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(Many Paths)
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15 Young Navajo Riders Embark on 1,000-Mile Tour de Rez
by Alastair Lee Bitsoi - Navajo Times

Shonto, AZ — Stage 16 of the 2011 Navajo Tour de Rez began here last week, with over 15 young riders trekking up and down the switchbacks and rolling hills of Black Mesa toward Rocky Ridge, Ariz.

"The whole concept is to show kids that we have the power to make change," said Tom Riggenbach, founder and executive director of Navajo Nation Youth Empowerment Services, or YES, a nonprofit organization offering adventure, enrichment and service learning for youth across the Navajo Nation.

Riggenbach said since 1991 NavajoYES has sponsored the Tour de Rez, which promotes healthy living, appreciation of the outdoors and, most of all, makes Navajo youth "dig deep."

"Kids can realize they can push through the pain, the realization," said Riggenbach, adding that youth develop endurance and stamina from the challenging treks, which in turn helps them see how a strong mind and body can help them overcome other challenges they may encounter.

Riggenbach said NavajoYES provides youth with mountain bikes, gear and equipment to use on the tour.

On June 1, riders from the New Mexico communities of Chichiltah, Breadsprings, Tohatchi and Wingate started in Chichiltah, routing through Birdsprings, Wingate, Twin Lakes, and across the 9,500-foot Chuska range to Bear Lake, N.M.

A June 24 service project at Buffalo Pass, Ariz., in the Carrizo Mountains began the second leg of the tour. At the base of the Carrizos, youth from Red Valley and surrounding areas helped improve the trail systems at Twin Falls Trail and Carrizo Mountain Trail in Teec Nos Pos, Ariz.

The next leg of the tour began at Teec Nos Pos to the Four Corners, and then continued on to Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain, where the riders stopped to help work on an irrigation project at Narrow Canyon, before arriving in Shonto on July 11.

Riders from Chilchinbeto, Kayenta, Page and Shonto, among other areas, joined those who were continuing on from the previous stages.

Darnell Dean, 12, of Mexican Springs, NM, said he has been on the tour since the beginning on June 1.

"I'm kinda getting homesick but Tom has helped me out," he said.

He's been away from home for over a month, but enjoys exploring the Navajo Nation and meeting kids from other parts of the region, he said.

Up to Shonto, he had trekked about 500 miles, and was on schedule to complete the nearly 1,000-mile bike tour on Monday in Window Rock.

Dean said he learned about Tour de Rez from Riggenbach when he visited and made a presentation about NavajoYES at Tohatchi Middle School.

Before powering up the summit of Black Mesa, which included a brief monsoon shower, Dean said, "Tom always says to eat healthy, stay energized, and drink lots of water."

As the route turned toward Rocky Ridge, Riggenbach provided important details of what the riders should expect, and a quick orientation for newcomers to the tour.

"I guarantee you will not forget this challenge," Riggenbach said. "If you dig deep inside, you will be surprised. We're going to have more fun on the bikes than those in the trucks. The bike is your friend. You don't want the bike to work against you."

"I wish I had this when I was younger," added Illene Bryant, 52, of Shonto, whose children Dawn Yazzie, 15, and Myron Bryant, 10, were participating in the bike tour. "In our area, we herded sheep the whole day. We did horse riding without the saddle. We were always active."

"See ya back on the 18th," shouted Illene, as her children and the rest of the riders started for Rocky Ridge in thundering rain.

The ride also offers a chance for young people to carry the messages of the Navajo people to their capital in Window Rock.

"You have young people interested in biking and promoting healthy living, and the Council delegates and horse riders honoring the traditions of how messages used to be given to Window Rock," said Council Delegate Jonathan Nez (Navajo Mountain/Oljato/Ts'ah Bii Kin/Shonto).

Nez said this was his fifth year participating in the Tour de Rez, and the first time the bike ride and horse riders merged.

"We don't eat much because of the bike, for the horse ride it's the same," Nez said, adding that he had trekked 48 miles since Navajo Mountain on July 11. "A lot of the communities have provided meals. We kinda get spoiled."

At approximately 9:30 a.m. on July 13, the riders started their 52-mile route at the base of Black Mesa to Rocky Ridge on the Isaac Mine Road. By 10:15 a.m. they reached the top of Black Mesa after three grueling miles of switchbacks.

Once there, they rested for a good 10 minutes before coasting up and down over about three miles of rolling hills to the Navajo-Hopi reservation boundary.

Nez said he coordinated with Hopi and Navajo County officials to cross the Hopi Reservation.

"It's fun ... it's hard," said 11-year-old Kevin Smith of Shonto, who at times led the pack of riders through the rough terrain.

The riders looked exultant, at times coasting along down the hills with their arms outstretched in the 90-degree air, the heat at times relieved by passing clouds.

The final leg of the tour, which was broken into 20 stages, began last Thursday and went from Rocky Ridge through Pi-on, Cottonwood and Ganado chapters, ending Monday with a service project at the Navajo Nation Zoo in Window Rock.

"Every stop we do, we listen to the locals," Riggenbach said, adding. "These young kids sure can bike, great endurance, stamina."

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For more information:

Beginning even before the first Tour de Rez, the people who are today known as NavajoYES were offering outdoor adventure programs for reservation youth. Multiple outings at Navajo Mountain, Rainbow Bridge and Grand Canyon had already been completed before the Tour was even conceived in 1991.
The growth of the Tour marked the advent of a new era and revealed the need for a new organization. In 1994, Youth Empowerment Services for Dine' Bikeyah (NavajoYES) was established, joining community-based groups in the rez towns of Shonto and Kayenta.

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