While filming in Park City, Utah this summer I fortuitously came across a promotional flyer for a program called “Adopt A Native Elder” and was immediately intrigued. We made contact and interviewed founder, Linda Myer and her dedicated staff and volunteers at their warehouse in Salt Lake City where they were packing for an upcoming “Food Run”. According to their website, the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program exists to create a Bridge of Hope between Native Americans and other cultures. They do this by providing food, medicine, clothing, fabric and yarns to help these Elders, some of whom are in their 80s and 90s or even older.
As they have become elderly, it has become more difficult for them to support themselves on the Land in their traditional ways. After my interview with Linda and Roger, the organization’s Navajo interpreter and ambassador, I was so taken with the program that I pledged then and there to participate in an upcoming food run.
Months later, I was finally able to fulfill my pledge by participating in the Many Farms Food Run in a remote area of the Navajo reservation in Arizona and it was as amazing as I expected.
I flew into Phoenix on some business the day before and then drove almost 5 hours to the meeting point in Chimle, Arizona. I arrived late at night at the lovely Best Western hotel in town and woke up early to meet up with the volunteers and to get briefed at breakfast.
Linda immediately spotted me and after our greeting graciously asked if I’d brought any long pants (I was wearing 3/4 length pants). Luckily I had. It turns out the Navajo are conservative and to show proper respect, the volunteers are asked to dress conservatively with the females wearing long skirts and men wearing long pants. No sleeveless t-shirts either. The main thing is to keep oneself covered.
Linda introduced me to the group of volunteers as I nervously apologized for my inappropriate dress (an unintentional but now long running theme throughout the show), and everyone laughed. It was a jovial, giving and welcoming atmosphere with approximately 50 or so volunteers from all over the U.S. including Utah, California, Texas, Indiana and at least one other person from New York City.
It was a somewhat older adult crowd with many retirees taking advantage to give back, but there were also younger folks and families with kids as well as solo travelers in attendance. The kids particularly impressed me with their selfless attitude and commitment. In my view, these kids are bound for a lifetime of giving, empathy and betterment. I spent a lot of time with them and found their maturity and character at such a young age simply inspiring.
We left in convoy from the hotel and arrived at the gathering point on the reservation around mid morning before any elders would arrive, some making a several hour journey in from remote corners of the reservations and many arriving in walkers or wheelchairs, many of which had been donated. It was obvious that many rarely if ever are able to leave home but the ANE Foodruns are special occasion for these folks.
Not only does the event allow them to stock up on food and other necessities to get them through the winter, they view these ANE occasions as social where they are able to fellowship and see old friends be they fellow tribes people or volunteers from ANE, many of whom have been coming for years and have developed long held bonds and relationships with the Natives.
Witnessing deep friendships that transcended generational, ethnic and cultural gaps was perhaps the most heartwarming part of the entire Food Run process
The elders were as sweet as could be and they and their caretakers (if they had them) of sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, etc., were grateful and appreciative. Many of the elders did not speak English but as always, smile and a warm handshake or hug bridged any language or cultural barrier. Some of the Natives also brought gifts for exchange (rugs, yarn, etc.) giving the event a festive rather than charitable feel.
The ANE foodruns have been going on for over 30 years and by now, it’s run like a well oiled machine. Every possible scenario was covered and it was obvious this organization is a “waste not, want not” kind of place. The support that ANE receives goes directly to the native elders with very little administrative overhead that you would find in a larger organization.
They know by now the things that the elders most need. Items that might seem humdrum to you and I such as work gloves, knit hats, hand lotion, instant coffee, peanut butter, yarn, etc. Every elder is taken care of and every effort was made to create an event that was more of a celebration of a culture among good friends rather than a charity give away. There were skits, entertainment, games and giveaways along with a wonderful buffet style lunch that was a mixture of Native and non Native food.
Indeed, it was hard for me to keep a dry eye during the parts of the day. The love and good will flowing from Native to Non Native and back was palpable. When the young Native children showed up for their toys, I thought I would lose it. Simple pleasures from kids who don’t know a thing about a computer or video game but who were absolutely thrilled with a new plastic toy car or action figure that most kids in our country today would simply sneer at.
The Elders.. the kids.. the volunteers… the love… the warmth.. in the peaceful (if hot and dusty) setting of the Arizona desert, it was surreal as well as a mind and life altering.
I hope I’m able to actually “adopt” a native elder or return on a Food Run soon and while it remains to be seen, it’s a memory I’ll treasure and keep for life.
I encourage you to find out about the ANE and see if it’s for you and if you are so moved, participate on a Food Run or Adopt-A-Native-Elder yourself. Please visit their website HERE and look for their segment in 2016 on Raw Travel.
