One good storm in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, can cut this small Navajo Nation community off from the outside world.
Here, in the shadow of one of the most iconic landscapes in the world, residents live on dirt roads that can become impassable any time of year. The roads—turned muddy with rain or snow—cut ever deeper into the earth with the combined effects of weather, traffic and maintenance.
For 21 years, Marilyn Benally has noted changes in the roads themselves, but not the surrounding terrain. For 21 years, Benally has driven the same 75-mile bus route through the high desert of San Juan County, Utah, delivering students to nearby schools and learning the roads by heart.
“I know where all the bumps are,” she said. “I know every place where the road is rough. When it’s dry, the roads turn into washboards or sand traps. When there’s snow or rain, it’s muddy. Roads aren’t passable.”
Benally, whose two sisters also drive buses for San Juan School District, has built a career from navigating this network of dirt roads. She has also helped develop a set of unwritten rules.
If the bus gets stuck in snow, ice, sand, mud or standing water, don’t spin the tires, Benally said. Set the brake, call for help and keep the engine running.
And never, under any circumstances, allow students to get off the bus and push.
“We tell drivers not to panic when they start to slip,” said Debbie Knight, transportation director for the San Juan School District, a nearly 8,000-square-mile parcel of land in southeastern Utah that includes the entire Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
“When they realize they have no traction, when they’re slipping off the road or sinking in mud, we want them to stop and call for help,” Knight said. “Every circumstance is different, and we don’t want them to try to get themselves out.”
But help, which comes from district headquarters in Blanding, Utah, can take as long as six hours to arrive, said Todd Hurst, south district foreman for the San Juan County Road Department. If students are still on the bus, the district sends a replacement; if the driver is alone, the county sends maintenance crews to dig it out.
On a recent Monday evening, a bus on the district’s late route slid off the road at about 7:30 p.m.—two hours after sunset—then tipped into an embankment. An oncoming car slid in the same mud and sideswiped the bus.
As the driver waited for help to arrive, she sent the remaining students home by foot. Maintenance crews arrived 90 minutes later, but eventually called off the rescue until the following morning.
“They were pulling and digging at the bus,” Knight said. “The bus was sitting on a live spring, and it was sinking into the ground.”
In the worst weather, bus drivers don’t attempt to navigate dirt roads, Hurst said. Instead, they call parents to pick up students.
“We’re talking about roads that become sloppy with mud,” Hurst said. “Everyone knows they have to adapt to the conditions.”
Geographically, the school district is one of the largest in the nation, butting up against national parks and encompassing some of the most rugged territory in the Southwest. It also serves one of the most impoverished counties in the country, where jurisdiction is split among local, state, tribal and federal entities and 27 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Nowhere is the dearth that is San Juan County more obvious than in the rural bus routes, Knight said. The district operates 57 school buses that serve students as young as 3—with some boarding the bus as early as 5:50 a.m. and others returning home after 7:30 p.m. The buses cover more than 2,700 miles per day on dirt roads, which can become impassable any time of year.
“No one really gets this until they see it,” Knight said. “No one expects what we see every time we get rain or snow.”
The roads are the subject of an upcoming report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, spokesman Ned Griffith said. The GAO visited the Navajo Nation last year during a fact-finding mission focusing on tribal roads.
“The GAO has been visiting tribal reservations as part of ongoing work looking at road conditions on tribal lands and school transportation issues,” Griffith wrote in an email. “This is a congressional request and we expect to complete that work sometime this spring.”
County and school officials—not to mention parents and students—say the report is coming none too soon.
“These washouts and incidents are not isolated events,” said Ben Musselman, Public Works director for San Juan County. “It’s ongoing: daily, weekly, monthly.”
The county’s six road graders are employed year-round, and each is responsible for maintaining 200 miles of dirt roads, Musselman said. Although many of the roads are on Navajo Nation land, the county has assumed responsibility for maintenance for the last 30 years.
But the county is spending $450,000 per year over its budget on the roads, Musselman said. And laying gravel down, a solution that could improve roads for more than 20 years, would cost a total of $18 million, or $110,000 per mile.
Musselman hopes the GAO report generates national publicity and spurs Congress to action. He estimates the impassable roads adversely affect 800 Navajo students.
“In this county, education is often prioritized above transportation, and the funding goes to the schools,” he said. “But if we can’t get students to school, what’s the use of better facilities?”
Benally is less optimistic that lasting change will come. Like most of the bus drivers, she grew up here and has seen the conditions steadily worsen.
Over the years, she has developed her own strategies for traveling the dirt roads. When her bus starts drifting left, she steers toward the right. When roads wash out, she finds alternate routes. When areas become consistently impassable, she moves the bus stops. And when she gets stuck, she follows protocol.
“I’m out there by myself, sometimes without a cell signal, sometimes during hours when no one is on the other end of the radio,” she said. “But I still feel guilty when I can’t complete my full route.”