Monday, December 30, 2002

Star Filled Skies

During a brief trip to the mountains of Colorado over the holidays, my family and I stopped at a large super store in Cortez. My wife immediately disappeared into its depths, looking for the essentials. When you live in a small town it is important to stock up on necessary items whenever you have the opportunity. I knew she would be a while, since we have many needs, and it is Laurie's desire to keep our family neat, clean and well organized. It takes a number of cleansers, detergents and scouring compounds to do the job, along with a great deal of determination and elbow grease. The kids and I stood looking at each other until my daughters, Alyssa and McKale, bolted off on their own mission. Spenser and I were left alone. Grinning at each other, we slipped off to the music and electronics department. Spenser loves to browse the computer games, and I love music. If we were to suffer through "shopping," this was our destination of choice.

While perusing the CDs, I happened to look up and see a good friend. He too was in need of a "necessary item," and was forced into the store. It is always good to see Jim. He is a quiet, thoughtful, well spoken man, with much knowledge of the ways of the local cultures and a genuine love for the Native people and their art. I introduced Spenser, whom Jim had not previously met. Spenser later mentioned how pleasant Mr. C was, and that he liked the man's Irish accent and the way he smelled of sweet pipe tobacco. We spoke of common interests, and Jim mentioned how much he enjoyed our weekly e-mailer, he also wondered how we "kept up the pace". Well he is about to find out, since he has provided this week's inspiration.

Jim said that it was interesting to him how differently people viewed and interpreted similar occurrences. (Humph! I wonder what he meant by that?). He also said that some of the stories reminded him of his childhood in Ireland, and how he would slip off into the nearby wood in the evenings. He said he would lie on his back, look up at the stars and wonder if he or they were moving, contemplate their secrets and just wonder at their beauty. He felt it was a magical time; one of the many that brought him to an interest in differing beliefs about creation. Although short and hurried, our meeting was enjoyable for my son and me. Jim's words stuck in my mind.

Continuing our journey homeward, we traveled through the snow covered bean fields of Dove Creek, listening to the new Kenny G CD and the soft bickering of our three children in the rear of the van. Near the Utah/Colorado border I once again noticed an old windmill that sets high on a hill; positioned to catch the maximum amount of wind. It has been a landmark for as long as I have traveled this particular stretch of road. It is a friendly structure, with much character. Laurie and I remarked at how tired the old structure looked. Its frame sagged a bit, and pieces of metal were missing. The steel blades, meant to spin in the wind and pump the life giving water, leaned forward, sadly frozen in time. Our old metal friend looked somewhat like a drooping sunflower in the fall of the year; tired and spent.

The windmill reminded me of my paternal grandfather, Woodrow Wilson Simpson. In my memory, he too stooped and sagged a little. My father is beginning to show similar signs of age, as I am sure I will one day. But until that time the battle continues. I thought of how my family has had such an inseparable connection to the Southwest, to Bluff and to the local people. As children we, like Jim, looked up at the star filled sky and wondered. In the "old days" our parents would load Craig, Steve and me into the back of an old, faded blue Dodge pickup and haul us all over the Four Corners. Our two sisters would, of course, ride up front with our parents. Warm and comfortable in the cab of the truck, they would peer back at us and make faces, but I think we had the better deal. Returning home late at night, my two brothers and I had the opportunity to peer up at the stars and ponder what our Navajo neighbors had shared with us. As we would drop into Bluff, descending through Cow Canyon, the darkened red rock cliffs would sprout up on either side of the truck framing the high vaulted ceiling and incredible brightness of each pinpoint of light.

Our meeting with Jim, and seeing that old windmill, brought back memories of my own childhood. Growing up in Bluff has provided me wonderful memories and an appreciation for the simple things in life; my wife and children, our immediate and extended families and friends. The trading post has provided me the opportunity to be near all of this and live in an area where every hill unfolds an interesting site or a new friend. I suspect that in future years you will find me right here, bent, sagging, missing a few parts, and lying on my back looking up at and contemplating the stars.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Horse, Apples and the Boardwalk

Kira and Grange picking horse apples, near Twin Rocks Trading Post

Hey Dad, look at this," the kids shouted from across the parking lot. Jana had taken them over to feed the horses, and they had made an important discovery. In their hands were large greenish balls. "Horse apples," I said. Jana immediately wanted to know how I knew what these things were. As I explained, Craig, Barry and I had discovered them
ourselves many, many years ago. They were a good substitute for dirt clods when we had our running battles.

Horse apples, near Twin Rocks Trading Post

Horse apples are a hard "fruit" about the size of a softball and are greenish yellow in color. They have a bumpy outer shell, are very hard and can leave a good size bruise if you are unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of a good toss. Jana and the kids had apparently walked down the small wash that flows through the east side of town. In the lower part of the wash, as it runs past the elementary school and continues on to the San Juan River, there was a cache of horse apples that had fallen from the small cluster of trees along the bank of the drainage. Since the kids are interested in balls of any type, these apples captured their attention.

Close up of horse apples

The trees are near our friend Dave's house, so Jana and the kids stopped in for a visit, and to see if Dave knew anything about this extraordinary find. Dave seemed to know quite a lot about the origin of the trees. He informed them that the fruit was actually called an osage orange, and that the early pioneers had planted the trees because the wood was very good for wagon wheels.

Dave's front yard near Twin Rocks Trading Post

Dave is the local barber, handy man and EMT, who has a very good mind for such details. I met Dave about ten years ago when he first moved to Bluff. Before Dave arrived, I had to make the trek to Blanding for a hair cut. Since Blanding is 25 miles north of Bluff, and I don't go unless it is absolutely necessary, Dave was a Godsend. There were times when I would get pretty shaggy before being able to make the proper arrangements for a cut in Blanding. I don't remember exactly how I discovered Dave. It was probably a note posted on the community billboard that alerted me to his arrival and notified me that I could now get a haircut in Bluff. After the first scession I was sold. I think he is the best barber I have ever found.

Horse apple tree near Twin Rocks Trading Post

I began calling Dave "Mobile Dave," because he did not have a permanent place to cut hair in the early days. At that time I would call to see if he was available and about thirty minutes later he would arrive on his moped. On the back of the scooter was attached a small container which held his tools of the trade. I would pull up a chair on the front porch and he would throw an apron around me and start cutting. Thirty minutes later I looked like a new man. The arrangement could not have been better. Over the years Dave has progressed to the point of having a salon in his home, which requires an appointment. That's progress I guess, but I long for the old arrangement.

Kira and Grange picking horse apples near Twin Rocks Trading Post

Dave lives next to an old pioneer house that was recently restored by the town patrone, Eugene Foushee. Gene is a genteel old fellow with a few Boss Tweed tendencies, who dispenses favors to those in need, and who has also been successful in restoring several of the old Victorian homes in Bluff. As a result of his efforts, the town has been able to retain some very important parts of its heritage. This particular house has special significance to me, since it was inhabited by my step-grandmother when she was a small girl. She frequently reminded us that she knew Zane Grey, the author of Riders of the Purple Sage, when she was young. Apparently Zane Grey lived in a small log cabin just a block from the house, and often asked her to do small errands for him. She regretted not keeping some of the notes he sent in making the requests.

This house was also the location for many of my childhood adventures. In years past, there had been a boardwalk extending south from the house along the wash. The boardwalk connected the house to a ramshackle wooden building that had at one time served as the local pool hall. I don't remember exactly when the pool hall first captured the attention of Craig, Barry and me, but when we were about nine, eight and seven respectively, our curiosity got the better of us and we, along with a few other small ruffians, pried open the back door. To our amazement, the hall looked as though the owners had simply locked the doors and walked away.

Kira and Grange picking horse apples near Twin Rocks Trading Post

We found cases of soda pop that were certainly several years old stacked in the corner, and pool tables set up to play. After prying the caps from several sodas, we sat around swilling pop and playing pool like we knew what we were doing. Shortly after that incident, we moved to California to allow Duke to find a better paying job. It has never been easy to make a living in Bluff, as the abandoned pool hall may indicate. By the time we returned a few years later, the pool hall was gone.

The boardwalk also served as a repository for Bobby Goforth's chewing tobacco and cap guns. Bobby was a handicapped man who was probably about thirty-five years old at the time, and was tall, straight and handsome. His handicap did not seem very pronounced, and outwardly he appeared perfectly normal in his Levi's, western shirt, cowboy boots and black hat. His mother, who was the local school teacher, took very good care of him and kept him out of trouble. He, however, had developed a taste for chewing tobacco which had to be hid from his mother, and the loose boards of the boardwalk provided the perfect location. Bobby would walk over to the abandoned house, pull up the boards, retrieve his tobacco and cap guns, and walk across the street to the Twin Rocks Bar.

