by Jo Anne Plog
There’s a legendary Navajo creature whose body is half animal and half human. He walks about on two legs, but he can also fly. He shows up unexpectedly, always bringing evil. He has been seen on rooftops, in corners of rooms, along walking paths, sitting in trees, and entering homes. He can make himself look like anyone he wants, as if he’s walking in someone else's skin. That’s why he is called a Skinwalker.
I asked a modern-thinking Navajo friend about this. He lives in Chinle, which is in northeastern Arizona. on the Navajo Indian Reservation. He had often told me to disregard Navajo stories. They are meant to teach lessons and to be a substitute for scientific facts. Although they contain tried and true advice for better health and better living, they are just stories, he told me. This made good sense to me.
I had inadvertently tested this theory. My Indian students warned me to avoid desert whirlwinds. “There are bad spirits” in the whirlwind “that will take you away, or hurt you, or kill you.” Ridiculous, I thought. Their parents tell them that to keep them out of the sand so their clothes will stay clean.
Life can be boring on the reservation. The smallest discrepancy provides excitement. Once I deliberately walked into a whirlwind. It was a small one, going nowhere, about ten feet high and three feet wide. Soon after, I came down with such a bad case of valley fever, it almost killed me.
Valley fever is a common infestation. Most desert dwellers get it, get over it, and never know what they’ve had. They breathe in spores dormant in desert sand, and the spores become living fungi on a feeding frenzy devouring healthy lung tissue. These munchers give their host a sustained fever and energy struggle for oxygen until overcome by the victim’s immune system. Recovery confers lifetime immunity. However, five percent of cases are fatal.
I nearly became a five percenter. My immune system failed. After eighteen months of heavy treatment, I stopped taking the medicine and did what the Indians do: I went out into the desert, gathered creosote bush, brewed it into a bitter, astringent tea, and swallowed a few spoonfuls of it every day.
When I went for my last X-rays three weeks later, before a proposed last-ditch never-before-tried chemotherapy treatment, the doctors couldn’t believe it. Not only was the fungus dead, but a little regenerated tissue filled that fungus hole. They cross-checked the X-rays with blood tests. Indian medicine had cured me, and it had cost nothing.
I no longer disregard that which seems too strange to be true.
My Navajo friend who taught me that advice in legends is valid even if the stories that contain it are not, thought hard before giving me an answer about Skinwalkers. He had always answered my questions. This time he hesitated, studying my eyes for some time. I waited. Finally he told me.
“In this case the legend is true. Skinwalkers are not a story.” He was serious. “People dress up like them to play bad jokes, but their deception is discovered. Skinwalkers are real. It is bad luck to talk about them.”
I believed that he believed it, but it did not fit into any scheme of my own logic. I stored that conversation away for later analysis, but didn’t consciously think about it any further.
A year later I was driving home on a three-day weekend from employment on another Indian Nation. It was about midnight and I was on Highway 93, nearing Las Vegas, and far from the reservation. There were no nearby or oncoming cars, and I was not sleepy. I had made this trip many times. My dashboard lights were on high because I like to continually check the gauges. They glowed brightly inside the cab. My headlights were on high beam because I liked the wide view they gave me of the road and shoulders ahead. They have never been properly adjusted, so they shine up high and are very bright. The highway was lit intermittently by mercury street lights on tall poles. There was plenty of light.
Without warning something came from the air and landed directly on the driver’s side of my windshield, making a very loud, solid thud. I instantly thought, Criminy. What IS that? It must be a bat. Months before on this very same drive something I took for an exceptionally large bat had dived past my windshield, and I thought maybe my inside dash lights might have looked like insects it was trying to eat.
I stared at this thing on my windshield and went into the emergency driving technique I used when entering sudden California fog: I kept my eyes straight ahead and used peripheral vision to stay away from the shoulder. I kept driving and yet got a very good look at this thing two feet from my eyes.
It covered the entire twenty-five-inch-high windshield top to bottom. There was nothing clutching or flapping on the driver side window. I saw precisely what was there: a very furry chest. It did not look like it had feathers, although I have since seen geese whose breast feathers remind me of it. I saw short, thick fur with a slight curl at the ends, all the same length, covering the entire body part. No man I ever saw on any beach has hair that thick covering every part of him all the way around him. The entire thing was nine to fourteen inches wide. Even with the light I had I could not ascertain color. It all looked like one shade of a light gray-brown, like a surreal pale sepia. I had the impression that its head must be above my windshield, on the roof of my truck, and the rest of the lower body must be stretched out on the hood. I saw neither of these, because I could only see what blocked my vision of the road: a chest. It did not slide around, and was not bleeding. In daylight the next day, I found no marks or dents.
It stayed there without moving. My thoughts were not mental. I was talking to myself very loudly. “What the hell is that? Damn it, what’s going on?” Driving 65-70 miles per hour down a highway at night, I couldn’t see where I was going, except on the sides, and had no idea what was on my windshield. I’d never seen anything like it. After an endless ten seconds, it rose, moved upward and to my left, and was gone.
I was in shock, but still cogently realized I could slow down, stop, back up, get out, and walk around with my flashlight to see if I’d hit something. But I wasn’t crazy. I kept on truckin’. I knew for certain I did not under any circumstances want to be out in the night with that thing.
Of course I sincerely wanted to know what it was. I knew very little. It seemed to fly, it flew or jumped onto my truck from the sky, and flew or jumped off my truck in an upward direction. I didn’t hit it. IT flew down on ME. Nothing about it resembled a human. I mentally listed every reasonable though unlikely possibility I could.
A bird. A condor? An eagle or vulture? But I didn’t believe that it had feathers.
A large dog. Where would a dog come from? It could drop from an airplane. Possible. But from that height, it would crash through the car, bleed, howl, do something. Wouldn’t it at least skid off onto the ground, instead of head back into the sky?
A bat? They’re mammals, so they must have fur or hair. They can fold their wings out of sight. Maybe a really large one. There was that other diving bat incident. I thought about all the bats I had seen in person or in pictures. Most species are too small to cover even a portion of a windshield. What about those with a sixty-foot wingspan? I don’t think they live on this continent. And night-flying bats’ camouflaging tummies would be dark, not washed-out pale like this thing.
What did I see? It was not a giant bat. Not a large bird. It wasn’t raining cats or dogs. It wasn’t a person. Did I even really see it? I most certainly did!
So I remembered Skinwalkers, things that don’t even exist. Couldn’t be. Not possible. I was too uniquely open to that suggestion. But it was the only thing that fit!
I will always hope for a rational explanation. It isn’t so much that I don’t want them to be real. The problem is much, much graver: If they are real, why did this one come after me? What have I done? Does it still wait for me out on that stretch of desert, waiting for the next time that I pass through?
You tell me what it was. Or you tell me it’s dead and won’t come back. You tell me anything substantially logical and I will be satisfied. Until then, I will not make that drive again except in daylight. Whatever the truth, there are simply some things a person wisely and deliberately never needs to know. »»»
Jo Anne Plog is the daughter of Mary Erwin Plog, and the granddaughter of Hazel Hayworth Erwin. For a number of years she was a contract school teacher on various Indian reservations in Nevada and Arizona. -Ed.