Last December, Eli Neztsosie found himself 70 miles from the nearest town, 40 miles from the closest gas station, and three miles from his horse, when darkness fell over the Arizona desert.
The rancher and his dog, Tractor, had been pushing 25 head of cattle down to the low country for the winter. But the trail had grown too narrow, too rugged. Even Eli’s sure-footed horse, Two Socks, could break an ankle, or worse, trip and send them both off a cliff. So Eli had dismounted, turned on his cellphone light, and called out for Tractor to push—guide the cattle—the last few miles.
Now at the bottom of the canyon, with the herd in and the gate closed, he cursed himself for getting greedy. What usually took two people and two days, he’d tried to do alone and in one. He’d always prided himself on doing things alone, but this was too much. The sun had disappeared faster than he’d expected, and now the chill was creeping into his bones. He checked his cell battery: 3 percent. Under the moonless sky, Eli the rancher became Eli the trail runner as he burned it back toward Two Socks. His cowboy boots shifted and turned on stones and brushy plants, his Wranglers holding back his stride like a rubber band. But within a mile, his phone was dead, and the dark crept right up to his eyeballs.
In the high desert, bad things come out at night. If it doesn’t stick, sting, or bite, it isn’t alive. Then there’s the canyon itself: A hundred-foot drop is always lurking, without a soul for miles to hear or help.
Again, Eli turned to Tractor. As Eli’s run slowed to a hike in the darkness, the border collie instinctively jogged ahead, methodically picking his way back up the trail, always sure to keep Eli close. He sees what Eli doesn’t, smells what he can’t. In streaks and jumps, Eli’s eyes strained to stay with the white spot on the back of the dog’s neck. When he lost the spot, Eli followed the sound of Tractor’s breathing. And in less than half an hour, they were back at Two Socks, who could deliver them home by memory.
For many Navajo ranchers like Eli, isolation and independence is a way of life. Needing anybody or anything is a sign of weakness. Tractor, however, has challenged that notion in Eli. On a ranch with no running water or electricity atop an island of sand bound by canyons and coyotes, the five-year-old ranch dog has become a lifeline.
In February 2017, Eli crawled out of bed early, stressed after a sleepless night. A dirt-bike crash six years before had left him with seizures. A regimen of medication from doctors helped but took his moods south. Not used to being told how to live his life was the hardest part. So he got up and went for a walk to relieve the building anxiety. On a whim he still can’t explain, he broke into a jog. Tractor, at his side, was happy with the new pace. So was Eli. For the first time since the seizures started, he felt relief.
In the following days, Eli wanted more: five miles, seven, then 10. Just three weeks after his first strides up and down the canyons with Tractor, Eli entered the Monument Valley Ultra’s trail half marathon. Sporting cargo shorts, worn-out sneakers from high school, and a fresh case of shin splints, he planned to go out easy and just test his endurance. Instead, his competitive nature took over. He pushed until his legs went numb, only for them to come alive again like fire. He finished in 2:13, trashed, depleted, ready for more. Ignoring what became two stress fractures, Eli loaded up his truck for more competition. Without money for hotels and entrance fees, he excelled at sneaking into races. When he reached the finish line, he didn’t linger. Talk to no one, just go get back to the truck. At night, he slipped into hotel parking lots, cut the lights, wolfed down PBJs, then crawled in the back to sleep. In the day, he shoed horses, found welding jobs, and moved on. True dirtbagging, he says. “If you’re passionate about something, you’re gonna find a way no matter what.”
Eight months after that initial run, Eli took second at the largely uphill Escalante Canyons Half Marathon in 1:50. Two weeks later, he entered his first ultra, the Naatsis’áán Trail 40-miler, and finished 13th. The next October he was back at Escalante to win in 1:37, while he improved at Naatsis’áán (now a 50K) to take fourth.