After strapping on his very realistic guns, he would walk into the bar looking for travelers. If he spied someone he did not recognize he would inform them that they had five minutes to leave town or bear the wrath of his anger. Many a thirsty traveler left his beer setting on the counter unfinished before the tavern owner convinced Bobby that he was severely damaging the bar's cash flow. Bluff has always been a place populated with outlaws, and Bobby fit the profile. Since we were aspiring to greater social misdeeds, Bobby was a very important influence on us. I have often wondered what became of him, as I often wonder what will become of those little adventurers who recently discovered horse apples.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Communicating With the Living

For weeks I have been running past a dead sheep on the side of the mission road and a deceased skunk on the main highway, trying to decide whether they had any relevance to my existence. I have watched as those once living animals degenerated from whole beings, to parts, to fragments, to who knows what; buckyballs maybe. The animals were weighing on my mind for some unknown reason.

Bluff Cemetary - located in Bluff around Twin Rocks Trading Post.

At this point, their remains bear little resemblance to the ambulatory creatures they once were. As I run by, I notice the seemingly rapid degradation, probably accelerated by the extreme heat, question what impact they have on my life and think, “Well, someday that will be me, although I hope I’m not left on the roadway until the trucks crush me into oblivion.”

I have even noticed that the sheep’s joints are starting to come apart, much as mine appear to be after years of running on pavement in spite of numerous warnings. When the skunk’s scent sack broke and the stench drove me to the other side of the road, all I could come up with was, “Wow, I hope I don’t smell that bad.” Day after day I searched for a larger meaning and found none. Then lightning struck.

Adam and I were standing in the trading post one afternoon when a young Italian couple walked through the door . Adam was working on the web site, and I was doing my Indian trader impersonation. I am actually a very good impersonator, and can do a serviceable job as a janitor, waitress, dishwasher and lawyer. From time to time I have tried my cook routine, which usually gets me promptly and unceremoniously ejected from the cafe.

Over the years, Barry and I have developed our act to include a number of ice breakers. These are basically questions to get customers talking. For me it is a way to avoid the deadly silence common to many trading post shoppers. These ice breakers go something like, “Wow, it sure is hot out there. Are you from a cooler climate?” “Yea, where?” “Oh, is that a small or large town?” “Probably not as small as Bluff!” “Really?” We frequently incorporate a “y’all” or “y’all all” into the questioning so people will think we were from somewhere else. It rarely works.

Although I was not sensible enough to learn any foreign languages when I was in school, I have developed an ear for accents, and can generally identify the person’s country of origin by listening closely. As a result, I knew this couple was from Italy, and asked, “Are you Italian?” The young man gave me a blank look and responded, “No speak English.” I started to say, “That’s okay, my English needs work too,” but held my tongue, since I had already lost him.

After several minutes of silent browsing, the couple turned to leave. As they exited the store, the young woman looked back, waving her hand and said, “Hello.” Adam and I looked at each other and smiled. It was then that I realized what had been bothering me about the animals; my inability to communicate.

The other thing I have been wrestling with for weeks is the death of Stan Johnson, a long time community member. Stan moved to Bluff shortly after I came back to open the trading post. For one reason or another Stan and I had always been on opposite ends of the local political spectrum. For many people in Bluff that’s enough to avoid personal contact altogether. People generally disagree with me, so I don’t let it get in the way. I think Stan understood that, since he and I were always cordial. Whenever I needed a document notarized, I would seek him out and he graciously accommodated me. Afterwards we generally had a small conversation regarding an apolitical subject and off I went.

As I read his obituary, I was struck by how little I knew about Stan. I had heard rumors that he had been a lawyer, a judge and had engaged in many other interesting activities during his life. On the morning of his funeral I was just coming back from my run when I spotted the hearse heading south into town. I remember thinking that someone must have died and that the mortician was on his way to retrieve the body. What I didn’t realize was that Stan was on his way to cemetery hill; the only hill of consequence in Bluff, and the final resting place for its citizens.

Bluff historians have told me that the first grave in Bluff was on the west side of town, near the wash. When the wash flooded and the casket washed downstream, the settlers decided to establish a cemetery on the hilltop.

When the Italian woman said “Hello” as she walked out, I was reminded that I intended to stop and see Stan after he became ill, of my failure to do so, of the dead animals, and the finality of all my missed and failed communications. I promised to improve my communication with the living; before they become buckyballs.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, December 5, 2002

Tree of Life

Growing up in southern San Juan County was a real blessing for me, because it provided endless opportunities to experience the wonders of this magnificent canyon country. There are large expanses of public land in Southeastern Utah, and great hikes begin just outside our back doors. Whether your goal is releasing frustrations, testing the limits of your freedom or simply getting in touch with the unaltered earth, this is the place.

Whatever my temporal need, after a hike in the backcountry I feel rejuvenated, and happy to have experienced the wonders of Mother Nature. These hikes give me time to reflect on the past, and plan for the future. My perspective keeps changing, so reflection is essential to my evolution. I feel there is a lot to be gained from contemplating and evaluating my personal experiences. One reflective occasion, which occurred when I was just short of 20, has had a lasting impression on me.

I have forgotten precisely what motivated my excursion that day, but I do remember that a certain young woman from a northern municipality was causing me great emotional and physical turmoil. Come to think of it, she still has that effect on me. At any rate, it must have been fall because I can still feel the crispness in the air, see the soft, muted sunlight, and smell the rich red earth. I had driven just south of Blanding to a sagebrush flat that looked as if it might provide sanctuary. I parked the truck and began walking towards a grove of juniper trees; on what appeared to be the edge of a small canyon.

I made my way through the narrow band of trees and emerged onto the sandstone bench at the canyon edge. I was struck by the beauty of the place, or as Joseph Campbell would say, "caught in a state of aesthetic arrest". From where I stood, I could see across the sun whitened and rippled sandstone, which was marked with light green patterns of lichen, into the tops of a grove of cottonwood trees. There were patches of bright yellow leaves, twisted clusters of darkened branches and the peeling bark of the tree trunks. I could hear a trickle of water from what must have been a small spring at the center of the cluster. Birds flitted from branch to branch, seemingly as euphoric about the place as I. There was a fertile aroma to the place that was out of sync with the sagebrush and slick rock that surrounded it.

The deep throated "caw" of a blue-black raven floating above my head brought me out of my trance. As I looked about, I noticed a juniper tree perched on the canyon rim that seemed to be growing directly out of the rock. Curious, I wandered over to the oddity and circled it clockwise then counterclockwise. No matter how closely I inspected this enigma, the facts showed that the tree was indeed growing out of solid sandstone. I admired the beauty of the juniper. Its stunted, twisted growth showed the character of many years of sun and sand. The foliage was green and vibrant, and there were no signs of stress or lack of moisture. As a matter of fact, it looked healthier than its relatives 30 feet away which had sunk their roots into the rust red earth.

I sat down under the full branches of the tree upon the typical debris pile of twigs, dirt and seeds and began to scratch away at it. The compost came away easily and I soon found a root and traced it to a crack in the rock, full of the same material that surrounded the tree. It seemed that the juniper was attracting and providing itself with what it needed to survive in its chosen location. And what a location it was. A spectacular canyon oasis to one side, emptying into a much more majestic view of purple mesas and monolithic upthrusts as far as the eye could see.

As I sat there enjoying the tree's positioning I heard a sound off to my left and slightly in back of me. I froze in place as I recognized the clatter of small hooves on rock. I was well screened by my guardian juniper and the slight breeze was in my favor, so I remained motionless, while straining to catch sight of the deer I expected to see. I was soon rewarded with a group of four very skittish creatures. They were within 20 yards of my hideout and were extremely nervous, as if they suspected a presence but were unable to locate it. A group of three does were followed closely by a slightly distracted, three point buck. They were heading into the canyon, for a drink of that sweet spring water. The deer were close enough for me to see their long eye lashes, big brown searching eyes and their quivering muscles under coats of mousey gray hair with black tips. This group was spring loaded; ready to explode in any direction at the first hint of danger.

