Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Christmas Tale

Navajo Basket

Lost; with a fast moving winter storm approaching, I was totally and hopelessly lost in the wilds of southeastern Utah. To add insult to injury, I had left the house that morning without the essential tools needed to manage such a brutal encounter with nature. For years, I have purchased neat little gadgets guaranteed to ensure my survival in any situation. Space blankets; fire starters of every shape, size and intensity; a pinpoint GPS system; flare guns; satellite phones; and even a downed airplane beacon, you name it, I had it. The problem was that all of that nifty gadgetry was at home in the closet, safely stowed in a backpack ready to be dispatched in case of emergency.

Well, this was clearly an emergency! I was cold, tired and confident I would be spending the night snuggled up next to an unloving cedar tree. I had left the house early Christmas Eve morning, figuring my family would take advantage of the holiday and sleep late, which would give me a few hours to slip away and enjoy the pleasures of the outdoors. I was intent on driving west on U.S. Highway 95 and motoring across the juniper-encrusted flats which are broken up by alluring, outrageous canyons. During my drive, I found myself drawn off the pavement by a scenic dirt road that ambled through a dense cluster of gnarled junipers.

The drive was sensational to say the least, and the beauty of this natural world easily inspired my sense of wonder. The dirt track took me through clusters of trees interspersed with open areas of stiff, stumpy yellow grass and sagebrush of exceptional height. As I made my way north, I began to notice rock bugaboos. Those sandstone creations of wind and rain are what had brought me to my current predicament. I stopped the truck and wandered over to the nearest red rock upthrust and rubbed my bare hands over its exterior. I could easily sweep away the weathered outer surface and feel the form and texture of the base rock.

Looking around, I realized I was on the outside edge of a pocket of these strange formations. Their numerous and unusual shapes drew me in. The forms reminded me of mythical beings, grotesque to the point of sublime. Wandering through this natural stone garden, I became entranced and lost all sense of time. I was so engrossed in the variations of light and shadow playing upon the jumbled spires, fragrant junipers and mixed vegetation that I completely lost myself for several hours. When dusk arrived and snowflakes began to tickle my nose and eyelashes, I was caught completely unaware.

Hearing the distant hoot of a Great Horned Owl, I stopped dead in my tracks, looked around and recognized the danger of my situation. As the reality of my predicament sunk in, I realized I had been seduced by nature and was about to experience how cold and cruel she can be. Although I hate to admit it, when I discovered I had no idea where the truck was, I panicked a bit; okay, a lot. I took stock of my resources and shook my head in disgust; I was wearing only blue jeans, a light sweatshirt and walking shoes. I dug in my pockets and came up with fifty-six cents in change, a set of keys, a miniature pearl-handled pocket knife and a small turquoise stone I always carry for luck. I chuckled cynically to myself, and thought that after tonight I might have to find a new talisman; one that really works.

Stumbling forward, I looked for a cleft, crevice or depression in the rock to hole up in and fortify myself against the night that was rapidly approaching. As I made my way toward an outcropping of boulders, I was surprised by a flash of yellowish-tan fur. Jumping back with fright, I recognized a coyote skulking under a nearby tree. I wondered why the creature had not run off and left me to become tomorrow's meal. I heard a faint whimper among the rocks, and the coyote circled back, closer to where I stood. Looking down at the ground, I saw a myriad of tracks and realized I was near a den. I thought, "There must be another coyote in there; possibly one that is sick or injured." The coyote and I stood looking at each other in the gloom of the evening and maze of lightly falling snow.

As I studied the animal and it studied me, the story of the Navajo Long Walk came to mind. I recalled reading how, after spending five devastating years at the Bosque Redondo, a Navajo leader had received a vision telling him that a coyote would lead his people home. In response to the message, the People captured a coyote and held a sacred ceremony involving the beast. During the sing, the Navajo participants placed a gift of turquoise in the animal's mouth and released it, promising to follow in its tracks as soon as possible. The coyote quickly left the scene heading in a northerly direction. Soon after, the People were released from their internment. Following the path the coyote had taken, they returned to Dinetah; their homeland.