By 2020, he was at the Little Colorado River Gorge 10K, super fit but unsure of his speed at the relatively short distance. He squinted at the high school cross-country runners at the line. They are gonna thrash me, he thought. After the last turn, Eli let loose like Tractor bounding down sandstone. He rolled an ankle but pushed through, blowing by a kid half his age and setting a new course record. Instead of basking in the win and postrace vibes, Eli returned to his truck for the 70-mile drive to his next race of the day, the Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill. It was 3.5 miles climbing 3,000 feet up the Arizona Snowbowl and bombing back down. Eli took second.
Running came during a tense period for Eli, and he needed the outlet it provided. Beyond his health issues, he was still navigating the fallout of his grandfather’s death in 2016. The old man had always run the ranch, and his loss was a massive blow to the family. On top of that, a cow had died with her calf, the bloodlines had gone bad, and they needed to find a new bull. Who was going to step up and head the ranch? Though Eli owned only 20 percent of the livestock, if he said yes, he would be responsible for all of it.
Navajo Mountain is a 10,387-foot mammoth laccolithic dome of rock and sand that straddles the Utah-Arizona border, smack-dab in the middle of the Navajo Nation. Beneath the sacred mountain lies a wrinkled labyrinth of gorges and rock formations that Eli calls home.
His family has been self-sufficient ranchers on this isolated landscape since the mid-1800s. He lives in a hogan, a traditional Navajo home with no running water, no electricity, and no bed. In winter, he crashes on the couch, and Tractor curls up next to him. In summer, the two sleep under the stars in the back of the truck. Eli tried living outside the Navajo Nation once. For three years he paid $1,400 a month for a pad in Flagstaff. The convenience was nice but boring. When he returned to Navajo Mountain in 2011, the ranch was in dire straits. The cattle were half the weight they’d been. His grandfather was approaching 90 then, still making the decisions, and Eli wanted to pitch in. But then he was the one needing the help.
He can’t remember where he was going on the dirt bike or why he hadn’t taken his helmet. By luck, his sister discovered him, unconscious, on the side of the road next to his pretzled machine. Surgery and a metal plate followed, then a medically induced coma. His doctor told the family Eli might never be the same.
Memories of the recovery are a series of painful flashes for Eli: a wheelchair, being held up by other people just to stand, then depending on a walker. Special days were when he made it to the skybridge between the hospital buildings. He liked to stare down at the cars below like he was studying ants back home.
After Eli left the hospital, he did his best to help on the ranch. The short-term memory loss made that tough—“there were always gaps, confusion.” It’s something he still battles. A year into recovery, progress was slow and steady, but then the seizures started. Despite Eli’s reluctance, the doctors put him on a heavy dose of anticonvulsants, notorious for causing dizziness, blurred vision, and depression. Eli experienced it all. When the doctors grew concerned and countered with antidepressants, Eli said no.
Many traditional Navajo are skeptical of Big Pharma, believing they create substance abuse, chronic disease, and mental illness. The suicide rate among the Navajo population is twice that of the national average, and many blame the mental health system and antidepressants. They’re seen as the enemy of Hózhó.
Hózhó is considered the most important word in the Navajo language, says Navajo storyteller Sunny Dooley. It’s also the hardest to translate because there are so many interpretations. Navajo authors on the subject describe Hózhó as that feeling you get when you stare at the 1,000-year-old petroglyphs of your ancestors or gaze up at the enigmatic Milky Way from where you come and where you must go. To be “in Hózhó” is to be one with it all. For Eli, that means an unaltered mind.
Five years after the accident, Eli was still struggling. His pipe-fitting job at a gas plant outside Cortez, Colorado, paid good money, and it was nice to work again. Still, the same problems of any job were there: politics, egos, favoritism. Since the crash, he couldn’t deal with BS like he used to.
