Lessons Learned from “The Week of No Water”

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We get our water from a community water system that serves 60 customers along 20 or so miles of highway. The well is right behind us, with storage tanks atop the mesa.

notice the water tanks to the right on top the mesa…LCM is just over this hill

After a few months of scares, problems, and outages, the pump that brings water up from the bottom of the 1700’ deep well failed.

It took a number of days of scrambling to file the appropriate paperwork, but the State of New Mexico eventually approved an emergency loan of $25,000 to replace the pump.  This turns out to be quite an involved project: the pump, motor, electrical cable and approximately 48 lengths of pipe (each 32’ long) had to be removed with each length of pipe unscrewed by hand before eventually reversing the process and installing the new pump, cable, and pipes. The Navajo water authority donated their services to do this project which was a huge help.

After a week with no water, you can’t imagine how excited we were to hear gurgling in the pipes…and to eventually have a trickle of water coming out of the faucet!

We are so glad the water was only “out” for a week. It could have been worse—much worse, with estimates as long as 2-3 months with no running water if state money had not been granted…

Here, in random order, are some of the lessons I learned during our “Week of No Water”…

  • Imagination is NOT the same as reality… Many of our Navajo friends have beautiful thick long hair. They haul water all the time, and I have tried to imagine how they keep their hair so clean: buckets? Drip showers? Water heated on the stove? When I asked for advice this past week, every one of them told me to just go to a family member’s house, someone who has running water! (Great advice…but my mom lives a few states too far away to run over there to take showers!)
  • Water is FAR heavier than you think…especially when you are dealing with morning after morning of carrying in the 8th or 10th big pan filled with water from the tank on the back of the pick-up truck.
  • Be careful not to strain any muscles when you are carrying those pans of water…there is (unfortunately) no hot shower available to soak away the pain…
  • Actual running water to wash hair is such a treat it doesn’t matter if it is icy cold! (I was able to wash my hair after the Cuba Volunteer Fire Department meeting mid-week. I think the chief was shocked that I didn’t complain about the cold water…)
  • Students are extra thirsty when there’s no water in the drinking fountains at school…(The school stayed open all week—with bottle water, porta-potties, and a “water buffalo” hauled in the by National Guard for water to be used in the kitchen.)
  • Soaking caked-on-food-covered-skillets in cold water is useless, even if the water has dish soap in it. I had to heat water (on the stove or via my coffee-maker) and let the skillets soak in HOT soapy water to scrub them clean.
  • It takes far more pans of water than you think would be necessary to actually flush the toilets properly (and then you sadly remember how much work it is to haul that water inside…) Suddenly it is easy to follow the saying: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” That toilet really does NOT need to be flushed every time it is used…
  • With no running water, you start looking around the property, trying to figure out where would be a good place to put up a few outhouses…after all, that’s what many Navajo have and how things work for many area churches…

    fancy women’s outhouse at a nearby church…

  • When the community water system fails, you suddenly learn how many local people do not understand how things actually work. I was lectured far too many times about how we were discriminating against the Navajo by turning off the faucet they use to haul water—nothing I said could convince them that we, too, had no water…

    like the Navajo families in this area, we too had to haul water this past week…

Christmas Baking

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I love baking special treats for Christmas. We don’t usually bother with cut-out cookies, but we definitely have our family favorites. This year since there were only 4 of us at home, I asked both Jakob and Anna to name just 3 favorites we “must” have for Christmas. Amazingly, their lists agreed: Molasses Sugar Cookies, 7 Layer Bars, and Caramel Bars (sinfully rich cookies brought by a friend to Randy’s birthday celebration—looks like they will be added to the “family favorites” list). I added Chocolate Chip Cookies and Peanut Butter Blossoms (you know, peanut butter cookies with a Hershey’s kiss topping each one).

christmas cookie baking

Baking Christmas Cookies...

It took me a few days to bake all of this. Yes, my back was sore each evening. Yes, my hair wilted and I was sweaty working around the hot oven. Yes, the cookies disappear with alarming speed. But it is part of Christmas. It is something I enjoy.

christmas baking

Making Cookies...a family Christmas Tradition!

