“They’re just bluffing. They’ll turn around. Wait a minute” I told myself as some “Rez” dogs started charging after me. “That one looks pretty angry!” “Stop right there buddy” The snarling alpha male of the pack was now only 10 feet away from me when I decided to grab the rock that I had stashed in my pack, not thinking I would ever need it. I had brought it along just in case some reservation dogs came after me. They don’t usually do that. They’re usually more curious than anything. Anyway, I started running after the mean guy then threw the rock towards him. Finally, he and his buddies ran into the bushes. That encounter was a little too close for my comfort.
I really enjoy my part-time job working in the emergency room on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I head out there once a month or so. It’s a nice change from my regular full-time job. I love the Navajo people along with their culture, symbolism and traditions. When I go out to work on the Rez, I do nights. So, at 9 am after my third of five shifts, I decided to head up to the mountains and get in a two-hour run. Plus, after being up all night, it’s good sleep deprivation training.
Little did I know, the trouble that awaited me.
As the miles passed, the temperature would rise to near 90. I enjoyed watching the trees become more frequent and taller as I climbed in elevation. Soon a wandering stream would parallel the road. Only an occasional local drove by. It’s these runs in solitude and out in nature that form the perfect antidote to the stress of the hospital. Any ultrarunner will agree that these moments alone help make the sport so enjoyable. At the one-hour mark, I stopped to sit on a downed tree to eat an energy bar and to drink some water. I quickly stretched my legs but made sure to enjoy the moment as much as possible.
Despite being pretty sleepy, the run back to the car seemed effortless. Going downhill now, I could’ve hammered the pace but decided to purposely slow down to maximize my time out there. As I approached the point where I had parked the car, I thought of how delicious the breakfast burritos would taste that I had bought from some locals before starting. I also had an ice-cold drink waiting for me. I took off my vest and put my water bottle on top of the car. I headed over to the tree under which I stashed the rental car keys—my usual routine when doing a run like this.
I pushed aside the twigs and pine needles that I used to cover up the keys. “Holy crap! Where are they?” I continued to look knowing that they must be there. I widened my circle of looking. Still, they were not to be found. After five minutes, I told myself that they must be here somewhere. Like most people, I absolutely hate it when I lose something. I continued to look and look and look some more. Then I started digging and moving all the material off the ground in a huge radius. After 45 minutes, I now realized that I was in big, big trouble. “What the hell am I gonna do next?” I asked myself. I thought I would have to call Enterprise Rent-A-Car and have them bring me a spare set of keys or bring me a replacement car. However, my cell phone reception was horrible.
It was at this moment that a good Samaritan, Ernie, a Mormon missionary, stopped. On his way out to help a native with his garden, he had seen me hunched overlooking for the damn keys 45 minutes ago. And now on his way back, here I was still doing the same thing. I told him my predicament. He parked his car and he and his two young missionary charges started looking also. We simply could not find them. Lo and behold, Ernie was an accomplished ultrarunner himself. Though extremely sympathetic, I think inside he was probably chuckling at his new friend’s predicament.
He asked if I was positive that we were looking in the right place. Granted, I was sleep deprived and therefore just a little altered (a lot of people think I’m always altered!) But I was as sure as I could be that I put them in that spot.
I sensed that Ernie thought that I had put them somewhere else. We widened our search to no avail.
He said he knew a Navajo elder in the community who was very resourceful. He said he had a truck and a trailer with a winch, and he could tow the car into “town.” In about 45 minutes he arrived.
With a curved tree branch, we were able to hit the unlock button through the windows that I had left slightly open. However, without the keys, we could not put the car in neutral and we could not unlock the wheels. Despite three grown ass men pushing, the car wouldn’t budge. We looked up videos on YouTube (they would pause every 30 seconds because of the poor reception) on how to free the wheels. We did exactly as instructed but it still didn’t work. All three of us had become extremely frustrated. We had no choice but to leave the car there and go to plan C.
By now it had become late in the afternoon and I had to work again in a couple hours, going on no sleep. I told myself I would have to deal with this ridiculous situation tomorrow. And, I would have to worry about the rental car being vandalized in this very remote location. But there was nothing I could do about it now.
Having already inconvenienced my Navajo friend tremendously, I sheepishly asked him if he could give me a lift into town 40 minutes away. Fortunately, he had planned on heading down anyway. Graciously he said yes. He even took me by my motel so I could pick up my work bag then he let me stop at Subway in town to pick up dinner before heading over to the hospital. I devoured the long-awaited calories, but my heart was on those two burritos that were now probably charred to a crisp having sat in the oven of the rental car all day.
I showered at the hospital then chugged a 20-ounce Coke Zero and it’s “whopping” 58 mg of caffeine, knowing I’d be hurting in the wee hours of the night. Surprisingly, I was able to make it through another night shift without any problems.
The next day, now after being awake 27 hours which included two night shifts and a 14-mile run in the heat and at altitude, I slept deeply til three in the afternoon or so. After about five hours, I awoke to spend the next several hours calling Enterprise and AAA.
After innumerable phone calls and having to wait on hold for seemingly hours, I set up a plan to have the car towed to the closest Ford dealership by a tow company out of Gallup, New Mexico more than 100 miles away. I was told it would be at least five bucks a mile. And, I was told I would probably have to pay 500 bucks for the two replacement keys. What a debacle this had turned into. All I wanted to do was go out for a nice run in the mountains!
But at this point, my luck turned in my favor. The hotel security guards took care of my transportation needs by agreeing to shuttle me back and forth from work. After my last shift, Chelsea, one of the new staff ER doctors, offered to drive me up to meet the tow truck driver. With his more powerful winch and all the right equipment, the guy had it on the back of his flatbed truck within minutes. As he was doing his thing, we were greeted by about 10 more “Rez” dogs that came up the long driveway of the house closest to us. After a few minutes of some intimidating barking, they quieted down and lingered around. One guy seemed to take particular interest in the tree where I thought I had stashed the keys.
The driver told me lots of awesome stories about his job covering the expansive Navajo Indian Reservation. When we first connected, and I told him where the car was, he replied” I’ve been there before!” What a relief that was to me.
After a few hours of waiting on the sidewalk outside the parts department of the dealership (I felt like a homeless dude), I met the locksmith who had driven out from Albuquerque, New Mexico to meet me. He had a new key programmed almost immediately. The saga had now officially ended.
I fired up the engine and was on my way to the airport. Super hungry by now, I took a chance of getting food poisoning and inhaled those long-lost two-day old burritos I had been waiting for! They were a little rough looking and they didn’t quite taste as good as expected.
Oh. One more thing: The car keys. All the locals I talked to said it had to be a Rez dog that smelled them, pulled them out and ran off into the woods with their new play toy!
THOSE DAMN DOGS! Next time, I’ll either take the keys with me or hang them off a branch six feet up. Lesson learned.