Reaching into my pocket, I felt the smooth, polished surface of the turquoise and wondered at its magic. The coyote was sitting on its haunches, watching me closely, so I quietly spoke to it, saying, "What do you think, do you want to show me the way home?" The animal looked at me warily and licked its lips. "That's not nice," I said out loud. I took the stone from my pocket and slowly made my way towards the den. The coyote became extremely agitated as I approached the pile of sandstone. I talked to the creature in a soothing manner, telling it the turquoise was an offering; informing the coyote that I could really use some help getting home for Christmas.

It was snowing hard by this time, and growing ever darker. I was cold, frustrated and had begun thinking I was really stupid for talking to a coyote and assuming it was able to understand my situation. Why would it even care. I backed away from the turquoise until I could barely see the stone through the darkness. I spoke to the coyote under the tree, saying, "I would love to spend Christmas with my family. Will you please show me the way to my truck?" The coyote moved forward in a slow cautious manner until it reached the piece of turquoise. It sniffed the blue mineral, and looked curiously in my direction.

Navajo Basket

The coyote slipped back into the rocks where its mate was hidden, and I guessed that would be the end of the story. In a moment, however, the coyote reappeared, eyed the turquoise and inspected me from head to toe. I must have looked like the Abominable Snowman by then, since I was plastered with snow and shivering mightily. "Please," I said to the coyote. "It's either that or you will have me as a house guest this evening." It seemed the coyote considered my statement and found the prospect of me staying unappealing. The creature shook its head and began to move away. I stood there watching and wondering, until the coyote paused and looked over its shoulder. The look it gave me seemed to say, "Well isn't this what you wanted?"

Shaking the moisture from my head, I started after my wild guide. It was completely dark by now, and snow was falling furiously. There were times when I could not see the coyote at all; with only the fresh tracks on the new fallen snow to guide me. I had been tracking the coyote for some time when serious doubts about the sensibility of my decision began to creep into my head. I thought I must be out of my mind to be following a wild animal in the middle of the night. If the coyote was as intelligent as I hoped, he was probably leading me to the edge of a cliff, which would solve a number of his problems in one single step.

I peered into the darkness and asked out loud, "Where are you leading me ancient one?" I brushed the snow from my eyes and squinted deeper into the night. To my utter amazement, I recognized the outline of my truck. Looking down at my saviour's tracks, I saw they led right past the front of my vehicle. I could not believe my good fortune, and scrambled to locate my keys, unlock my truck and fire up the heater to defrost myself and end my uncontrollable shivering. When I finally warmed both the truck and me, I hit the lights. There in the low beam, surrounded by whirling snowflakes, sat the coyote. Our eyes met, and I said with reverent gratefulness, "Thank you . . . and Merry Christmas!"

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, December 15, 2005

And The Winner Is?

It seems I have been involved with family businesses since I was old enough to remember. The trading post is organized as a family corporation, and most of the companies I represent have grown out of some type of familial enterprise. So, it was no surprise when I was recently asked to participate in a presentation to a family who had built an extremely successful entity. These entrepreneurial individuals had found themselves in a muddle over how to transfer control to the next generation and decided an independent consultant might help break the log jam.

As I can attest, the challenges of working in a family business can be monumental. People often wonder at how Barry, Jana and I are able to work together so closely without severely injuring each other physically, emotionally and psychologically. In fact, I often wonder too; not how we avoid the damage, but how we survive it. Over the years, I have read a great deal about family businesses and am constantly amazed that the pathologies are precisely the same from entity to entity. Knowing we all suffer from the same problems, however, does not make things any easier.

With that in mind, I cautiously entered the conference room where the meeting was to be held. The discussions went on for several hours, and toward the end of the presentation, the exceptionally competent moderator stated she wished to utilize an old "Native American" method for resolving conflict, a method which she felt was applicable in their situation. The formula, she said, had four parts: (1) you have to show up; (2) you must participate in the process; (3) you must be honest; and (4) you should be open to unexpected outcomes.

Since those four factors appear to be the model for success in almost any aspect of life, I have been constantly thinking about them and how they apply to the trading post and my individual situation. I even began wondering whether the technique would be helpful in resolving the financial conflicts which arise when Barry and I are negotiating the price of an expensive rug or basket.

