Kayenta Mail Run
Accepted for publication by Arizona Highways magazine
January, 1991 issue
LEE BRADLEY, Navajo Indian, was inconspicuous in the mid-1950s crowd of nearly a hundred westerners who waited before the post office and trading post at Kayenta, Arizona. Inconspicuous too was a sign in small print, with its incorrectly spelled word:
“United States Post Office – Fourth Class
This is the remotests post office in these United States.”
Most of those in the crowd—mainly traders, Indians, missionaries, and uranium workers—had come to pick up their mail, which Lee Bradley and his son Frank had just brought in by truck over 150 miles of cruel roads from Flagstaff.
This was one of Lee Bradley’s last runs. After 25 years trucking mail to that most remote of U.S. post offices, he was turning the task over to his son. I was fortunate to be able to accompany him on that reminiscent journey.
By 9:30 a.m. the Bradley’s truck was finally loaded at the Flagstaff post office dock. The large sacks of mail were piled high atop cases of milk, cartons of bread, and crates of canned goods with which the Bradleys had already partly filled the truck. Since their conveyance provided the only public transportation to the Kayenta country, we also had a number of Navajo passengers, who crawled in on top of the load to take reclining positions on the mail sacks. With his father and me in the front seat beside him, Frank Bradley wheeled his cumbersome vehicle out onto Highway 66 heading east. Six miles from town, U.S. 89 cut off to the north, with some 50 miles of good highway leading on toward Cameron. For this portion the Bradleys served simply as rural carriers. The Sunset Crater mailbox marked the junction of the road leading four miles into that National Monument. Wupatki National Monument took another large batch of mail. Soon, at the Blevens service station, a woman ran out to meet us. “Did you bring that medicine? I thought you’d never come.”
Along with the mail, Frank Bradley handed out a drugstore bottle which he had purchased in Flagstaff. “Keeps me busy in Flag, just running errands for people,” he explained to me. “Auto parts. Radio repairs. The Navajo women even trust me to pick out their cloth and colored thread for them.”
Dropping in elevation rapidly, the road left the pines and presently we passed into the Navajo Reservation, over which the rest of the mail route—except for touching a corner of the Hopi Reservation—would extend. Then we were in Cameron.
Off to the left, a road led west toward the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. We headed north, bumped across a narrow suspension bridge spanning the Little Colorado River, then struck off to the northeast on a wicked trail of dirt and ruts and rocks which wound its way to Tuba City.
Ten large mail sacks, as well as various boxes and bundles, were unloaded at the Tuba Trading Post. Several of our Indian passengers disembarked, but many others got on.
Tuba was an outpost. Beyond it, as our vehicle jolted northeastward over a dirt road which resembled a washboard, we entered isolation. “From here,” Lee told me, “I’ve sometimes gone clear to Kayenta without seeing a car.”
Barren landscapes undulated in the sun as far as the eye could see.
“Looks flat, doesn’t it?” mused Frank. “But you ought to try taking the census in that country. The canyons would slow you down quick.”
I learned that Frank and his father and uncle had done the census tabulation of 1950 for much of the northwestern stretch of the Navajo Reservation. They had started out as interpreters for white census takers but before the job was finished each of them was doing a section of the reservation on his own.
Lee Bradley had covered one of the wildest sections the area extending north to Lee’s Ferry and the Utah line. Indian hogans, the circular log and adobe dwellings of the Navajos, nestled in isolation every few miles through most of the land. The dwellings were not grouped; almost each one was a separate entity, sometimes requiring hours of searching on the part of the census taker.
“I just struck out over the landscape in a four-wheel drive truck,” Lee Bradley told me, “and depended on the Indians for overnight shelter. But Washington didn’t plan the count out here for the right time of year. It was spring. The Navajos were on the move, from their winter hogans out to their summer shelters and corn patches. Sometimes I’d search half a day for a hogan I had heard about, only to find the occupants had moved to their summer quarters.”
“So you just had to give that family up?” I offered, jumping to a natural conclusion.
“Oh no,” continued Lee. “Families drive their herds with them when they move. They leave tracks. I traced them down.”
By now I was beginning to understand why the white men who had started the census job in this area had turned it over to the Bradleys. The requirements included not only a knowledge of the Navajo language, an ability to hike and rough it over some of the wildest land in America, but also skill in tracking. The knack of following half-obliterated marks of a herd of sheep across sand dunes and through canyons for a dozen or so miles probably hadn’t been included in the tests of the regular civil service exams for census takers.
Our mail truck swung into Red Lake, listed on some maps as Tonalea, which consisted of a single trading post and a windmill. “Half-hour stop,” announced Frank, and we piled out. By now 14 Indians were crouched or lying atop the mail sacks as passengers, and they too alighted. Seven of them, including a young mother in her brightly colored skirts with her baby bound tightly to its cradleboard, lived somewhere in this area, and struck off across the red-baked landscape toward home.
