Friday, April 26, 2002

Steve, and THE CARVING

When Craig, Barry and I were young, our family operated a small filling station on the south side of Blanding, Utah. This was our first venture into family business, and we have been working together, off and on, ever since. Duke began leasing the small Plateau service station when we were 11, 10 and 9 respectively. During summer vacations we maintained a rotating schedule consisting of a morning shift the first day, an afternoon shift the second day and play the third day. Since these were the days before self service, we pumped gas, repaired tires, checked oil levels, sold snacks, and did all the other things associated with small filling stations.

Carving of Steve Simpson, at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Rena Juan carving from Twin Rocks Trading Post

Duke was always very good about showing us techniques to make the business better. Since we were fairly young, we were not interested in much more than drinking soda pop, eating potato chips and getting through our shift. Duke liked to run a tight ship, so he was always after us to walk out in the parking lot and pick up the trash that had been deposited there the night before. Earlier today, as I walked back to the trading post with my lunch in my hands, I noticed a potato chip package in the parking lot. Since my hands were full, I couldn’t get out to pick it up. It started me thinking about how we have gotten so busy around here that we don’t always get to things as soon as we should.

For the past several months there has been a candy wrapper in my personal parking lot that I have been meaning to pick up. Picking it up requires writing this article. This bit of unfinished business originated when I was asked to write a short essay for a book friends of ours are writing. Carter and Dodie Allen contacted me two years ago about a Navajo rug weaver book they wanted to write. Carter is an accomplished photographer who previously published a very beautiful book about the cowboys of Santa Cruz County, Arizona. The book was extremely well done and was also well received, so Carter and Dodie decided that a Navajo weaver book should be their next project. They also decided to include photographs of a few Indian traders along with the weaver photographs. Since Barry was out of town the day Carter and Dodie arrived, I was the subject of the Twin Rocks section, and became responsible for writing the essay associated with the photograph. In doing so, I mentioned several traders I felt had made significant contributions to contemporary Navajo weaving.

Our friend Jacque read the draft and called to inquire what criteria I had used to determine the traders mentioned. Jacque obviously believed I had a given a lot more thought to the issue than I had. Her point really was, “how do you define an Indian trader?” As usual Jacque had put her finger on a very difficult issue. In the past, an “Indian trader” was one who operated a trading post on a Reservation, who traded with “Indians” and who held a federal Indian trader’s license. Using that definition, Barry and I certainly are not classic traders. Jacque’s idea of an Indian trader actually focused more on the relationship between the traders and the tradees, and discounted the day to day operations of the trading post. She felt very strongly that it was the relationship between the people that determined whether you were or were not a trader.

During our discussions, it became apparent that the trader connection Jacque felt was so important frequently manifested itself in the form of bad business decisions, which were actually good personal decisions. Barry’s article on Hosteen Billy is a very good example. Such decisions are typically the type that make you question your sanity when you make them, and which make you feel very good about yourself when they actually turn out okay. Typically we justify them even when they don’t turn out, by saying, “Oh well, we just had to do that.” Giving Bernie Todacheeny my credit card number was one of those “Oh well” things.

My wife, Jana, frequently reminds me that we are never going to get rich making so many of those “oh well” decisions. Maybe we all have realized that we are never going to get rich anyway, and that the “oh wells” are what keep us smiling.

One "oh well" incident that I frequently laugh, and cringe, about involves carver Rena Juan. Several years ago Rena and her now former husband, Harrison, came into the store with several carvings. It was almost Christmas and Rena was looking for a present for him. She had her eye on a peyote rattle carved by none other than Bernie Todacheeny. The piece
was very nicely done, and had won a blue ribbon at the Gallup Ceremonials. Since I was feeling flush at the moment (I am particularly dangerous when business has been good), and since Rena and Harrison had been very good to me, I told her I would just give her the rattle. She objected and offered to carve a small portrait of me in return. The carving was certain to be yet another unsaleable object, and we already had plenty of those. After telling her that I certainly did not want a carving of me, and listening to her insist, I finally gave in.