Some people only live to exist, his grandmother used to say. Now, that was him. So he quit, drove into Cortez to let off steam, and walked into a seed store. That’s where he saw a bulletin advertising border collie pups for $150, a great price for a herding breed. The owner turned out to be a kid. He only had one pup left and had named him Tractor. Despite growing up believing that paying for a dog is a waste of money, Eli bought the tri-colored pup and went home. Now on the family ranch with Eli, the four-month-old dog would have to earn his spot and gain the respect of the mother cows. Protective and temperamental, the cows charged Tractor immediately. Tractor spun, flipped, and twisted away from their horns. Eli’s past dogs had not been so lucky. Eli himself has taken a horn to the chin. Tractor also understood Eli. Left. Right. Push. He was able to move the herd in any direction the rancher wanted. “I didn’t have to train him,” Eli says. “He knew exactly what to do. He’s the best cattle dog I’ve ever seen.”
Before Tractor, Eli refused to admit that he had depression. He didn’t believe in that stuff. He grew up around ranchers who had survived genocide, disease, uranium contamination, the harsh desert, all by isolation and grit. He was raised to not need medicine or loans or help for anything. It made him strong but couldn’t help him counter the mood swings from the meds. Tractor did. The dog’s vibe was infectious; he was inexhaustible, curious, up for anything, and loyal.
The ranch dog was an enthusiastic running partner, with Eli every step, zigzagging across the sandstone-riddled fields, sniffing out coyotes, darting between the sage. Wherever they went, the truck was loaded with their running gear in case the urge hit.
Eli’s relationship with Tractor brought the realization that he’s attached to things in this world—that it was time to stop floating—and in 2017, he decided to take his grandfather’s place as the head of the ranch. “Without Tractor, I don’t know where I’d be now,” he says. “He’s my biggest supporter and the best friend I’ve ever had.”
Some traditional Navajo say that dogs are guardians sent to teach us, to be with us in times of need. If the bond is made, it will never go away, even after death. When the time comes, says storyteller Dooley, a thankful dog will walk away into the next realm. There a transformation will occur, and the dog will come back to you as a spirit companion for eternity.
It was just 7 a.m., but the air was already warm at the start of the 2020 Babbitt’s Backyard Ultra. The 4.16-mile loop 20 miles north of Flagstaff boasted a couple of hills, a few cows, and a stray goose. The pandemic had decimated the race calendar, but the mood was festive, the attire varied. One woman wore a rainbow skirt, as did the man beside her. Another runner sported a white jock strap with a furry tail. Off to himself, Eli was quiet, stoic behind his sunglasses and the bandana covering his face.
It was his eighth ultra and his first since the pandemic arrived. It was also his first backyard competition: Runners must complete the course loop once an hour until only one person remains. Eli had no crew and no clue; he carried all his nutrition. He told himself he wasn’t gonna last long anyway. But he was still running as the sun set, the temps dropped, and a wicked wind kicked up. At 50 miles, only six head torches bobbed around the course in the dark. One was Eli’s. Two laps later a runner fell off. The next lap, two more, so that just three runners reached mile 71. Only two went out for another lap. Eli began lap 19, but a recurring ankle injury was flaring up. He told the leader to rock on ahead, and limped back to the start-finish line. A husky dog barked as Eli approached the camp, and a fellow runner congratulated him with a proper ultramarathon gift, a PBR. He had put in his longest run yet, 75 miles, finished second, and got a free pair of Kogalla trail lights to boot. It felt good.
As friends and couples sat around a campfire after the race, Eli quietly drank his beer. To many, he looked like a guy who’d seen his share of fights. Dawn Greenwalt, who battled through the last few laps with Eli to take the win, had seen another side: “He seemed really positive, motivated—like he was going to run really long.” Colleen Lingley in third place had seen the same thing: “He was downright chatty,” she said. “He talked about his land, spirit animals; he just opened up.”
Eighteen hours of continuous running had affected the rancher. In the beginning, he’d run at his own pace, not sticking with any group. As the hours wore on, he clung to the leaders. Greenwalt and Lingley were both mothers from Flagstaff, and non-Native, which often makes Eli feel alienated. But in those long hours, they were the same, fellow runners suffering together. The stoic rancher who liked to do things on his own seemed to be evolving.
