Friday, June 23, 2017

Days Gone By


The other afternoon I was bussing tables and refilling coffee mugs at Twin Rocks Cafe when Don arrived for a bite of lunch. As often happens at moments like that, Don felt inclined to needle me about being demoted from my former position as trading post lawyer and chief turquoise salesman. Since Twin Rocks is an egalitarian enterprise, everyone believes he or she is a chief. As Barry and I have become more deeply involved in selling fry bread, beef stew, and Navajo tacos, Priscilla has stepped in to fill the trading post void and now maintains she is the "Head Chief." It’s a little like George Orwell’s Animal Farm; everyone is equal, but Priscilla is more equal. Barry worries she may become the Tyrant of the Trading Post, but so far she has kept her composure. Priscilla, of course, has always kept her cool, so I advised Barry to stop fretting. He’s trying.

After several months on the cafe floor and the expo line, Barry no longer attempts to correct Priscilla's stories when he feels she has, “gone off the reservation.” As for me, I just look on in amazement. She, like her long-time mentor and negotiating idol Duke, has developed an extraordinary and ever-expanding talent for “storytelling." There are times when I can’t tell whether she is inspired by Duke’s tales or acting on her own instincts. No matter really, the customers are mesmerized, and turquoise and silver jewelry, Navajo rugs, and Southwest baskets are routinely exported out the Kokopelli doors to various points of the globe via U.S. Highway 191. That makes Barry, and Dustin the U.P.S. man, happy. When it comes to negotiations, Donald Trump has nothing on Duke and Priscilla. Consequently, I am trying to get them a book deal, and maybe even a reality show.

As Don continued to pester me, I vigorously argued my new assignment was a promotion, not a demotion. After all, who has ever heard of a busboy joke? As everyone knows, however, wisecracking about lawyers and traders is common. Don was not buying it and to drive his point home sarcastically asked if I had gotten a raise. I informed him that although I had not seen any increase in my pay stub for the past 20 years, I had, despite my advanced age, recently been allowed to train at the Busboy Institute of America and was now Gold Star Certified. Don asked to see my certificate, and I had to claim postmaster malfeasance. A Navajo couple sitting in the next booth listened quietly, eating fish and chips, and smiling broadly as Don and I sparred.

Don is the son of Kenny Ross, the founder of Wild Rivers Expeditions, a local institution. Wild Rivers has been around since 1957 when Kenny established the enterprise to satisfy his yearning for adventure and gin up funds necessary to support his young family. While the earliest commercial river-runners on the San Juan were likely Bert Loper and Norman Newels, Kenny was not far behind. Prior to the formation of Wild Rivers, Kenny had earned his reputation as a guide on the free-flowing Colorado, before construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of Lake Powell. Bluff, however, became Kenny's base, and over the years Wild Rivers developed a reputation for providing archaeological, geological, and natural history excursions. As youths, Craig, Barry, and I often looked over Kenny's operation as we scrambled up the steep cliffs and rambled the dusty streets of Bluff. Don was a bit older and had no time for the cropped hair, clod-throwing, hell-raising ruffians spawned by Rose and Duke. We, therefore, did not really get to know him until much later.

During his youth, Duke had been dragged down by a San Juan River whirlpool and survived only when it uncharacteristically spat him back out into the meandering channel. As a result of Duke's near-death experience, Rose became extremely nervous whenever her whelps encountered flowing water of any magnitude, bath water being the exception. Consequently, Kenny and his rafting operation never became an integral part of our routine. While we may have enjoyed signing on with Kenny so we could swig a cool one and urinate in the river, which is apparently one thing Wild Rivers guides have always done exceptionally well, Rose would not allow it. Duke on the other hand might not have objected. Although I was a bit too young to recall specifics, Barry remembers a few occasions when Duke proposed to put us in a potato sack and pitch sack and spawn, along with a few feral cats, stray dogs, and several large stones, into the San Juan River. Fortunately, Duke could never collar us all at one time, and multiple operations was not an option. Rose would never have stood the strain of losing cats, dogs, kids, and rocks over an extended period.

Kenny is of course long gone, and the rafting company has been through a number of subsequent owners. Wild Rivers has, however, survived and is still providing high adventure. When I returned to Bluff in 1989, Don, who now lives in Colorado, reestablished contact and visits us at the trading post and cafe a couple times a year to relive the old days. While he claims his recollections are better than mine, I believed he may be misleading me when it comes to certain historical events, especially if the discussion involves the opposite sex.

As Don and I wound up our professional development discussion, the Navajo couple in the next booth called me over and asked, “Are you really Gold Star Certified?!” Looking over at Don, I assured the inquisitive pair my stories are at least as reliable as his. Priscilla has nothing on us.