"Wherever The Road Goes" by Mark Rozema

Mark Rozema

Mark Rozema

Mark Rozema’s first book of nonfiction, Road Trip, will be soon be published by Boreal Books. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sport Literate, The Soundings Review, Weber—The Contemporary West, and Camas—The Nature of The West. He lives in Shoreline, Washington, where he enjoys climbing, running, gardening, and spending time with his wife, daughters, and dogs.

Wherever the Road Goes

Our most necessary preoccupations, obviously, ought to be taking care of one another, of every other person, and of the sweet world and discovering the joy of giving part of one's life away. How to proceed is the question.

--William Kittredge, from The Nature of Generosity

My father asks, for the fifth time, if we are on highway 160. Yes, I tell him. “Why does the road keep changing direction?” he asks. It is a question he’s asked a few times already. Taking my eye off the road just long enough to meet his gaze for a consoling moment, I reply “We’re in the mountains, Dad. It’s hard to go in a straight line.”

My father's eyes are a startling sky-blue, the blue of high desert sky on an October day. I'm tempted to describe them as piercing, which is both a cliché and not quite right. They do not pierce, which is an aggressive verb, and my father is not an aggressive man. But they do hold one's attention. Until recently, I would say that those eyes gave the accurate impression of an agile mind at work—neurons making connections, integrating information, tracing implications, putting together the pieces of the world. They are the eyes of someone who wants, always, to understand. I have seen laughter in his eyes, curiosity, always intelligence and decency—and never have I seen malice, hatred, or duplicity. Sometimes I still see in those eyes an agile mind at work, but too often now his gaze is watery and lost. I see confusion and panic. I sense misfiring neurons, holes into which my words sink and vanish. It is, increasingly, the gaze of a man entering a fog.

We are crossing the Rockies, and he has been trying to read a road map of Colorado. He doesn’t know which way to hold the map, much less make sense of it. The red lines, the blue lines, the numbers and symbols and circles... they don't add up to anything that he can discern. This is the man who taught me how to read a map, and passed along to me his love of maps. I wonder if he can put it down, give up on the need to have an abstract representation of the landscape, simply look out the window and notice a mountain, a cloud, a red-tailed hawk, a Lombardy poplar bending in the wind. It’s not easy for him to do that. He wants, somehow, for the view out the window and the markings on the paper in his lap to converge, to come sharply into focus in a way that is part mathematical equation and part revelation. He wants the map to locate him.

In his hands, the road map is folded into a small square, revealing only the part of the state that we are in. He fiddles with the map, feeling a need to see the whole state, as if that will make all things suddenly clear. “This is no good,” he says, “you have to see the whole thing.” He can't quite figure out how the map unfolds, and he tears it. “Why do they make them this way?” he says in frustration. Finally he succeeds in unfolding all of Colorado, but the clarity he sought is still elusive. It seems like a trick, this notion that a piece of paper with lines on it might answer the questions “Where am I? How did I get here? Where do I go next?” Staring at the map with those blue eyes, he says, with great tiredness, “Miles and miles of words…”

We pass through Mancos, Durango, Bayfield. Every now and then, he has a memory that is uncannily precise. “This is the Piedra River. We camped here in the old white Chevy. Slept in the truck bed.” It is as if a brisk wind had cut through the fog in his mind to reveal a blue pocket of sky, a sharp-edged memory and all the sudden joy that can accompany it. It seems that the names of places bring to him the kind of solace that the map failed to deliver. The amber light of sunset bathes the aspens as we cross Wolf Creek Pass. Names, and the stories that go with them, are like bright stones at the bottom of a creek. As we pass through the San Juan Mountains, I mention place after place, a litany of lakes in which we fished, forest campgrounds where we pitched our funky old tent-trailer, a little town where the alternator gave out on one of our family trips. I don’t know how much he remembers, but I want him to feel that the world is sweet and he is part of it.

