Thursday, November 25, 2004

Consider the Unexpected

The weather is changing here in Bluff; it is the time of heavy frost in our isolated river valley. The massive, twisted trunks of cottonwood trees ice over, and their upper regions form white, gnarled webs of interwoven branches that probe the slow-moving fog banks. The supporting ranks of tamarisk poke straight up from the frozen red soil like gaunt, frigid warriors.

Comb Ridge, west of Twin Rocks Trading Post

Comb Ridge

From time to time, this icy beauty is disturbed by a struggling middle-aged jogger dragging his blossoming backside down a ribbon of asphalt in the early morning hours. Bursts of vapor escape his burning lungs, forming mushroom cloud plumes trailing his tortured pace. Wild deer, turkey and the occasional coyote scatter at the slap of flat feet on pavement and the swish of swollen, velcro-encased thighs.

The identity of this tenacious character has eluded me, butt, I mean but, I admire his fortitude, endurance and strong desire to fight the ravages of time and too many chocolate chip cookies. I am sure the spectacular red rock scenery and clean, crisp autumn air help him maintain his concentrated efforts.

During his morning sojourns, this lonely runner must have realized that a connection with the natural world is required to survive in the great American Southwest. For me, that association with the elements is very appealing, and is a fundamental reason why I choose to live and walk in this invigorating landscape.

Not long ago I found myself sitting in church, trying to find a comfortable position to relieve the pressure on my aching backside. I had begun to believe those benches were meant to remind us that pain and suffering are essential aspects of a spiritual life. On this particular Sunday, I was there because my wife and kids are becoming quite proficient at identifying my numerous shortcomings, which they believe can be effectively corrected through fervent prayer and inspired repentance.

As my oldest and dearest friend made his way to the podium, I straightened my posture and sharpened my attention in anticipation of his speech. Wayne is not actually old; we have just been friends a very long time. Although he has more gray hair than I, he is young at heart and very healthy as a result of the lifestyle he leads. In spite of my sore back, because I know how much Wayne dislikes public speaking, I was enjoying the moment. From the early stages of our relationship, we have both found a perverse pleasure in watching the other suffer through stressful situations.

As Wayne faced the expectant congregation, I could see a nerve twitching near his temple. He swallowed hard, as if forcing down an unwanted portion of aged blue cheese. I imagined him sensing a rise in his internal temperature, and was sure I detected a slight, nervous quiver in his voice. He looked like a cornered raccoon, and I expected him to head for the deep brush any moment.

I watched my friend closely, enjoying his discomfort, and silently evaluating which exit might best facilitate his escape. Much to my chagrin, the exodus never occurred. Wayne dug deep into his core and found the much needed strength to proceed with his assigned task. Before my slightly out of focus eyes, a transformation came over my old buddy.

Wayne's continence changed, and he morphed into someone I had never seen. He stood straight and tall, and, in a clear voice, spoke of finding comfort in conversations with his maker. He said he found those interactions more meaningful and spiritually fulfilling when conducted in the presence of nature. Because of its sincerity and reverence, his talk was truly beautiful.

Through his unrehearsed and heartfelt presentation, I was introduced to Wayne's close relationship with his natural surroundings. He spoke poetically and romantically about spiritual dialogs with his creator. As he continued, a coarsely grained, lichen-encrusted rock came to life, and canyon rims, sapphire blue skies and twisted cedar trees sprang clearly into my mind. The smell of pungent sagebrush and rich earth kicked up by his boots invaded my senses as I imagined his journey.

It was truly inspiring to hear Wayne speak. I saw a completely new facet of his psyche that day. It was like the time my wife sneaked her hand into a hot, comforting shower I was enjoying and cranked on the cold water. The sensation was unexpected, and unexpectedly exhilarating.

With Wayne's help, I rediscovered the relationship among heaven, earth and human beings. The cool blue mountain heights are a refuge for our souls, as are the warm weather worn canyon depths. The rain, wind and sunshine scour clean our minds and rejuvenate our spirit. Each life-giving spring; fertile valley of dark, rich earth; and desert oasis reminds me of creation and continuation. We are in the land, and it is in us. Now I understand why that jogger jogs.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Birds of a Feather

As I run down the road in the morning, I often marvel at the easy beauty of this small river valley, and wonder how the natural world relates to my personal sphere. I am always looking for a message from the animals, trees, rocks or anything else that may have something to say. It is probably naive and self-centered to think I can properly interpret whatever signs there may be, but I can't help trying.