I found it quite interesting, however, to discuss Christmas baking with women at church. To make casual conversation, I asked what sort of baked treats each family prefers. The women gave me blank looks, baffled by my question. It turns out that none of them do any Christmas baking. The ingredients are somewhat costly, but the real problem is kitchen appliances. It is difficult to bake on an old fashioned wood stove. And it is cost prohibitive to use an oven with a propane stove. Their families still consume plenty of Christmas calories—but in the form of candy rather than cookies.

Ahhh…now I better understood the excitement of a friend’s family when I gave her a plate of simple chocolate chip cookies to take home. To me (and my family) baking that type of cookie is a simple thing. Often I choose to bake them as a form of stress relief. The ingredients are almost always sitting in the pantry, ready at a moments notice to be turned into a quick snack. But to my friend and her family, who rarely taste home-baked goodies, it was truly a special gift!

christmas cookies

Our family's Christmas calories come in the form of cookies...

Just one more example of different cultures having different holiday traditions…

Lawless in the Wild West

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The “Wild West” is still a reality out here in Navajoland. Far too often, when violence erupts or a crime is committed, there is no law enforcement to be found. This lack of law-presence means this can be a law-less place.

I’ve talked before about family feuds. Occasionally robbery or other crimes are committed, although most often these are not reported to any authorities. Alcohol is a significant contributor to this still being the “Wild West” – just as it was a hundred years ago. When people get drunk they sometimes get violent. Years ago, if that same drunk could manage to get on his horse, he could get home safely. Today, there are too many injuries and deaths caused by mixing alcohol and cars.

If an emergency occurs and 911 is called, it often takes hours before police (or ambulance) responds. Even once they arrive on the scene, the various officers may spend time arguing over who is responsible to do the paperwork, discussing in whose jurisdiction the event occurred – state, county, federal land, or Navajo lands.

This, of course, does not build confidence or trust in law enforcers and the legal process. Too often, these circumstances lead to more lawlessness in the future.

And then, the past few weekends, there have been sheriff vehicles sitting along the US highway, clocking on quiet Sunday mornings. One might think we would be happy to see evidence of law enforcement.

Cars Sheriff

I might be happy to see THIS sheriff in our part of the country...

I confess, however, that it angers us to see those officers here in our lawless land. We want to get out and ask them,

“Where were you last Friday and Saturday nights when the drunks were a danger to themselves and others on this highway?”

“Where will you be on Monday morning when the semis are barreling down this highway in a constant overwhelming stream, hurrying to start their week?”

“Where will you be next time one of our friends calls 911 for help?”

Some days it is intimidating to realize we live in a lawless corner of the Wild West. Other days we realize our attitudes are changing. We are beginning to join those who question the usefulness of law officers. We are starting to accept the fiercely independent views of those enjoy the freedoms of living in remote areas, even if that comes at the price of infrequent sightings of sheriff deputies…

No Running Water

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I know I have mentioned before than many of the families in this area have no running water. Every few days or weeks, they drive to a community faucet (like we have here on our property) to fill up anything from gallon jugs to huge 1000 gallon livestock tanks. They pay something toward the cost of the water (usually far less than they would pay in an actual water bill), and haul the water home to be used.

hauling water

Tanks get filled at community faucet to be hauled home for use...

When all water must be hauled from somewhere else, families tend to be very careful with their water usage. They wash up (dishes and bodies) using small amounts of water in a pan or bucket. Bare minimums are used for cooking and drinking. Nothing gets wasted. Livestock is given water if penned up, but is often left to roam, saving the cost and effort of hauling both feed and water.

This sounds quaint to some outsiders. To others it sounds like terrible deprivation. In general, people around here don’t think about it: it is just a fact of life.


Outhouses: a fact of life when there is no running water

Yesterday at church I really noticed another aspect of living without running water. The weather has gotten cold which made the previously unnoticed walk across the field to the outhouses suddenly less pleasant. I will adjust for this by drinking less coffee before church and making sure I use the bathroom at home before we leave. That will lessen the possibility that I will need to make that long walk to the outhouses in the cold and eventual snow.

designer outhouses

Our "designer outhouses" at church make me smile every time I use one!

