The Gas Station
A business grew in the Arizona desert
‘Shit Norm, it’s just eight in the morning man. Why are you drinking already? No wonder you can’t, you…’ I stopped before saying something I’d regret. I looked at my uncle from my place in front of the pay counter.
I saw and remembered my uncles once proud Navajo face. His once eagle sharp eyes were now clouded, the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth were those of a man consumed by a lifetime of desperation. As a powerful, younger man he’d worn mysterious and meaningful Navajo talismans around his neck. Now a rosary took it’s place. His once full, black mane sometimes in thick braids was now greying and thinning and unkempt and held together by a head band.
I remember he’d take me hunting turtle doves with his .22. We spent hours trekking up and down the broken canyons and up the higher elevations where the Ponderosa pines are. There was where we’d fill our small bag with dove we’d shot. His energy was endless and his teachings were nonstop.
He taught of the old ways, the shamans, the supernatural, the flying and four legged creatures, the chiefs, the skies and the wind. He taught me how to build a fire. We danced for rain. Often I was almost sure he made up much of it but I didn’t care.
His brother, my father, died from liver failure, the bottle did him in.
‘Oh shit Ashkii, there you go again, young man. Who gives a shit when I drink? I just had three beers, the little ones, no harm done. And I’m going to the rock mill to do my shift, you’ll see. Leave me in peace, young one. You don’t worry about this ol dog okay?’ Norm took another hefty tug of his magnum beer can.
My real name is Ashkii, but my white teachers called me Bobby and it stuck, even after American Indians began to teach in the schools.
‘No more Norm. Sorry pal, that’s all for now, you can come back after your shift.’ Clem, the store super, called from a far corner, near the gun display.
‘Jesus Clem, you’re not helping me here. My mother asks me to make sure Norm gets to his shit paying job. And you go and tell him he can come back later and keep drinking.’ I felt helpless.
Outside, the desert winds were blowing hard and steady, the station howled a soulful complaint. Dust in the air and if you didn’t cover up, you’d get an eye full. Several tumble weeds rolled past, tourists at the pump pointed them out and tried to video them too late.
I remember as a kid I used to collect tumble weeds and when the tourist families stopped for gas, I’d offer to let the rounded bushes loose in the wind so they could snap pictures. In the summer, I used to pocket some good pocket change. What’s a Wild West picture without tumble weeds?
The gas station started out really small. I remember when we got the tall, hand carved wood Indian chief with full feather head dress. He still stands outside the entrance. Been there for years now. We had dubbed him Geronimo and was probably the most photographed thing in a fifty-mile radius.
On the other side of the entrance was an ever expanding stall set up with woven blankets, cowboy hats, attractive baskets, and silver and turquoise jewelry. Leather works such as bullwhips, and sandals and beaded belts provided tourists with souvenirs. Irresistible to younger travelers were the rattler heads and rattles mounted on wood plaques.
Under cover of a purple cloth, away from young, prying eyes, was a collection of porn magazines. I used to sneak peaks at the incredible pictures. The tourists bought them and they didn’t come cheap. Not long ago the porno disappeared. Old Myrtle told me that internet changed all that.
When the stall first appeared one morning outside of the store, a real brouhaha was started between the gas station owners and the squatters. Then it was just the one long table, no makeshift roof, very few selections. The Committee reasoned with the gas station people and a certain peace was reached. They convinced the owners that by having the stall outside, this only made the gas station all the more attractive.
Soon after the stall was set up, there arose the issue of where the stall attendant would relieve him or herself. Would they use the gas station’s services or out in the desert? After all, the sewage wasn’t connected to a running drainage system, it was a septic field which could fill. At first they did their necessities out behind some chaparral, but a good wind brought its growing evidence into awareness. Eventually, an agreement was reached in that the stall employees had to keep the bathrooms clean.
The stall owners later on failed at an attempt to be paid a salary by the gas station because of the bathroom cleaning duties.
Soon the station became a hangout for older American Indians that were out of work. Hour after hour, they sat, shoulder to shoulder in a row, most with small blankets. Curious tourists stepped near the line of Indians to try to listen to their conversation, but as they spoke in native tongue, no one understood them.
The old line up is still there, faces have changed, sure, but it’s the same thing.
One day, one old toothless guy put a couple feathers in his head sash. Before long, tourists paid him a dollar to have pictures taken with him. Almost overnight, all of them affected feathers. To everyone's surprise one of the group arrived with a full ceremonial headdress. Sure, they only wanted to take pictures with him. The small group soon added a by law saying that everything they got paid they had to throw into a collective pot. In no time, the old guy with the headdress said to hell with that and went back to a single feather. It averaged out.
But this didn’t happen before, in a burst of capitalistic fervor, very soon, there sat a row of rather impressive, fully attired Indian chiefs, some nodding off. The economies of scale prevailed and before long they were back to just getting a buck per picture. The group finally prohibited the full feathered get up.