Every few months Rena would stop by the trading post and insist that I allow her to photograph me for the carving. Over several months she photographed me from virtually every angle. I often stated that I didn’t want a carving of me, but she continued to insist. About 20 photographs later, I began to press her to just get the project done; I couldn’t bear up to the photo sessions forever. Finally she stopped in with a giant carving of, you guessed it, Steve. I had to admit that it was a very funny piece, but I was expecting a small carving and this was about 4 feet tall. Since I was still a little naive in the ways of the trading business, I was thinking that she had really gone out of her way to compensate me for Harrison’s gift. No, that was not the point at all; she wanted $800.00 for the carving. I informed her that I wouldn’t pay that for it, that it was supposed to be free and that she would have to take it to one of the other traders. Certainly they would pay handsomely for a carving of me! Rena, realizing that I had her over a barrel, decided a serious discount was in order. At that point I said, “Oh well,” and wrote the check. It certainly made Barry, Jana and everybody else around here question my ability to successfully operate the trading post. I was almost retired on the spot.

Carving of Steve Simpson at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Rena Juan carving from Twin Rocks Trading Post

I put the carving back in a dark corner of the post, thinking that nobody would see it. The corner is not dark enough, however, because from time to time I hear a “what is that?” and I know somebody has found me. The carving sets back by the rug racks, which is one of my daughter Kira’s favorite hiding places, and it has always unnerved her a little.
One day I came to work to find a cardboard box over the carving’s head. I pouted a little over the insult and put the box back under the counter, pending the inquisition into who had done this dirty deed. Nobody would admit to the cover up. A few days later I caught Kira sneaking around the corner with the box. She climbed up and placed it over my head once again. Apparently she didn’t like me watching what she was doing behind the rugs! Now the carving wears a headdress, so boxes will never again disgrace me.

With that, my parking lot is clean again!

Steve Simpson with carving by Rena Juan at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Steve Simpson with carving by Rena Juan

Carving by Rena Juan from Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, April 19, 2002

The Perfect Summer

I have always been an early riser. I like getting up before the dawn to prepare for the coming day. Getting up early makes me feel physically aware, and jump starts my senses. Not only do I feel more alive in the morning, rising early seems to provide me with a more energized start on new adventures. I also enjoy the sun's daily rebirth, which frequently rewards me with spectacular beauty. The downside of my pre-dawn excursions is that by nightfall I am really tired and ready to go down. People who know me do not come by the house or call after 10:00 p.m. My wife and children actually jump to answer after hours telephone calls or the door when unsuspecting guests arrive late in the evening. They want to buffer the guest's reception from the "Ogre" I become. I need my sleep, and grow quite irritated when I am not allowed adequate rest. When I first met Laurie, I quickly realized that she was a night person. She changed my life and my sleep patterns. Now that we have children, Laurie has changed her sleep habits and is often up before I am; setting the house in order before sending the kids off to school. Periods of restful bliss are now as they should be, at least until my children become teenagers.

Recently I awoke with a start when my alarm clock began beeping. I am usually awake a good 15 to 20 minutes before the darn thing goes off, so I was surprised. My inner clock has served me well through the years, providing me the opportunity to rouse myself slowly and easily. This usually gives me time to regain my senses in other than a car crash type of awakening. As I groggily groped to shut off the alarm and get out of bed, I wondered at the diversity of my fragmented dreams. Not only was I disoriented and confused, I was stiff as a board and felt as if I had participated in a cross country wrestling match the previous evening. As I pulled myself together, scared myself in the mirror and made my way to the weight room, I realized that I was not in the proper mindset for an invigorating workout. I quickly amended my daily routine and began a program of simple stretching. It took a good twenty minutes just to straighten myself and get into the movements. But as I loosened up, my mind began to wander.... The concept of the perfect summer began to develop in my head.

I know that rising early and a good work out is an essential part of the plan. In my mind there is simply no better way to start the day. I envisioned such things as hiking the canyons, paddling the river and bicycling into the sunrise; all endeavors meant to stimulate the heart, mind and spirit. A healthy breakfast would follow, not too heavy; keeping nutritional needs in mind. On the agenda for late morning through early afternoon would be plenty of conversation and discussion of interesting topics on the porch of Twin Rocks. We can even provide a soap box for those people who are "fired up" about their subject of choice. We would bring in artists, medicine men, philosophers, theologians and antagonists. The focus would be their passion for the chosen subject. There would be plenty of comfortable seats, from rocking chairs, to bean bags, to futons. Comfort is essential; you can't have spirited conversation if you are not well settled. Remember that it gets hot in Bluff in the summer, so plenty of shade, cranberry iced tea and light snacks would be near at hand. At precisely 2:00 p.m., everyone would wander off to find a cool spot to rest; an afternoon siesta would be lovely. The evening hours would be spent on reflection, breaking into small animated groups discussing tangible and intangible thoughts and ideas. All the while a sharp inner eye must be directed to the natural world. Productions of nature take precedence over all else, and must be appreciated to their full extent.

