Snow can’t keep Prescott man from helping Navajo

By Jason Soifer
Prescott, Arizona (AP) March 2010

John Nanke left on a different kind of trek early one January day.

An avid backpacker, Nanke’s journey began with a call for help from someone in northeastern Arizona.

Nanke, president of Nanke Construction Co. in Prescott, got a call from Wallace Begay in late January from his Navajo Nation home to ask Nanke for food for his family and a small herd of sheep after snow and mud made getting to a store impossible.

“I’m Christian so I’m driven by faith to do something like that that’s good for our neighbors,” he said.

So Nanke bought water, four 50-pound bags of hay cubes, ham, rice, canned vegetables, bread and toilet paper, loaded his truck and hit the road around 4 a.m. on Jan. 24, and he arrived at the Toyei Police Academy in nearly five hours later.

“I had to drive through snow-packed and icy roads,” he said.

From the academy, it took Nanke an hour to drive a half-mile to Wallace’s sister-in-law’s home.

Nanke said about six Navajo men helped him turn his truck around and it was about then that Begay showed up.

“He had rags tied around his pant legs to keep the snow from coming in,” he said.

Begay said storms dumped about 30 inches of snow, leaving his family and his mother-in-law, Daisy Johnson, stranded for weeks.

Begay, who worked for Nanke on and off for 20 years as a carpenter, was happy to see Nanke.

“It was pretty exciting to see him, it was a relief,” he said. “We’re really thankful and appreciative for all he’s done for us.”

After trying unsuccessfully to build a makeshift sled that kept falling apart, Nanke said he and Begay put the supplies into two backpacks and Nanke went to his skis.

“I just started skiing off and Wallace got littler and littler,” he said.

Around 45 minutes later, Nanke got to Johnson’s home, which is about 100 yards from Begay’s family home.

Nanke spent some time with the family before stepping back into his skis and heading back to his truck around sunset.

Begay suggested that one of his sons take a gun and follow Nanke back to the truck for protection from wolves, but Nanke said that would slow him down.

“It was a lot easier going back because I’d already broken trail,” he said.

Nanke safely got back to his truck and drove through frozen fog to Holbrook.

“The Lord got me through that one, from then on it was a cold drive back,” he said. “I stopped at Denny’s and ate one of the best hot meals I’d had in a long time.”

The plight of the Navajo is nothing new to Nanke, who said he went to school with Navajo and Hopi people as a child after his dad took a job managing the Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon in the mid- to late-1960s.

Nanke said he is the co-founder of the Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association and he went to Nepal on hiking excursions twice since 2007, all of which gave him the preparation for his recent journey.

Now, Nanke hopes that other people will lend a hand.

“When all is said and done, you know you’ve made a difference in somebody else’s life when they needed it the most,” he said. “Hopefully somebody else will get the idea to help somebody out.”