As the animals disappeared over the edge of the canyon, on an unseen trail, my heart rate slowly returned to normal. The beauty of the scenery, mystery of nature's gifts, and wildlife were a heady mix that touched my soul. It was as if I had just witnessed a scene not meant for humans. I slowly, and as unobtrusively as possible, moved from the canyon so that I did not disturb the deer resting in its depths. The scene remains an unforgettable and treasured part of my memory. I often replay it and wonder at the gift I was given.

My brother Steve and I often discuss unusual happenings such as these and guess at their meaning. As we clean up in the mornings, we examine the issues and look for hidden messages. It is a daily happening that helps me get my mind around new thoughts and ideas. Steve is always good for unique perspectives. I have often wondered at the events of that early fall day, and find that they now stand as metaphors for my personal mythology.

Finding that extraordinary canyon in what should have been a lonely, uneventful location had a positive effect on my mental state. Its visual beauty brought about a focus on the peaceful existence of the natural world. That odd, self reliant juniper that was just contrary enough to settle where others would not, had gained a foothold. Its reward was freedom, spectacular views and magnificent light shows every morning and evening. A close, retrospective and respectful relationship with the real world is something our Navajo, Ute and pioneer neighbors have taught us well. This tree of life refers to my connections to the past, upward movement and growth and future personal expansion of knowledge and understanding. I find my most memorable and meaningful lessons of life in situations like these; the comfort and well being they provide are lasting and life changing.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Compared to the Bicycle

My friend and internist, Dr. Roy, has promised to take me along on his annual cycling tour next year; if I can get in shape. I am sure he thinks it’s good motivation for me to shed a few unwanted pounds. What he doesn’t realize is that I long ago discovered that I can eat and cycle at the same time.

The Bike

Based upon Roy’s commitment, I dusted off the old road bike and have been working on my cycling conditioning this summer. This particular morning I dragged myself out of bed, strapped on the cycling shoes and hit the road. Thinking of the early days of my cycling career, when every ounce cost me precious time, I left the socks in the drawer and put those shoes directly on my bare feet. I briefly thought about shaving my legs to make myself more aerodynamic, but decided that would take too long. Shaving a few cookies from my diet may be more effective.

It was about 7:00 a.m. when I finally got everything in order. The sun was up, but the air was cool. I rode west from Bluff, towards Monument Valley. As I turned to make the return trip into town, the sunlit cliffs reminded me why I love this naturally walled village in the San Juan River Valley so much. The sandstone bluffs, for which the community is named, were glowing a misty pink, and the various formations faded into shades of gray and black as they receded into the distance. I searched the eastern horizon for the Sleeping Ute and finally noticed his nose protruding just above the southeastern cliffs. The valley was coming alive with light.

My bicycle is about 18 years old, which makes it a veritable dinosaur in terms of modern bicycling technology. In its time, it was a marvel of cycling engineering; but things have changed. The gum wall tires are fraying and the tubes tend to lose a little air. I kept watching the tires to ensure that they were remaining inflated, and began to consider the parallels between the old bicycle and me. That started me thinking about how I tend to lose a little air myself, which can be somewhat embarrassing.

When I first moved back to San Juan County, the trading post was still under construction, so I was living in Blanding. Every day Duke and I would drive to Bluff with the bicycle in back of the truck. After working all day with the building contractor, digging trenches and pounding nails, I would climb on the bike and ride to Blanding. The bike and I were like a well oiled machine, working in perfect unison. We would make the 25 mile, 2000 foot climb, in just over an hour. The bicycle was tuned to perfection, and my legs were like pistons, pumping those pedals up and down.

Family, the family business and a new daughter distracted me over the next few years. Then one day I was diagnosed with a terrible illness - the dreaded furniture disease. It was my father, Duke, who first noticed the symptoms. That tire around my waist began to inflate, and Duke, who is a renowned expert in the field of furniture disease, pointed it out to me. Of course I knew all along, but was in denial. I attempted to hide it and stay its effects with protein concoctions, but nothing worked. For a time I considered wearing moo moos, but couldn’t find patterns or shades that complimented my skin color.

In the more progressive medical texts, furniture disease is described as the condition where, “[O]ne’s chest falls into one’s drawers”. As in my case, the onset generally begins in one’s mid-twenties or early thirties. Serious disfigurement can occur. Once trim bodies begin to bag and sag, and cycling performance drops in direct proportion to the sagging and bagging. It becomes hard to work the pedals with all that weight pushing down on your thighs. Actually, the downstroke is fairly easy. It’s the upstroke, which requires lifting all those extra pounds, that can be difficult. Balance is also greatly affected. Shifting cellulite results in a less aerodynamic configuration and airflow is interrupted, resulting in significantly slower speeds.

So there I was, wrestling the bike back into this beautiful little community. The slow progress gave me time to notice the small indentation on the bicycle’s top tube, which resulted when my friend Greg was teaching me to draft. As we wheeled along at great speed, I became distracted, impacted his back wheel and careened off the trail. My inattention netted me several abrasions and the dent. The scars on my face result from similar distractions.

The slight grinding of the gears reminded me how I often wear on the residents of this small town. A little lubricant may be in order. As I pedaled up to the trading post, I realized that the old bike and I were lucky to be functioning at current levels. Neither the tires nor I had lost any air, which was a relief, since the bicycle pump doesn’t perform the way it once did either.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Bad Boy

Consider the benefits of being born into the grandeur of Monument Valley. This spell binding locality in the heart of Navajoland is one of the most magnificent natural wonders of the world. The idea of witnessing such a idyllic setting upon first opening your eyes is the stuff of dreams. Growing up in complete freedom, and feeling the shifting, rippled, sand and undulating red rock beneath your feet are but a few of the benefits. It is a blissful existence, and an appealing lifestyle to be sure.

Bad Boy

Ponder the possibilities, and let your mind wander to a high slanted, deep purple, mesa top. There proudly stands a jet black three year old stallion, bathed in the warm, rich golden glow of morning light. High, scattered, full bodied cloud formations blush rosily in the refracted light. The stallion's posture can only be termed "cavalier". On a sandstone ledge, at the edge of a three hundred foot drop overlooking a rugged landscape, he appraises his surroundings. High, jutting pinnacles of rock; darkened, mysterious canyon depths; and rolling hillsides dotted with juniper and sage spread out before his eyes. The cool night air is blowing him full in the face as it hurriedly tries to outrun the rising sun's rapidly lengthening rays. The horse deeply breathes in the smells of the land, which are carried by the turbulent breeze, and exalts in the rich, natural fragrance..

Unbridled emotion and independence swell in the stallion's breast as he lets rip a hearty "Neigh!" The sound rumbles across the countryside like thunder from a summer lightning storm. The magnificent animal shakes his head and snorts, his long thick mane and tail whip and flow in the wind. He stamps his hooves on the hard rock. As the horse turns to make its way down the boulder strewn path, he hears a whirring noise, something strong and tight grips his neck and chokes his breath. Confusion, frustration and anger flood his senses as he catches sight of a bronzed skinned human wearing a big black hat. This human sits astride one of the horse's tamed and humbled brothers; life, as the mustang knows it, is about to alter course.

Jan first saw the now six year old mustang as he stood unhappily tethered to the corral at Ed Black's Monument Valley Tours. She was on a National Geographic tour provided by Crow Canyon Archeological Center, and fell in love with him that first moment. Why is it that nice girls consistently fall for "Bad Boys"? She asked to ride the magnificent beast, and was quickly discouraged by his handlers. They explained that this horse could display an extremely nasty attitude when he chose to, and that he was called "Bad Boy" for a very good reason. It seems the stallion had strenuously resisted being broken, dumping a number of respectable "bronc busters" on their noggins, and damaging several once spotless Stetson hats. Jan assured Ed and his crew that she was an experienced rider, and could certainly handle this fiery beast. They reluctantly agreed to let her ride the horse.

For whatever reason Bad Boy behaved beautifully that day; he was a perfect gentleman. Whether it was Jan's gentle, assuring, nonassertive hand, or just that the horse was grateful to be back in his beloved home, nobody knew. He was almost free to roam at will, to breathe in the freshness of the valley, to smell its rich fragrance and feel the texture of the earth beneath his hooves. It was a fantastic day for both horse and rider; memorable because the ride went so well and the scenery was, well, monumental! An idea began to develop in Jan's mind, one that was to overwhelm her and haunt her dreams.

