As our tour group recently drove into breathtaking Monument Valley (within the Navajo Nation on the northern Arizona-Utah border), we began to understand why visitors come here from around the world for this feast for the eyes.
Majestic red rock formations dominated the area. Many had descriptive names, such as Left and Right Mitten, Totem Pole and Snoopy on his Doghouse. The sky was a brilliant blue, leaving city skies literally in the dust. The air was crisp, in the 50s, with just a hint of a breeze.
After spending but a few minutes in this wondrous area, one can see why it has been the backdrop for so many movies, from "Stagecoach" to "Windtalkers." Nature has simply topped any set man could have devised. I put it all in my memory bank, not realizing that the most meaningful memory was yet to be made.
Invigorated by the beauty we had seen during our three-hour tour, we were also a tribute to the old saying that there is nothing like fresh air to whip up the appetite. Luckily, Stagecoach Dining Room, part of Goulding's Lodge in MV, was open. As we all filed in, stunning views of the area could be observed through large picture windows.
Members of the Navajo Nation were scurrying about — waiting on tables, busing, taking reservations. So, when the restaurant manager, Barbara, came to take our order, I was startled to see a smiling Anglo woman, with eyes as blue as the skies of MV and platinum blond hair. "I think there's a story behind this," I remarked to her later, and indeed there was.
After dinner, Barbara graciously welcomed me back to her office, took out some scrapbooks and began.
"I was living back in Chicago, married with four grown children. After my husband Dale retired from his trucking business, the two of us moved to Lake Powell, Utah, where we enjoyed the good life for eight years before Dale passed away unexpectedly from a stroke."
Having to make a new life for oneself after the loss of a husband, especially as an empty nester, is one of the greatest personal challenges a woman can face. Yet, even in the wake of devastating loss, Barbara never lost her sense of adventure and love of people. In l998, at the age of 53, she decided to accept the offer of a managership at Stagecoach Dining Room, one of the few non-Navajos ever hired for this position.
Securing housing was the easy part. Goulding's provided accommodations on the property. A much greater challenge was to learn the Navajo language and culture and how to interact with an entire Navajo staff that she would be managing. For this momentous task, she would need a mentor.
Lorenz Holiday, a 33-year-old Navajo from MV, was given that role. A bachelor living with his parents, he was a chef and supervisor of the restaurant's cookouts for visitors. As things turned out, a better person couldn't have been selected for the job.
As time went by, Barbara began to realize that not only did she like Lorenz's gentle way of explaining things and his patience with her questions, she liked him. Lorenz started to have feelings for Barbara, too. Their first date was hiking in MV, considered sacred and off limits to visitors. As Lorenz and Barbara got better acquainted, they decided to make a game out of teaching one another Navajo and the finer points of English, respectively. At the end of each week, whoever was the slower learner had to make dinner for the other. Barbara admitted to me that she wasn't all that unhappy at losing most of the time, and having to make dinner for her new friend.
About a year later, Lorenz lost on purpose. It was now his turn to provide dinner. The two had never even held hands, much less kissed. Nevertheless, when Lorenz invited Barbara out to meet his parents and extended family, he presented her with a totally outfitted palomino horse in front of everyone and asked her to marry him.
"I was in a state of total shock," she told me. "Only one word came out of my mouth: 'Yes!'" The two were married about five months later on Lorenz's birthday in a traditional Navajo wedding. Lorenz's father, a medicine man, performed the ceremony. The couple traveled to Las Vegas for the civil ceremony. "I'm a cougar!" Barbara added with a mischievous smile.
Today Barbara and Lorenz are busier than ever. In addition to living and working on the Goulding property, they own Moonlight Springs Ranch, about seven miles away, inherited from Lorenz's late grandmother. For the past five years, they have been restoring and refurbishing the ranch. It includes a hog'an (room built for ceremonial purposes), a lady weaver's loom for Navajo rug weaving demonstrations and much more. Family members, dressed in traditional garb, volunteer to host the many visitors to the ranch. Horses, sheep and cattle complete the picture of traditional Navajo life.
"This past Thanksgiving was extra special," Barbara added. "My kids and granddaughter from Tennessee came to visit and spend the holiday with Lorenz and me. Food, games, conversation and much laughter were all a part of the celebration. My daughter-in-law is black. I only mention this small fact because we truly are a family of different colors and we get along wonderfully."
I asked Barbara for the secret of this harmonious blending of different races, languages and cultures.
"I think respect for one another and being open to others' thoughts, traditions and religions is the answer," she said without hesitating. "I have embraced Lorenz's family and they have embraced me. We may be far from life in the big city, but I never feel alone."
Barbara Russek is a French teacher and freelance writer. She welcomes comments at email@example.com
For more information on Moonlight Springs Ranch, call Lorenz or Barbara at (435) 727-3331 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org