We are crossing to the east side of the mountains to seek a new home for my parents. My father’s dementia has become too hard for my mother to handle on her own. And so, after over fifty years in the land of red rocks and twisted junipers, they are moving in order to live near their eldest daughter, in Fort Collins. It’s difficult for me to imagine Arizona without them.

My father has driven Route 160 more times than he could count. Earlier in the day we crossed the Navajo Reservation, where the road elicited from my father no confusion at all. To him—to all of his family--the road from Flagstaff to Cortez is as familiar as a face one sees every day. While it strikes many as a barren emptiness better seen in the rear-view mirror, to me it is the landscape of childhood memory, and is therefore beautiful. In particular, the stretch of 160 through Tsegi Canyon always gives me a deep contentment, as if I had slipped into the center of the world. It’s a feeling I used to share with my father when we stopped in Tsegi for lunch on hot, dusty summer days, watching slate-blue thunderheads form over Black Mesa, teasing the landscape with the promise of rain.

As a teenager, I used to ride with him in a semi, delivering cases of Pepsi Cola to trading posts and greasy spoons from Gray Mountain to Cameron to Red Lake to Kayenta to Dinnehotso to Baby Rocks to Teec Nos Pos. I loved the days when I could escape the dismal, noisy Pepsi warehouse in Flagstaff, the setting of my first real job, and help him on the Reservation circuit. We stopped at all the trading posts. I loved the easy way in which my father would converse with anyone and everyone, from gruff and hard-headed traders to the skinny Navajo kid on the steps next to a scroungy dog. He moved easily in his skin. I often wondered who, seeing him wheel heavy stacks of soda around and then driving off in his big growling rig, would guess that he was a professor of mathematics. The Pepsi truck was just a summer job.

He does not, anymore, move easily in his skin. Neither does he converse with ease, even with his wife and children. This morning, as we headed north out of Flagstaff, he stared for a long time at the receding profile of the San Francisco Peaks. On the stretch through Tsegi, he was alert and calm; I hoped he felt the peace he and I used to share in that place. It’s hard to know. I wondered if he realized that he would never take this road again. It occurred to me that while I see what he sees, I will never see it quite as he does.

After Tsegi, he dozed. As we neared the junction of 160 and 64, he looked out the window at the scattered hogans and cinderblock houses. Then he turned toward me and emphatically blurted out “Teec Nos Pos.” It was clear that I was expected to know why this mattered. “Yes,” I replied. “Teec Nos Pos.” I searched my mind for the significance of this place, until I remembered it. “Tillie Redhouse lived here,” I said. He let that fact sink in, as his gaze took in the Carizzo Mountains to the south. “Tillie Redhouse plays the piano,” he said, finally, with conviction. He wanted me to know that he still recognized the particulars, the people and places that add up to a life. He wanted to let me know that he was still a participant in the world.

In the years of my growing up, the particulars of my father’s work included teaching high school and college, working as a mathematician for the United States Geological Survey, serving as a perpetual elder or deacon at our church, driving a Pepsi truck all over the Navajo Nation, and raising five kids. He was a teacher, mentor, elder, father, husband, and coach. The particulars of his surroundings included the Zuni Indian Reservation, with its dusty pueblo and its sacred mountain, the pine-forested town of Flagstaff, Arizona, also with its sacred mountain, and all the wide sweep of land between.

And he was an intrepid explorer with a curious spirit. When I go back to the child’s view of the man with whom I grew up, I see, first of all, his smile. I see it as he drives with one sunburned arm out the window. I don’t know if anything pleased my father more than a plain red-dirt track into wide open country. It became a family joke, my father’s oft-repeated phrase: “I wonder where this road goes…” My mother’s exasperated response was also a source of amusement to us: “It’s just a road, Wes, like any other road. Do we have to know where every road goes?” If he was driving, the answer was yes, apparently we did. His inquiry may have been disingenuous; more often than not, he already had a good idea where the road would go. But why not take it anyway, just to be sure? What better way to spend an afternoon? Why not take a watermelon, a fishing pole, the Coleman stove, a can of Spam, and just see where the road goes?

