The summer of 1989 I read Skinwalkers by New Mexico author, Tony Hillerman. In Navajo culture, a skinwalker is a harmful witch that can turn into, possess, or disguise themselves as a coyote or dog. I wanted to meet a skinwalker. It was on my bucket list. I was 47 years old and recently married to “Arkansas Pat” (not to be confused with my good friend and sometimes red-head, “Tanner Pat”). This was long before Arkansas Pat would declare me persona non grata (that’s Latin – and sock me with alimony).
I engaged Largo (not real name), a Navajo guide in Chinle, Arizona, to take us down into Canyon de Chelly (pronounced da shay) by horseback. I reserved a rental car for later, and we flew to Albuquerque. It was a pleasant flight with wine to soothe the nerves and lift the spirits.
Pat waited outside the terminal perched atop our two duffel bags of camping gear, smoking Virginia Slims, while I headed off to pick up our rental car. “I’ll be back in two shakes of a gnat’s tail,” I said, confident we’d be in Chinle by nightfall. I marched up to the front desk and gave my name. “Yes sir, Mr. Barksdale we have your car reserved. May I see your driver’s license and credit card?”
“I don’t have a credit card – don’t need one,” I said proudly and produced a small wad of cash.
“Sir, we can’t rent you a car without a credit card.”
“What’de ya mean?” I whipped out a twenty. “See here, it says ‘legal tender for all debts.’ Have you ever seen that written on plastic?”
“Sorry, sir,” she said.
“I’ll take my business elsewhere,” I said and stormed out. I received the same treatment at other rental agencies. An hour later, I was at Rent-a-Wreck begging. “Please mister, my wife will think I’ve abandoned her.” After calling his home office and conducting a credit check, I was finally given a car.
Pat was still sitting on our duffle bags, pumping her foot, twisting long tendrils of her black hair, and hot-boxing a Virginia Slim. A pile of cigarette butts lay at her feet. She was nerved up.
That night we stayed at the El Rancho Hotel on Route 66 in Gallup. It’s where John Wayne and the Hollywood crowd use to stay while filming westerns in the area. The next morning, we headed across the Navajo Reservation to Chinle, Arizona. Largo and his younger brother, Juan, met us with horses, and we packed down into Canyon de Chelly, a 38,000-square-mile hole in the ground. Finally, the hunt for skinwalkers was on.
We rode past ancient Anasazi ruins and cliff dwellings and saw what appeared to be bear tracks in the dust. The horses were skittish. Could they be skinwalker tracks? I wondered. Juan never spoke a word unless spoken to.
That evening when the sun dropped behind the canyon wall, the horses were hobbled and a fire was stoked. Largo’s wife drove up in a pick-up and started supper. She squatted near the fire and boiled lard in a black kettle, then dropped flat patty cakes of white dough into the sizzling grease. Ahh, yes fry bread—the Navajo version of cornbread. Inside the fold of bread, she stuffed fried mutton, onion, etc., called Navajo tacos. Bad for the heart, but pleasing to the pallet.
“Ever see any skinwalkers?” I casually asked Largo.
“Last week on canyon ledge,” he said, and pointed above us. The hair on my neck stiffened. Later, I left Pat and Juan sitting in front of our tent, her sipping red wine and burning Virginia Slims, while I burrowed deep inside my sleeping bag. The next morning I crawled out and saw Juan flat on his back and sound asleep, right where he sat when I went to bed. He obviously passed out and fell backward.
“How much did he drink? I asked Pat.
“Half a cup.”
No doubt, Juan would require a lot of practice before becoming a seasoned drinker.
On our ride to Spider Rock, an 800-foot sandstone spiral and home of Spider Woman, who possesses supernatural power, I asked Juan about skinwalker sightings.
“Grandfather saw one,” he said. “He was walking in canyon when an old man offered him a piece of fry bread. If grandfather had eaten it, he would’ve turned into a skinwalker, may become a dog.”
“How does one know if a person is a skinwalker?” I asked.
I pondered that and thought about Largo’s wife giving me fry bread. “I’m not eating anymore fry bread,” I announced to Pat. “From here on out, it’s pork’n’beans and crackers for me.”
The thought of becoming a skinwalker and turning into a dog gave me the creeps. Imagine, chasing cats, cars, and fetching sticks, not to mention scratching fleas and licking myself. Ugh! On the other hand, there are benefits from living a dog’s life. They don’t pay alimony, child support, college tuition, or income taxes; make mortgage payments; tithe to the church; or worry about going to hell since, for some unexplained reason, sin doesn’t apply to them. As an added benefit, they can chase female dogs and fornicate with impunity, take naps when they want to, fart in public, and ride around in air-conditioned cars with their heads poked out the window. Hmmm, a dog’s life isn’t all that bad.
On second thought, pass the fry bread, please.
By: Jerry Barksdale