The whole semester was done and vacation time was finally here. Christmas vacation, that is. I was all set to take a trip up North with my cousin Stuart on a Friday night. I had my bags all packed and was all set to hit the road when I heard the doorbell ring. I opened the door to find that my cousin Stuart standing at attention.
“Hey bro, are you ready to get going? He asked.
“I most certainly am, Stu. Let me just grab my luggage and then we’ll get going I told him.
“Is your Mom inside?” He asked me.
“Of course she is, come on in and say hello.” I said.
I assured him that I was going outside to his SUV to throw my bags in there and he went and handed me the keys. I went out to his SUV and loaded up my luggage in the back while he went inside and visited with my Mom and Dad. After that was all done I hugged my mother and father goodbye and told them all they wanted to hear and reassure them of my well-being. Then just like that, we were on the road headed towards I-17 all the way up North.
It was great seeing my cousin Stuart again. We kept in touch with each other throughout the summer and all through the fall. He was a Marine Corps veteran who had been home for more than a year and had managed to pull himself up by his boot straps and carve out a decent living for himself working a job at Boeing airlines working on helicopters. He had 10 working days off and was spending it to go up north and spend time with his sons. He was happy to be a father and I could tell that it really suited him. It was going to be nice to head up to the reservation again. I always got a warm feeling being around this family that was so close to me, especially it being so close to the holidays.
We had time to kill and since we weren’t in any hurry and we didn’t have to be there until Friday evening, we decided to make a couple of detours on the way. On the way towards Flagstaff, we stopped near Camp Verde at Cliff Castle Casino. We thought it would be nice to play some cards and win some money. We walked inside the alarming noises of bells and coins rattling around slot machines. We greeted to lady host at the entrance and presented our ID’s to assure the house that we were of legal age. We made our way over to a refreshment stand and had a couple of Sprites. Afterwards, we headed over to the blackjack tables and decided to do a little gambling. It was my first time being in such a place of gambling. At $20 a hand I lost on a couple of them. No such thing as beginner’s luck that night. It wasn’t my first time playing blackjack. I knew the basics and realized that most of it was luck. The dealer gave us a couple of tips on playing. We continued playing and after utilizing my newfound advice, I came out $100 dollars richer after being down $40. I decided that was it for me and retired back to the refreshment stand for a cup of coffee. Stuart decided he had enough too and told me the reason why we were taking our time on this trip. He had a girlfriend he wanted to see in Flagstaff and he wanted to stop by and see her. I didn’t have any objections. I loved Flagstaff and was cool with his decision. We continued on our way up north and we made decent time in arriving there in Flagstaff. It was so nice to be there in December with the snow and the mountains. It made the trip that much more seasonal since Christmas was around the corner.
We stopped at his girlfriend’s place in a very nice suburban area of town and proceeded to head to the door. It was great getting to finally meet Stuart’s girlfriend, Lavelle. She was a student at NAU and was very intelligent, pretty, and funny. After meeting and greeting we all decided to go out and have some fun on the town. We all had a great time that night and got a good night’s rest. That morning, the three of us went out to breakfast and took our time admiring the beautiful snowy morning. Stuart said his goodbyes to Lavelle and we proceeded on the road up north toward Kayenta, Arizona to pick up his sons. I always did get a kick out of driving through that area. It was a nice and scenic area to take a drive through. The weather was entirely cloudy on the way up and when we got there, we were there to greet his sons. We gathered them and buckled them safe inside the vehicle and finally entered the last leg of the trip. We were all Sanders, Arizona bound and we weren’t stopping for anything.
One thing I could say about Stuart was that he knew how to drive somewhere fast and efficiently. We made it to our destination in two hours’ time. It was so nice to be taking that trip and seeing the sun setting down on the hills to the west of us. When we finally arrived to my drop-off point which was my Aunt Cynthia’s we unloaded the luggage and I was happy to find out that my older brother Maurice was on his way there soon with his family. Stuart and I visited with my auntie for a bit and hammed it up with my younger cousins and had some laughs joking around with them. We all were visiting with each other waiting for Maurice to show. When he did it was all hugs and cheers to see him again. He brought his wife Jeannie and his children Miles, Dylan, and Delilah. It was really great seeing all of us together, especially Stuart and his boys. After visiting for a while with each other, Stuart bid us goodbye and left with his sons. I felt really good about how the weekend was already turning out.
