Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Tribute to Homer Warren

Kathy was gone that afternoon, so I picked up the telephone when it began ringing. I never identify myself when I answer the phone. Barry, for example, will say, "Twin Rocks, this is Barry." Not me, I want the opportunity to say, "Sorry, Steve is not in today," if I can't afford to buy something from an artist (or if a bill collector is hot on my trail). So, when I answered, "Twin Rocks," the first words out of Rena Juan's mouth were, "Hellooo, who is this?" Rena always begins her telephone conversations with "Hellooo," and always wants to talk for extended periods, so I knew I had to find a way to shorten the conversation.

Navajo Folk Artist Homer Warren at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Homer Warren at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Thinking on my feet has never been my forte', so I inartfully said, "Oops, Bob's repair shop, this is Bob." No luck, she wasn't buying it. "Come on Steve, I know it's you," she said. My attempts to convince her that the initial response of "Twin Rocks" had been a mistake, and that I really was Bob, failed miserably. "Where is Rosetta," she asked. "Rosetta is off today," I responded. "Well, when she comes in, tell her Homer died yesterday." Rosetta is a cook at the cafe, and cousin to Homer. That is how I learned that an important chapter of our trading post history had closed.

Navajo Folk Art by Homer Warren
Navajo Folk Art by Homer Warren

Homer Warren began bringing folk art into the trading post before I even knew there was such a thing. It took Patrick Eddington and Susan Makov to educate me. Pat and Susan are our friends who wrote the "Trading Post Guide Book." Before they became so busy, they traveled the Southwest searching for interesting people, places and things. It was a natural for them to write the guide, since they knew better than anyone where to find great Southwestern art. They were fond of Homer's sandstone carvings of people, trucks and horses. As a result of their interest in his work, and folk art in general, we began a dialog about contemporary Navajo folk art. These conversations taught me a great deal about folk art and helped me appreciate the beauty of Homer's work.

Navajo Folk Art by Homer Warren
Navajo Folk Art by Homer Warren

Homer stumbled into the trading post shortly after we opened with what he called "kachinas." His kachinas, were not actually kachinas at all. In fact, they were very simple carvings of Navajo people and animals engaged in a variety of activities. Some were of Navajo women holding weaving tools and materials, others showed Navajo men with tall hats holding ropes and leaning on posts. There were scenes of Navajo people herding sheep, standing next to their horses, sitting on stones drinking soda, hitchhiking, riding in wagons, and a myriad of other themes. There was even one of me with a pencil thin mustache (which I always wanted, but never had), wearing my red wool coat and holding dollars in my hands. The obvious implication was that my primary purpose in life is to spend those dollars on Navajo art.

Homer’s carvings were cut and rasped from local sandstone with old files and backsaws. Once the stone had been properly formed, it was painted with very bright acrylic colors. As I travel around the Southwest seeing friends and doing business, I am amazed at how often I find Homer's work represented in the homes and stores of people I visit.

Homer's art has an almost child-like innocence, which attracts hordes of people. When his children, Josephine, Lindaphine, Saraphine, Wandaphine and Herman, became old enough, Homer taught them to carve, and they expanded the themes to include, among others, the hip hop culture, beauty queens, movie icons and Halloween characters. Homer ceded jurisdiction over the kachinas to the kids, and began carving horses. No matter how hard I worked to convince him he needed to carve the figurative pieces, he stood firm and never waivered. The kids carved kachinas and he carved horses, that was it.

Homer the individual was a little more complicated. When I first met him he had recently been engaged in his primary occupation, sitting under the Cottonwood Wash bridge sipping 16 oz. cans of beer. Over the next 13 years that we did business together, he was generally angling for a means to access the source of his pleasure; the local convenience store refrigerated beverage department.

At one point I decided that I simply could not allow myself to be involved in his destruction. So, in my most self-righteous tone, I informed him that I would no longer buy his work; at least until he dried out. He gave me his patented "Ahhhhhh" and walked out the door. The next week he was back, fully neglecting my previous lecture. I again climbed up on my soap box and informed him that he simply had to stop drinking; there was no other alternative. Another "Ahhhhh" and he was on his way. This went on for quite some time until I realized that much better people than I had failed to cure his addiction. Homer was going to be Homer no matter what any of us said or did.

After I realized I wasn't as smart as I thought, and that I really didn't know what was in Homer's best interest, we settled into a very comfortable relationship. He would bring me his carvings, and I would buy them and let him decide what he was going to do with his money and his life. His children always seemed to be fairly well cared for and he certainly was very fond of them, and they of him. He helped them learn to make a living for themselves and stepped aside to allow them into his kachina market. They seem to have, with his help, grown into very nice young people.

