Jon Yazzie, Kayenta, and the Navajo Nation
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Just south of the geological attraction of Monument Valley, you’ll find the town of Kayenta, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation. We catch up with local Jon Yazzie of Dzil Ta’ah Adventures for a quick ride and to learn about his plans to put the Navajo region on the map. Find more about Jon and his collection of beautiful bikes here…
If it wasn’t for Chris Reichel over at Why Cycles, I likely would have driven right through Kayenta, Arizona. He was persistent that I visit the Navajo Nation. More specifically, he was persistent I visit his friend Jon Yazzie in Kayenta and get out for a ride. I’m no stranger to recommendations like this, especially since they generally determine where we visit and who we meet while living out of our van. It’s been a great way to see the country.
Before long, Jon and I had plans to meet up at his place in Kayenta and head out for a ride. What I didn’t expect was to learn so much about the region, its history, and Jon’s big plans to put the Navajo Nation on the map. After our visit, I sent over some questions to learn more about Jon, his plans, and his collection of bikes. Check it all out below…
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I’m a full-blooded Navajo from the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona, from the communities of Coalmine Mesa, New Lands, Tuba City, and now Kayenta. My clan is Near the Mountain, born for Zuni Edgewater.
How and when did you first get into cycling?
I started riding bikes back in second grade, on a K-Mart special. I lived with my grandmother in a tiny, remote hogan with no electricity or running water. She was a traditional healer. Our nearest neighbor was two miles away as the crow flies, and it was my only mode of transportation to go play, get a hot meal when my grandmother was off conducting a ceremony, or relay messages for her. She didn’t know how to drive, so I was sort of an aspiring bike messenger.
I continued riding through middle school and high school. My mom bought my first real bike in seventh grade. It was a Schwinn Predator, and I spent my free time learning street tricks when we moved to the city. I continued riding after high school on a 26” mountain bike while I spent some time in the military.
Later, I picked up a Haro Nyquist dirt jumper in my early 30s and went back to mountain bikes not long after. That background sort of paved the way for my love for single speed riding.
How have bikes influenced your adult life?
Right now, they’re important to me for exercise, exploration, and meeting new friends. Hopefully, they’ll also help me launch a successful guide business.
What led to your transition from racing to bikepacking?
Injuries. I broke my ankle pretty badly, which led to one issue after another. Let’s just say I’m very thankful to be able to get out and ride after the rough two years I had after that crash.
I went on my first bikepacking trip in the spring of 2014. My friend Chris Reichel talked me into doing a ride from Chinle to Kayenta, all on sandstone, after Single Speed Arizona one year. I was new to it, and reached out to Nick at Rogue Panda for some help. We spent three days connecting dirt roads and sleeping under sagebrush. It was great. I was hooked.
What can you tell us about Kayenta and the Navajo Nation?
I don’t know too much about Kayenta other than what I’ve read in history books, Navajo myths, and some of the history of the uranium mining, Gouldings, Wetherills, and other traders who helped make it what it is today. Personally, I think Kayenta is one of the best reservation cities I’ve lived in. It’s close to some spectacular riding and packrafting, yet not too far from family. Plus, I met my partner Nadine not long after I settled here.
What’s the riding like around Kayenta?
There are a few trails around Kayenta that some local teachers have been riding prior to me moving here. Since then, Nadine and I added alt-lines, more tech sections, and more loops off their old trails. Right now, they’re sort of underground, because they are located on community grazing areas. We are going through the process of making them legitimate, which requires presenting to the local government on cycling’s low-impact travel, then a land withdrawal if approved, an archeological and biological study, and then signage. So far, we’ve completed the surveys.
Over the years, we’ve taken some world-class riders on a few sections and they all agree that these trails can easily compare with Moab or Sedona, minus the crowds.
What are your hopes for the area, in terms of its cycling community and infrastructure?
I’d love to see cycling blow up. A NICA movement for the kids. A bicycle mechanic program at my school. A bike shop in the shopping center. Local races.
My hope is to see a sort of mini Moab or Sedona here as well. This place has the potential for it. But first, we need to make those trails legit so the community and visitors are able to hike, bike, and get some exercise while enjoying the surrounding beauty.
