cyclists learn while traveling around Diné Bikéyah
on the Tour de Rez
AZ - Danielle Tolth's summers used to be pretty lazy, and that was
how she liked them.
didn't do much of anything," said the 13-year-old from Fort
Wingate, N.M. "I just stayed home."
all changed this year.
best friend, Rayn Bennett, had been nagging her for years to come
along on the Tour de Rez. But a grueling 100-mile mountain bike
ride over summer vacation - that just seemed like an oxymoron to
year, she finally relented.
is proud to report she has survived someone sneaking a live chicken
into her tent and an unwanted dunk in Whiskey Lake.
cute white Capri pants are covered with dirt and green paint, and
she doesn't care.
a maintenance project at Wheatfields Lake campground, she is the
first to streak her face with lime green "war paint."
so glad Rayn made me come on this," Tolth said last week as
she put the final coat of paint on a picnic table.
summer slacker to mountain woman in one week? It seems like an awesome
transformation, but it's one Tom Riggenbach sees all the time.
the magic of the Tour de Rez.
tour is in its 19th year, and Riggenbach actually has some second-generation
was in 1991 that the Peoria, Ill., native, then a teacher at Shonto
Community School, was showing some folks he met at the Shonto Trading
Post some local mountain bike routes.
were looking at a map on my wall and one of them said, 'Why don't
you do a ride around the whole reservation?'" Riggenbach recalled.
said, 'You couldn't really do that,'" Riggenbach said. "'It's
too big.' Then I thought, 'Well, of course you could.'"
approached his friend Jonathan Nez, now a Navajo Nation Council
delegate and Navajo County supervisor, with his idea for a bicycle
tour around the reservation. Nez was immediately supportive and
proposed it be a benefit for the community's library.
first ride was just adults," Riggenbach recalled. "But
of course, as a schoolteacher, I kept thinking, 'This is something
the kids would really enjoy.'"
next year, Riggenbach got a group of teenagers together for a two-week
ride around the reservation with the backing of the school. As he
had predicted, they loved it.
just kept growing from there," he said. "When the group
started getting too big, we made the tour longer, rotating a group
in and out each week."
usually goes through the schools to recruit students for the ride,
which averages 20 to 40 miles a day. While he has had a group as
big as 21 youths, he prefers eight to 10.
seems to be the ideal," he said.
year's tour is nearly two months long and includes children from
20 communities on and off the reservation.
along the way
learn not only the joy of exploring beautiful Diné Bikéyah
under their own power, but some biology, geology and a lot of other
stuff as well.
year we stopped by Navajo Nation Forestry and the zoo," Riggenbach
said, a fortuitous stop as one of the kids brought to the zookeeper's
attention that the skunk cage was open and one of the skunks was
is Bennett's fourth tour, and she wouldn't miss it.
love to do the Chuska part," said the solidly built 12-year-old
from Fort Wingate. "You get to see lots of wildlife, camp in
the mountains and go down steep hills."
weeks, there's a side trip. Last week it was the volunteer project
at Wheatfields. Other groups will get a solstice raft trip down
the San Juan, a backpack to Rainbow Bridge or a 4th of July party
in Page, Ariz.
route varies a bit each year, but it's always on the rez, with excursions
to other parts of historic Diné Bikéyah.
I'm trying to do is to show them that the rez is a place they can
be proud of," Riggenbach explained. "When I started teaching,
I was really amazed how few of the kids got out and did things like
this, or even thought of the reservation as a place you could do
say, 'I'm going cross-country skiing this weekend,' and they would
say, 'Where? Flagstaff? Durango?' and I'd say, 'No, Narbona Pass,'
and they would be just amazed. They never heard of anyone skiing
on Narbona Pass."
Tour de Rez led to other group outdoor outings, and by 1994 Riggenbach
had established YES for Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit
dedicated to getting Navajo kids into the outdoors.
quit his day job a few years ago and now runs YES full-time, with
addition to introducing kids to healthful activities, having a captive
audience around a campfire can also lead to other discussions -
for instance, the piles of beer cans and whiskey bottles the kids
are constantly having to clean up along the way.
try to leave a better rez behind us as we go," Riggenbach said.
cans and bottles give Riggenbach the opportunity to introduce the
topic of drugs and alcohol. By the end of their week, there's no
ambivalence in the kids' minds about such things.
disgusting," Bennett said, wrinkling her nose. "I can't
believe they drink and just leave their bottles there like that."
campfire discussions have included environmental topics like logging
and the proposed Desert Rock Power Plant.
the way the group pitches its tents at remote sheep camps and missions,
giving the youth a feel for the rural life.
of the most positive experiences for the kids is interacting with
the sheepherders and learning about that life, which some of them
haven't experienced before," Riggenbach said.
year's tour has some sad overtones. It's dedicated to the memory
of Redmond J. Etsitty, a feisty 11-year-old from Chichiltah, NM,
who was killed in an accident at his home while taking a break from
the ride last year.
parents came out on June 5, the anniversary of his death, and spent
the day with us," Riggenbach said. "It was really nice.
It's sad any time an 11-year-old dies, but Redmond was something
was my friend," added Bennett.
week finds a different group heading over the Carrizos to Teec Nos
Pos, headquarters of YES and Riggenbach's home, before heading to
the Four Corners.
there it's more or less a beeline along the northern edge of the
rez toward the Grand Canyon before they diagonal down toward Ganado,
where they'll meet up with the council delegates who are doing the
traditional horseback ride to the Council Chambers, including Riggenbach's
old buddy, Jonathan Nez.
tour will have come full-circle once again.
YES for Diné Bikéyah, www.navajoyes.org.