Not being one to act on impulse, Jan kept her blossoming notion to herself. She patted Bad Boy on the nose, whispered secretly in his ear, and after thanking the confused tour operators for their superior services, left the valley. Two weeks later she was on the phone to Ed Black with an offer to relieve him of his most offensive critter and export the steed to OshKosh Wisconsin. Ed flatly refused, stating that Monument Valley was Bad Boy's home, and that it would be a mistake to take him from it. Jan could not get the black stallion off her mind, and decided to write a letter to the Blacks in another attempt to acquire the horse. It worked! Whatever Jan said in the letter prompted the Blacks to sell Bad Boy to her. Ed's wife, Maybelle, called Jan and made arrangements for the black stallion to be picked up the end of September 2002.

Jan was ecstatic, and began preparing a place for Bad Boy at Wind Ridge Farm. When she drove down to collect the stallion, Jan thought it a good idea to make sure the horse was healthy and travelworthy, so she scheduled an appointment with "Doc Watkins," the local veterinarian. Now Doc has been around a while, and has an abundance of "horse sense". He looked the mustang over carefully, poked and prodded, then gave the animal a bill of good health. Just before Jan pulled away on the long journey home, the vet looked at her, shook his head and asked, "What do you want with a horse like that?" Jan just smiled, thanked the man for his services and headed north with her prize.

Bad Boy must have thought he had stepped into the promised land as he exited the horse trailer in Wisconsin. There before him was a broad field of alfalfa hay. Dispersed about the field were a number of well fed, thoroughly contented horses, acting as if this was an everyday occurrence. There was running water, moderate temperatures and an attentive human to make his stay comfortable and happy. To a creature raised on the sparse vegetation and infrequent watering holes of Navajoland, this was paradise to be sure.

As the black stallion grew comfortable, and settled into his new home, he may have become a little lazy and, possibly, more self centered.
Jan worked the horse easily, giving him a chance to become acclimated to his new surroundings, and also gave him plenty of opportunity to understand what was expected. Jan wanted to share her world with Bad Boy; to provide him with a good life and pleasant lifestyle. She wanted him to know the pleasure of a compatible relationship, where both horse and rider enjoyed the riding experience. Jan was accustomed to domesticated horses, and had known this experience before; she hoped the stallion would feel the same.

One crisp fall day, Jan decided it was time to take Bad Boy for a ride. All went well until the horse elected to introduce this new owner to his more cantankerous side. Jan said that the horse "just went ballistic." "It was like riding a tornado; a twisting, turning, bucking fit that thoroughly beat me up." Jan came out of the ordeal with body whiplash, a torn hamstring, a concussion and a short stint in the local emergency room. She was hurt badly, both physically and emotionally.

The mustang's serious breach of etiquette caused Jan to rethink her earlier position. She recalled the not so subtle warnings of Ed Black and Doc Watkins about the differences between wild animals and those bred into the civilized world. Jan made calls to some horse trainers she knew to get their opinions. Each told her that it was useless to even try to tame Bad Boy. He had grown up wild, and a part of him would always remain so. The freedom he had experienced as a colt was an indelible part of his being, it could not be pushed aside.

Jan reluctantly called Ed and Maybelle to tell them that Bad Boy needed to return home. Ed's first remark was, "Did you get that horse fat?" Jan agreed that she must have done so; he was fat and sassy to be sure. Jan knows now that she had made a mistake, she was enamored with the thought of providing a better life for an animal she believed deserved one. The truth is that the black mustang stallion is, again, where he is supposed to be. The moral of this story is: You can take the boy out of the country, but you better leave Bad Boy where he is.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

A Psychological Profile

I have always been interested in psychology; the human mind and its behavioral patterns fascinate me. So when my friend, Jon, recently gave me the book Choice Theory, by William Glasser, M.D., I began reading with great relish. The book discusses the intricacies of relationships, and how to develop them into successful endeavors that nourish and strengthen us and those we love. Since I am a skeptic at heart, I am generally cynical when it comes to the thoughts and ideas of others. Over the years, I have convinced myself that I know pretty much everything I need to function well in my personal world. As you may guess, that conclusion has put me in a few compromising and uncomfortable situations. My family has often also expressed severe criticism of my all knowing attitude.

In fact, I seem to have lost my touch. My ability to coerce, compel, manipulate or strong-arm others into my way of thinking has been fading. It is time to replace my destructive behavior with supportive, caring, nurturing and constructive conduct. I can no longer get away with being a wise guy. Up to this point, I have chosen not to evaluate my own psyche or critically explore my individual behavior. Deep down in the unused portion of my brain, I must have known there was a problem. I guess I thought it was possible to ignore my own shortcomings, and simply bluff my way through life. Jon must have anticipated my fall from grace, and has most likely saved me many years of ongoing problems.

The book is not overly complicated; it simply states that YOU must make positive, thoughtful choices in developing those relationships important to human survival. Snide remarks, rude comments and personal attacks are not acceptable. I have always believed that I have a well developed sense of humor; jokes come naturally to me, usually at the expense of others. I now know that this type of mockery jeopardizes associations key to my emotional survival, Belly laughs and snorts are simply not acceptable.

I have to say that by giving up my tendency to try and control others, thereby gaining personal power over them, my social skills have improved. My wife and children seem to appreciate my efforts, and there is a more peaceful aura around our home these days. Here at the trading post I have also noticed an atmospheric conversion. Most of the women on the premises have genial natures and have always been easy to get along with, so they also appreciate my conversion. Since I have adopted Choice Theory, there have been fewer emotional outbursts and crying fits. In my opinion this is a good thing. If we can just get Steve to buy into the new deal, we will have it made.

One method of problem solving Dr. Glasser suggests is "the solving circle". The process involves outlining a circle on the floor of your home or business, placing two chairs inside the ring and envisioning this area as an inescapable containment arena. Both you and the individual you are having relationship troubles with agree to enter the ring and not leave until an equitable agreement is reached. I explained this practice to Steve, suggesting that we use it when we have a disagreement with one of our artists. I told him this would assure a calm, thoughtful and peaceful conclusion to the transaction. My dear brother snorted, gave a hearty belly laugh and said, "Are you aware that the number one rated television show on the Navajo Reservation is The World Wrestling Federation? If you put a ring and two folding chairs in the center of this store you better be prepared to defend your title!" My wise guy brother walked away with tears in his eyes, nearly bent double from laughing at his own joke.

For some people there is just no hope. I for one will continue my quest to improve myself, and the relationships that are so important to my emotional well being. I will take responsibility for my actions and the reactions I provoke in others. I take heart in Dr. Glasser's notion that it is okay when I fall off the truck and briefly revert to my old ways. My only hope is that I don't get run over by that same truck. It is terribly hard to get tire tracks off of your Carhart's, or egg off your face. Onward and upward!

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 7, 2002

A New Marketing Strategy

Several months ago in our weekly musings, Barry and I lamented our lack of image within the Indian Trader community. All the other traders seem to have very distinctive personalities, and we have none. In the recently published book, The Weavers Way, by Carter and Dodie Allen, I am included in the section on traders. The problem is that they put me on the page opposite Jed Foutz. Jed comes from a long line of traders, and is young and attractive besides. That only made matters worse. When I complained to Carter and Dodie, they just laughed. My insecurity was exacerbated. Since that time Barry and I have mulled over several alternatives, but nothing really workable has presented itself. All that changed during my recent trip to Salt Lake City.

Stephanie Unger's depiction of Barry and Steve, BEFORE THE MAKE-OVER

Kira, Grange and I had decided we needed to visit Dacia, so Friday evening we packed the truck and headed north. We picked up Dacia Saturday morning and made our way to the Utah State Fair. At the fair the kids rode all the twisty, whirling rides they could find, while I remained firmly on the ground. Dacia is well aware that I have a real problem with motion sickness, and is very conscientious about keeping me away from such entertainment; lest I lose the contents of my stomach.

As we wandered back toward the parking lot, I spotted a “Giant Pig” booth. The kids were not very excited about seeing the gigantic swine, but I just had to have a look. The exhibit gave me some insight into what my wife must think after she realizes that I have eaten all the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I have thought about getting stock in Mrs. Fields, since I can keep the company financially secure all by myself.

I was still thinking of that big pig as we started back to Bluff Sunday afternoon. Traffic on the freeway was light as we approached a slight uphill section of the road. That particular stretch made me think of an urban forest. The concrete path sloped gently up and to the left, obscuring any view of the city. No cars were visible, and the tall, thin street lamp posts lining the road looked like abstract versions of lodge pole pines. I began to feel somewhat peaceful, as though I was in an isolated part of the mountains. In its own way, the freeway was every bit as beautiful as the pine forests we have just north of us on the Blue Mountains.

