San Francisco Nurse Learns Life Lessons from Navajo Nation

(Martinez Patch) The amenities of modern American life are plentiful. Surrounded by convenience, ease and comfort — freeways and drive-throughs, Wi-fi and air conditioning — simplicity grows ever sentimental, like a relic from an ancient past.

But that past is present, right here in America. Susan Cogan knows because she lived it — on an Indian reservation in Arizona.

Cogan spent just under a year with the Navajo tribe in Kayenta as a public health nurse, leaving a large family home in Pleasant Hill for a trailer on the reservation. Her and her husband Bruce explored the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, and returned to the Bay Area with a stack of experiences, a mailbox full of emails, and a new appreciation for living minimally.

Now retired, Cogan has self-published a book about her experiences in the hope of sharing the culture of the Navajo people. After deciding to “do something different for a while,” Cogan left for Kayenta in 1998 to work for the Indian Health Service (IHS), traversing hours of rocky terrain each day to visit patients living in huts called “hogans”. E-mail from Kayenta chronicles her journey through a memoir-style narrative interlaced with emails sent to friends and family during Cogan’s time on the reservation. Life in the Navajo Nation was an “eye-opening experience” that prompted a tangible change of perspective.

When the couple returned to the Bay Area, they shed much of their former life — the space, the stuff, and the spending — to live in a townhouse in Martinez. There are no floods or Navajo women knocking at the door selling handmade rugs, and the roads are smooth and flat. Kayenta is almost a thousand miles away, yet still close to home.

“People live without electricity, without water, on dirt floors with no heat,” said Cogan. “When you see what the people there live with, you realize you don’t need nearly what you have.”