By Sam Ervin
In the summer of 1972, Agnes Baron asked me and my wife at the time, Martha Ervin (now Aubin), to drive her to Phoenix, Arizona. Agnes wanted to visit some drug programs that she thought might be models for improving Ventura County’s drug prevention and treatment programs.
She also expressed interest in visiting the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations. We used our vacation time to make the trip with Agnes in our little 1965 Volkswagen station wagon.
After finishing our week or so of research into drug rehabilitation programs in the Phoenix area, we headed for Indian country.
MONTEZUMA CASTLE AND HUMPHREYS PEAK
We drove north from Phoenix, stopping at Montezuma Castle National Monument, which was built by the Sinagua people and inhabited from 1200 to about 1450 AD when their civilization collapsed. Montezuma Castle is possibly the best preserved cliff dwelling in North America.
In those days, we were free to climb the steps up to the cliff dwelling, and we spent some time getting a feeling for the place. Now it can only be viewed from the canyon floor below.
We continued north through Flagstaff, AZ, and drove around the San Francisco mountains, with the highest, Humphreys Peak, rising out of the desert to 12,333 feet above sea level. These mountains are considered sacred to 13 nearby Indian tribes.
For the Hopi, the peaks are the home of the Kachina spirits, who have become clouds after their deaths. Dominating the landscape for many miles around, there was snow on Humphreys Peak, even in the hot desert summer.
CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT
We stopped at a couple of ancient abandoned dwelling sites as we continued north and then east to the spectacular Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Possibly the “heart” of the Navajo nation, these canyons have been continuously inhabited for nearly 5,000 years. Navajo families still farm and raise livestock in the canyons.
In 1863-1864, Kit Carson led troops in an invasion of the Canyon de Chelly, eventually leading to the surrender of 8,000 Navajo and their “long walk” to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. Chief Manuelito and a few other Navajo escaped to Hopi country.
In 1866, Manuelito and his band joined the other Navajo at Bosque Redondo and signed a treaty in 1868 that brought the Navajo back to their present locales, thus ending their long walk.
AGNES’ ENTHUSIASM FOR EVERYTHING
Throughout this trip to Arizona, Agnes had displayed her usual childlike curiosity and enthusiasm. She was interested in everything, the drug programs of course, and also the magnificent scenery, the history and current status of the Indian tribes, and the desert itself.
We all enjoyed the trip, although Agnes could be challenging at any moment. For example, one day on an empty highway in Navajo country, we were driving uphill where the land sloped up at an almost unnoticeable angle. I had the gas pedal on the old Volkswagen station wagon pressed to the floor and could barely get to about 65 miles per hour.
Agnes said to go faster. I replied that this was as fast as my little car could go on this slope. Agnes became upset and said she was sure we could go faster, and that I must be dogging it. She stayed angry for quite a while at what she saw as my stubbornness.
AGNES SAYS "NO" TO SPENDING MONEY FOR A HOTEL
That evening after visiting Canyon de Chelly, Martha and I mentioned looking for a moderately priced hotel where we could spend the night.
Agnes would have none of it. She said she would not allow us to spend the money for a hotel, so we pulled off the road and slept in our sleeping bags beside the car.
We slept out a couple of more nights on the way home, including one night on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park at about the 7,000-foot level. It was very cold, especially that next morning.
I watched Agnes get out of her sleeping bag with difficulty. She was very stiff, and it took her a quite a while to warm up her joints. Clearly her arthritis was causing a lot of discomfort. Still, she never complained, and showed only a cheerful welcoming of the day.