Jones farm just east of Twin Rocks Trading Post

Jones farm just east of Twin Rocks

Many years ago, my torts professor, Charles Luther, asked those of us in his first year class if we thought rocks and trees had rights. At the time I was confused by the question, and worried it was yet another trick designed to convince us we did not have the appropriate tools to master complex legal issues.

As we came to learn, however, Chuck was a dyed-in-the-wool conservationist, and dead serious. Our love for him brought us a greater understanding of the wider world, and a closer relationship with the environment. As a result of his tutelage, I have come to realize that rocks and trees not only have rights, they have a life independent of their two-legged cohabitants.

A few weeks ago, I was plodding eastward towards the sunrise when I spotted a flock of Canada geese descending over the red rock cliffs, obviously aiming for the sanctuary of the Jones farm. From the way they were careening from side to side, squawking loudly and incessantly, I began to think they may have had a hard night of carrying on, and were trying to get home before sunup. Their tightly defined V had become a disheveled W as they skittered through the sky on final approach. I became concerned there may be more than a few injured geese if they didn't quickly pull themselves together.

By the time I made my way back to the trading post, the geese were satisfactorily settled, eating alfalfa stubble and strutting around the hay field. From the looks of things, they had all made the descent safely. As the vision of their flight over the bluffs replayed in my mind, I began to think the management of the flock was similar to the management of the trading post; wild and often out of control.

The following week, I was once again out on my morning run when I spotted hundreds of blackbirds winging their way from one tree to the next. Once the flock was settled, one of the birds would become dissatisfied with its perch for one reason or another and lift off, unsettling the entire bunch. The birds would then take flight, circle the adjacent trees and reestablish themselves after a few moments. This cycle was repeated countless times as I progressed down the highway.

It was at that point I realized the geese and blackbirds were clearly sending me a message about our trading post management. After thoroughly analyzing the situation, I became satisfied the birds were right and determined it was time for a change; things were going to be different at the store.

This morning, I picked up a copy of a book written by a local author who had unexpectedly and prematurely passed on. I have been troubled by her death, because I had let local politics get in the way of knowing her. She was gone, and I had only now discovered the beauty of her words. There was much I wanted to say to her that would go unsaid, and many questions I wanted to ask that would remain unanswered.

As I read her latest book, I realized that she, like Chuck, was genuinely in touch with the natural world. I am not sure what it was in her verses that struck me so deeply, but all of the sudden I knew the birds had not been referring to the trading post management at all; they were commenting on my life.

I am the one who bounces from side to side as I walk down the hall of life, scuffling and scraping myself as I go; I am the one who staggers through life like a drunk who has had too much party and too little sleep the night before; I am the one who bounces from project to project, like a stone skipping across the pond, sinking to the depths only to be dragged back to the surface and cast upon the water again, the cycle repeating itself endlessly; and I am the one struts around my hay field honking and carrying on like I know everything and listening to no one.

Those birds had known all along, and I just didn't see it until now. There is only one thing to do; tomorrow I am petitioning to join the flock. If I can only find a way to fly, I will fit right in. I wonder how it will be living on the farm, and what I will do when the the weather warms and the geese return to their northern home. I will have to get a down jacket, some Gortex and start working on my Canadian visa. After years of searching for a sign, it seems I have finally found my rightful place in the cosmos, and we birds of a feather will squawk together.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Trax of My Tears

Lately I have been spending a lot of of time on Salt Lake City's Trax train system. Laurie and I have been blessed with family members who volunteer to spend nights with Spenser, and their help has given us the opportunity to rest in preparation for his daily therapy sessions. This scheduling helps Laurie and me avert the dreaded "hospitalitis" that creeps up on you after too many sleepless nights spent in a hospital room.

Laurie and Barry with Spenser

In an attempt to divest himself of his parents, Spenser has begun keeping the phone near his bedside. In his hoarse, airy whisper, he pleas for help from his aunts, uncles and older cousins to spell him from mom and dad's obsessive care.

As Spenser's physical abilities have returned, so has his sense of humor. At one point I called him a "knucklehead" because he kept slouching in bed. His occupational therapist had recently lectured us for allowing Spenser to project bad posture. After adjusting his position for the one hundredth time, I could not hold in the derogatory remark. Spenser looked at me with a sly, lopsided grin and said, "Don't call me a knucklehead; I have a brain. The doctors said they saw it. Maybe you should get a CAT scan, you may be the knucklehead after all. " It was at that point I decided to give my sassy son a little more breathing room, and accept more outside help to look after him.

