeremy’s mother, slipped into the cruiser, made a call, then returned to us. He handed Dave a scrap of lined paper torn from a notebook with several numbers scrawled on it representing the case, his badge, and a phone number.

I’m not kidding. A scrap of paper.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m out of forms. Use this when you turn in your rental. Call if you need further information.”

As weirdly unsatisfying as that was, we weren’t about to push an officer of the Navajo Nation. After staring with disbelief at the shred in his hand, Dave tucked it into his wallet.

My husband is a man of countless questions, and once the “paperwork” was finalized, he asked how the officer came to the police force. “It’s hard to keep young people here,” he said. “I left. After finishing school, I found a job elsewhere. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt the pull to return to my people. To serve my community.”

I asked about local schools, the quality of education, and whether there was adequate government funding in general. He said it was all good.

Hm. Really? I hoped so, but wondered, was he being protective or proud? Maybe keeping up a front for tourists? The website for “Partnership with Native Americans” says, “Federal treaty obligations are often unmet and almost always underfunded, and many Native families are struggling.” Judging by history and the desolate lands and houses we’d seen, our officer was surprisingly positive.

Still, other than the woman’s distress and our travel delay, everything about this interlude was … a blessing. Jeremy’s mom calmed down once her son and the officer arrived. The employees at the gas station were helpful and sympathetic. Jeremy and the policeman were kind. We were kind.

And we made it to Maswik in time for dinner, having been given a chance to talk with Navajos.

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