Homer and I often had conversations about the attractions of the Squaw Dance, and what delights could be purchased for five or ten dollars during the affair. I learned that Homer was indeed a very caring and interesting character. I also learned to look forward to seeing him, because it was always an adventure. He told me about being in Viet Nam, and about his father the medicine man. At one point he even brought me two large, flat stones, which he swore were used by his father in certain healing ceremonies. Although I had grave doubts about the veracity of the story, my checkbook suffered a setback and the stones became part of the trading post inventory. Grange and Kira drag the stones from under the counter once in a while and pretend they are one thing or another. Since Grange is currently in his tractor and “tament trut” (cement truck) phase, and since the stones look a little like a bulldozer blade, he refers to them as his "dozers."

We all worried that Homer would die prematurely, but also realized there was nothing we could do about that; he lived life
as he wished. At one point two young guys got more than a little fired up while drinking with Homer, and decided to antagonize Irene, Homer's wife. When Homer intervened, they literally tried to twist off his head. There was a lot of speculation whether he would ever walk again, but it was not long before I noticed him shuffling toward the trading post with his small traveling bag of carvings; as good as new. I remember how happy I was to see him again.

This time he had fallen from the back of a pick-up truck and hit his head. A short time later he was dead. The next thing we knew, the family arrived looking for donations to help fund the funeral. No one gallon jars for this family, they have extensive experience in dealing with tragedy and are very efficient. When disaster strikes, they show up with pad and pencil to note the contributions made. Everybody in town has been touched by Homer in one way or another, so I am sure the donations are generous.

In retrospect, I guess Homer taught me many lessons. Probably the most important one was to accept people for who they are, and avoid imposing my values on others. After I got over my self-righteous indignation, as a result of Homer’s persistence, I found a very nice man under that coarse exterior. It seems that almost everybody in this small town discovered the same thing. We are all sad to have lost him and his art.

Steve Simpson and Grange with Navajo Folk Art by Homer Warren
Steve and Grange with Navajo Folk Art by Homer Warren

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Life Above the Store, Beneath the Rocks

Jana, my wife and I, co-conspirators in the creation of those two redheaded children, Kira and Grange, were lucky enough to spend the day with our friend Nancy a few weeks ago. Nancy was a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. for many years, and has had countless interesting political experiences. Since I have always been fascinated by politics, Nancy indulged me with a few stories about her experiences during the Reagan years. During our conversations, Nancy said that at the end of Reagan's second term he reminded her that he had grown up living over his father's shoe store, and went on to state that during his presidency he felt that he was once again living "over the store."

Twin Rocks Trading Post
Twin Rocks Trading Post

About a week after our visit with Nancy, I walked to the cafe to get a drink of iced tea and returned to find Barry and Grange stretched out in the middle of the trading post floor playing marbles. Grange had Barry engaged and was not about to let him go. The scene reminded me of Nancy's Ronald Reagan story, and started me thinking about my life over the store. People who stop by the trading post often ask where I live. I point to the ceiling and say, "Up there." When I explain that I live on the second story of the trading post they are always surprised. Living above the store is apparently rarely done these days, although it seems to have been fairly common in the past.

When I first moved from Utah to Sacramento, California in the early 1980s, I lived downtown in a very small apartment building. On the corner was a little market with living quarters on the second story, and I always wanted to live above that store. As a result, I began wondering what it would be like to someday live above my own business.

The corner market had been built in the 1920s or 1930s, and had not changed much since its original construction. There wasn't much on the shelves, and the displays were from another era. Before I learned my way around town, I would go in to buy a variety of every day products. Part of my fascination with the market was that the people who patronized the business also seemed to be from the '20s and ‘30s.

My apartment building was populated with several old men from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who also patronized the corner market. These men had come to California during the Dust Bowl, and frequently spoke of staying in flop houses and other substandard accommodations before becoming gainfully employed. Their stories often reminded me of a Steinbeck novel. They had all been been left alone over the years for one reason or another, and therefore lived alone in the small complex of studio apartments with Murphy beds. On Sunday mornings I would sit in the courtyard by the small decorative fountain and listen to their stories about California in the early days; about the railroads and working in the fields. I think this was the beginning of my interest in culture and storytelling.

Several years later I moved back to Bluff to open the trading post. One of the things that fascinated me about the trading post was that it had an apartment on the upper level, much like the old market. Duke had designed the building to have an on-premises manager. My romantic vision of living over the business, and Barry, finally convinced me that I should at least give Bluff a try, so I moved into the apartment over the trading post, beneath the rocks, and became a citizen of Bluff.
My daily commute was a full 20 steps.

