TEEC NOS POS, Ariz. — The sign said there was a community school up the hill, so I turned onto the old road and eased up that way.
It was an old sign, but one easy to see because there simply weren't that many crowding the roadside on this long and winding highway deep in the northern Arizona territory of the Navajo Nation.
Although the school wasn't the one I was trying to find, I thought perhaps I could get directions to make sure I was on the right trail. I had traveled this way a few times before, but not looking for a particular school.
A woman, perhaps a teacher, was walking from one of the older buildings toward another as I pulled up, so I rolled down the window.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but could you tell me where I can find Red Mesa High School?" I asked.
She pointed back down the hill toward the highway.
"Take a left at the road and go 19 miles," she said with confident precision.
"Oh, OK. So just stay on Highway 64?" I asked.
"I don't know. Is that Highway 64?" she replied.
I grinned. The highway was the only ribbon of pavement within dozens of miles except for the route veering north back at the trading post, which serves as Grand Central Station and City Hall all in one for the tiny community of Teec Nos Pos.
"Yeah, that's the way I am too, with roads I know well," I truthfully responded. "You just say the road.' Thank you!"
When I got back down the hill, there was no road sign with a highway marker anyway. And as I later learned, it wasn't U.S.
Map reading, however, wasn't why I was here.
Sure enough, about 19 miles up the road, a series of red metal-roofed buildings marked the contemporary health clinic and its supporting residential neighborhood at Red Mesa.
A mile or so beyond that sat Red Mesa High School.
Surrounded by fences and patrolled by security guards, I had to look at the sign twice to make sure it was the school. The strong show of force disguised the pleasant and friendly greetings I received as I checked in at the office.
It was Career Day at the school, and instead of turning the career counselor down because of the remote location, or instead of sending someone else to speak about journalism, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to meet with the students and faculty of Red Mesa High School.
I always enjoy visiting students within the Navajo Nation, because every time, I come back having learned much more than I taught.
I've visited Shiprock High School on several occasions, and I'll never forget the first time, back in 1999. I walked in right smack dab in the middle of an ROTC showcase drill, and to my joy I was later able to meet several of the ROTC cadets. Seeing their pride in the Navajo connection to American military service, especially when talking about the World War II Code Talkers, made it clear to me that pursuing a military career was more than just an escape to adventure for many of these students. It carried meaning.
But what other careers do students living on the Rez enjoy hearing about?
Journalism is a fun topic for those who are interested, because it carries the traditional value of storytelling significance, and storytelling remains an important tie to ancient Navajo culture. Those interested in sportswriting to photography always ask plenty of questions about journalism, and I encourage them because there are not nearly enough Navajo journalists available.
Not everyone, however, is cut out to be a journalist nor a United States Marine.
So then what?
The Red Mesa students came and went in groups. I was sitting in a classroom, waiting to greet them.
The groups ranged in size from three students to 20 or so.
It was obvious some of them had a genuine interest in being there, and others simply were following their marching orders while waiting for the day-ending bell to ring.
I tried to engage them all.
"So if you were king or queen for a day, and you had a magic wand that something like journalism can sometimes provide, what would you work hard to change about this community?" I asked.
Some of the facial expressions in response were priceless.
"Build a Sonic drive-thru," one smart pupil replied. "Man, you could get rich here if you built a Sonic. Everyone would go there to hang out and eat. We don't have anything like that anywhere around here."
He's right about that. The nearest fast-food influence, whether good or bad, is in Shiprock quite a few miles away; and Farmington beyond that, where most of the students go for a weekend when they want to travel with friends or family to do most of their shopping or seek entertainment.
"I want to be a welder and work on oil and gas rigs," another said.
"Me too," said his friend sitting beside him.
"I want to be a mechanic," another guy said.
"What's your favorite car?" I asked him.
He surprised me with his answer, being such a youngster. "A 1967 Camaro," he said.
"That's cool! My first car was a beat-up, old 1974 Camaro," I told him. "So, if you were a mechanic, and you two over there who said you want to start a band and play music, would all of you hang out at the Sonic?"
"Yep," they all answered with big grins.
I guess Sonic knew what it was doing when it named its biggest soft drink "Route 66," because obviously the restaurant chain has a fan base in this part of the country.
"OK, then, I'll be sure and share that with Sonic. But what else might do the trick?" I asked. "What can we do right here in Red Mesa to make a difference? Everybody everywhere likes to gripe and complain about what we don't have, but few take the time to go past that and explore what we can build together, what we actually need.
"What would that be here in Red Mesa, out in the middle of no where?"
Believe it or not, a consensus answer emerged as they talked about what they would seek if every one of them were editorial writers for the fictional metropolis newspaper, The Red Mesa Times.
What would they create?
A recreational center.
Now, you know what? That's not a bad idea.
Not a bad one at all.
The two guys who want to start a band could play weekly gigs there for their fellow students.
The mechanic could hang out and talk cars with his buds.
The young lady interested in art could show her work there.
The other artists could have frequent art sales and events at the center.
One student suggested it'd be great to have a weekly movie shown there.
Heck, before the day was done, not only had we visualized and built in our minds a new recreation center, we also had it booked pretty solid for its first year of scheduled events.
Red Mesa, Ariz., on the 25,000-square-mile Navajo Nation reservation just west of Teec Nos Pos might truly be considered a place out in the middle of no where.
But it also could be considered by others as the center of the universe.
It is interesting how a little imagination and hope can make one travel so far so fast.
It's kind of like the deal with road numbers: Who needs a sign if you can find the road, and someone to point in the right direction?
After all, it's the stops along the way that best get us there.
Troy Turner is the editor of The Daily Times. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 450, Farmington, N.M. 87499; or at firstname.lastname@example.org.