Fred Swegles
Fred Swegles

By Fred Swegles

Hey, San Clemente. Just for fun, see if your car radio can lock onto AM 660.

The search button took me there, quite by chance, early one evening.

AM 660 opened up a whole new world: KTNN, voice of The Navajo Nation.

I was clueless at first. I found myself listening to vigorous voices, chanting loudly in a strange language, backed by a pounding drum.

Clearly, it was indigenous music. What was the message? What language? Where from? It went on for maybe five minutes. I was transfixed.

I thought, “How am I hearing this beside the beach in San Clemente?”

The radio host came on, speaking some mystery dialect, interspersed with occasional words and numbers in English.

The next few songs were, what? Country Western? An interesting crossover from indigenous tunes. Strangest music mix I’ve ever heard, Navajo and country.

When I finally heard the call letters announced in English, I looked up KTNN. It comes to San Clemente from Window Rock, Arizona, about 500 miles away.

I began tuning in whenever I could. I found I could only get KTNN in select parts of San Clemente, only in late afternoon or evening. If you leave the dial on 660 at other times of day, it’s solid static. When there’s reception, it can be crystal clear or spotty.

That distant radio station you can sometimes pick up in San Clemente, AM 660, comes from Window Rock, Arizona, seat of the Navajo Nation. A monument there salutes the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII. Photo: Fred Swegles
That distant radio station you can sometimes pick up in San Clemente, AM 660, comes from Window Rock, Arizona, seat of the Navajo Nation. A monument there salutes the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII. Photo: Fred Swegles

Early in the day, I could never lock onto 660. AM 670 dominates. That’s an Iranian-language station in Los Angeles, interesting in itself, but it didn’t excite my curiosity like KTNN’s Navajo chanting does.

I decided I had to visit Window Rock. On Google Maps, it’s shown as the seat of the Navajo Nation. There’s a Navajo Nation Museum. “I’m there,” I told myself.

The natural setting is fairytale gorgeous, like a scene from those animated Disney Cars movies. “Window Rock” is a natural stone formation resembling a giant donut, with trees visible inside the hole. The Navajo have made it the backdrop for their government buildings.

What prettier place to have to go fight a traffic ticket or lobby your government?

The Navajo Nation Museum is surrounded by its own bigger-than-life rock formations. So is the Navajo Zoo. A monument honors the Navajo Code Talkers, who helped the U.S. win World War II by devising secret communications the Japanese couldn’t crack.

I left a phone message with the radio station. I wanted to tell the bilingual deejays (who do segments of their commentary in steady English) that they have a fan in San Clemente.

The museum has a scenic, informative film about the Navajo that may entice you to explore the region and learn more about the people and culture. The museum’s current exhibit is about the U.S.-Navajo Treaty of 1868, describing a forced relocation of Navajo people from their homeland. You can read how those who survived a horrific march were later able to return home, albeit saddled with dubious treaty terms designed to benefit settlers and commerce.

My trip to KTNN began with a train journey, 30 hours on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to New Mexico. I visited cultural sites in and around Albuquerque. I drove a rental car three hours to Window Rock, which straddles the New Mexico-Arizona border, while also taking in some sights along what’s left of historic Route 66. I listened to KTNN the whole way.

Try to tune in sometime. Close your eyes and experience the rush of being on the edge of the Pacific, hearing a distant sovereign nation in the desert, chanting about who knows what, a world away from San Clemente.

Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 46 years of journalism experience in the city.

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