The life changing possibility of travel is by far my favorite thing about my favorite activity. The way travel flips things on their head or side, or more accurately I suppose, how it flips me, the traveler and changes my perspective… forever. My brain expands to proportions from which I’m sure it will never return. Travel, I firmly believe, prevents brain (and heart) shrinkage.
Until this most recent trip to the Western Frontier of the United States (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming & South Dakota), I was convinced that in order to create that atmosphere where mind and body are stimulated to a point of dramatic change, a potent dose of culture shock was in order, the kind I most often get from entering another sovereign territory’s borders.
I figured one had to dust off (or obtain) that little blue book (for Americans), the passport, and immerse one’s self into a totally foreign environment for maximum shock value. This gets the brain waves to flow in different directions than the day to day routine conditions which often dictate our lives.
While I still believe that international travel is by far the best, quickest and most rewarding way to get quick use of that other 90% of our brain that is just sitting there waiting to be tapped – you know that part that helps us realize we’re all connected – I must now, ever so slightly, amend my thinking.
Yes, a trip within the U.S. has changed my thinking on the very subject of travel and change. Not the last bit of irony this trip would uncover.
I’ll be the first to say that I had mixed feelings about taking this particular trip within the borders of my own country, to areas some of which, I’d even briefly visited before (albeit for extremely short visits and all solely dedicated to “business”).
But almost immediately upon arrival to New Mexico, I felt a familiar and welcoming feeling creep upon me. Upon the drive to visit the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuaryin a very rural, remote and beautiful part of New Mexico the realization hit me that this particular trip was going to trigger some of those very reactions in my brain, heart and soul that I regularly receive when abroad. There were amazing things to see right here in this country, beginning with rescued wild life. Wolves are amazing creatures it turns out and you put 70 or so together, howling in unison… it’s an amazing experience.
Producing is not my first love, but it is my greatest love. I love to produce and am able to produce largely because I’ve been able to do the other things associated with business (distribution, marketing, sales, etc.) to such a degree that I can, for the most part, call my own shots, and produce how I see fit. It is a rare advantage of being an independent producer in an increasingly non independent world.
Since I call my own shots, I had chosen this area of the U.S. Western Frontier as our next big trip for a few basic reasons.
1) I felt Raw Travel needed to broaden it’s message to folks who may, for whatever reason, be unable to embark on international journeys.
2) This was an area of the U.S. I was least familiar and I was curious.
3) I was charmed by the landscapes, recent history (the 1800’s are still very much celebrated here) and not so recent history (fossils & dinosaur digs abound) and by the people who live there
4) The still potent Native American culture & influence which has intrigued me since a child.
5) Let’s face it traveling in the U.S., theoretically at least, is easier. Less prep is needed and no language barriers.
Little did I know that this experience would have so many similarities to our international experiences in developing countries (i.e. working, adequate wi-fi was virtually non existent in a surprising number of brand name hotels we stayed in, my cell signal was at zero bars more often than not in the mountainous terrain and while most people spoke English of course, there were legitimately a few who still spoke their native dialect on the Indian reservations).
In short, I was in heaven…we would get our mind blown after all. This trip could be a mind bending, life altering adventure like all the rest. A couple of quick examples… ableit in the more negative column.
Just minutes after our first test flight (and crash) of our drone in Colorado, a very large and very live field rat was discovered in the glove box of our rental car. This somewhat cuddly (but scary when driving down the interstate at 70 MPH) creature had somehow made it’s way into our vehicle unbeknownst to my companion, cameraman & co-producer on this trip, Renzo. Renzo reached in said glove box to grab the rental agreement and instead let out a scream that would have made an 11 year old girl very proud. In all fairness, I joined in perfect, shrill harmony.
Then in Lander, Wyoming we unwittingly rented an animal excrement filled hotel room and promptly checked out just after checking in.
Also in Lander, a small charming town with a relaxed vibe, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of guns holstered on so many hips. Evidently a shoot out at the local burger joint could happen at any time. Come to think of it, the food orders were extremely accurate.
Ironically, the last time I saw such a blatant display of “freedom” was in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
But these examples are somewhat anomalies.
The kind of mind & heart expanding experiences I’m really talking about were more tame but just as powerfully etched in my brain. The interactions with everyday Americans in the height of vacation season was a wonderful opportunity to get to know locals and travelers from all over the U.S. in a totally different light.
