When I was in college, I took a semester off after I finished at Cowley to do missionary work. For years, my mom had helped to organize clothing drives for a parish mission in New Mexico. Through some inquiries, I found they would be willing to take me on as a youth minister. From December to June, I helped organize the high school youth program, taught PSR for the younger kids, and helped organize Sunday liturgy. This was such a formative experience for me. I thought I was going there to serve and give, but what I received far outweighed what I was able to share. I went with one big question on my mind that I was hoping I could get an answer to: What is my vocation? I would go hiking almost daily on a nearby mountain, and that kind of solitary time in nature was just what I needed. I got to soak up another culture, and learn more about the Navajo people. Internet wasn’t readily available, so I read books and wrote letters. At night, I would relax by picking one of the many VHS classic movies from the friary’s selection, and just like that, a love for cinema was born too. So, yeah…really formative, in ways both trivial and profound.
I really wanted to share all of that with my children- the land, the culture, the faith. Jackie and I decided this was the year to do it. We called St. Mary’s Mission and they said we could stay there at the parish in one of their guest hogans, so we wouldn’t have to spend an arm and a leg on hotels. And after a lot of discussion, we decided that if we were that close, we should trek the extra miles and take the kids to see the Grand Canyon, which would be a first for Jackie and I as well.
We left the night after the last day of school. While I was excited to see Tohatchi again, my expectations for the trip were low. How could 35 hours in the car with 5 kids and a visit to a mile-deep canyon go well? Well, it wasn’t all perfect, but it was a trip of many, many blessings. 99 percent of the credit for that goes to my wife, whose organization superpower planned out meals and itenerary that made everything go smoothly.
When we arrived in Tohatchi, I immediately took the kids on a hike up Mount Tohatchi. Back in 2002, one of the other missionaries said it was a custom to find a rock while you were hiking and then leave it on a pile before you descended the last leg as a way to thank the mountain for a great climb. My hikes were always a combination of looking up to enjoy the views, and looking down to select the best path and in search for unique rocks. I had amassed an impressively diverse pile of rocks before I left, and I was excited to see if the pile was still there 16 years later. It was, and a flood of memories came back as I remembered many of the individual stones. This left an impression on the kids, and they created many little natural markers throughout the trip that they wanted to see if they would still be there when they returned someday.
Back when I used disposable cameras, I used to be really selective of what I took pictures of, because I was so cheap and it cost money to buy the camera and then cost even more money to develop the film. So, I didn’t take many pictures during my time there, and it was great to see, after all these years, some personally significant landmarks, especially the sweat lodge and the beautiful hogan chapel where we would have daily Mass.
On Day 2, we left for the Grand Canyon, where we met up with Jackie’s folks. I had heard the Grand Canyon was incredibly awesome and incredibly tourist-y, but I was still surprised by just HOW awesome and HOW tourist-y it was. My favorite parts were when we got away from the rim and all its gift shops and got swallowed by the natural majesty. We did the first mile of both Bright Angel trail and South Kaibab trail, and someday I would really like to return to complete both (they connect at the bottom.) Our campsite was just a few minutes from Desert View Point. No one else wanted to leave the warmth of their sleeping bags and sacrifice precious sleep, so I got to enjoy the tranquil stillness of the sunrise by myself to start off Day 3. Special thank you here to my wonderful in-laws for joining us in our adventures and helping keep the little ones alive! You are the best!
Day 4 was pretty laid back. On my list of must-dos was a trip to Gallup’s Saturday flea market to try to track down a savory meal that I enjoyed very much back in the day: mutton and fry bread. While I thought it would be impossible to live up to my memories, it was insanely delicious. The market was way bigger than I remembered-it is such an interesting melting pot of Hispanic and Native cultures. Day 5, started with Mass at the mission. Then Jackie and her folks took the 4 older kids to Canyon de Chelly, while me and Packy stayed in Tohatchi and enjoyed a nap and some more time just to reflect and soak up all the peace and grace stored away in the land. It was crazy to consider how much my life had changed in the last 16 years, and that in another 16 years, baby Packy would be starting his senior year.
Day 6 was our pilgrimage day. We said farewell to the mission and drove to Santa Fe to see the Basilica and the Miraculous Staircase at the Loretto Chapel. The Basillica was truly beautiful, and we also enjoyed looking at the different artists of the city. There were lots of cool St. Joseph spots in this city for me to offer up my school in prayer.
It was a great trip. A great time to reflect on God’s hand on my life over the years, and to share that with my kids and wife as we advance along his trail for us into the future.