Barry and Steve.... AFTER

As we crested the hill, my mind was flowing in a stream of consciousness mode, jumping from one thought to the next. As the traffic increased, I watched the cars responding to the movements of other vehicles. A large truck blinked and moved to the left, and the entire flow changed. I thought of how that is somewhat similar to the marketing plan we needed at the trading post. If we were able to do something novel, maybe the entire atmosphere would change; resulting in a new flow. Then I saw it, the billboard sign advertising a modeling program, and guaranteeing results. It started me thinking about how Barry and I had searched in vain for the right solution, and it had been right in front of us all the time. He and I needed a fresh look.

A few weeks earlier, one of our customers had mentioned that Abercrombie and Fitch long ago decided that all their sales clerks must be young and attractive. When I saw those billboard models, I knew why we weren’t getting results; Barry and I are just too ugly. I’m tempted to blame it all on Barry, but realize I probably can’t actually convince anyone that it is exclusively his fault.

In the past we had been able to overcome the ugly with creative baskets, rugs and jewelry, but as we have aged, that strategy has become less and less effective. Before Barry started coming to Bluff, I had a nice looking woman who helped me in the store. She and I used the ugly cop, pretty cop routine with great results. People would walk into the store, see me and immediately gravitate to Susie. It was almost as though they were thinking, “Wow, that’s a face not even a mother could love. Oh, there’s someone attractive; let’s go talk to her.” Susie got lots of sales, and from time to time I got the sympathy purchase. Altogether, it worked pretty well.

Then Susie left, Barry arrived and all we had was ugly cop, ugly cop. That hasn’t worked very well. It’s just too unsightly. So Barry and I have decided that cosmetic surgery and liposuction are what is needed. Fortunately we have a friend who is one of the top plastic surgeons in the country. From now on the trading post will have a new, attractive staff.

Let the chicks fall where they may.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Personal Relationships

I was sitting on the couch early the other morning scanning the newspaper for items of interest when my young daughter McKale ran up to me and gave me a swift kick on the shin. "Dad! Did you see that great sunrise?" she asked. As I hobbled toward the window in an effort to see the phenomenon and get a headlock on the imp at the same time, I witnessed a truly impressive sight. At that moment I felt a strange combination of pleasure and pain. That particular joining of visual and physical stimulation was quite an experience. There, spread before us was a fall spectacular; a Halloween sunrise to be sure.

Wisps of orange, dark purple, and blood red, along with brief shooters of other muted rainbow hues were caught there on the horizon for a brief moment. The sun was hidden behind a cloud bank between the darkness of the earth and an overcast sky. It was doing its darndest to let its presence be known before being obscured behind the heavy black morning clouds hanging overhead. The dispersion of light appeared both ominous and exhilarating. I would not have been surprised to see the silhouette of an airborne witch scurrying for cover at the approaching dawn. It was a memorable moment that I am happy to have shared with my child.

As the sun continued its journey into the heavens and became blanketed by the dampening clouds, my daughter and I turned away from the scene. I thanked her for bringing the sunrise to my attention and gave her a loving embrace. As I nudged her in the ribs and provided her with a parting love tap I said, "Now, my dearie, we need to have a talk about your aggressive tendencies. You do not need to give someone a major bruise just to get their attention! At this rate I am going to have a tough time getting much of a dowry for a roughneck, tomboy girl child like yourself."

As I drove South that morning, fondly remembering my encounter with McKale, I noticed that the truck's fuel gauge was nearing empty. Luckily I was near the White Mesa travel center; a Texaco station located in the center of our local Ute indian community between Bluff and Blanding. I gassed up the beast and went inside the convenience store to pay my bill. As I stood at the counter I heard someone call out "Hello Barry!" Recognizing the friendly voice of Annie Cantsee I turned around to greet her but could not catch sight of her. "Hello Annie. Where are you?" From over by the mail boxes around a display counter appeared my dear friend with a broad, beautiful smile spread across her face.

Annie is not very tall physically, but she has a towering personality. Her positive attitude and appealing nature make meetings with her a pleasurable and warm experience. We spoke of the sunrise, our families' well being and her desire to go to the Blue Mountain Trading Post to sit on the porch and visit with "Duke and Rose," my parents. I continued my journey with an even more pleasant feeling about life in general and the world I am a part of. As I was two finger typing this story a couple more Ute friends came to visit us at the store. Bonnie Mike Lehi and Stella Eyetoo came in to discuss basketry, pick up some corn pollen, and speak of the past. These women are fun to be around and always add to my day in a positive way.

Life at the trading post has provided me and my family a multitude of friendships that we cherish more than any other aspect of the business. The warmth, radiance, and unique nature of that sunrise, and the way it was presented, reminds me of the people we have been introduced to through the years. Some of those relationships started on a sour note, then turned sweet. Others snuck up on me and took hold before I even realized what had happened. Each and every one of them is a treasure I hold near and dear to my heart. I can truthfully say that each new day here in Bluff presents itself in incomparable ways; there are always new friends to meet and experiences to be had.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Broken Hearts

As I sat on the porch after a long day in the store, I noticed Grange hunkered down on the Sunbonnet Rock with his back to me. At first I didn’t notice anything wrong, but when I spoke to him there was no response. After a little prompting from Jana, he blurted out, “Kira broke my heart!”


Apparently Grange had forgotten to bring Kira’s scooter back from Aunt Cindy’s, and Kira had given him the what for. Grange, being the sensitive type, had taken it personally and migrated to the safety and isolation of the rock. At three years old, he says many things he doesn’t fully understand. He knew quite well, however, that Kira had pierced him with her well placed barb.

Jana and I have often debated the merits of raising our children around the trading post, and have generally concluded that it has been good for them. Because they were raised in the store, the kids are extremely comfortable meeting and talking with new people. They also seem to be picking up a few trading post techniques along the way. I worry a little about what Barry teaches them when I’m not looking, but fear nothing can be done. Up to now, the most serious offense I have identified is his use of candy, mostly Starbursts, to wheedle hugs and kisses from them. They come in the store calling “Uncle Barry”, and shortly thereafter I notice their teeth impacted with sticky goo and a smile on his face.

Kira will crowd next to children visiting the store and say, “Hi, I’m Kira,” hoping to engage them in a little play. The Navajo kids often seem unsure about her forward approach, but, after a shy moment or two, generally warm up to her overtures. Grange, who parrots everything Kira does, has started riding the scooter up to the door and announcing to anyone who happens to be inside, “Hi, I’m Grange.”

Navajo people tend to be a little introverted, so they are sometimes shocked by the boldness of Kira and Grange. The ones who have been around the store for a while, however, seem genuinely interested in them. Kira and Grange are allowed to participate when photographs are being taken, and are also frequently invited to take part in a variety of other trading post rituals. We have several nice pictures of Mary Black and her daughters holding a beautiful basket in one hand and Kira or Grange in another.

The other day I was at the restaurant and stopped to help an older Navajo gentleman with something. After his request was satisfied, I asked him if everything was okay. He responded by saying, “Pretty good all right.” I hadn’t heard that particular Navajoism for a long time, so the statement, combined with Grange’s comment about Kira, started me thinking about several former Bluff residents.

Many of my earliest memories of Bluff relate to the mid-1960s and St. Christopher’s mission. Because I was so young, I don’t really recall much about Father Liebler, the central figure at the mission. I have often been told, however, that he was a hugely charismatic figure. I do remember him striding around Bluff, wearing his black cassock and long gray hair. He seemed a gentle man with a heart as big as this land. When I was older, I stumbled onto his book, Boil My Heart For Me. I was intrigued and confounded by the title.

As I discovered much later, when Father Liebler arrived in Bluff automobiles were not widely known, and the Navajo people were just developing words to describe the parts and processes of their cars and trucks. Tires were referred to as shoes, and the automobile’s battery was its heart. When the car’s heart was broken (the battery was dead), Father Liebler and his staff were asked to boil (jump start) it.

Father Liebler had a unique way of patching Bluff’s many broken hearts during that time. People often stop by the trading post and tell us stories about Father Liebler, Brother Juniper, Brother Joseph, Joan, Helen and the other founders of St. Christopher’s. Recently a couple wandered into the trading post and began talking about their 1953 visit to the mission. They smiled widely as they told of several young Navajo boys they had met. Once the children became comfortable with the visitors, the boys laid out a proposition. “Let’s play cowboys and Indians,” the young men said. The boys went on to say, “We’ll be the cowboys, and you be the Indians.” The elderly couple chuckled as they remembered the incident.