Whether it was the family on vacation from Dallas taking their first hot air balloon ride (mine too) with Rainbow Ryders high above the town and terrain of Albuquerque, New Mexico…
or the Philadelphia businessman on vacation with his wife and young kids at the legendary (some say haunted but I say lovely) Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, Wyoming…
or the young adventure seekers in Utah and Colorado who came to pursue adventure sports like Base Jumping (jumping off a clip in a wing suit), paragliding, rock climbing, etc. and seemed hell bent on seeing if they could get a pansy, not-so-well-known travel host to throw up…
or the Wyoming rancher who, instead of throwing us off his land, pulled over in his big pick up to tell us where we could get an even more picturesque “picture” for our cameras.
No, I couldn’t help but happily notice that Americans ARE indeed a very friendly bunch.
Sure, you can easily find a cranky, grumpy person anywhere, usually quiet easily. But you have to look extra hard in places like Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota.. to find one single impatient, non hospitable jerk.
With or without the cameras, people were cooperative, easy going and amazingly friendly and laid back.
In fact in Salt Lake City even the dreaded airport security personnel were super friendly.
Whatever is going on at the TSC in SLC I say bring on more of that to JFK please.
But I digress.
It wasn’t just the people that impressed. The landscapes of each of these incredible states simply stunned me on an almost minute by minute basis. I mean, I expected to get blown away (and even melt) in the high desert of Moab, Utah. The photos just don’t do the place justice. It’s surreal.
But I didn’t expect to try and look for ugliness in Colorado and be unable to find it. Every curve or corner turned into an “oh wow” moment it seemed.
BTW, Boulder…yep, I think I’m in love with you. It’s like the whole town is one big Whole Foods supermarket. In addition to eating healthy, organic, local, etc. Boulder folks can Kayak or Fly Fish right in the middle of town and they bike.. EVERYWHERE.
Colorado, unlike say Wyoming, has loads of people but they are ALL, it seems, outside all the time.
I discovered a side of Denver I never knew existed and despite the ruckus about legalizing marijuana, I saw very little evidence that this place is obsessed with this nearly as much as the national news media. I know it’s not as sexy, but if you ask me, Colorado’s mountain towns and mountain music are what people are high on. Marijuana, as I was to learn, is just a natural plant that’s been grown for centuries in North America and used legally for most of that time, for everything from clothing to medicine.
But the most mind blowing part of the entire journey was in South Dakota. No, not Mt. Rushmore (we didn’t even visit) but the Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge South Dakota where we ended our journey and spent, ironically enough, the July 4th Independence Day Holiday by celebrating with the 1st Americans at a local pow wow.
If you don’t know about Pine Ridge Indian Reservation I invite you to simply google it. As we followed the trail first blazed by journalist Diane Sawyer, we too found all the sad facts… poorest county in the United States…. rife with substance abuse…some of the most prevalent rates of teen (and even more tragically pre-teen) suicide rates in the U.S., etc. ,etc. Online folks will go on and on about how this area is a third world country within the U.S. borders, and they wouldn’t be exaggerating that much. It is poor and there are problems that are fairly well documented.
But what you will also find and what is much less documented (and we therefore plan to showcase), are the many positive things happening on the reservation.
Organizations like Re-Memberand Native American musicians like Sequoia Crosswhite & Scatter Their Own are working hard to turn the messaging about this place around. They are grabbing control of their shared destiny and helping others help themselves.
Other positive things like Thunder Valley sustainable housing, the Skate Board Park recently constructed and for me at least, most excitingly, the travel and tourism industry is beginning to grab hold and help offer valuable income opportunities for many.
Key to this and most importantly (and not surprisingly) to me, Pine Ridge has some of the nicest, humblest, soulful people I’ve met on this earth. They are rightly proud of their heritage, culture and spirituality that I think we as a nation need much more of.
I firmly believe that the right kind of sustainable, respectful tourism can help the folks at Pine Ridge turn over a century of tragedy and heartache into something positive economically while allowing and encouraging them to continue their proud heritage.
We conversed at length with proud descendants of famous leaders such as Red Cloud, Dull Knife and Black Elk and I found the reservation to be as fascinating as any international destinations I’ve ever visited.
I’ll admit, I have a thing, a good thing, for the indigenous peoples of the world and in particular Native American culture here in North & South America. They touch my heart and soul in a way that few other people do.
I’m very excited by what I hope you are going to see on Raw Travel – Season 3 this fall. I firmly believe it will be the Western Frontier as never or rarely experienced on television before. But I’m most excited about our time with the Native American peoples, especially at Pine Ridge and the opportunity to do some good.
I hope with our special episode profiling this wonderful place, that we can make real progress in some small way helping these proud and friendly people grasp the opportunity before them and that we can, in some minor way, help young people create a more optimistic outlook for themselves.
Yes, it’s official. I love Americans all over again…all of them… including the very first ones.
That’s a surprising gift and it’s one worth remembering.