From my sister-in-law's house in Sandy, Primary Children's Hospital is at the other end of the Trax line. At first I whiled away the time by people watching. After a number of "What are you staring at," looks, however, I decided it would be prudent to find a good book to kill time.

One of the Trax stops just happens to be located opposite the Sam Weller book store in downtown Salt Lake City. On a few occasions I allowed myself the pleasure of perusing their extensive antiquarian section. It was there I found a set of bulletins printed by the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art of Santa Fe New Mexico in the 1950's. Years ago I read a few of these booklets and found the information they contain interesting and informative. As is common with such rereads, I was amazed at how differently I interpreted the booklets after the many years and countless experiences I have had since I first encountered the pamphlets.

What struck me this time around was how frequently examples of insects and animals were worked into the stories. I know Navajo legends are often portrayed in metaphorical fashion to force the inquisitor to look deeper into the meaning of a particular story. The intensity and effort exerted to understand the story is directly related to the understanding one gains, and the quest becomes very personal. Everyone's quest for knowledge, or journey towards understanding, is quite different.

In the booklets I read how different colored ants were the first recognizable beings; how they single-mindedly worked together to create a suitable environment for their varied society. In doing so, they focused on building a future, and surviving at all odds. The Navajo cultural stories spoke of the mistakes societies make in their struggle to grow and improve. By taking the time to evaluate the consequences of their actions, and learning from their mistakes, the people are able to progress.

One story mentioned Badger, who, with his tenacity and enduring strength, helped the first beings enter the fourth world. This transition into a new world brought a rebirth initiated by adversity and dissension. Anarchy was overcome, and the emergence was achieved, by adopting the strengths and characteristics the animals projected.

There was also a discussion of the Locust, who were able to intercept the assault from upper-world aggressors because of their ability to survive difficult circumstances. Playing prominent roles in the stories are Bighorn Sheep, who dispersed the flood waters with their massive horns, and Coyote, whose overly inquisitive, compulsive and fearless nature initially caused the myriad problems and ultimately lead to their resolution.

I generally first discuss story ideas with Steve before I approach the computer. This process allows me to work out the idea in my mind and side-step quagmires of misinformation. Since my brother was home tending to business, I decided to discuss my ideas with Spenser. He listened intently, inquisitively questioned me about the attributes of individual animals and contemplated my thoughts. I found our conversation thought provoking and stimulating, and realized I had found a new sounding board.

Alyssa, Spenser and McKale

Alyssa, Spenser and McKale

As our discourse wound down, I began feeling good about my story idea, and started working out the details in my mind. Spenser then said," So Dad, if I understand you correctly, the way people act can often be related to certain animals. Right?" " You can say that," I said. "Why do you ask?" "Well" said Spenser with a devious grin, "if that's true, your animal might be something like a crab, a mocking bird or maybe a cranky old bear!" As I boarded the Trax train that night, leaving Spenser in the care of his Aunt Lisa, tears came to my eyes. My boy was going to be okay. His mind is sharp and his wit even sharper, the rest will follow in due time.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, November 4, 2004

Thrill Factor

Barry Simpson's Nissan truck in front of Twin Rocks Trading Post

Barry's Nissan truck, in front of Twin Rocks

Last week I drove my old Nissan pick-up from Blanding to Bluff on my daily sojourn to work. As usual I was spending a great deal of time scanning the surrounding countryside and skyline for photo ops. I have taken to carrying one of our digital cameras around for the purpose of capturing images of interest to post on our web site. Fortunately there is very little traffic when I travel this 26 mile stretch of roadway in the early morning and late evening. There are those travelers who intersect my course on a regular basis that are familiar with my wandering driving habits and steer clear of me. When I first started making this trip there was much commotion surrounding it. Blaring horns, flashing lights and raised appendages were commonplace. These days folks simply hug the shoulder or pull off the road completely when they see me coming.

A few miles beyond the bottom of the White Mesa hill I spied an interesting cloud formation surrounding the morning sun. I quickly pulled off the black top. It must have disturbed the California license plate that had been trailing me for the last ten miles because the driver raised a reaction much like those I had witnessed in the past. The gentleman must have retained some residual "road rage" from driving those West Coast freeways. I exited the vehicle and saluted the vengeful character hoping my untainted response would help him on his way to a "happy day". Refocusing on nature's display, I framed the shot and clicked the shutter, capturing the image for all time, in digital format. The whole computerized process still amazes me. I jumped back in "the beast" and turned the key only to hear the starter grind. I was shocked! This old truck and I have traveled 285,000 miles together without a hitch. I sadly let myself out of the truck, patted the old girl on the hood, shouldered the camera and began walking towards Bluff.