Also, on the reservation, I’d like to see more bikepacking, and routes connecting tribal parks and towns. A few more cycling endurance events. More trails in other communities. There is so much more to see past the washboard dirt roads and blow sand. It would sure add a little to the economy as well.
You’ve been busy creating a new company, Dzil Ta’ah Adventures. Care to share a bit more about that?
This idea came from watching loads of tourist in jeeps and vans pass us on our back road ventures. We’d like to do those same types of tours, but on loaded bikes. I totally like the idea of tourism, but I want to do it with less impact on the land, zero carbon emissions, etc.
I love reading and hearing the history of my people. From creation stories, the Long Walk, and all the modern day struggles. I love to share what I’ve learned. Our company’s mission is to provide backcountry cultural experiences via bikepacking, packrafting, and hiking.
The name Dzil Ta’ah centers around Black Mesa to the south. Dzil translates as “mountain” and Ta’ah means “base of” or “near the.” It’s also where my grandmother came. She’s from a little place on top of the mesa called Forest Lake. Nadine is also from up there. And Dzil Ta’ah is also my clan in Navajo. It was perfect. Nadine’s clan is Coyote Pass people.
Any specific routes or areas you plan to bring people to?
Locally, there are a handful that are pretty meaningful. It’s not just about the views, but the history. You can read about some of that in David Robert’s Sandstone Spine, House of Rain by Craig Childs, and also Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak. These stories and a few other powerful ones are the inspiration for finding routes, and are also a common theme for what brings interested people to my doorstep.
And that’s just the Kayenta area. There are many other places that share a rich history all across Navajoland. I read a book that featured first hand stories about the Long Walk and how the Dine people hid from persecution in the tributary canyons of the Little and Colorado Rivers. Kurt Rufsnider reached out to me when he was putting together the Wild West Route. We went to go ride and scout some of the sections that run through the reservation. We saw remnants of those hidden dwellings. It was amazing and sad at the same time.
Public lands are important. Nadine and I discussed using a majority of proceeds from our bikepack company to help keep them public. Creating bikepacking routes, educating local government on sustainable tourism and navigating permits to make it happen. I’d love to be able to travel backroads to different towns and see other bikepackers out there enjoying the same.
We are currently running a few local routes on the Four Corners Guides website, where I hope to run bikerafting trips with Doom and Liz as well. Also, this business venture is part-time, as Nadine and I still have full-time jobs.
You’ve got eight bikes between you and your partner Nadine. Can we get a quick breakdown of a few of those?
I have six bikes in total. All of them are my favorite. Today I rode the steel Vassago Jabberwocky 29er because it’s set up as a trail ripper and has the right gearing for the punchy sandstone trails.
For bikepacking, I use a Titanium Vassago Optimus Ti or a steel Vassago 26” fat bike. Those two are perfect for the sandy Rez back roads. For riding gravel and road, I have a Vassago Fisticuff, which is one of the first 650B road plus builds before they got so popular. I also have an old Voodoo Bokor I use as a townie and a State cycles fixie. I love Arizona bikes!
I’ve ridden Treks, Gary Fishers, and Konas prior to meeting Tom from Vassago at SSWC in Anchorage. He put me on my first 29er at the Barn Burner race one year. I did well and have been on a Vassago bike since, and the Vassago Legion team as well as the Back of the pack racing team.
Nadine is tiny, so we had to get her a custom build as a bunch of size smalls we tried were just not working. We got that done at Kokopelli Bike and Board in Cortez, Colorado. It’s a pimped out little 26+ Titanium Kokopelli Warthog. She also rides a pink Surly 1×1 set up with 27.5+ or regular 27.5 with a squishy. She uses either for trail riding and bikepacking.
Jon’s Vassago Jabberwocky 29er
Lastly, singlespeed bikepacking. Yay or nay?
Keep up with Jon and Dzil Ta’ah Adventures on Instagram @dziltaahadventures. Jon would like to give a shout out to some brands who’ve supported him over the years, including Industry Nine, Endless Bike Co., Vassago Cycles, Kokopelli Bikes, Four Corners Guides, ESI Grips, Loam Coffee, Stashers Bags, Bow and Arrow Brewery, Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks, Rogue Panda Designs, Back of the Pack Racing, DrunkCyclist.com, and Bikepacking Roots. Stay tuned for more on Jon’s adventures. We’re looking forward to learning more about bikepacking potential in the Navajo Nation.