It hadn’t quite ended there.
Finally one of them brought a horse. This was before the collective pot. The animal, though rather flea-bitten loaded with ticks and as thin as a reed, was all decked out with ceremonial regalia, feathers and war paint. Tourist children took short rides for pay and, of course, premium pictures. One night, his horse disappeared. His fellow squatters assured him it was a recent scourge of rampaging coyotes that must have done off with the old nag.
The gas station eventually became a pickup point for the school bus. Young Indigenous American children appeared seemingly out of nowhere from the surrounding foothills. Every morning during the school year, young students gathered either outside the station or in the winter were inside buying small treats to take to school.
One unusual phenomenon is during the spring tornado watches in the region, a group of locals huddled at the station. For reasons not clear, there was a perception that there was safety at the station. At that time there wasn’t a basement, so if a tornado were to hit it would’ve been disastrous. The owners tried as they could to get the folks to stop coming around. Once, during a real warning, the gathered group listened on the radio how a twister had wiped out a small group of homes not two miles away. There was no stopping the tornado gatherings after that.
Incredibly, the state government, after getting The Committee’s full blessing, dug out a huge underground bunker, reinforced, not a hundred fifty feet from the station. It’s actually been used a number of times. I have to go down there with a flash light and a strong burlap bag once a week as it still has no lights to clear out the pesky rattlers. They love the cool concrete and darkness. My machete makes short work of them. I used to mount their fanged heads and rattlers that I’d sell on the outside souvenir stand.
We’re not supposed to kill the rattlers. My feeling is that those desk bound, state legislators that make these rules and the animal rights people ought to come here and I’ll show them just how ‘scarce’ the snakes are.
A hundred feet in another direction from the gas station, some opportunistic Indians set up a corral, bleachers, even added an announcement tower, bathroom stalls. Named Navajo Rodeo, the place became the sight of many a memorable rodeo with bronc rides and bull riding, not to mention plenty of alcohol fueled fights. Eventually The Committee prohibited guns and the sale of alcohol at the station on rodeo days, both rules of which were gotten around fairly easy.
Telling someone on the reservation to not carry a gun is like telling them to go barefoot. Not going to happen.
During the rodeo off season, which is unpredictable, car races on an inclined dirt track around the corral have the bleachers filled on warm summer nights as the day time heat makes it too hot. Vendors come from across the state to sell a variety of snacks, the liquor flows. The roar of ancient, oil burning eight cylinder monsters can be heard far down wind. The one rule then was that every car had to have a roll bar which saved many lives. Nowadays, no one can drive without a helmet and a racers seat belt. Every car has to carry fire extinguishers.
Large, white seagulls make labored progress in the strong head winds overhead. They live a couple miles away at the reservations large water reservoir. Some years ago, a Federal government water works project offered tourists camping lots for campers and tents. Signs warn of rattlers. Years before, The Committee wisely planted bass fry, walleye as well as Pike and now provides excellent fishing for the tourists. These tourists come with their dollars.
Cactus and Joshua bushes are the tallest growth in the lower areas. The magnificent Saguaro, which used to be abundant, can still be seen but less than before. Low chaparral and mesquite brush offers ideal hide outs for rabbits and coyotes and shade for the rattlers and Gila monsters. As far as the eye can see, there are mostly bare, rocky hills. At high noon, the scorching sun reflects off the light-colored rocks and sand.
The great Southwest.
Dogs outside bark greetings to customers coming into the convenience store. Though small, Clem keeps the convenience stores display shelves packed. Overloaded is more like it. Walking down the five aisles, the sound is muffled, absorbed by all the merchandise. As customers walk the concrete floored aisles, their heels make an oddly insulated clicking sound. In one aisle you have to go shoulder first to get between some fishing gear and Indian blankets and flannel all weather shirts piled on the other side.
This is the only gas station for 100 miles. Many years ago some white guys fresh out of prison illegally tried to set up a gas station inside of our reservation boundaries but finally had to sell off to a group of enterprising locals because of the pressure the local native oversight group called The Committee placed on them.
The Committee is made up from a collection of respected elders, meeting once a month, visitors are encouraged. They’re headed up by a tribal chief or chieftain. The governing group wouldn’t have any meaning were it not for the enforcement element of their organization. They work closely with the local police and state troopers and perhaps most importantly with the BIA Police. The Committee has a a group of volunteer men and women who swore to protect the integrity of the native community. All carry firearms.
The Committee, besides presiding over most day-to-day issues are dedicated to insuring a harmonious existence here on the reservation, also oversees the fair distribution of scarce water.