Many of Bluff’s old people are gone, and those little cowboys are fully grown. I hope my children will be filled with the affection I have for Bluff, and trust that Grange’s heart will soon mend.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 3, 2002

Effective Communication

A holy man once said, "He who loses his life shall find it." I have often thought of that phrase, and wondered how it applies to me. I am sure I will define that new life one day, but for now, I am still looking for the life I misplaced several years ago when I decided to go into the family business and become an Indian trader. I began thinking about the old insurance salesman from Arkansas who had been in the store earlier this week. As we talked about his agency, the life it allowed him to build, how he hadn't had a real vacation in several years, and his inability to convince himself it was time to retire, he said, "It's hard to kick a dawg off a gravy train."

For this part of the country, I think I have engineered a pretty good locomotive. The gravy is thin, but it is gravy. With the kids growing up, and college looming, Laurie is convinced we need a few more "Tender Vittles" in our bowl. My wife doesn't understand how I have gotten so lost in the trading post, and recently accused me of spending all my time and energy on the business, thus leaving precious little for the kids and her. I gave her all the standard explanations, but she wasn't buying it. My wife sometimes thinks of my chosen profession as "a futile effort". Although I feel the same from time to time, I have trouble admitting it. Instead, when things are not going my way during these discussions, I have a bad habit of redirecting the dialog and attempting senseless abstractions. Laurie long ago caught on to my strategy, so she doesn't budge. In response to my final argument, she gave me a harsh look, and said, "That's not what he meant! As usual you have taken a meaningful statement and twisted it to suit your needs." "Well that's the way I interpreted it, and isn't it all about interpretation anyway," I pleaded.

My wife rolled her eyes and shook her head in disgust. She picked up her keys and headed towards the door, saying, "You are impossible! I have to go to work now." Out the door she went, mumbling to herself in frustration. As I watched her depart, a smirk spread across my face, and my eyes fell upon our three children, who were gathered in the kitchen witnessing the scene. They gazed in amazement at my smug attitude. All were shaking their heads and rolling their eyes, just like their mother had. My middle, sassy, child, said, "You have got to be kidding! Don't you ever learn?" I replied, "The real question is, don't you have some toilets to clean or ear wax to remove?"

As I started towards the scoundrels to give them a well deserved thumpin', a horn blasted outside, making us all jump, and giving the kids a chance to escape. Noticing Laurie gesturing wildly from the driveway, and thinking I may be in for an apology, I pushed open the window to hear what she had to say. "The Kirks are presenting a talk on marital communication this Thursday; we should go." I smiled sweetly and waved as she drove off, grumbling under my breath, "What the heck do those people know about communication that I don't? I communicate every day of my life, and do quite well at it, thank you very much." I looked around to see where those nasty, disrespectful children had gotten off to, but couldn't find them.

Later that same morning, I was making my daily Postum run to the cafe when I nearly tripped over our waitress, Nicole. Nicole's father and I were in school together, and I am very fond of his family. He has a business in Blanding, so we see each other from time to time, although not nearly enough. I consider him a good friend, and appreciate that he has entrusted his daughter to us for training. I intend to send my kids his direction when they are old enough to be indentured, which may be sooner than they think.

I asked Nicole how her father was getting along, and she told me that he was frustrated with the struggles of small town business. He felt that he may have made a wrong turn on the road of life by coming back home when he finished college; that he may have done his wife and children a disservice by settling them in such a rural, economically challenged, area. His earlier decision had come from the heart, and was based on emotion rather than sound economic principles. He had returned to support his parents as they aged, and to give his children the opportunity to enjoy a closely knit extended family. Growing up in a small town had provided Nicole's father with a strong sense of well-being, and a solid foundation in a world that does not always provide such fringe benefits. He simply wanted to offer his children the same experience. I know exactly how he felt; I have had the same thoughts.

As I wandered back to the trading post, I found Steve polishing the glass counters to perfection. I don't know what it is with him and Windex. It may be an obsession; perhaps an escape. Anyway, I told him what Nicole had said about her father. Steve nodded his head knowingly, and went back to the never-ending chore of removing fingerprints from the showcases. I know he has often contemplated those same issues. When I look back at the reasons my family and I are here, I realize that they are similar to those used by Nicole's father to rationalize his coming home.

Our parents provided us with a safe and secure home when we were young, and have supported us in all of our endeavors; as long as those undertakings were honorable. The sense of family and community runs strong for us in San Juan County. Wasn't it Dorothy who said, "There's no place like home"? The relationships we have developed through the years are more valuable than any material possession we could have acquired. It feels good here at the trading post; the harmony and dynamic of the place are in tune with its surroundings. Here you will find a truly human and friendly atmosphere, not because of Steve and me; we are mostly antagonistic and unpleasant, and getting worse daily (especially Steve). Maybe there is more time and room to grow out here; maybe our faults are generally overlooked, or just ignored. At any rate, we are where we belong.

When Laurie asked me to marry her, I mentioned that she would have to learn to live with imperfection if we hooked up. She thought I was kidding, but has come to know the truth in those words. Laurie puts up with my nonsense with the patience and love of a latter day saint. She provides me with enough freedom to hang myself on a regular basis, but has always been there to loosen the noose when I begin to choke. She knows in her heart that I would be out of place in any other situation, and would tell Nicole's father and me that we are truly where we should be. Only occasionally does Laurie force her hand, and drag me off to some communication in marriage seminar. I think she feels there is still hope for me.

While the economic rewards may be sparse, the emotional benefits of being on this gravy train are immeasurable. I think I'll stay until I am a very old dawg; God willing and the rocks don't slide.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Variations of Light and Color

Steve and I were recently sitting on the porch of the trading post enjoying the most incredible evening imaginable. The light of the fall sun was filtering through the golden leaves on the cottonwood trees, and there must have been at least a dozen shades of green emanating from the various plants common to our high desert environment. The cliffs surrounding our small community were glowing in the softness of sunset; there were warm red tints, burnt orange highlights and earthy browns. Canadian geese that winter on the alfalfa field across the way were beginning to gather for the evening, and their soft conversations could be heard as they settled in for the night. It was one of those short lived moments that sticks in your mind and remains there for you to cherish and remember. I have always had a love of watercolor paintings, because it seems to me that they best portray the way my mind remembers scenes such as we had just witnessed. I felt a softness of detail, slightly smudged, yet warm and comfortable, resting easily on my senses.

As we enjoyed the remarkable variations of light and color, we fell into conversation concerning the many lessons we have learned on this theme. The Navajo people seem to have a special, natural ability to understand the subtle nuances of nature many of us overlook. Maybe it is inbred from generations of ancestors witnessing displays of illumination brought on by Mother Earth and her mate, Father Sky. Whatever the reason, the people are constantly trying to educate us to the meaning of what they have woven, hammered or sculpted into their art. The message must be sticking with us because we seem to be more aware of these occurrences. My wife and children can attest to that; it is not uncommon for me to gasp at a spectacular display of natural light and point it out to them. My kids have recently been beating me to the punch by perking up with mock excitement and exclaiming, "Dad, look at those clouds. Aren't they simply gorgeous ?" My reaction to their comments is usually brought to an abbreviated end by an elbow to the ribs from my wife. Being born and raised in Bluff put me in close proximity to a certain Opal Howell.

Opal had a rather colorful vocabulary, which she in turn shared with us. It cost me many a "mouth cleansing". On certain occasions this lexicon of choice phrases returns, which merits a poke in the ribs, and brings memories of a soapy taste to my mouth. Funny how that works.

Anyway, I was telling Steve about an experience I had the other morning. Driving down from Blanding, I witnessed an explosive sunrise that looked as if someone had taken buckets of paint and splashed them across the horizon. There were brilliant reds, yellows and oranges in a pattern only nature can create. Right in the middle of all that color, balanced between earth and sky, was the sun; a huge shimmering orb of gold rising towards the heavens. This scene, in and of itself, was truly inspiring; but there was more. Rounding a curve facing away from the sunrise and to the west, I was presented with a glowing moon set. I couldn't believe it; I had never before seen anything like this. There, sitting next to a pair of up thrust ridges we call the Bear's Ears was a full, luminescent moon. In opposition to the brightness of the sunrise the colors were softer, more pastel. There were soft blues, light purples, and just a touch of red reflected from what was happening on the opposite horizon. The moon was exceptionally bright, and the craters stood out in bluish contrast. I pulled my old Nissan pick up off the highway and glanced from one scene to the other until they both faded from view. The others on the highway that early morning honked and waved, sharing the same excitement I felt for the privilege of witnessing this natural spectacle.