This Tonalea Trading Post in some respects resembled the general store of small villages all over early-day America.
The smell of leather came strong to my nostrils. Suspended from the low ceiling hung new brown leather horse collars, straps, and black leather bridles, as well as desert water bags, lanterns, and oilcans. Kerosene lamps were displayed on the shelves, along with groceries, canned goods, and bolts of brilliantly colored fabrics—the material for Navajo women’s clothing. The post was filled with Indians, all come to get their mail.
Leaving Tonalea the road to Kayenta in spots became as rough as a logging trail. His memories stirred by the rough road, Lee Bradley reminisced about the hazards he and his son had encountered in their years carrying the Kayenta mail.
On an occasion when rocks and ruts had resulted in a broken rear axle, Lee had strapped the first class pouches to his back and walked with them eight miles into the next station, at Cow Springs.
In the early ’30s unusual and severe snows came, turning the wilderness into an isolated desert of white. Drifts piled high and the road, where a car or so a day was a novelty, became completely deserted. But the mail had to go through. The first time the snows bogged the truck down, fortunately there were Navajo passengers, who helped push it out of the drifts. When winter conditions worsened, Lee hired 35 of his fellow Indians to shovel a way through.
But there is nothing for miles to stop the sweep of the wind. The drifts gleefully closed formation behind the truck and, on the next trip, again the road was gone from sight. Lee borrowed a Navajo pony and delivered as much of the first class mail as he could by horseback. He lost money on his mail contract that year.
Heavy winter snows are spasmodic but flash floods and summer downpours, even in this desert land, are the rule rather than the exception. In 1930, when Lee Bradley started this mail run, there were no bridges of any kind. When we made the trip, narrow makeshift structures spanned most of the gullies and washes but in the ’30s the road dipped down into every wash or ravine. Cloudbursts would often take out complete sections of the so-called highway. In 1936 eight days were required for a single mail run from Tuba City to Kayenta. It was a case of getting stuck and getting out, sliding off the road and getting on again, miring in one wash after another. Indians came from nearby hogans with their buckboards to pull the truck out of mires. At night, Bradley would walk to Indian hogans for food and sleep, then return to his truck next day to start fighting it through once more. In one wash, a flash flood immersed cab, truck body, and motor in roaring muddy water and sand. Finally that trip ended—the worst in the 25 years of the Bradley contracts—but the truck was useless for further regular runs. Lee Bradley sold it. He also lost money that year.
As the father was telling me these things while we were joggling pleasantly on toward the approaches to Marsh Pass, suddenly we heard a tremendous barking of dogs. Frank brought his vehicle to a jerky stop.
“They belong to Sleepy,” he explained. “This is his stop.”
Sleepy had gotten into the truck at Tuba. He was a Navajo hermit, a man once married but whose wife had died. Now he lived alone with his dogs in a hogan quite close to the road.
Weighed down with packages, Sleepy climbed out of the truck into a violent roaring of love-crazed canines. They knocked the packages from his arms and overpowered him. But Sleepy’s face was alight with smiles. The dogs loved him and, midst their leapings and caresses, he walked beamingly away with his bundles.
It was nearly 4 p.m. when we bumped down from Marsh Pass into Kayenta, past the knoll containing the graves of the Wetherills. They were traders who had pioneered this land and opened up the overland treks to Rainbow Natural Bridge.
“Didn’t Theodore Roosevelt make the trip in there once?” I queried.
“Yes,” Lee Bradley replied. “I was the camp cook for his party. The president liked my cooking.”
Kayenta was not much. About 20 houses, half a dozen trailers, and several Indian hogans were sprinkled about a mission and government school, on the winding dirt road leading into the uranium country, Monument Valley, and the northern extremes of the Navajo Reservation. The truck wheeled through powdery dust of the town’s single main street and pulled up to the Warren Trading Post.
Frank Bradley and his father waved to some of their friends. Only about 20 families lived in Kayenta proper, yet several dozen people were clustered about the trading post awaiting the truck. This was Monday. Mondays and Fridays were mail days in Kayenta.
Harry Goulding was there, pioneer trader from up by the Utah line 25 miles north. And so was his wife, Mike. Harry and Mike were the “king and queen” of Monument Valley. Missionary Patterson had bumped down across the alkaline wastes from Oljeto, just over the Utah line, and a trader had come in on the jeep road from Dennehotso, 25 miles northeast, to take back the mail and supplies for the families there. As befit close neighbors who dwell only 50 driving miles apart, Harry Goulding and the Dennehotso trader were gossiping amiably—the center of a loose knot of listeners made up of workers from Uranium Mine Number Two, Marvin Walter from the Mission clinic in Monument Valley, and a few others.
As the Bradleys and several volunteers began unloading the mail I thought of the inscription I had once seen on the main post office of America’s largest city, New York:
“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
In successfully getting mail through, for 25 years, this Navajo father and son had adapted that large-city slogan to one of the most remote post offices in the United States.