Wesley James Rozema didn’t know where the road would take him when, in 1952, he left his home in Michigan, spurred westward by asthma and a curious spirit. Like so many others in the middle of the past century, he followed Route 66, headed for California with his young wife and two daughters. But there was a lot of country between Michigan and California, and that country laid claim on him. My parents passed the Twin Arrows Trading Post, where a billboard as big as a movie screen proclaimed “See a real live Indian!” In Holbrook, they stayed in a motel of cheesy concrete tipis. Between Gallup and Flagstaff, it seemed he could see forever across the wide sweep of cinder hills, volcanic diatremes, sandstone buttes, dusky blue mountains, and the caliche hills of the Painted Desert. After an unsatisfactory dalliance with California, my folks returned to this land of endless sky and wind and dirt roads, eventually settling in Flagstaff, where my father landed a job at Northern Arizona University as a Professor of Mathematics.

He might not, while wheeling heavy stacks of pop around a trading post, be easily mistaken for a professor—but then, he was perhaps an unusual professor. I have memories of waiting outside his office for what seemed like hours while he helped students. I recall the day he helped a tearful Navajo girl who protested that she was “too stupid” to do math. I remember how he put her at ease with some chat about places and people. Perhaps when she discovered that he knew who ran the trading post at Chilchinbito, she was surprised and suddenly didn’t feel quite as alone at the big university. And before he turned her attention to the equations, he let her know, in a subtle and understated way, that he considered herding a flock of sheep through a labyrinth of canyons and deep sand to be every bit as challenging as mastering differential equations. In short, he treated her as an equal and assumed she was interesting and capable.

My father helped many students who went back to the Reservation to become teachers themselves. In the 1970’s Northern Arizona University began a concerted effort to prepare primary and secondary teachers to teach in Reservation schools. Few math teachers at that time were Native American, and the retention rate for Native students was low. The university wanted to find someone who could effectively prepare primarily Navajo, Hopi, Apache and Zuni undergrads to become science and math teachers. My father was chosen to direct this program. I know he considers the time spent training these teachers among the most important contributions he has made in his lifetime.

But before he was a professor, he was a high school teacher. In 1955, after determining that the suburbs of Los Angeles were not to his liking, he found his way back to the high desert when a job opened up on the Zuni Reservation, in New Mexico. His job would be to teach mathematics to Zuni teenagers. Back then, the pueblo did not have a paved street, a stop sign, a grocery store, or a hospital. People cooked in outdoor clay ovens. Zuni had few white residents. The preparation my father had for this job was a degree in Math with a minor in Choral Music from a Dutch Calvinist Christian college in Michigan. He had probably not ever eaten a chile or seen a rattlesnake. To my knowledge, he had no preparation in cross-cultural communication or cultural anthropology. He was a stranger in a strange land.

They put him straight to work. He was a warm body. He taught Math, of course, and directed the choir. He also taught health, physical education, earth science, physics, and surely some courses I can't recall. He coached basketball, track and cross-country. I’ve seen pictures of a man with a severe flat-top brush cut and a whistle standing next to a track team of wiry boys with names like Alvin Owelagte and Estevan Quam. I’ve listened to a scratchy vinyl recording of his choir singing Handel. I try to imagine his life.

Just as my life began in red dirt, my father's life began in black dirt. I remember him speaking of wading through the black muck of his grandfather's celery farm in Michigan. I barely remember his parents and the wider community of which he was a part--Dutch Calvinists, hard-headed Frisians, ice skaters and farmers, with names like Veenstra, Rozema. I imagine my father as a teenager reciting the questions and answers to the Heidelberg Chatechism. I've seen pictures of him from college, singing in barbershop quartets, playing the double bass. Can I really comprehend the scope of his journey?

