October 28, 2008
Since news arrived from Albuquerque over the weekend announcing the passing of mystery novelist Tony Hillerman, I’ve been all over the map. Joe Leaphorn’s map, that is. The one he had hanging on his office wall behind his desk at Navajo Tribal Police Headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona, back before he sort of retired.
The chart in question is the Automobile Club of Southern California "Indian Country" map of the Four Corners area. Mine is the straight-off-the-rack version that you could pick up at your trading-post-of-choice back in the day and, more recently, nearly anywhere south of Moab.
Joe had his blown up to a comfortable size as a deductive tool in his quite singular crime-solving technique. Studded with color-coded pins locating crime scenes red-headed pins stood for alcohol-related crimes, for example his map frequently showed patterns in their early stages of development. He was one shrewd cop, that Joe.
I say "was" because, with the passing of Hillerman, all of a sudden Joe’s existence has become precarious at best. As well as that of his fellow officer, the younger and more traditionally-oriented Jim Chee. As the chief protagonists of what became known as the "Leaphorn-Chee Navajo Mystery Series," they inhabited a fictional landscape.
You’d no doubt get an argument concerning the "fictional" designation from their rabid fan base, however. For those who read and reread the now 18-novel series, these two quite-human crime-solvers are about as real as it gets.
Many of us relative latecomers to Park City first caught wind of Utah’s "canyon country" by way of Edward Abbey’s brilliant collection of anecdotal stories dealing with his year as a ranger down at Arches National Park. "Desert Solitaire : A Season in the Wilderness," arrived at the end of the ’60s and, over time, became a bible of sorts for uncounted legions of "desert rats" who would head south in its dog-eared wake.
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But it would be Tony Hillerman and his astute evocations of the Navajo Reservation and adjoining Puebloan cultures that would close the deal. Leaphorn appeared in both "The Blessing Way" and "Dance Hall of the Dead" prior to George Washington Hayduke’s somewhat-noisy emergence in Abbey’s environmental masterpiece "The Monkey Wrench Gang."
One soon discovered that by acquiring and keeping "the map" within easy reach while reading each successive addition to the Hillerman canon, one could quickly become familiar with the relevant geography of the tribal landscape. Which, of course, immediately translated into hustling up a copy for the glovebox of your "rez-mobile" of choice.
It never has taken all that much to get my house copy unfolded and sprawled out across the dining-room table. The now-longstanding ritual usually puts me into a reverie of sorts where past pilgrimages themselves fold back over upon one another.
Across the "Big Rez," from the Shiprock volcanic throat to any number of laccolithic mountains, trading posts, "chapter houses," and various scenes-of-the-crime, just a glance at the map is all it takes and the Hillerman-within-me comes alive.
The geological "profoundness" and majesty (I’m not sure how else to put it) of Shiprock, especially, has become a power source over the years. Most often, if I’m close enough to "feel" it, I can’t stay away. There is something about its essence, its magnetic field, to which I am drawn.
Clan-mates of different persuasions, however, don’t get the same vibe and have been known to roll their eyes during these personal moments of "eco-bliss." You’ll have that!
My travel copy of the "Indian Country" map still shows the old US 666 running from Monticello, Utah, on down to Gallup, New Mexico, where it connects with "Route 66." Due to a non-indigenous creation myth, they changed it a few years back to US 491. My house copy shows the update. To many of us, it remains "the beast," however.
The map has gone "neon" on me, pulsing as it follows my eyes across the wrinkles and folds. Canyon de Chelly becomes Chaco Culture National Historic Park while the Tuba City substation morphs into the iconic Hubbell Trading Post. From Window Rock, Arizona, the capitol of the Navajo Nation, on over "Narbona Pass" to the stark landscape of northwestern New Mexico, I am awash in Hillerman.
Out-of-the-way detours to add yet one more of the four Navajo "sacred mountains" to the "have laid eyes upon" list also served to add a sense of breadth to Navajoland, or "Diné Bikéyah" as it is called. The wonder is both geographic and cultural.
Word has it from daughter Anne that Tony kept the faith pretty much ’til the end, working at the keyboard even as his vision and hearing began to fail and arthritis took over his hands. He had achieved his own harmony.
In "Ghostway," Chee summed it up this way. "Everything is connected, the wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality, and in this totality man finds his hozro, his way of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.