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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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The Magic Of The Rez
by Cindy Yurth - Tséyi' Bureau, Navajo Times

Young cyclists learn while traveling around Diné Bikéyah on the Tour de Rez

WHEATFIELDS, AZ - Danielle Tolth's summers used to be pretty lazy, and that was how she liked them.

"I didn't do much of anything," said the 13-year-old from Fort Wingate, N.M. "I just stayed home."

That all changed this year.

Tolth's 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 Tolth.

This year, she finally relented.

Tolth is proud to report she has survived someone sneaking a live chicken into her tent and an unwanted dunk in Whiskey Lake.

Her cute white Capri pants are covered with dirt and green paint, and she doesn't care.

During a maintenance project at Wheatfields Lake campground, she is the first to streak her face with lime green "war paint."

"I'm so glad Rayn made me come on this," Tolth said last week as she put the final coat of paint on a picnic table.

From summer slacker to mountain woman in one week? It seems like an awesome transformation, but it's one Tom Riggenbach sees all the time.

It's the magic of the Tour de Rez.

A 1991 beginning
The tour is in its 19th year, and Riggenbach actually has some second-generation participants.

It 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.

"We 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.

"I said, 'You couldn't really do that,'" Riggenbach said. "'It's too big.' Then I thought, 'Well, of course you could.'"

Riggenbach 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.

"That first ride was just adults," Riggenbach recalled. "But of course, as a schoolteacher, I kept thinking, 'This is something the kids would really enjoy.'"

The 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.

"It's 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."

Riggenbach 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.

"That seems to be the ideal," he said.

This year's tour is nearly two months long and includes children from 20 communities on and off the reservation.

Learning along the way
Participants 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.

"This 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 AWOL.

This is Bennett's fourth tour, and she wouldn't miss it.

"I 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."

Most 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.

The route varies a bit each year, but it's always on the rez, with excursions to other parts of historic Diné Bikéyah.

"What 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 these things.

"I'd 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."

Nonprofit created
The 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.

Riggenbach quit his day job a few years ago and now runs YES full-time, with excursions year-round.

In 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.

"We try to leave a better rez behind us as we go," Riggenbach said.

The 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.

"It's disgusting," Bennett said, wrinkling her nose. "I can't believe they drink and just leave their bottles there like that."

Other campfire discussions have included environmental topics like logging and the proposed Desert Rock Power Plant.

Along the way the group pitches its tents at remote sheep camps and missions, giving the youth a feel for the rural life.

"One 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.

Dedicated to Etsitty
This 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.

"His 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 special."

"He was my friend," added Bennett.

This 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.

From 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.

The tour will have come full-circle once again.

Information: YES for Diné Bikéyah,

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