The journeys of the generations dovetail. My earliest memory is of playing in the dirt at the Christian Reformed mission in Zuni. Maybe I cried, because some lady who smelled of peppermints scooped me up and brushed me off. I remember also the smell of juniper smoke from the ovens, and of sitting in my father's lap, wrapped in a blanket, as we watched from the pueblo rooftop as the procession of dancers entered the plaza. I have written a poem about this, which, like many poems, is a small thread of memory braided with a larger thread of imagination, because, of course, I can't really remember what my four-year-old self thought. The dream is made up, but the feeling from which this poem comes—the clear sense of incarnation and the sense that the Shalako embodied a mystery—was not.


Back to the beginning: Zuni, New Mexico,
December, 1966. A four-year-old boy swaddled
in a blanket, sitting on an adobe roof, waiting
for the Shalako. Lined up along the bridge
into the old pueblo, perched on rooftops
around the plaza, everyone in Zuni waits,
solemn and expectant. Then, out of a whirlwind
of red dust, he emerges, long beak snapping.
Is a man behind the mask? the young boy asks.
Yes and no. God puts on a body.
The shuffle of Kachina dancers in dust, pulse
of rattles and bells, and the constant chanting
lull the boy into a dream: there is no ground
or sky, but only whiteness and he is in it,
floating, as the towering Shalako bends down
low as if to swallow him up, but instead
reaches out and plants a seed in the boy's head.
When he wakes, the boy stares at his tiny hand
as he flexes and unflexes it into a fist.
God puts on a body! Anything can happen.

Like my father wondering about the road ahead, I'm not sure where these reminiscences are leading. Landscape and story, body and spirit intertwined. God puts on a body. Maybe this is true of us all, and not just the Shalako. Old-fashioned Dutch Calvinists are embarrassed by bodies—their hungers, their weaknesses. Bodies lead to sin, bodies age, bodies give out. My father's hands are old, weak now, the skin mottled and papery. They were not always so. A disease is crippling his brain, and this was not always so. Still, the mild man who is my father shines brightly in both body and spirit. Can we see the sacred in the fleeting world?

Here is another story, a truer one than the poem, although the details are fuzzy. My father told me this story many years ago, and I didn't recognize (as young people fail sometimes to recognize) that it was a story that mattered. My father described to me a conversation he had with a twelve-year-old boy on his track team as they rode together on a long bus trip. They were talking about Zuni religion—always a delicate subject. My father wondered how the Shalako made his wooden beak snap so sharply. Was there a mechanism in the mask? (The twelve-foot-tall Shalako is one of the most beloved and important kachina spirits, which inhabit the bodies of men in ceremonial dances. It has a long wooden “beak” or “clapper” that makes startling noises, perhaps to keep young Zuni children from falling asleep.)

My father was never one to embellish stories. His telling of the tale was sparse, leaving much to speculation. He remembered that the boy hesitated at such an invasive question, and stared hard at his coach. I imagine the boy to be sizing up this white man. (What is he after? Is he making fun of me?) In the boy’s hesitation, my father found a way to say to the boy that he meant no disrespect; he understood that the dancer in the Shalako mask was filled with the spirit of the Shalako, and that he was, at the same time, a man. In wondering about how the beak worked, he was merely curious, but he didn’t question that a Shalako spirit was involved. The boy was silent for a while. It was not unusual for Zuni kids to be silent. But then he opened up. He told my father, almost apologetically, that he didn't know what made the beak snap. Then he added that he knew it sounded crazy to a white man, but what he and all Zunis believed was that the kachinas came out of the salt lake and entered into the bodies of Zuni men.

In 1955, cultural sensitivity toward Native people was not great, and among white people there was not the widespread respect toward Native spirituality that there is today. The “wanna-be” tribe was much smaller in number. I don't think Zunis were accustomed to whites being anything but dismissive of their religion. Anthropologists were patronizing, seeing Zuni faith as something to be studied, while missionaries were hostile, seeing Zuni faith as something to be conquered. My father, an evangelical Christian new to the reservation and with no particular insight into Zuni ways, simply saw before him a boy who had entered into an awkward conversation with a white teacher about things that probably ought not to be talked about. My dad assured the boy that it didn't sound crazy at all. He said that his own religion also taught that spirits can inhabit people. And the conversation went no further. One of the things my father understood was when to stop. I don't suppose there was anything remarkable in the content of my father's words, but something in his manner allowed that boy to be both open and vulnerable.