I shared my experience with many of the artists who came into the trading post that day. Some had seen the same occurrence; only in different geographic circumstances. Others related witnessing similar situations. All were happy to discuss the event, and many used the opportunity to explain that these natural phenomena were often the theme of their art. Steve and I have often been accused of being sluggish, slow, handicapped and a variety of other uncharitable things, for our failure to understand the messages of our Navajo educators. We are told that by opening our eyes, minds and hearts, and getting in touch with our surroundings, that we will learn to recognize the message or meaning. Quite often that meaning is hidden in a sunrise, moon set, landscape or other creation of nature. The cultural ties are significant because all of these things are created, directed and presented by the deities guiding and protecting the Navajo people.

Since I firmly believe that there is value in all interpretations of well considered cultural reasoning, I listen closely to what the artists are saying. I feel that we are extremely lucky to be in such close contact with these artistic storytellers. Who is to say that their message is somehow wrong. Greater minds than mine have pondered these questions, and my personal study is fragmented at best. By paying attention to the suggested sights and sounds, we are offered views into a belief system that focuses on natural purity and balance. A rainbow's end racing across the earth, and the scent of sagebrush as you barrel down a back road becomes a view into myth and legend. The stories emerge from the simplicities of life; you need only recognize the meaning.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with a child psychologist concerning the attitude of my children. The poor woman stumbled into the trading post, and I cornered her when she revealed her occupation. I mentioned that my kids seemed to misread what I was relating to them about the art I work with and its meaning. I was also distressed at their lack of concern for the variations of light and color that I persist in pointing out to them. She assured me that they were indeed listening and paying attention; that the message was getting through and that they will appreciate my taking the time to share with them when they grow up. As for the elbow to the ribs, and resulting memory of a soapy taste in my mouth whenever I utter an inappropriate word, she said something about crime equals punishment, equals memory and taste reaction. Memory imprints related to taste would most likely never change. Bummer!

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, September 23, 2002

Family Matters

As a result of our many years in the trading post business, we have developed a few hard and fast rules to live by. First, when purchasing items from a Native American artist, never show an emotional attachment to the work before you own it. Because there is never a price tag dangling from the piece when it walks through the door, value often fluctuates in direct proportion to the purchaser's level of interest. Exclamations of excitement are best left out of the equation until your ownership has been firmly established. The Navajo people are in tune with the subtleties of life and they notice body language and emotional nuances that others easily miss. Steve and I strive for a relaxed demeanor and poker faces when dealing with Navajo sellers; otherwise values can appreciate quickly.

(Lorraine Black - daughter of one of the most...)

Secondly, do not become emotionally attached to the artists. Run from attempts to bring you into their families, or propositions aimed at making you a "blood brother". I know a number of Anglo people who have been adopted into the world of the Navajo, and are quite pleased with their associations. These adoptees, however, do not come into contact with the multitude of characters we see on a daily basis. We experience firsthand what a commitment these relationships are, and see on an ongoing basis the amount of time, effort and emotional stamina it takes to be a "brother".

A few years ago Lorraine Black brought in a beautifully woven basket, which she carefully unwrapped and handed to me for inspection. As the transfer was made from her hand to mine, a good size sliver of Sumac stuck my finger. I set the weaving on the counter and focused on removing the painful intrusion as quickly as possible. Although Steve tried to catch my attention, I was intent on relieving my misery and neglected his protests. As I drew the sticker from my appendage, a drop of blood emerged from the wound and fell onto the basket. Steve's "uh oh," and the meaning behind it, flooded my consciousness. I looked up into Lorraine's smiling face, and knew what was coming. Before I could interject, Lorraine had me cornered with her statement, "I must have poked myself and spilled my own blood on that basket a dozen times. Because yours has joined mine, we are now brother and sister."

I did my darndest to talk myself out of the situation by pointing out my many faults. Much to my chagrin, Steve readily agreed with each and every statement and pointed out a few I had missed. He later stated that he was just trying to help me out of the predicament, but the smile behind his eyes made me wonder. Lorraine was having none of it; she knew she had me just where she wanted me, and was not letting me out of the noose. I fussed and fumed, cleaned the basket thoroughly and claimed ignorance to her customs and the responsibilities they demanded. Lorraine just shook her head, frowned at me and said, "We are family, get used to it!"

Both Steve and I have known Lorraine for at least 25 years, and we like her a great deal. We just don't want to be directly related to her! Lorraine's own family calls her Ma'ai (Coyote), which translates into chaos! The woman is a wonderful, outrageous, high maintenance, out of control individual. I have enough women in my life with those very same traits; why would I want another? My stress increased as I noticed Steve nonchalantly moving out of harm's way, in an effort to disassociate himself from the occurrence. So much for brotherly intervention.

I began negotiations, on the basket and the relationship. Steve had disappeared completely, so I felt no remorse in sacrificing him. I worked out a deal that provided her with a higher price than she would have normally received for her weaving. The other side of the compromise provided Lorraine with two blood brothers for the price of one. Same parents, same blood! Steve and I would share responsibility for our new sister on the basis of "catch us if you can". When Steve finally returned and discovered the terms of the contract he complained bitterly, but knew that Lorraine would hold him to our agreement. As far as I was concerned it served him right for leaving the scene of an accident.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, September 16, 2002


Recently I was running west toward St. Christopher’s Mission, marveling at the pumpkin orange sunrise caused by smoke from the California wildfires, when I realized that I was hearing voices, again. When they come, these voices flood in from all sides, and are often strange and incomprehensible.

Buddy, the Burro - the picture says it all!

This particular morning, as I slumped down the stairs from the house above the trading post to begin my stretching routine, I heard the braying of the Burand burro. I first noticed this strange and wonderful beast a few years ago as Robin Burand and Sam Cantrell led him through town on a tether. At that time, he was just a baby and nipped at my fingers, rather than voicing his opinions. Since then, I have run past his corral countless times and listened to his hee hawing as it floats across the valley; always wondering, and never knowing, just what he is trying to say.

As I began my jog out to the mission, I was confronted by my Cow Canyon canine companion; Grover, the massive blond Labrador Retriever. Whenever he sees me out on my morning runs, he barks loudly and ambles out to the highway. His owners were initially concerned when this pattern began, but have since become aware that the barking is congenial, not confrontational. I fully understand Grover, and he understands me. He is just telling me that I should scratch him behind the ears, pat his sides and tickle his tummy. Once those tasks are accomplished, he waddles back to his home, satisfied that his needs have been accommodated.

Having pacified Grover, I continued westerly and heard the honk, honk, honking of the Canada geese which inhabit the Jones hay farm every winter. The geese had recently returned from the north, and were circling the fields looking for a suitable place to land. Two years ago, one of their members was a white goose, who spoke to me of patience and understanding. When several white geese babies arrived on the scene, we at the trading post became convinced that the gaggle of geese knew more about getting along with group members who are different, than we did. We also decided there was a lot to learn about tolerance and compassion from this flock.

(Etta Rock - Etta creates water-tight baskets traditionally used by the Navajo people. Not many artists...)

I passed the farm and noticed a small group of mule deer in the next field. Their soft eyes and straight ahead stare spoke to me of caution. Caution for this unexplained being who frequently plods along the highway in the predawn. Their silence spoke volumes about an existence on the fringes of human habitation.

The voices in my head are not only animal, however; humans also invade my consciousness. Many of my friends, family members and associates patiently try to explain what is required of me. I frequently find their voices as confusing and incomprehensible as the braying of the burro. They are convinced that this confusion has something to do with the thickness of my skull and the density of my eardrums. As you may guess, this tonal deficiency gets me into trouble on a regular basis.

(Mary Holiday Black - Mary single-handedly brought about a Navajo weaving revolution...)

Then there are the Navajo people who frequent the trading post. Shortly after we opened the store, Priscilla Sagg came to us. Priscilla has been my salvation, and I frankly don’t know what I would do without her. Pricilla has helped me survive 13 years of running this disorganization, and it frightens me when she mentions retirement.

