An Airbnb stay at this Navajo hogan gives guests a glimpse into life without running water
Heading north on State Route 89 past Flagstaff toward the faintly populated Navajo town of Cameron and its famous trading post. Turn right onto Indian Route 6730. Drive three miles on winding unpaved roads through the badlands of the Painted Desert, and eventually you’ll stumble upon a mud hut emerging from the ground, called a hogan.
Shanna Yazzie and her 13-year-old son Zenium arrived earlier and started fixing up her family’s Navajo hogan for an Airbnb stay — which comfortably fits two twin beds draped with wool blankets cloaking Tuft & Needle foam mattresses, ready to be made.
“I learned how to make my corners in boarding school,” said Yazzie. “This is how the dorm maid taught us to make our beds every morning.”
She spends hours each day dusting blankets, stacking firewood and oddly enough, even dampening the rust-colored soil with a portable battery-powered rinse kit.
That part only takes three minutes.
“So, I’ve learned that this has different settings, and it works perfectly for wetting the ground evenly,” Yazzie continued. “And it gives it a cleaner look, so when you’re a guest and you first walk in, you don’t see any footprints.”
It’s followed by raking the arid dirt to release a distinct, earthly scent.
“And then the smell of wet dirt, oh my gosh, I love that ... because we lived right along the Little Colorado River,” she added. “I don’t know why, I used to eat the wet sand down there.”
She’s been managing accommodations for the hogan alongside her mother, Amelia, since the summer of 2017. It’s certainly been a family affair from the outset, even long before the idea of turning their earth home lacking electricity and running water into business emerged.
Her elder uncle, Floyd Stevens, helped build it nearly half a century ago when cattle, sheep and horses once roamed the homestead. He explained: “They call it the fork-sticked hogan, too. And they all interlock at the top.”
This one is a male-style hogan, solely meant for ceremonial purposes that help stay spiritually connected with Mother Earth and Father Sky. A female hogan, used for family gatherings, neighbors this one — not too far from Ward Terrace looming off in the distance.
Stevens foraged the mountains near his hometown of Page to find trunks of cedar and juniper —chopped into logs that he shaved by hand. Three main beams — “come from the south, the west and then the north.”
Everything has a purpose, from the fire to smoke-hole, “all of these have names.” Its doorway even faces east, meant to “meet the sunrise in the morning for your prayers.”
Occasionally, their spiritual abode has relocated to different spots over the decades. Now in its final setting, if the hogan isn’t occupied, it’s supposed to be taken down. But Yazzie has a problem.
“I don’t have anybody to put it back up because all the men that know knowledge of how to put it together are no longer around,” she elaborated.
At age 73, her uncle can no longer do it anymore. “And men were willing to help at that time,” said Stevens, “but now, this one, I had young boys help me.”
Young boys like Zenium, who spent part of his spring break plans smearing a mixture of wet mud and clay on its exterior for two full days, after last year’s rainy monsoon season eroded away at its elemental structure. That process was considered “fun, tiring” by the young Navajo boy who’s been eyeing a possible career path in mechanical engineering.
Although he’s been helping around the hogan since the age of 5, last spring was his first time repairing that earth home. When asked if he’d consider mending its walls ever again, Zenium without hesitation answered: “Yeah, probably; it’s a lot of fun.”
Upkeep, like these steps, are part of preserving this sacred dwelling for his generation and the ones that follow. Listing the hogan as an Airbnb destination to disconnect was initially a way to fundraise for an annual family reunion held on the homestead each September.
“Not only that, but also to provide education,” said Yazzie. “There’s thousands of people that drive through this highway — through the Navajo Nation. They can see from their cars, and they never get to experience it.”
A once-in-a-lifetime experience is how she describes it, but this also is their way of life. It wasn’t until this March when Yazzie got running water installed at her residence — a meshing of lifestyles between a traditional hogan and modern home.
Whenever she’s not busy greeting guests, Yazzie is working as a program manager based out of Navajo Mountain, Utah, for DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project. The Navajo Nation stretches across more than 27,000 square miles of the Southwest between Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Nearly a third of the Navajo Nation still does not have access to clean, reliable drinking water.
Yazzie said, “We have families that live between here and the next highway, which is going to be Hopi,” about 30 miles away outside of Tuba City, “In between, there’s no water lines.”
Those living on the Navajo Nation are 67 times more likely to lack running water or a toilet compared to other Americans. And 40% of households must haul water for miles just to meet their daily needs for life off the grid.
“They’re in their last few years of life finally getting what we provide to them, and seeing water actually come out of a faucet,” she elaborated. “Those are moments that my team and I get to embrace.”
That Indigenous-led nonprofit has installed over 100 home systems and delivered water to more than 550 households so far this year alone, but Yazzie’s guests truly get to learn what it’s like to live without plumbing. Disruptions in supplying water heightened amid the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the Navajo Water Project to step up. They’ve trucked nearly 400,000 gallons to families in 275-gallon tanks since 2020, and even continued doing so.
She fills camping jugs, drawing water from the 338-mile-long transient desert river, one of the largest tributaries stemming from the Grand Canyon. And for a long time, it also served as the same water source Yazzie and her family relied on for washing and bathing themselves. It has reminded her how precious water is, especially in a remote desert climate.
“Showering does not mean a good consistent water flow and standing there for 15 minutes,” said Yazzie. “It’s like a two-gallon bucket, but I do look online for those shower pills or those body wipes for showering, so I’ll provide those in the summer.”
Despite that, they’ve attracted a growing clientele. Hogan by the River is gaining popularity, with Yazzie accepting more than 1,000 bookings since she began six years ago.
This humble hidden gem has even attracted celebrities, like Will Ferrell, who stopped by in March.
Yazzie is encouraging others to expose themselves to her lifestyle, too. “So, if there’s any other high-profile actors, I’m the lady to see.”
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