But what about the families who live with outhouses day in and day out, season after season, throughout the year? I have a new appreciation for life in a remote area. I’ve decided I don’t really want to be a “pioneer” or a “homesteader” after all! I could haul water just fine…but I want the modern convenience of a toilet that is indoors, where it is WARM!

Problems Cascade…

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The past few weeks have been frustrating. We have had a series of problems occur—water leaks, internet problems, car trouble. Any individual item should have been fixable within a day or two. They should have been frustrations that could be quickly put behind us, giving us time and energy to deal with the next difficulty to inevitably occur.


We live a hour from town. We have a significant lack of local resources. Randy has a hectic schedule this fall, with little time to deal with problems.

Once again, we realize we aren’t living in the suburbs anymore. For that matter, we aren’t even living with the conveniences of rural living in a relatively small Eastern state. This living in the “boonies” really is like the stories we have heard over the years from missionaries living and working in remote parts of the world.

I know you have heard all this before. Let me explain how problems cascade out here…

water leaks take weeks...

Over a week ago when the monthly water bill arrived, we discovered that there is a huge leak somewhere on the property. Randy spent a large part of a day trying to locate or isolate the leak. (One would think 50,000 gallons would leave a wet-spot or extra greenery somewhere on the property, but apparently not.) We eventually called a plumber/backhoe operator who will start digging up lines this week. In the meantime, we are turning on the water for only an hour or so each morning—time enough for everyone to shower, wash dishes, throw in a load of laundry, and re-fill numerous containers with water to use for the rest of the day. Community people who haul water from our faucet have had to travel further to other sources. If we lived in town, this would have been a manageable frustration for a day or two. Out here, it has become a time cascade, dealt with in weeks rather than days…

About the same time as the water leak, we discovered that our satellite based internet was close to hitting the allowable upload limits. This was puzzling since no-one had been uploading anything. Randy spent a few days checking all the computers on the property for viruses. Nothing. We turned off the wireless routers so only the modem itself was connected. A few days later I called the internet provider’s tech support line (since they do not offer any diagnostic tools or usage information directly to the customer). Yes, our modem was apparently the culprit. For many reasons, we decided we need to switch companies. Living in a remote area limits our options so this has taken hours more time—in phone calls and in Randy trying to get all the buildings reconnected to the new provider. Another time cascade of trouble shooting which is still not finished…

The mission pick-up truck started making strange sounds. It was running rough. It took almost a week, but we finally managed to find a day for both of us to drive separately to town so we could drop off the truck to a repair shop. Turns out an unusual part needed to be ordered. So we are still waiting. It has been two weeks since the initial difficulty, and the truck is not yet ready to be picked up. And even if it were, it will be at least another 5 days before we are both free to drive back in to town to get it. A time cascade…due to distances and schedules involved.

We have been having electric brown-outs for months now, made worse any time it rains. The rural electric co-op claims it is entirely due to issues on our own property. They are ignoring the complaints from everyone up and down this section of road, all of us having the same problems at the same time. They won’t acknowledge that the string of appliances that have died could in any way be their responsibility. So, my washing machine keeps quitting in mid-cycle, the microwave only works sporadically, the fourth coffee-maker appears to be giving out, my oven may or may not actually heat up when I need it, and it is impossible to keep computer connectivity when the session is frequently re-set (making it hard for Randy to enter on-line grades for the college courses he is teaching). We could call an electrician or an appliance repair-man to check things out and write us a clear letter stating the problem is caused by the electric company’s brown-outs, but that would cost us hundreds of dollars in transportation time, money we don’t have. So this becomes another time and energy cascade with no “fix” in sight…

dirt roads eat cars...

Finally, more and more of what we do and where we go involves driving on back-country dirt roads. This becomes extra difficult when the roads turn to slick-clay/sticky mud after heavy rains. In addition, none of our vehicles are heavy duty nor 4 wheel drive. It took almost double the usual time to stay on paved roads to get to church yesterday (as compared to the usual 20 miles of dirt roads we drive.) We also had adventures trying to get Nettie back to her internship at Mustang Camp: on Saturday night she and Randy took a wrong turn, got lost in remote canyons, and drove miles and miles before finding their way back to the main road and returning home. (3 hours lost) Yesterday, Nettie and I successfully got her back to her job, but on the way out, the oil pan gave way (probably from all the potholes and waterholes I tried to avoid). Randy had to come tow me out of the canyon. (2 hours driving time, plus 2 hours waiting/locating/towing time for both Randy and me) We have no clue how to get the cruiser fixed this far from town (if it is even fixable). Yet one more time cascade…due to distances and road conditions.