Early on, I realized that I needed to speak Navajo to understand the native voices directed at me every day. I therefore put the bite on Priscilla to help me, and she reluctantly agreed; probably realizing it would be a monumental task to teach me anything. We never really got past numbers, greetings, partings, exclamations and a few swear words before she realized her tutelage was not paying significant dividends. So, I have been consigned to asking Priscilla and Natalie to interpret when Etta Rock tells me she needs to sell her pitch pot because her truck is broken, when Mary Black explains the design in her latest basket, or when Julia Deswood tells me how difficult it is to prepare and spin the wool used in her hand-spun rugs.

Oops, there’s that other voice telling me to stop writing silly stories and do some real work. Barry can be such a tyrant.

Julia Deswood - Julia spins her own wool from her own...

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, September 9, 2002

Zero MPH

Recently I read a book written by Marjorie S. May, entitled The Highly Adaptable Gospel; A Journey Through the Life of H. Baxter Liebler. The book relates the path that took Father Liebler, the founder of St. Christopher’s Mission in Bluff, from his comfortable home in Connecticut to the wilds of the Navajo Nation’s Utah Strip. On several occasions Barry and I have mentioned Father Liebler and the mission in our writings. That is generally because the man and his mission had a significant impact on our young lives.

The reality undoubtedly is that we were too young to accurately gauge his influence. Looking back, however, I can clearly see how the dynamic atmosphere at the mission in the 1960’s impacted me then and affects me even now. We attended kindergarten, were attended to at the clinic, went to church and played in the red dirt of the mission ground all the time feeling safe and secure.

Although the book paints a positive picture of Father Liebler and his love for the Navajo people, the author cannot avoid noting that the priest has been criticized for his “Anglo condescension toward the Indian.” The author also notes that in his language and correspondence, Father Liebler made use of the ”broken English” pronunciation used by many Navajos”.

As I read those comments, a chill ran down my spine. Barry and I can rightly be accused of making the same mistakes; and probably many more. Although we write about the enjoyment we find working with the local Navajo artists, I am sure that many years from now we may also be found to have been insensitive to the issues of the day.

Ms. May concludes, “In spite of these shortcomings, which [are] rightfully pointed out as the white man’s insensitivity and sense of superiority of language and culture, we still return to the central fact of this man’s goodness. Fr. Liebler brought more love, comfort, patience, hands-on care, and education to the Navajo people than many missionaries did before or during that time in history. He made himself a living example of tolerance and acceptance, of hard work and perseverance. . . .”

These comments about Father Liebler, and how they relate to the relationship Barry and I have with the local Navajo people, have been weighing on my mind lately. Recently I was jogging east on Highway 163 near St. Christopher’s mission; my regular route. As I approached the mission, I was thinking about the book. It had occurred to me that Father Liebler's love for the Navajo people was like the San Juan River; it flowed with great regularity, and gave a certain stability to the land and its people.

I was questioning whether I have any of that goodness in me, when I heard a car approaching from the west. I am very aware of vehicles on the road as I run, so I could tell the car was about a quarter mile behind me and was starting to decelerate. I was approaching the entrance to the mission, so I assumed the driver intended to turn left into the church, which put us on a potential collision course.

I slowed my pace to allow the driver to make the turn without any unnecessary and unfortunate contact. Instead of turning, the driver pulled alongside me and rolled down his window. Assuming he had a question to ask, I looked over and waited for the query. I could see that this sporty red car contained a nice looking Navajo family of mom, dad and three small children. The child closest to me was a young girl of about three years, who was peeking out the side window with a big smile on her face. No question was posed, so I slowed my pace a little more, scrunched my forehead, wrinkled my nose and said in my best gangsta’ slang, “Whassup?”
Daddy driver cocked his head a little to the right, also scrunched his forehead, wrinkled his nose, tilted his hand a bit to allow a better view of the speedometer, and said, “Zero miles per hour!” We both burst out laughing, and he started to accelerate. “Wait,” I said, and picked up my speed. “Five miles per hour,” he said checking his instruments. “Okay, here goes,” I said. “Ten miles per hour,” he laughed, and that little face in the back, which was probably thinking I looked a lot like a bumble bee in my winter running suit of yellow jersey and black tights, just grinned.

Since I was not even half way through my run, I had begun to worry that my burst of energy may have jeopardized my ability to make it back home under my own steam. The driver waved and continued his journey. As the car sped away, the sun was shining, I was shining and the little face, which was now pressed to the back window, was beaming. It was just another day in paradise. And some people ask why we choose to live in a place like this. Maybe Father Liebler and the Beatles had it right, “Love is all you need,” and maybe some of our insensitivities can be excused.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Saturday, September 7, 2002

Chicken Man

I was standing by the register admiring the latest set of baskets by Elsie Holiday, thinking that she is truly an exceptional artist, when Barry interrupted my thoughts. “Another turtle basket?” he asked. Elsie had come into the trading post several weeks ago to talk about basket designs, as she often does when she has weaver’s block. Since I also had a design block, we were not getting anywhere and Elsie left uninspired. About two weeks later she brought in a beautiful 14” diameter turtle basket with a ceremonial motif on the shell. A few weeks after that she was still uninspired, but the house payment was due so she made another turtle basket, this time three inches smaller. Since we already had two, I thought it best to finish the project with one more, making it a graduated set. Elsie agreed and off she went. I was looking at the final basket when Barry came by with his question.

From time to time Elsie and I will pull down several books and magazines from the trading post library to search for inspiration. We then commence to ooh and ahh over the art of other Southwest artists and brainstorm about how to translate it into new ideas for her work. She frequently laughs at my suggestions, but over the years this exercise has resulted in some really great baskets. Although I had little to do with this particular set, I was very pleased with how everything turned out. The ceremonial basket and turtle motifs are both very important to the Navajo people, so these baskets are very meaningful.

Several years ago, I was at Tobe Turpen’s trading post in Gallup New Mexico and spied a sensational Hopi turtle basket. I began to think that the basket would be even more interesting if the weaver had put a really unusual pattern on the turtle shell. Since I couldn’t get that thought out of my head, and since I felt guilty about asking for a photograph (so I could explain my idea to the local Navajo weavers) I bought the weaving and brought it back to the store. When the Navajo weavers brought in a really great geometric basket that seemed appropriate, I would ask them to make a second basket featuring a turtle with the same motif on its back. At first they thought I was crazy, but the idea caught on and they have made many very nice turtle baskets. The problem is that Barry has now seen so many turtle designs that he has begun to think of me as the Turtle Man. Something similar has happened with Barry because of all the folk art chickens we sell.

Shortly after we opened the trading post, Wilfred Yazzie came in with about eight roosters carved from cottonwood. The chickens were roughly hacked out and had raffia tails and stick legs. For some reason they really appealed to me, so I agreed to buy them for ten dollars each. Barry; Duke, my father; and Amer, my brother-in-law, who were all sitting on a counter on the west side of the room like three ravens on a fence, thought I had lost my mind and strenuously crowed their objections. By that time we had developed a rule that one person could overrule the objections of everyone else if he or she felt strongly that we should try a new item in the trading post, so I proceeded in spite of the protestations. I then put the bite on everyone who came into the store to buy one of the chickens, so that I wouldn’t look foolish. As it turns out, they sold very fast, and folk art chickens became a very big hit.

Soon after we bought the first batch, we were preparing for a wholesale show in Denver and decided to take some to the show to see how other shop owners would respond. Again they sold briskly, so we decided to keep buying them. That was one of the last shows I did, however, because shortly after that Cindy, our sister, informed me that I wasn’t a very good salesman and that I was banned from attending any more. As a result, Barry became responsible for selling all those chickens, and people began referring to him as the Chicken Man. At one point our friend Layne Miller was writing an article about folk art for the Salt Lake Tribune. Layne had used some of our Navajo folk art pieces in his feature, so he sent a copy to us for review. In the article Layne mentioned that Barry was frequently referred to as the Chicken Man. As you may guess, Barry was very worried that he would never shake the name if it was used in a major newspaper and threw a genuine fit. He called Layne and asked him to change the article. I later reassured Layne that it was okay, and Barry has been the Chicken Man ever since. I have offered to buy him a chicken outfit so he can stand outside the trading post making funny noises and doing strange dances. I believe it will bring a lot of people in. I have even told him that girls will think it is sexy, but he’s not buying it. I have reminded him that Charles Loloma, the hugely talented Hopi jeweler, was well known for giving all his female customers a hug and kiss when they bought something from him, and all he had was a funny haircut. You never know what may result from wearing that chicken suit. On second thought, maybe I will buy it for myself.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post