Saturday came around and Stuart, Maurice, and I headed out to take care of some tasks that required a certain amount of manpower. That took up our entire morning and in the afternoon when we were done, Stuart took us out to a remote spot to shoot some rifles. He brought along his scope-mounted Winchester rifle and we spent the rest of the day firing guns. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday. When the evening came, Stuart, Maurice, his wife Jeannie, and myself all made our way into Gallup, NM which was about 45 minutes east from us. We all went into town for a fun night out on the town. I felt nothing but ecstatic being around the guys I considered brothers to me. A certain sense of camaraderie was in the air and I felt that nothing could go wrong. When we all had enough, we made our way back to Sanders. I had fallen asleep on the way back and made my way back into my aunt’s house and into the bed I was using that weekend. It was all a blur to me and I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
The next morning was Christmas Eve. I knew that from the night before. I got shaken awake by my younger cousin J.R.
“Hey Trav, wake up. You got to wake up right now.” He told me
Not wanting to be disturbed, I got a little angry at why he was waking me up so early.
“Leave me alone, J.R. I’m not fully rested yet and you know how I get when I don’t get my rest.” I scolded him.
“It’s about Stuart, bro. He wrecked his ride last night and died.” He assured me.
Knowing what pranksters my cousins could be sometime, I was getting really angry about how they would try to wake me up by saying something like that. I got up and rubbed my eyes open and asked J.R. “What did you just tell me, little brother?”
J.R. then explained to me that Stuart got into an accident early this morning when his SUV flipped over during a high speed drive, just after he dropped Maurice, Jeannie and I off that early morning. I couldn’t believe it. I went into the living room and found all my family members with their head hanging low. The mood in the air was very sad and somber. I went over to my brother Maurice and asked him if it was true. He told that me it was true and he laid out the whole story to me of how it happened. My skepticism was at an all-time high because to me that just wasn’t possible.
“We were just with him last night? How could this be possible?” was the first thought that jumped into my head.
I wouldn’t be convinced until I saw the crash site. I ran out the door without a second to waste and all the way towards where the crash site was. I kept running and running until I finally found it. About a half a mile away from my aunt’s house near Sanders Valley High School where Maurice and Stuart used to attend school, I could see the support on a cattle guard just twisted. I went over to where they found Stuart’s vehicle and I could see busted glass and little twisted pieces of metal…and some blood on the snowy ground. My eyes watered up and I felt myself crying out there in the cold morning. I couldn’t believe it. The cousin I rode up from Phoenix with was dead from a vehicular wreck. I felt myself shaking from fear and the cold. How could this have happened? It was indeed the darkest Christmas I’ve ever endured. I collected my composure and returned back to my aunt’s house. I called up my Mom to tell her the news of what happened. She was just as shocked as I was. It was one of those phone calls you don’t ever want to make, but I had to.
We all reconvened for the funeral a week later near New Year’s Eve. We all saw each other again under sadder circumstances. Stuart’s mom, dad, and sisters all showed up for the procession. A bunch of relatives I wasn’t used to seeing were there. I attended with my Mom and I made sure to hold her hand and reassure her that I was still here. Stuart was buried in St. Michael’s Graveyard for Veterans just outside of Window Rock, AZ. It was a beautiful morning but so very sad. A mutual friend, Jason who I hadn’t seen in so many years showed up too. It was quite a surprise and it was very comforting to see him again. Jason was as close to Stuart as Maurice and I were. We all grew up together on the reservation. When the time came to sprinkle some dirt on his coffin after he was lowered into the ground, I went over and I started tearing up again. It was so hard to say good-bye to someone so great. Somebody that had so much to live for and always being a good person was something I hadn’t prepared myself for. I’ll never forget Stuart and the time we shared in the few months prior to his death. It’s something that’s bound to stay with me for a long time. I can hardly believe that it was five years ago.