About a year after we moved to Bluff, Dacia, my daughter from my first marriage was born. Dacia began life living over the trading post, and usually came to work with me during the day. We read books and played games all day and returned upstairs at dinnertime. On one occasion when she was about three years old she and I were "manning" the trading post when a couple from Israel came in with their daughter, Noah. Dacia just happened to have a bag of potato chips that day, and Noah was very interested in those chips. While Noah's parents and I talked, Dacia and Noah sat down and began parceling out the chips. Within minutes, they were the best of friends. When it was time for Noah's family to leave, I thought the two little girls were going to cry. I remember Dacia waving from the porch, and Noah's face pasted to the back window of the Volkswagen van just like a movie scene. Dacia had experienced what I most enjoy about the trading post; meeting and talking with new and interesting people from all over the world.

Jana, who is also from a trading family, and I met a few years later. Jana and I married and a year later Kira arrived. From the time Kira was just a few days old she and I braved the traffic on those 20 steps to the trading post. She would recline in her baby bouncer on my desk or on the back counter. As she grew, she progressed from being carried around the shop on my chest in a Snugglie, to being packed in a back pack and finally to running around the trading post terrorizing everyone and everything. I became convinced that Kira was going to become a terrorist, and I was the one being terrorized. Luckily she has finally progressed beyond that stage and says she wants to be an astronaut.

By the time she was two, Kira had gotten into the habit of coming down to the trading post to play children's games on my computer. One day I was sitting in my office with my friend Marx when Kira came in, jumped into my lap and asked me to start her game. Since Marx is very patient and understanding, I put in the disk and Kira began playing. A short time later she jumped down and ran around the corner to the restroom. After a few minutes she came shuffling back into my office with her tights down around her ankles and her pink behind radiating, obviously needing a little help getting herself back together. My face began radiating - red.

Kira and Grange with Navajo Folk Art from Twin Rocks Trading Post
Grange and Kira in front of Twin Rocks Trading Post

Now that Kira and Grange are older, they wander down from the house and in and out of the trading post as they please. They are as free as the wind. Grange has become seduced by the Starburst candies Barry keeps in his desk. He tries to sneak into the trading post, open Barry's drawer and get the candy before Barry and I see him. Jana and I have warned and threatened Barry not to keep candy in his desk. We have even pried open Grange’s mouth and shown Barry the small cavity Grange has on his tooth, but Barry has not heeded our warnings. When I catch him before he reaches his goal, Grange pleads, "Please Dad, just one," and crookedly holds up one of his little fingers. Barry gets a dirty look, Grange gets the candy and the dentist is assured additional work.

Although there are times when it is impossible to tell whether this is a trading post or day care center, living above the trading post has been very satisfying. Jana and I have been planning our home for some time now, so this phase of trading post life may be coming to an end. I have gotten used to the commute and will miss it when things change.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Wintery Days in Bluff

The Twin Rocks in Bluff Utah
The Twin Rocks on a winter day in Bluff Utah

Winters in Bluff are a treasured time. These months give us a much needed reprieve from the red winds of spring, and the heat of summer. Here in the high desert we are sand blasted by the intermittent spring winds, which are followed by the intense summer heat. All that gives us a great appreciation for this time of year. The fact that there is very little humidity at "the time of great temperature" is not much comfort. While we complain about the heat and dust, the Navajo people simply incorporate it into their lives. In doing so, they frequently engage in ritual sweat baths. These "baths" require the participant to build a mini hogan, fill it with hot rocks and climb inside. This ritual cleansing is concluded by bailing out of the hogan and rolling in the sand. The heat inside the sweat house forces any poisons and bad spirits picked up in every day life to the body's surface; frolicking in the dirt gives Mother Earth the chance to whisk away those negative influences. The Navajo people have a way of embracing that which the rest of us merely allow ourselves to suffer through.

Winter in Bluff is, however, enjoyed by Anglo and Navajo alike. During winter Bluff is a sleepy town. People take extra time in their comings and goings. You might see someone standing in the soft sunlight for quite some time, just soaking up the warmth of the sun like a lizard on a rock. There is more time for conversation as well, possibly because you can often be outside enjoying the mild temperatures. The barren limbs of the cottonwood trees stand in stark contrast to the warm orange tones of the surrounding cliffs. The daylight quickly fades, providing more time to spend with family and friends in the evening. It is a warm, rich time. I often find myself sitting in front of a small window in the late afternoon. The window is filled with the twisted, interwoven branches of a cottonwood tree. The light at this time of day is soft, filtered by high clouds and the angle of the sun. There is a golden glow surrounding the stark white, sunlit limbs, and the background of the sky is often an intense, sapphire blue. I frequently sit and contemplate the overall visual effect, wishing I was artistic enough to reproduce the image. Since I have only limited artistic ability, I can only commit the scene to memory. I use the images to focus my thoughts late at night when my mind won't slow down. They calm, focus and allow me to find sleep. I very much look forward to the winter season and the chance to refresh and re-commit these scenes to memory.