After almost a decade in Zuni, my father moved his family to Arizona, where he finished his Master’s degree, and then became an Assistant Professor at Northern Arizona University. This was in the days when it was still possible to get such a position without a PhD. In his thirty-five year career, I think he held the dubious distinction of being the last remaining professor in the Math Department without a PhD. Had he come seeking a job ten years later, he would not have been hired. He didn’t often publish in mathematical journals; he had no interest in it. He was a college professor who still believed that teaching was the most important task. He was hired when NAU still wore the old-fashioned label of “Teacher’s College.”

Throughout my father's life, I have seen in him a willingness to step forward and do whatever needs to be done. In our church, he was a perpetual elder and organizer of projects. He did the work, whatever it was: balancing the finances, painting, roofing the sanctuary, cutting wood for the pastor. And he did the work with a generous spirit, with humility, kindness, and humor. He didn’t toot his own horn. In fact, he never thought highly of himself. He considered himself ordinary at best. Growing up under his roof, I thought he was ordinary too. It took a while to discover otherwise.

After he retired from teaching, and well into his seventies, he served on the board of directors for the relief society of his church. In this capacity, he traveled to places like Malawi and Nicaragua, where he worked on projects that involved AIDS and malaria prevention, poverty reduction, microlending, agricultural sustainability, and clean water. In our own country, he went with work teams to areas affected by disasters: Flooding in South Texas and California, rebuilding and needs assessment in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina. In Malawi he caught malaria and nearly died; his stamina was greatly reduced after that. When at age 76 he shared with me a slideshow of his trip to Africa, I was struck by his rambling and inarticulate manner; this was new to him. I began to worry.

Five years ago, he was hiking the red rocks of Oak Creek with a spring in his step; two years ago, he could barely make his legs get him up to the top of the mesa from which he surveyed the wide sweep of high desert in which he has spent most of his life. He spoke to me, then, of the ways in which I have taught him: He has in the past twenty years read many of the books I send him—especially those with an ecological theme. In response, he said “I never thought about any of that stuff when I was younger.” What he didn’t realize is that it all came from him. The love of nature, the love of the world, and the love of people, especially people who are on the margins of society--it all came from him.

Now he is moving into a time of life in which nothing makes sense. The road ahead frightens rather than draws him forward. His logical, linear mind is failing him. He feels that he is a burden to his wife and children. The math teacher no longer balances the checkbook. The driver of big rigs has relinquished his keys.

Light is fading as we drop down the east side of Wolf Creek Pass, into the town of Del Norte, where forty years ago the alternator gave out and our family spent the day in a park. He remembers that. To me it was a carefree afternoon to roughhouse with my brother under the locust trees. I didn't worry; cars were grown-up stuff. I didn't know till much later that my dad was flummoxed by car trouble. I didn't know that parents could feel anxiety. What I did know was that I was in my father's care, and that was sufficient.

Now I am about the age that my father was on that hot August day in Del Norte. I have children and parents, and responsibility stretches in both directions. I hope that my care is sufficient. We are all in a web of reciprocal relationships, and I know now that the strands connecting us are more tenuous than I once thought. How do we give back to those who have sustained us with love and generosity? The way is not clear, and how to proceed is indeed the question. There is no map that charts the course.

As we leave Del Norte, the last faint glow of sunset slips off of the tops of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Travelling at night will make my father anxious, so in the next town we will get a motel. He will wake up in the middle of the night, wondering where he is and why everything is strange to him. Nights are the hardest time. He will ask me where we are going, and I will say—as I’ve said before—“Fort Collins. A new home.” This answer will be of less consequence than what follows: “I’m with you, Dad. Your whole family is with you.” Wherever the road goes.