BLACK MESA, Ariz. (AP) - In all of Lillie Chief's 84 years, one of the most amazing things she has witnessed is being able to flip a switch on the wall and watch her home light up instantly.
It is the first time in her life she has had electricity.
"Now I can see inside here," she told Navajo Tribal Utility Authority representatives during a mid-May visit to her home atop Black Mesa.
The kerosene lamps she once used now have been stashed in various corners of the home, and a new electric stove sits in the corner wrapped in plastic, still waiting to be hooked up. A propane stove used for cooking meals sits near the kitchen door. But the new refrigerator her children bought for her can be heard humming away in the kitchen.
"Before, the meat would spoil right away and we used to buy tons and tons of ice just to keep it fresh," said Chief's daughter, Carol Tallman, who is awaiting the power to be turned on at her new home next door.
Harve Holiday, acting customer service supervisor for the utility authority, said the Navajo Nation utility's Fort Defiance construction crew battled as much as 2 feet of snow and mud this winter to run a single-phase power line to Chief's home.
"It was energized and meters installed probably in the latter part of January, and the final inspection was done the month of March," he said. Six families were hooked up to the power line.
Chief, who was out herding sheep when visitors arrived, said through a translator that she used to live where Peabody Western Coal Co. now has its airstrip. She and her family were relocated and lived in a hogan at their present site near the mine.
Chief received relocation money from Peabody to build her present home. Her children now are returning to Black Mesa and building their own homes on the Chief Compound, as it is known. Extending electricity to the area is a dream come true for Chief.
"I thought it would never happen," she said. "Water is what we're wanting too. We don't know if we'll get it, but that's the next one that we'd like to see."
Holiday said that when elderly residents are told they soon will have electricity, the usual response is, "I'll believe it when I see it."
After about 16 years without electricity, Theresa Begay, 32, is slowly adjusting. The one thing she has noticed is the silence.
"We usually used the generator. Then when the electric turned on, it was all quiet. It's still quiet. We got used to the generator. We usually turned on the generator to watch TV or make coffee. I think we just got used to the old ways.
But now when her daughter wakes up at 4 a.m. to get ready for school, she no longer has to fire up the generator.
However, if a family member wakes up in the middle of the night, she said, they still turn on a flashlight rather than the electric lights. She still uses a propane stove for cooking, and a Singer treadle machine is her first choice when it comes to sewing.
"I have some electric things," but they're still packed away, she said. "I haven't taken them out. ... Even the radio is still on batteries. I haven't plugged it in."
Denny Begay, who lives in the same compound, said he is happy to finally have electricity.
"Right now we can hook up the air compressor and all the equipment that uses more power. In the past, we'd just light up part of the house," he said, because it took too much power.
If he overloaded the 3,000-watt generator, it would die out. The cost of repairing the generator was high and it used about 5 gallons of gasoline a week.
Now that he has electricity, he said, "It's way better. It keeps the refrigerator going all day. Before that, we usually just get ice from the store, and it lasts maybe two days."
Alfred Charley Sr., 75, was herding sheep when utility authority representatives stopped to talk to him.
Charley received electricity about three weeks ago.
"I like the power line now. I just get up in the morning and turn the switch and the light comes on. It's really bright, just like that!" Charley said. "My wife and family enjoy it. We really take care of it now that we have it. It's really nice.
"Before the electricity, the meat wouldn't last very long. My wife appreciates having the convenience," he said.