AVATAR MEHER BABA'S ENCOUNTER IN ALBUQUERQUE
As we were in the heart of Navajo country, and near the Hopi lands, Agnes reminded us of Meher Baba’s encounter on December 17, 1934, with one of His agents, who may have been a Navajo:
“The train halted in Albuquerque, New Mexico for 30 minutes at noon on the 17th. Baba's spelled ‘INDIAN’ on the palm of his hand. He suddenly left his compartment with Ruano. The mandali followed them. Baba walked two blocks away from the station, arm-in-arm with Ruano [Bogislav]. Then he spotted a small side street. Abruptly, he turned down it and continued on as if he knew exactly where he was headed. Ruano's only thought was that they were going to miss the train. Baba stopped when he noticed two Native American Indians (probably Navajo) standing on the corner. One was selling trinkets and he walked away as soon as Baba approached. The other Indian was a tall, fat man with a red bandana tied around his head. He stayed exactly where he was. He and Baba then stood facing one another. Their eyes met, but no words were spoken. Baba then walked quickly back to the station and boarded the train.
“Once on the train, Ruano narrated the incident to the others and Baba commented about the Indian, ‘He is one of my agents. He is the direct agent in charge of America.’ Baba later explained that he was an agent of the fourth plane — one of four in the world with subtle powers.”
TAKING THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
The day after Canyon de Chelly, we visited more archaeological sites as well as a couple of Navajo communities and markets. We eventually drove to the Hopi Reservation, which is located entirely inside the Navajo Reservation.
When we came to Third Mesa, we knew that perched on top of the mesa was the village of Old Oraibi, established in about 950 AD and said to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.
Agnes, Martha and I had all read the Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters and Oswald White Bear Fredericks, published by Penguin Books in 1963. This book, written with the help of some 30 Hopi elders, covers the origin of the Hopi, who believe they are the oldest inhabitants of the Americas, the four migrations, the origin of the clans, ceremonies, and so on.
We were curious to see this most conservative of Hopi villages. We knew the Hopi tended to be quite private and wary of strangers.
As we started driving up the mesa, we came to a fork in the road, and I took what appeared to be a less traveled path. I became a little concerned as the road gradually disappeared as we ascended the mesa, and finally, I was slowly picking my way and driving over stone-strewn ground.
We made it to the top of the mesa and picked up what appeared to be more of a footpath than a road, though it did seem to lead toward the village.
AGNES IS DRAWN TO AN OLD HOPI MAN
Soon we came to a small hut where an old Hopi man sat in a simple wooden chair, serenely gazing out at the horizon.
Agnes said, “Stop. I want to talk with him.” She got out and walked toward him. He stood up and looked pleased to see us, so Martha and I followed Agnes over.
It soon became apparent that he spoke no English, but he and Agnes managed some basic communication with gestures. He invited us into his hut, basically one room with a simple kitchen with a couple of chairs and a bed. Strings of chili peppers hung drying from the rafters.
Then he took another chair from the hut and set it beside his own outside and invited Agnes to sit on it. They were both all smiles and laughing, holding hands and clearly enjoying each other’s company.
We took some photos of the two of them, as we had been doing throughout the trip, thinking these photos would be delightful reminders for us and Agnes of this special meeting. Finally, it was time for us to go, and we said goodbye to the old man and thanked him for this time together.
WE TAKE MORE PHOTOS
We drove closer to the center of the village atop the mesa, and walked around some, viewing the structures, some of which were ancient, including the Kiva, where sacred ceremonies are enacted. We took more photos and felt these 20 photos would be some of the best from our entire trip.
On the way down the mesa on the main road I had spurned in favor of the back road, we noticed a large sign saying “No Photographs” in Old Oraibi by order of the Tribal Council. We said to each other, “Oh well, if we had seen the sign on the way up, we would not have taken pictures, but now it’s already done, so don’t worry about it.”
A couple of days later, when we got back to our home at Camarillo State Hospital, after delivering Agnes to Meher Mount, we dropped off about five rolls of 36-exposure film to be developed at a camera shop in Camarillo.
A week later we picked up the developed photos. We were amazed to find that the 20 photos we had taken atop the mesa at Old Oraibi, including those of Agnes with the Hopi man, were completely black. All the other photos were fine.
I’ve often wondered how the tiny Hopi tribe could have such a long reach.
The story of Avatar Meher Baba meeting the Indian man in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was included in Avatar: The Life Story of Avatar Meher Baba by Jean Adriel, pages 248-249, published in 1947. Agnes Baron first learned of Meher Baba working with Jean Adriel on editing Avatar.