Whenever I see U.S. census takers roaming the streets of my town to get an inventory of its denizens, I’m reminded of the 1980 census. Back then I was involved in slide show production and was hired to shoot 35mm color slides to educate census takers how to track down U.S. citizens in out-of-the-way places. In this case it happened to be the Hopi Indian Reservation in Arizona.

The production company in Watertown had arranged all the details. I flew to Phoenix, picked up a pickup truck and drove north to meet Louis, my assistant, an American-Indian college student in Flagstaff.

To make sure he was ready for action, I called him from the roadside, only to learn that he was not available that day, but promised he would be ready for me the next morning.

So what to do the rest of the day? I knew I was near Sedona, and remembered I had a friend there, Baldwin, with Hollywood credentials. Baldwin and I had been on an assignment once that took us around the world in 10 weeks. I called him up and told him of my situation. It turned out he was running Lo Lo Mai Springs, a campground right near Sedona. He offered to put me up for the night and to be my assistant on this assignment. He was tired of “baby-sitting the campground” as he said. So now I had two assistants.

The next morning Baldwin and I drove north through Oak Creek Canyon to pick up Louis and then headed for the reservation. Baldwin had thrown some local red dust on the panels of the pickup “to give it a more authentic look” in case the pickup needed to be in a shot. Louis guided us to the places specified on the shot list. Now and then we would pass a wrecked jalopy by the roadside. An omen of things to come, I wondered?

The Hopi Reservation was not all that far. At one point we came to a raw-wood, sun-bleached structure that belonged to Louis’s mother. It sat on a slight incline, surrounded by what I took to be bundles and stacks of firewood of varying lengths and strengths. To judge from the outside (I never saw the inside) it must have been a one-room cottage. The windows had no glass. Sheets of screen had been stapled onto the window frames outside. Lewis’s mother seemed to be away. I saw no other “residence” nearby. Pity the poor census taker who had to count the widely scattered population in these desert environs.

Louis emerged from the cottage with a small pot of water and offered me a drink. Wondering where the water was from, my first reaction was to gratefully decline. But then I thought maybe this was meant as a welcoming gesture. So I drank the lukewarm water and promised myself to live to tell the tale.

As the hours went by, we worked our way down the shot list to the last item, a weir, only it had a more scientific-sounding name. It was 30 miles away. The producer had assured me it was of low priority, but I figured we had enough time and gas to get us there and back. So off we went to see the weir, whatever its purpose in a slide show for census takers. As far as I knew, counting fish was not part of their job.

After about 25 miles I asked Lewis for a new distance estimate. He mentioned 20 miles. I became wary and asked again after 15 more miles and was told 12 miles. Now I became very wary. Were we even going in the right direction or were we destined to end up by the roadside, with our pickup just one more abandoned, rusting carcass?

In the end Louis delivered. The weir, though, was a sorry excuse for one. It was a fish trap consisting of sticks in the ground at the end of an ankle-deep rivulet. I shot a couple of frames for the producer in suburban Watertown to have something to chuckle about. Then we turned around.

Soon the warning light of the gas meter came on and held a strange fascination for me the rest of the drive. I was sure it signaled my dwindling gas reserves in terms of tea spoons. Of the demitasse size, no less.

I kept our speed at around 40 miles per hour to get the optimal mileage for the pickup. Were there any gas stations on the reservation? I never found out and fortunately didn’t have to in the end.

Forty years later a new generation of census takers is roaming these wilds of the Hopi Reservation for another roll call. My advice: Fill’er up and top it off.

Peter Dreyer is a year-round resident of Edgartown.