Murphy Tuni looks warm and comfy after a hot shower. Watching TV in a T-shirt and gym shorts, he had finished off a big bowl of chili earlier in the dining room. After a long day of work at the Western Excelsior sawmill in Mancos, Tuni can relax and get a good night's sleep at the Bridge Emergency Shelter.
He thinks about home, more than two hours away on the Navajo Nation in Kayenta, Ariz.
“I miss my family,” he says with a genuine smile.
Work is hard to find around Kayenta, so he took to the road to find a job, to help support his family — a wife of eight years and three kids.
Tuni, 33, has worked at the mill for more than a year. This is his first season at the shelter.
“It's a lot warmer. I've got a warm shower and they feed you. You stay warmer and have a good bed,” he says, again with that warm smile.
He uses the words warm and warmer a lot. Last winter was rough. He slept in his car. But before that, he commuted back and forth from Kayenta.
“When I first started, I was driving back and forth for about two weeks,” he says.
The alarm clock would sound at 3 a.m. and a short time later, Tuni was on the road. He'd return after 7 p.m.
He knew he couldn't keep that up for long. But it's a good job and he needed the money.
“I was so tired when I got home. I didn't have any time to spend with my kids. One time I almost drove off the road I was so tired,” he said.
The room at the shelter, classified as one of the two men's quiet rooms, has two bunk beds and a shower. The four Navajo Native American men who stay in the room all work at the Western Excelsior mill.
Ray Nephew is in his second season at the shelter. His home is on the Navajo Nation more than three hours away in Arizona. He's the one who told Tuni that the shelter would be much better than sleeping in his car.
“It's a nice place and they give you something to eat,” Nephew says in a low voice.
Like Tuni, Nephew couldn't find work close to his hometown, so he came to Cortez.
Shelter manager Donna Boyd said the arrangement has been great for the men to stay in the room which is situated slightly away from the main part of the shelter.
“They all work together and get up early, so they don't disturb the other clients,” she said. “It's a privilege that they've earned, to stay in that room.”
Shelter volunteer Lew Matis dips full scoops of hot chili from the crockpot into a bowl and serves Nephew in the dining room.
A hot meal after a long day's work is a welcome treat. Nephew pulls a cupcake from the package to eat for dessert.
The shelter will be home to the four men until it closes in mid-April.
“It's got meals, hot showers, a place to sleep. It's nice,” Nephew says.
The shelter provides breakfast for the clients, but Boyd says it's not necessarily a great meal.
“Sometimes we have eggs available but we always have oatmeal,” she says.
The men can also wash their work clothes at the shelter.
Every two weeks, on payday, Nephew heads back home. He was staying with his brother in Cortez but his brother has a big family and it wasn't the best situation.
Nephew smiles and admits that during the summer he sleeps in the back of his truck sometimes.
The memories of last winter's freezing nights haven't thawed for Tuni.
He would curl up in a sleeping bag in the back seat of his small car. When it got too cold he'd turn the engine on and crank up the heat for a few minutes.
When he heard about the shelter, he was nervous.
“I didn't know anything about it. But it's nice. A lot more safe place to stay and there's never any trouble,” he says.
Even with the food, hot showers and warm bed, Tuni still misses his family. Every Friday he heads home.
Having a good job and providing for his family fills Tuni with pride. He's sacrificing a lot of time away from his wife and kids, but it's something he knows he must do.
But it's tough.
“On Wednesday, I really miss them,” he says with his big smile. “I really want to go home. I just tell myself just two more days, then Friday I get to go home.”
His smile grows even bigger.
“I'm so happy on Fridays. I get to go home. I get a big meal, spend time with my kids. I'm so happy.”
Now that he's been on the job for a year, Tuni is excited about getting vacation time. That means more family time. A trip to Phoenix with his wife and kids — ages 3, 5 and 8 — is the plan for February.
Nephew says the shelter is a warm, safe place for people who need somewhere to stay in the winter.
“I just feel that people who don't have a place to stay, they can come here and they will help you out,” he says.
The staff and people are always friendly and helpful, he says.
For Tuni, his ever-present smile shows his appreciation.
“I never heard of the shelter before. I'm happy I found it. It's a lot warmer,” he said.
He knows what warmer feels like.
Reach Dale Shrull at email@example.com