An unusual set up was put in place and fiercely defended shortly after some sharp eyed want to be competitors appeared and started building another gas station between our place and the Reservoir. The arrangement which had the force of The Committee, local and state law behind it, was called ‘The Triangle’. No competition, be it a gas station, souvenir shop, rodeo, shooting range, music hall, race track, they even threw in a library for good measure could be built in the space created by drawing a triangle which included the eight mile long reservoir. One of the triangles’ points was the gas station. The other two points were the two long ends of the reservoir.
I attended all the meetings in the hall The Committee had for this purpose when The Station argued, successfully, that any undue competition would without a doubt break the station’s delicate existence. They would have to close the place down and the area would return to its previous destitute state.
Of course casinos came along and changed so much, some good, some bad, most importantly bringing jobs.
Over the years, we’d see other outsiders try to carve out pieces for themselves. I believe that if you allow too much growth, as they call it, that this only kills the spirit of business. I’m not blind to that if a standing business is run poorly, then fresh competition is a good thing.
Not long after, word reached the owners, and those related to them in The Committee that these same people were moving forward with setting up a first aid clinic. Once established, souvenir stalls, public bathrooms, the inevitable, though essential, grouping of locals who brought color and legitimacy to the place were surely soon to follow.
A first aid station had not been included in The Committees ‘Triangles’ list!
In no time a sharp glass and aluminum, yet tastefully finished off in the prevailing pueblo/adobe design, medical clinic was built. A call to finding a doctor and nurse was quickly filled by an Indigenous American, married couple who’d several years before became doctors and were working in an urban clinic just outside of Flagstaff. This was a golden opportunity for them to return to their places of birth. Even though a nurse was called for, The Committee quickly welcomed the happy couple.
The region gained two doctors and soon were providing essential healthcare for snake bites, broken bones, the flu, spider and scorpion bites, infections, x-rays, fevers, child birth. Thursdays are reserved for more complicated cases requiring surgery, a surgeon from Flagstaff comes for the day. The couple were provided an almost brand new king cab, Toyota pickup truck, which they use to come and go from the clinic and to make house calls for those unable to get to the clinic.
A fifty-mile radius around the clinic was deemed the extent of the clinic’s outreach. The radius is not a perfect circle. Given the ease or difficulty of getting to certain areas on the reservation, it’s more jagged or peaked than round. The peaks at the most might stretch for 85 miles. Almost to all compass points, the drive is possible to folks in need of medical attention. The state installed an impressive radio system to fifteen outlying areas with substantial populations. Volunteers in each of these designated areas is responsible for taking and making any radio contacts with the clinic.
This was the nineties and I remember there were different reactions to the radio outreach. Some grumbled why it had taken so damn long to set up such a network, they were right. Our corner of the world was and still is largely ignored. Other citizens sang praise to The Committee and to the higher authorities.
A big day for us was when the National Bank of Arizona placed an automated teller in a corner near the service counter. At first, a bank employee showed up two times a week to replenish and service the machine, before long it was daily visits. There is talk of adding a second machine because of the long line that often forms.
The gas station has, over the years, become quite a compound. If you looked on- line at the state map, there we are: Gas Station, along with a small dot on the road.
The Northwest corner of Arizona is Navajo country, and it’s huge. Off 160 you take a nondescript road south towards the town of Rough Rock. About eighty miles before Rough Rock, a left turn at a sign saying: Bass Fishing, Clear Eagle Reservoir. If you missed that, you entered endless empty dessert.
Cling, cling, goes the small, battered doorbell announcing people coming into and leaving the store.
The bell always reminded me, still does, of one of those beaten to death speed bags boxers use in training. The little bell hung on for dear life, its existence assured as long as it rang.
Clem, the white super, lives at a ten house town called Paradise fifteen miles from here. The Indian owners of the gas station felt having a white guy might be better for business. No one ever knew why. No one could say one way or another if this was true.
I’ve been working at the Station for almost ten years, I’m Clems’ assistant, and as far as jobs being available in the area, this was about the best. Casinos aren’t for me.
Lately, the state authorities, as always have turned their attention to the ones with the money. Instead of refurbishing and up grading route 160 as had been planned, adding another lane, rest stops, they have determined that the tax payers’ money would be better spent by building a highway closer to Lake Powell.
I don’t need to explain how modernizing 160 could have brought positive growth to the reservation, and beyond.
Looks like the better-off people of the lake area get the nod. Some of our people will go up there to get jobs on the road building sites. Something good for a little while, at least.
In the long haul, though, we are pretty much on our own. It’s always been that way ever since those terrible early days until now.
‘Hey Clem, heading home man, I’ll go get my uncle Norm over at the rock mill first. Hey you ought to come by for a beer sometime. I want to show you what I’ve done with the old Chevy. I have some questions for you about the transmission.’
‘You bet Bobby, have a good one. How about I come over tomorrow?’
‘Sounds good, later.’