So, we are learning. The lack of employment in this area might not just be due to lack of transportation to get to the jobs 45-60 miles away. It might also be that living out here takes far more hours to accomplish even simple tasks than it does in town. Sometimes life is hard out here…due to TIME CASCADES…

Living in a “Black Hole”

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We live in a "black hole"

Black holes are part of big adventures. They are a significant plot-devise in sci-fi movies and books. They add an element of uncertainty and tension—will the main characters survive a trip through a black hole? Or can they avoid being sucked into the black hole, to disappear forever?

We are discovering that we live in a “black hole.” Yes, there is plenty of adventure here. But we are trying to avoid getting sucked in to the dark nothingness of working-hard-but-getting-nowhere. Looking back at the history of this location in remote New Mexico, it seems that no matter how many resources are poured into the area, they are absorbed, and families continue to live on the edge of crisis.

There is a significant lack of economic opportunity in the area. Other than a very small number of jobs at the local school and at the few carryout stories nearby, the closest jobs are at least 45 miles away. The distance plus a lack of licenses and reliable transportation means that earning a regular income is difficult for those living here. Expenses are high out here as well. Groceries are quite expensive at the carryout stores and other consumer goods are not available unless one travels “to town,” 45-60 miles away. In addition, a “survival mentality” makes it difficult to develop local jobs with local employees. The current pattern tends to be that people work very hard for a few hours or a few days, just enough to earn what they need in the moment. They often see no need to work more consistently if they have no immediate need for the income.

This area tends to be a challenge for providing or receiving social services. To obtain financial assistance such as food stamps, families are often asked to show up for appointments at offices that are many miles away from here. Again, transportation becomes an issue. Many local people also struggle with the idea of using calendars to keep track of days and weeks. Many friends have failed to show up for appointments and are baffled that they can’t just meet whenever they happen to arrive. Being some place at a specific time on a specific date is not part of their typical cultural patterns. Even showing up for the weekly food pantry hours at a nearby mission can be a challenge!

This is a very remote area, with most people living back on dirt roads. They may live 20 or more miles off the main highway, which often means they lack electricity and running water. These families rarely see a need for gaining those utilities. (If it was important to them, they would just move to town…) On the other hand, hauling water and gathering wood for heating can take a significant amount of time for daily living.

Because of the mix of land ownership in the area (private, Navajo nation, and federal lands), law enforcement can also feel like a “black hole.” Unless there is life-and-death violence involved, there is often little or no response to a call for assistance. Even when officers respond to a call, they often argue over whose jurisdiction it really is, trying to avoid having to do unnecessary paper work. Even when jurisdiction appears to be clear, cases can later be taken over by the federal government or by the Navajo Nation, regardless of who initially took control.

Finally, this area is a “black hole” when it comes to emergency services. If there is a significant injury with a call to 911, it can take over an hour for emergency personnel to arrive because of the distances involved. Local families often have no knowledge of first-aid, so are unable to do much treatment or stabilization before the ambulance or life-flight arrives. Again, remoteness and life choices contribute to a lack of resources in this area.

How can we bring "light" to the darkness here?

We haven’t quite figured out what our response should be to dealing with this “black hole.” We do know that we see no reason to just continue dumping resources (time or money) into this sucking pit. We are looking for ways to make a significant long-term difference. For now, we are talking with a few Navajo friends who are looking for changes. Jill is getting involved with the volunteer fire department 45 miles away to become a first, first-responder for local emergency situations. We are beginning the work to develop a specific plan and financial backing to focus on helping at-risk local young people who rarely finish school.

Pray with us as we look for ways to bring “light” into this area, ways to help individuals and families find healthy ways to stay living in this area, ways to close the “black hole.”