We can't forget an early dinner. Since we have been so good during the day, watching our caloric intake and exercising the mind and body, a good dinner will be essential; and a large piece of dessert to top off the meal and the day. I can tell you right now that we have some great cooks around here. Laurie makes danish to die for, Susan has perfected pineapple upside down cake and oat meal raisin cookies, and Grandma Washburn creates pies that melt in your mouth. Yah man! I am there right now. A Bluff summer exploring the limits of your physical, mental and emotional endurance. A passionate mindset is essential when on an adventure of discovery and understanding. Family, old friends, new friends, soon to be friends - come on down here. Remember, many people believe Bluff is the center of the universe, so we better take advantage of all this energy, and direct it towards important issues and ideals. I can see it now, Bluff, Utah, the undisputed center of the universe. As you know, it is already the undisputed center of our universe.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, April 12, 2002

Grandpa Clem and the Mountain

Grandpa Clem is a kind and gentle man, and my family and I love him very much. I hope he doesn't take offense at finding himself exposed in our weekly mailer, but he had to know that there was a strong possibility that I would eventually get around to him. Many an unsuspecting customer, friend, relative, etc. has found their personal quirks, comments or situations presented in an unabashed commentary in our own unique perspective. Steve and I have to come up with a story every week, so it is not unusual for us to sacrifice someone just for the sake of getting a story out on time. To call him Grandpa may not be quite appropriate, because Clem is really my father-in-law. I call my father "Dad" so that label didn't work; "Clem" was too informal and sounded a bit disrespectful, so I was at a loss how to address him. "Grandpa" seemed the natural moniker since that is how his many grandchildren endearingly refer to him. Since he doesn't seem to mind that title, he became "Grandpa Clem." Now that everyone is up to speed I can continue my discourse.

It is not unusual for Laurie, the kids, and me to travel to Monticello for Sunday dinner with her parents. It is a short drive, and Grandma Washburn is an excellent cook; so Sunday dinners at their house make for a filling, lazy evening in a pleasant atmosphere. After dinner Grandpa settles back into his Lazy Boy recliner, tunes in the TV and begins switching through a number of channels. I say a number of channels because Grandpa is a channel surfer. He holds sway over the remote control and has a habit of putting the television set through a brisk workout. Whenever a commercial comes on, it is off to a different station to check what is occurring there. In order to keep up with current events, scores and updates, one has to maintain a high level of surfing agility. You have to be sharp to watch TV in this manner; an excellent memory, quick wits and patience are essential. It really gets interesting when Grandpa falls asleep. He generally does so with the remote resting on the arm of his chair and his finger poised over the channel button. I am sure that it is by reflex alone that the channels continue to roll by, only now there is no rhyme or reason to when a change occurs. When this situation came about last Sunday we were watching an interesting documentary on the discovery channel; the next thing we knew the television was switching channels to Grandpa's biorhythms. As I lunged for the remote Laurie caught me in a head lock that would have made Hulk Hogan proud. It's funny how a woman has the ability to anticipate your reactions after just a few years together, well actually more than just a few. Grandpa was roused by the scuffle. I smiled innocently at him as Laurie released her grip and I wondered how such a skinny woman had gained so much power. Grandpa eyed me curiously, shook his head and asked if we wanted to take a ride up the mountain.

Aah! An offer of relief. . . relief from an over active television set and the quick reflexes of my wife. My darling children had been witness to their mother's over-reaction in front of the TV and decided to come along so as to not miss an opportunity to harass me. Laurie and her mother came along as well; I assumed part of the reason was to protect the kids from me and my habit of wrestling with them while driving. I decided to ignore the little heathens and enjoy the ride. Besides, I knew that I would have ample opportunity to pick them off one at a time later in the day. As we drove up the mountain road Grandpa began to share his love of the land with us. Clem has been a rancher for over 50 years and has developed an almost symbiotic relationship with nature. He is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the names of plants, animals, and relationships of living organisms with their environments. It is always a pleasure to travel with Grandpa, since he is an excellent teacher. I always enjoy his personal association with his surroundings. Clem spoke of the drought the land was trying to recover from as we made our way up the western slope; it was as if he felt for the parched earth and experienced relief when moisture arrived. The sun was setting behind the peaks as we moved towards them; it was truly a beautiful evening. As we came to the top of the road, where snow blocked further advancement, we turned around to retrace our path. Facing east towards Colorado and the tiny town of Monticello, Clem brought to our attention the shadow of night spreading before us across the land. You could actually witness dusk reclaiming the countryside, bringing about an even more peaceful aura to our surroundings.

As we moved down the mountainside the lights of my wife's childhood hometown blinked on; they hardly disturbed the twilight. I grew quiet, and simply admired the beauty of the scene, committing it to memory to reflect on when I might need a calming image in stressful times. Grandpa Clem's discourse concerning nature's subtle nuances and her many blessings to those willing to appreciate them are not uncommon to those closely related to the world about them. Steve and I see it quite often in the older Navajo people who come into the trading post. Their connection to the land is of the same kind. They were raised on and with the land and the land is within them; just as it is with Grandpa Clem. What is unusual is when a human being becomes so in tune with the natural world that they eloquently express their love and emotion for it without even being aware of it. Grandpa Clem will be 80 years old in May. I hope that he lives to be at least 100, because I have not finished learning what he has to teach. Re-entering the driveway to Grandpa and Grandma's house and anticipating dessert I still felt the calm, peaceful mood our conversation and the mountain had provided. I also clearly remembered being verbally abused by my children the whole trip. I bailed out of the van in an attempt to seek retribution for their misdeeds. The kids had anticipated my reaction and dispersed in three different directions; I began a seek and retaliate mission.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, April 5, 2002

Coyote Capers

Coyote Painting by Leland Holiday

As I drove south from Blanding to Bluff last Monday morning, I felt out of sync with the rest of the world. Gray clouds hung heavy in the air. Since they were too high to offer any promise of rain, I interpreted them as ominous rather than inspiring. Consistent with my mood, the day was windy, blustery and cantankerous. It wasn't as if the dawn was consciously trying to make me blue; the early morning light provided a rosy pink glow around the edges of the clouds, and a brilliant blue sky peeked through at erratic intervals. As I descended White Mesa hill, I noticed that the hillside matched what was happening in the sky. At ground level there was a layer of dark gray earth, softening to a pinkish color and finally melding into a blue green cap. It all came together quite nicely, but I wasn't about to let it improve my mood. My attitude didn't soften; I wasn't giving in to the day's underlying beauty. It seemed that it was taking forever to get to Bluff; each mile was a struggle. As I looked up, I noticed a scraggly coyote bolt across the highway in front of me. The bugger stopped on the other side and looked contemptuously back at me, daring me to cross his path. "Dagnabbit," I had ignored warnings from this chaotic character in the past and had paid dearly for my mistakes. I pulled the pickup to the side of the road and waited for four other cars to pass before proceeding, hoping to avoid the bad luck of being the first to cross his path. Old man coyote trotted off a ways in a leisurely manner, probably frustrated at not snaring me in his attempted entrapment.

As I sat waiting, doing my penance, I remembered all of the stories concerning coyote and his tricky nature. There has always been a great deal of art depicting this creature and his many misdeeds. The Navajo people have often warned me to take heed when Maaii (coyote) showed himself. A few years back, when Steve and I were doing a great deal more mountain biking than we can find time for now, I had ignored those warnings and it had nearly killed me. Steve and I had been trying to get away for days to ride a loop on the eastern slope of the Blue Mountain; an eighteen mile route with a strenuous, uphill first half and a screaming downhill on the back side. Steve called me in Blanding to tell me that our parents had agreed to cover the trading post so that we could ride the next morning. We agreed to start at 8:00 a.m., not too early because the first few miles of the ride were on a steep, narrow, treacherous piece of highway called Devil's Canyon. Since we did not want to become an unfortunate statistic, we thought it wise to give the truckers plenty of light to see us. The next morning was drop dead gorgeous, the air was crisp and the sky was sapphire blue. The green expanse of pine and spruce trees, along with walls of oak brush, made for a striking contrast to the red rock cliffs we were accustomed to. We made it up the narrow expanse of highway without incident, and turned onto a short section of gravel road. This is where the grand fabric began to unravel.

Steve was approximately 100 yards ahead of me, when all of a sudden a big dog coyote appeared out of nowhere, and ran right in front of my bike. He was traveling from south to north, which should have set off the alarm bells in my head but didn't. I actually let out a war whoop and veered in his direction to scare him. He simply trotted to the side of the road into the brush and looked back at me, as if to say "gotcha, fool." Steve looked back, a bit startled by my yell, and waited for me to catch up. As we rode side by side I told him of my sighting; we laughed it off and continued on our way. We made it to the dirt track and began the long uphill pull to the top of the trail. For some reason the trip seemed to beat me up, my legs were extremely heavy and my lungs were screaming for oxygen. It wasn't as if I was out of shape, I had been working out regularly and riding quite a lot. The pace wasn't all that fast, and Steve seemed to be having an easy time of it. I attributed my poor performance to passing on breakfast and using up my fuel reserves. I knew that the second half of the ride was going to be a breeze, so I sucked it up and ground my way to the summit. We halted there so that I could catch my breath, drink some water and rest for a moment.

Coyote Skinwalker Carving by Robin Wellito

When Steve couldn't wait any longer he jumped on his bike and bailed off onto an eight mile downhill run, which drops about 1,500 feet in elevation. I quickly followed, looking forward to the excitement I knew would come from speeds in excess of 40 miles an hour; it was truly exhilarating. I pulled right in behind Steve and drafted him until I could get by on a straight stretch, then he would do the same. We blew down the mountain so fast that the trees and foliage became a green blur. At one point we noticed mule deer racing along beside us. We quickly left them behind. We had to focus our concentration on the path ahead, because the ruts and rocks often presented themselves as dangerous impediments to our progress. Towards the end of the ride I saw Steve blow by me on a particularly narrow curve. I was impressed, and looked up to see him round another corner ahead of me. I lowered my head and began peddling furiously to catch up; I couldn't let Steve beat me to the bottom. As I rounded the curve, I looked up just in time to catch sight of a large, sharp rock planted directly in my path. As if in slow motion I saw my front wheel strike the rock. My bike became immobile for a fraction of a second. I, on the other hand, did not. I flew over the handle bars and began a slow forward roll in mid air. I remember thinking, "This is really going to hurt."

As I slammed into the road, flat on my back, I watched my bike take a shot at me as it tumbled down the path. I lay there looking up into the cloudless sky ringed by pointed tree tops, and wondered if I would ascend into that marvelous void or descend into the fiery abyss. Nothing happened for what seemed like a very long time, and I couldn't feel anything. I slowly moved the fingers of my right hand and began to feel pain. The same with my left hand and both feet. I was beginning to feel quite a lot of pain, but took this as a positive sign because it meant that I was still alive. As I slowly sat up and moved my head left and right I became enthusiastic about my chances of survival. I began an inventory of necessary assets and decided that everything was as it should be, although greatly nicked and scratched. As I shakily raised myself, marveling at my good fortune, I noticed movement on my left side. There in a small clearing on the north side of the track sat Hasteen Coyote, looking me over with a knowing air. As I stumbled around, scratching for a throwing stone and feeling anger well up in my bruised chest, he slipped into the undergrowth. Steve came tooling back up the road and noticed that I had survived my ordeal. He snatched up my helmet and poked his finger into the sizable indentation caused by my unfortunate incident. I assured him that it could not measure up to the damage my pride had incurred as I picked up my bike and limped off.

My mind found its way to the present as I watched the fourth vehicle speed by on the highway. I pulled back onto the road, feeling as if I had shown the now disappearing Coyote proper respect and consideration. Realizing the possible consequences, I was certainly not going to tempt fate by honking or cussing. For some unknown reason, the morning now seemed more serene. I began to appreciate the beauty of the surrounding landscape and the play of light. Maybe there was the lesson I was supposed to learn from all of this: slow down and appreciate the world around you. There is beauty everywhere, even in a dark and dreary day. That and, "Don't mess with Coyote".

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post