As I strolled down the shoulder of the highway I noticed a few broad, toothy grins and gloating looks from drivers traveling the opposite direction. I was also brushed into the bar ditch a couple of times and pelted with gravel from stealth vehicles creeping up from behind. Most of these characters looked vaguely familiar and I am sure that their "come-uppance" would catch up with them someday soon. I was mostly unconcerned and enjoyed the crisp brightness of the morning along with the soft golden light filtering through the flitting clouds. My only real concern was that Steve would finish "morning clean-up" before I arrived. Good excuses are hard to come by and should not be wasted; mops, brooms, cleaning solutions and other hazardous materials are not within my range of computability. Before long a compassionate school psychologist came by and spared me a long walk to work. He was new to the county and had no past experience with my driving habits. Luckily enough I was with him for such a short time that he was unable to ascertain my psychological profile as well.

As Dr. Duke dropped me off in front of the cafe I noticed that my parents had come for breakfast and a short visit; in other words "to shake up the kids". I quickly explained my predicament and requested a tow when they returned to Blanding. My father agreed without hesitation which should have given me cause to worry. I was so delighted to have solved the problem as to how to get my vehicle to the mechanic that I missed a subtle warning. I checked in with Steve and expressed my regrets for not being able to help him clean up the trading post; he mumbled a vague reply and waved me off. I found a tow strap in the back of Craig's truck and climbed in with my parents to rescue my pick-up.

As we drove over the rise and into the dip where my old truck rested I was saddened by the solitary machine parked alongside that lonely road. That old beat up rig holds a respected place in my heart; we have traveled far and had many adventures together. Lately I have taken much abuse for her dilapidated and rumpled appearance. I tell those that criticize that the old Nissan is a lesson in humility for me and it keeps me grounded as to who I am and where I came from. The truth is that she is comfortable; she has always treated me well and is the only female I know that doesn't sass. I slowly crawled out of the back seat of my parents' truck and hooked the tow rope to my disabled vehicle.

Dad tightened the line between the two vehicles, leaned out the window and yelled, "Hold on, I am going to have to swing wide to turn us around." All of a sudden gravel spun out from his tires, pelting my poor old truck and we were whipped sharply in the opposite direction nearly causing me a disabling case of whip lash. "What the heck was that," I yelled at him over his screeching tires, "Slow down." As I mumbled insults in his direction I noticed a maniacal look in his eyes through his side door mirror. I wondered at his abrupt actions and strange countenance as we began to gain speed. We passed thirty, then forty miles per hour and I began to realize that my dear old dad had something "out of the norm" in mind for me.

I quickly found my seat belt, buckled it tight and gripped the wheel with both hands. We passed fifty mph and I began eyeing the tow rope realizing that ten feet of woven nylon did not provide much room for error between two speeding vehicles. All I could see was the rear end of Dad's Toyota; everything else was obscured so there was no way to anticipate trouble or react to course changes. Because the Nissan's engine was not running my brakes were spongy and not gripping very well. As we hit sixty mph I could see Dad's grinning mug through his rear view mirror and determined not to let him see fear in my face. I relaxed my facial muscles, unclenched my jaw and reached over to crank up the music on the radio. I figured that rock and roll might sound different and have more of an edge to it by adding a thrill factor.

As we blew up White Mesa hill and through the small Ute village I wondered where the local constable might be and hoped my old man would earn himself a speeding ticket. I determined to testify against him if it went to court; at the very least kick up the fine by adding my two cents to the inquiry. No such luck; there was not a cop in sight, at least from what I could see from my vantage point. I began to notice a growing pain in my left quadricep and realized that I had my left leg rammed into the floor boards bracing for impact. I couldn't massage my muscle because I was too focused on keeping tension on the tow line and maintaining as much distance as I could from my father's back side.

Rounding Shirt Tail Corner, a few miles south of town, I began to anticipate an end to this "object lesson" my father was handing out. The thought of giving him a first rate tongue lashing or even introducing him to Mr. Boot crossed my mind but I quickly thought better of it. Such a thing would just not be right and it would only give him the satisfaction of having upset me. No, for whatever reason my father was playing this prank I would let him have his fun and catch up with him at a later date. I decided to let the whole thing ride, as it were, and enjoy the adventure as much as possible.