The winter sun rises easy over the ranch at the base of Navajo Mountain. From Eli’s hogan, smoke is trickling out in fingers, wafting over cacti and desert shrubs. He’s just lit the stove, and soon there will be breakfast. Tractor knows the drill, and after they eat, the dog is out the door in a flash. Nowadays, some Navajo are taught at an early age to run first thing in the morning. That’s when the sacred beings come out. You yell out so they can hear you and recognize you as one of their own.
Eli feels good today. The smokestack from the coal plant in Page has finally been torn down; the sky is more vibrant and alive than it’s been in decades. The cool air fills his lungs, and the sun peeks through the clouds to warm his face as he and Tractor stride down the long-deserted reservation roads. Old houses are scattered here and there, leaning in disrepair. Eli knew their families. Carrying a 15-liter pack full of granola bars and baby food, Eli sets the pace as Tractor navigates with his nose to the ground. The dog has trained almost every mile with Eli. He knows the routes better than any GPS watch. The miles pass gently as the clouds build in the sky. Wet dirt. Footprints. Rolling hills. Ruts of ice and snow rest in the trails like tiny glaciers. A tall cactus hugs the road, and Eli imagines it’s a person, its arms stretched toward the sky cheering him on.
The rancher recently received an invite to the 2021 Leadville Trail 100, a famously difficult race he’s not sure he’s ready for. He needs more endurance to compete, and Tractor’s energy pushes him on. By the end of the day, the two will finally return to the hogan after 52 miles. It’ll be Tractor’s first ultra. Still hyper, he’ll want more.
On their final stretch of the run, they stop in a small valley, once home to his great-grandmother. She was buried there in the traditional way, her hogan collapsed over her with her belongings laid out beside her. Now, six more family members are there; Eli helped bury most of them and runs here often. The old logs of the hogan are still visible, and steel rods anchor a chain-link fence around it. The Navajo keep fences small, says Eli—they believe big fences invite death.
Death is not something many Navajo talk about. It’s taboo. But being a rancher in such an isolated location, Eli’s seen his fair share. He’s had to put down animals with his own rifle: cows, sheep, and several family dogs. It didn’t bother him then. He was young. He didn’t think about it. It was the way of the rancher. Now, he can’t imagine thinking of Tractor like that. It’s been five years since he brought him to the ranch. The border collie still has the energy of a puppy, yet to Eli he looks grown-up.
When Eli runs by the gravesites, he wishes his ancestors could see him now. See what he’s done with the ranch, the improvements he’s made: the water tanks, the livestock, the modern equipment, the new bull. And that progress is coming. Last year, electricity finally reached his ranch. Eli’s also been restoring an old building his grandfather built years ago. Meant to be a home, it became rundown and was used as a summer sheep camp. When Eli’s done, he’s going to live in it and put his grandfather’s sun chart over the door.
Eli says he’s somewhere between 80 and 90 percent recovered from the crash. He still battles memory lapses and tries to take each day as it comes. That’s the rancher way. And as for running, he’s still not sure what future lies down that path. For someone raised on steely grit and quiet strength in the shadow of Navajo Mountain, the races expose him to a larger world he’s not certain he wants to be a part of.
Still, he signs up, oftentimes last minute, still doubting his strength and endurance until he proves himself wrong. In April, he turned down the Leadville invite, citing that old ankle injury. But later in the month he finished 11th at the Born to Run 60-miler, and then a week later ran his first 100, the Salt Flats Endurance Run, with a respectable midpack finish.
Even if Eli is reluctant to commit to ultramarathons more than a week in advance, commitment—to the ranch, to Tractor—isn’t something he fears. Eli considers Tractor Navajo. The pair communicate without words, and each morning they run, greeting the sacred spirits.
Special Thanks to Navajo Nation Film Office