Parents are forced to drop their children at the Sanostee chapter house because the buses are unable to navigate the muddy roads. Photograph: Don J Usner/Searchlight New Mexico
The cost for permanent improvements is astronomical. According to the most recent estimates, pavement costs $3m a mile, while cheaper alternatives such as double chip seal or gravel cost $350,000 and $250,000 a mile, respectively. Just putting down gravel on all the Navajo nations roads would cost more than $2bn.
The BIA holds the right of way on about half of the dirt roads on the Navajo nation. Searchlight New Mexico made repeated attempts to interview the director of the BIAs Navajo regional office without success.
Lost in space (and time)
Now nearing 70, Emil Benally and his wife, Jean, are raising their four-year-old great-grandson on the small farm that has sustained six generations of his family.
That farm, nestled deep in a secluded canyon and accessible only by way of a winding, rugged lane, marks one end of Route 5010. Before it washed out years ago, the road connected Sanostee to Toadlena and Two Grey Hills, communities to the south that are known for their historic trading posts. Today, 5010 dead-ends just past Benallys house, seven miles from the nearest paved road.
When I was a toddler, my grandparents told me stories about the land, he said. At one time, we had cattle here, enough water for farming, even an orchard.
Back then, going to town meant hitching a wagon to a team of horses, traveling up the steep incline and weaving around the boulder-fringed hairpin turns. In the mid-1950s, Benallys mother dropped him off at a boarding school 10 miles away too far for the daily commute by wagon. As a teen, Benally walked seven miles each way to a summer employment program.
The road has always been difficult, Benally said. Every year there were times in the winter or spring when the mud or snow was too deep to get out.
Still, Benally gave up a career as a silversmith in Albuquerque to raise his own children in the canyon. He learned to plan ahead, to stock up food and firewood, and to rely on his own resourcefulness to survive.
He hopes his great-grandson wont have to battle for a road all of his life, as so many Navajo have done.
If you live in a city with paved roads, you cant even imagine this, Benally said. Its like were lost somewhere in the past.
This story was funded in part by a generous grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism