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