We began a gradual slowing as we approached Montella's Repair, we must have been down to thirty mph when he veered into the parking lot. As we came to a complete stop I breathed a sigh of relief, popped open my door and stepped out of the truck. I nearly dropped to my knees because, not only was my left thigh in a knot but my right calf muscle and hamstring were locked up as well, from riding the brake so hard. I smiled sweetly at my father as I unhooked the rope and walked, stiffly, to the garage office to hand over the key and explain the problem. As I returned to my parents' vehicle for the ride to my house I gave my Mother a "where were you when I needed you" look. The look in her eye and shake of her head spoke volumes. Something like "don't involve me in your petty, male, testosterone driven grudge matches. I winced and climbed into the back seat without a word. As they dropped me off I said Thank You and walked away.

As I climbed into the gently used Toyota Tundra my wife had provided me in anticipation of just such a breakdown, I wondered if I would grow to care for it as much as I appreciate that old Nissan. Old habits and bonds die hard; for this "Daddy dearest" is a lucky man. Maybe I will have "the beast" repaired one more time. Who knows, 300,000 miles may be in the old girl after all.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Under New Management

October has always been my favorite month in this village by the San Juan. The reason may be that October is when I celebrate my birthday and the birthday of my first born, but I think there is more to it than that. The first few years I spent in Bluff were extremely difficult, so I am sure I did not notice the beauty of this small river valley during that time. Once I worked through that chapter of my life, however, I began to notice the changes each season brought and settled on the tenth month as the most remarkable.

October in Bluff brings golden cottonwood leaves and the pure light that makes them shimmer like burnished gold. It also brings the chilly early morning air that makes me feel so alive. I have often sat in my office after a day in the trading post and marveled at the beauty of our October evenings and the inky blackness that creeps in as the sun slips behind Comb Ridge.

A few weeks ago I was thrilling at the October weather as I ran toward the sunrise. It had become a little nippy in the predawn, and I had yet to switch to my winter clothing, so my skin was tingling. The leaves were falling from the trees and skittering across the road in front of me, teasing me to increase my pace.

A few months earlier, one of my running buddies from school mentioned that he had run a six minute mile. Being the competitive type, I strapped on my Timex Ironman and set out to determine just exactly how fast I could jog a mile. My time of eight and a half minutes distressed me greatly. For years I had refused to time my runs, knowing full well that I had become a slug, and not wanting to know just how bad I had slipped. After discovering I had been slipping more than I realized, I considered asking my doctor for a Prozac prescription. Instead, I made up my mind to improve.

Since then I have been working on my speed, and have actually run a mile in six minutes forty-five seconds. Although I have not gotten close to six minutes, I have made some significant strides. On this particular morning, my time had again been under seven minutes, which was my goal for that day, so I was feeling good about things when I arrived at the trading post an hour later. I was sure I was looking younger and fitter than I had in years, and was improving by the minute. I began to think forty year olds had nothing on me; before long I might even look, well, thirty-five.

Then "it" happened; something that has been occurring more and more frequently over the past five years. Now, however, I was faster and leaner than I had been in years, so I was not prepared for what happened that particular morning. It came in the form of a post middle-aged man who walked into the trading post and asked the question I have come to fear: "Is this place under new management?" The first time the query arose, I was completely caught off guard. I patiently explained that my trusty side kick Priscilla and I have actually been at the trading post since it opened in late 1989. My response caused the original inquisitor a great deal of confusion, so he blurted out, "No, that's not possible; there was a much younger man here."

I informed him in no uncertain terms that I was that younger man, and puffed out my chest and hiked up my trousers for emphasis. Still a little uncertain whether I was being 100% honest with him, he said, "Really?" Yes, I assured him that it was indeed me he had seen at the trading post so many years ago. I am sure he realized I had begun to size him up, and thought better of going further with that line of questioning, so he walked out shaking his head. Back at home that night, after hearing my sad tale, my family was extremely supportive; assuring me that I looked better than at least 50% of my contemporaries. Above average, that was the answer I needed.

As this trend continued, I became more and more cautious when someone asked, "How long has this trading post been here?" Or "Are you the original owner?" Usually I could head them off, and avoid that blank stare I know is associated with their memories of a younger, more virile trading post operator. I could at least until that particular October morning anyway, when the latest inquisitor repeated the additional comment I had heard only once before; the observation that almost sent me to the plastic surgeon, the Grecian Formula counter and the red Porsche salesman. "Yes," he muttered, "there was a younger man here, and thinner too."

The gentleman was a little startled when I pointed to the door and asked him to escort himself out. Younger and thinner my . . ., well, you know. Priscilla, Natalie and Jason all agree that I look good for a mid-lifer. It is, however, a bit curious that they are most supportive on payday. Maybe my youth really is, as Grange would say, "getting to be gone."

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post