Stalking Johnny

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, April 26, 2012

Text size: A A A

I hate pack journalism.

You know - when every reporter in the country is after the same story.

It's usually pretty easy to avoid here in Chinle, Arizona. There are plenty of great stories here, and no other reporters within a 65-mile radius. Which is exactly how I like it.

Last week, however, was an entirely different situation. About 200 Hollywood types descended on Chinle to film "The Lone Ranger."

They set up a closely guarded trailer city on the edge of town and filled the local motels. They closed parts of Canyon de Chelly to shoot some scenes.

Even worse, Johnny Depp was in town. One of the biggest names in Hollywood.

It was a huge story, tantalizingly close, yet so far away. The sets were closed to anybody not working for the production, and locals who managed to get pictures were under strict orders not to share them with the media (although some photos made their way to People magazine).

There were people in town who appeared to be paparazzi. I have never actually met a paparazzo, but I'm pretty sure I identified some. They had license plates from places like Wyoming, and wore those multi-pocket photographer vests and camouflage clothing. You could see them perched at various places on the canyon rim with tripods and huge long lenses trained on the movie's base camp on the canyon floor.

They reminded me of wildlife photographers, waiting with infinite patience for a polar bear to grab a salmon or some such thing.

I felt under a lot of pressure to meet Johnny Depp. Not necessarily from my editor, who has covered a lot of real stories in his long career and made it pretty clear he had not much use for "finicky Hollywood types."

The pressure was mostly from my friends.

My friends are mostly middle-aged folks like myself. Until last week, I considered them sensible people.

One of them texted me every five minutes with the latest rumor of where Johnny had been spotted, urging me to hurry over there on the double.

Another one called me every day to inquire whether I had seen Depp and to make sure that, if I did, I texted her immediately and invited her over.

"We're counting on you!" wailed another over the phone.

An author friend messaged me on Facebook that he would send a copy of his book so I could slip it to the elusive JD.

As for me, I make a terrible stalker. I'm too shy to barrel my way in where I'm not wanted, and I'm way too proud to want to meet anyone who has no desire to meet me. If I hadn't worked for the local newspaper, I probably would have left Chinle entirely.

As it was, I felt obligated to hang around the canyon the entire week. At one point, I decided I would just walk down White House Trail and keep walking upstream to Spring Canyon, where I heard they were filming, until I got caught.

As luck would have it, I ran into a Navajo film student who had exactly the same plan.

Though unintended, it was the perfect plain-sight disguise. You aren't allowed in the canyon without a licensed guide. Most tourists are Anglo, and all the guides are Navajo. We walked and walked, passed by three or four vehicles, and everybody probably assumed we were a legitimate guide-tourist pair.

(Note to Park Rangers: if you want to come to my house and write me a ticket, um, I'm not home. And I promise never to do it again.)
We waded across the de Chelly Wash four or five times. The water was cold and almost knee-high. I was impressed with my companion's determination. She was after a job with the production crew, and if I were anybody with any authority, I would have given it to her.

After we had covered about five miles without seeing any signs of actors or cameras, we flagged down a passing tour vehicle to ask where Spring Canyon was. We had overshot by several miles. The guide let us hop in and gave us a ride back.

At one of the wash crossings, we finally saw a sign of the elusive film crew. They were in a big truck loaded with technical-looking stuff, up to their axles in mud. The tour vehicle stopped to wait for the truck to be towed out, and the two of us got out and started walking back to where we had seen a tent guarded by two young Navajo women.

Sure enough, they were guarding a "Lone Ranger" set that happened to be on their land. Coincidentally, they were daughters of the tour guide we had ridden with, Oscar Bia.

They were surprisingly nice to us, even after we admitted we were stalkers - I for Johnny and my Navajo friend for a job. We hadn't planned on this adventure and had hiked miles in the sun with no food or water. They shared some water bottles and cooked us lunch over their campfire.

There was nothing happening on the set, other than a guy with a still camera getting shots of the light and shadow throughout the day so the director could decide what time of day to film. The film student schmoozed him for an hour or so, hoping to get the skinny on how to get a job like his. I thought his work looked awfully boring.

The women, Rhonda Lomakema and Velena Tsosie, told us about their land and how it would be the background in a scene of people riding horses out of the canyon. The director had picked it out back in December.

They had been instructed to plow up their cornfield so grass would grow instead, and about 10 peach trees were dug up and transplanted to a place where they wouldn't be visible during the filming.

"They decided our grass was too green," said Rhonda, showing us a circular patch of greenish-brown grass, "so they tried to dye it."

One thing was non-negotiable. They didn't want actors gallivanting over the grave of their great-great-grandmother, White Corn Woman. Her gravesite was staked off and outlined in fluorescent orange tape, just to make sure.

White Corn Woman picked out this particular land when she returned from the Long Walk, and it has been in their family ever since.

I pictured an independent young woman, maybe Rhonda's age, trudging up the canyon in a frayed dress, leaning on a juniper staff, surveying the side canyon and imagining where her hogan and her crops would go, imagining her future children and grandchildren growing corn right where she did.

I thought White Corn Woman would be a much more interesting person to meet than Johnny Depp. Which is good, because I never did meet Johnny Depp. Although, to read people's Facebook pages, I am the only person in Chinle who didn't.

I finally made enough of a pest of myself that the film's publicist let me interview the producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. He was a real interesting guy, and nice too. Luckily, it was good enough for my editor, although my friends have still not forgiven me for not meeting Johnny for them.

The great thing was, I got paid for spending an entire day hiking Canyon de Chelly and meeting cool people, which is something I pay to do on the weekends. Not many people can say that. Not even Johnny Depp.