Winter must affect the Navajo people in much the same way, since this also is a time of reflection and story telling for them. There is much to be taught and learned. The legends and lore are more easily discussed. The cooler weather seems to slow the pace for the artists as well. They are generally more free with information about their creations. The Navajo lifestyle is much slower than the rest of the world's anyway. I guess it is all relative. Maybe because the winter months are traditionally the time Navajo elders share creation tales and discuss life ways, the in-depth discussions come more freely and are more open. Frequently we feel that we are being granted a rare look into a time honored and evolving belief system.

There are those who feel that we share too much information about the beliefs of the Navajo; that such knowledge must be hard won to have value. These individuals believe that the journey should be undertaken at the proper time in one's life; at a time when the individual is in need of answers to life's hard questions. In many of the cultural stories the searcher starts his quest as a homely, disheveled individual of lowly birth. Through trial and error and an intensive search for knowledge the youngster begins to grow and develop, the supernaturals take notice and begin to lend aid. There is always much personal growth and development achieved by the seeker; he begins to evolve, and becomes more refined. The common theme talks of beginning as a mud person and growing into something that resembles the Deities. At present we are akin to those mud people, but we aspire to a higher form. We hope that by sharing our glimpses into the Navajo culture you will gain a greater appreciation for the local people. This time of year makes us realize the true gifts we have been given, and we take great pleasure in sharing those gifts with all our friends.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 7, 2002


Although we are not immune from the worries of the world, in Bluff we generally feel sheltered from the actual nastiness. People who come to Bluff often instinctively become attached to it. It may be the beautiful landscape, the interesting people or the quiet solitude. It may even be that Bluff is probably the best place on Earth to view the starry night. In any case, over the years, I have had numerous visitors tell me they believe they may enjoy living in a place like this. I always caution them that it is not an easy place to be; there are not many jobs, it is a long way from any major city and you cannot get a Big Gulp or Slurpee. If, however, you can live with those shortcomings, it is a truly great place. After considering the implications of actually moving here, most decide they are better off staying put. The reality, and lack of Big Gulps, generally overwhelms the romance.

Lately, we have been incessantly hearing and reading about terrorism threats. We even had a little activity of our own. Several days ago a local man decided he was capable of convincing the authorities that he had been beaten by men of “Middle Eastern descent” who wanted to gather information about the gas plant where he was employed. The schools were immediately locked down to protect the children, and we all wondered how and why terror had found its way to our small Southeastern Utah town. As it turns out, the beating may have been administered by a jealous spouse, and the authorities were not fooled. The young man is now facing charges of lying to a federal officer, and we have reentered our cocoon.

Bluff is still one of those places where our children can run free, and where cars and houses are rarely locked. When we receive a message from one of our friends in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York or other large city, expressing concern about possible attacks, and mentioning plastic sheeting and duct tape, we realize that we are very much out of the mainstream and very likely out of harm’s way.

Steve, with Chips and Rhett Pop

A few nights ago, Kira suggested we go for a walk. Although the sun had sunk and it was early evening, we didn’t give a second thought to strolling around town after dark. The night was peaceful, the rain was falling softly and the only worry the kids had was whether they could have a peanut butter sandwich when we got home. Which brings us back to duct tape, commonly known in this part of the country as “duck tape.” Duck tape is part of the local vernacular, which also includes terms like:

Foam Card - something used at the pay phone instead of coins;

Chips and Rhett Pop - a nutritious lunch (potato chips and red cream soda);

Ornch - orange

Ober Dher (generally indicated by pointing with one’s lips) - somewhere other than here;

Mudder - mom;

Fodder - dad;

Brudder - male sibling;

Seester - female sibling;

Iziiit - really?;

Den - then; and

Shitrok - a Reservation town in New Mexico, near a large volcanic upthrust resembling a ship.

Here in Bluff, duck tape is not something associated with fear. It is, in fact, highly prized as an automotive reparative. There is many a local mechanic who can work magic with a spool of bailing wire and a little tape. Since I am not mechanically inclined, bailing wire is merely something to trip me up when I feed the horses, and duck tape has no practical application. Biological and chemical weaponry is completely unknown in this small town.

During times like these I am reminded of my grandfather, Woody Simpson, who, on a regular basis, told us that the end of the world was coming. I would sit on the porch listening to Woody explain how Biblical prophecies were soon to be revealed, about the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and about judgment day being on our doorstep. One day during my college tenure I was taken to the shoe store to buy my first real pair of work boots. They were purchased for me with the explanation that, “Things are not looking very good, and you may need a good pair of boots when everything falls apart!” They sat in the closet for years because I associated them with bad times. I eventually took them out and put them to use. Luckily those boots have long since worn out and things are still together, for the most part. We are very hopeful that things stay together for those of you in places a little less sheltered than Bluff, and for all the other innocent people in the world. Here in Bluff, we will continue to use duct tape and plastic sheeting for more practical purposes.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post