"Mona Lisa must have had the highway bluesON THE ROAD IN ARIZONA AND COLORADO -- It's 5pm on a Saturday in Shungopavi ("sand grass spring place") established by the Bear Clan, the first to arrive on the three Hopi mesas in northeast Arizona. The whole village, plus surrounding villages, is watching a basket dance before sunset; an astonishing spectacle where Central Asia meets the American Southwest. Geology says this could easily be Afghanistan.
You can tell by the way she smiles" -- Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna
No photos allowed, so I was busy trying to impress in my mind the full picture of a traditional Hopi two-story adobe house as a living organism; an old lady as a guardian angel, kids escalating the levels, an extended family in conversation. And it was all a miracle; I've stumbled into the sacred ceremony by accident, while driving by the mesas before sunset, those small villages perched on high contemplating the infinite plains.
The Hopi Nation has always lived in the Four Corners area of the Colorado Plateau. They bear one of the more sophisticated cosmologies in the world. According to it, they emerged from the underworld through a sipapu -- an opening -- in the Grand Canyon. Then they were thrown into the light of this -- the Fourth World -- with the help of a small bird, the shrike, and made a vow of righteous living to Sootukwnangwu, the Supreme Creator. The guardian spirit of the land told the Hopis they would have to serve as the earth's steward once they had finished their mandated four migrations to the north, south, east and west in search of the center of the earth.
Legend tells us that the Hopis traveled to the Aztec temples in Mexico, down to South America, up to the Arctic Circle and to both of the US coasts. The center of the cross formed by their four directional routes is the Hopi mesas. Every time I come back here -- it has been a while -- following Arizona highway 264 East, I know this is as sacred a land as it can get.
As other clans also migrated to the Hopi mesas, they contributed a different skill or ceremony dedicated to common prosperity. The Hopi ceremonial calendar is ultra sophisticated. A holy man in each village determines the timing of each ceremony by the position of the sun.
Kachinas are the all-important spirit beings in Hopi cosmology in charge of assuring rain. They visit the Hopis and bring gifts -- thus the village ladies dressed as Kachinas, with their fabulously elaborated costumes distributing baskets to the crowd and nowadays also plastic implements of daily life. At the end of a dance, prayer feathers are given to the Kachinas so that the prayers for rain and assorted auspicious events are carried in all directions.
And they vote Democrat
All archeological sites on the Hopi Reservation are protected by federal law and, most of all, Hopi tribal laws. You cannot take a photo, shoot a video or even draw a sketch of a village or a ceremony -- proving once again that the most startling images in America, the land of outsized imagery, are absolutely mysterious, invisible and unpublishable.
One of the villagers even kindly requested me not to take notes on an iPhone. Alcohol and drugs are banned -- although, unfortunately, bootleggers thrive, some of them Hopis, betraying their own nation's codes. Each Hopi village is autonomous -- and establishes its own policies, then sanctioned by the Hopi Tribal Council.
Mitt Romney wouldn't be caught dead in a place like the Hopi Nation. For starters, the surviving Hopis are only 15,000, spread out among 12 villages. As Rhonda, my Hopi friend in Tuba City explained, this is predominantly Democrat territory in a deeply Republican state.
By American standards, these are all part of Mitt's 47%, some very poor, living in ugly cement houses, although quite a few young Hopis do enroll at the University of Arizona. Seems like the Hopi Nation is overwhelmingly voting Obama - who is invariably praised as "having done good things for our people." Yet the only Democrat president to have ever visited the Hopi Nation in person was -- who else -- The Great Bubba himself; Bill Clinton during his first term.
So I was blessed to watch a basket dance; got a Kachina -- "Butterfly Man" -- to watch my back; and a new bracelet, "bear paw," to replace the one I had and was broken. Once again I was paying my respects to what remains of the Native American dream.
But I could not find a Hopi holy man to tell me what had happened to the American Dream -- the exceptionalist version. So I drove further into Navajo Nation sacred territory, following Frank Kosik's indispensable Native Roads (Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson, 2nd edition) -- into the beyond-IMAX, larger-than-life Geology Spectacular of Monument Valley.
The Hopi Reservation is surrounded by the Navajo Reservation. To say they do not get along so well is quite an understatement. Not to mention the murky stories of Mormon settlers -- Mitt's tribe -- taking over Navajo lands in the 19th century. Unlike Jim Morrison -- who in a psychedelic haze was visited by a Navajo holy man and then saw the light -- I was basically looking for a little conversation. It was not exactly uplifting to learn that Navajo President Ben Shelly is now deeply into renewing the lease for a coal-burning, high-polluting Navajo Generation Station (NGS) without even talking to the Navajos themselves.
As Marie Gladue reminded everyone in a letter published by the Navajo-Hopi Observer, "the NGS is Arizona's single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases," leading to droughts, wildfires and record temperatures, not to mention kids with asthma and older folks with bronchitis and increasingly prone to heart attacks. But it seems there's no prospect of NGS moving from coal to solar.
With no Navajo holy men in sight, I was left with an aesthetic satori that would make John Ford blush with envy. It was provided by Albert and his horse over the backdrop of Monument Valley; his daughter sells Navajo jewelry exactly at John Ford's point. Albert says it's been hard to make a living after the never-ending recession took over in 2007/'08. But he still believes in the promise of his blessed land. As in the Grey Hills Academy High School -- one of the best examples of the push at the Navajo Reservation for self-determination in education.
The apparition of the Jewish cowboy
It was time to try a Hail Mary pass. I started at the Four Corners -- where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. Utah and Arizona will vote Romney; New Mexico will vote Obama. Colorado is a swing state, but Obama's chances of winning stand at 63% and rising, according to Nate Silver's projections.
At the Four Corners I met Wayne, who presented me with the full Navajo cosmology drawn and painted by himself on sandstone. That was as good an omen as meeting a real-life medicine man. Still I crossed half of Colorado, through majestic pine tree forests, immaculate cafes from the American exceptionalism era, the embryonic ski season in Vail, a head-spinning cyclone of negative ads playing non-stop from both the Obama and Romney campaigns, and on to ultra-green, eco-friendly Boulder of the Naropa Institute studying Buddhism and bikers and skateboarders everywhere.