I was still mulling over the formula when the alarm went off the Saturday morning following Thanksgiving. It was a cold, gray, blustery day outside, and I was inclined to pull the covers up over my head and let the morning pass without even bothering to get up and feed the kids. I had, however, committed to run in the annual 5K Turkey Trot in Blanding, and knew I must at least show up and participate.

Honesty did not seem a serious concern in that particular situation, since it is difficult to be dishonest about running in such a small event. I did not even consider the fourth factor of the formula; unexpected outcomes. I have never been fast, so winning foot races has not become an important part of my agenda. In fact, Morris Swenson, my high school football coach, thought so much of my athletic skills that he labeled me "One Speed." The young guys, and even some of the old ones, always finish ahead of me. If I am lucky, I get a ribbon for placing in the top three in my age group; quite often because there are only two or three of us to start with, so we all get awards.

So it was as I stood on the starting line of the Turkey Trot, shivering, looking west along Highway 191 to Center Street and thinking about how much I would like to be inside a warm house instead of out in the cold. The first half mile of the course is slightly uphill, and once in a while I can gain a small advantage over the other old guys on this portion of the course if my muscles and joints are working properly. When the starting gun went off, I realized they were not; my legs were stiff and my lungs sputtering as I struggled to find a rhythm while staggering up the hill. The young guys were already pulling away as I crested the rise, but the old ones were still close enough.

Gary Torres, another local writer known as the Caveman because of his column titled My Cave My View, passed me just after the top of the hill, and I began to worry. During the July 4th race, Barry had informed me that I could not, under any circumstances, let Caveman beat me or it would further besmirch our reputation. Gary's column has won numerous awards, and ours has won, well . . . none. It may be fair to say that Barry was suffering pencil envy.

Keeping Gary close enough that I would have the chance to catch him during the last mile, I soldiered on. Suddenly, things began to go my way. I rounded a corner to find Gary on the horns of a dilemma. It seems all those young, fit runners, including the petite little girl in flip flops and toe socks, had taken a wrong turn and gone off the course. I considered letting Gary go as well, but that formula for resolving conflict popped into my head. "Gary, that's the wrong way, we need to go this this direction," I shouted, realizing almost instantaneously that I might have to gin up some excuse to explain to Barry why I had lost to the Caveman this time out. So much for honesty and integrity.

Gary corrected his trajectory and got back on track, but it was too late; I shot passed him. There I was, firmly in the lead, with my journalistic nemesis behind me and all the leaders on a misguided adventure. Years ago, somebody had said to me, "I am so far behind I thought I was in first place." Well, lightning had struck, and I was in the lead. I could not help chuckling to myself. A sense of fairness overwhelmed me and I briefly thought of slowing to let Gary catch up. Barry's directive was ringing in my ears, however, so I kept chugging along.

As I turned the corner towards the finish line, I could see the "What in the heck is Steve doing in the lead," look on the faces of the crowd. My sense of fair play returned, and, thinking I could easily snow Barry into believing that Gary had taken some unfair advantage, I stopped before the finish gate to let him and the others pass. The race organizers, however, shouted, "Go on. It will teach them a good lesson," so I sheepishly strolled across the line; just in front of the Caveman.

At the awards ceremony, I received the "Old Sage" award for having the sense to stay on course. It goes to show you what can happen if you just show up, participate and expect the unexpected. Who knows, if I can win a foot race, maybe I can organize this family and these artists. Now that would require a real miracle.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, December 8, 2005


As young boys my two brothers and I would climb up onto the high points surrounding Bluff, gaze down upon our small community and look for adventure among the landscape, citizens and structures below. Much like the raptors that drifted on the updrafts and air currents high above our closely shaved heads, we found ourselves in constant search of nourishment; they for food, we for adventure. The locals were acutely aware of our mischievous nature and did their best to eliminate temptation.

The Simpson Clan

Old Mrs. Bourne would lock away her valuables in a boarded up chicken coop and with bloodshot eyes tell tall tales of children that disappeared without a trace when left unattended. This foxy ancient actress would also attempt to gain our friendship and cooperation by plying us with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was no use though, we had a mental picture of her entire cooped-up inventory and easy access through a loosened board on the roof. We knew better than to steal anything, but found it exhilarating to tip-toe through her warehouse of wondrous objects.

Roy Pearson took the opposite approach, this kindly character left everything he had out in the open and available for inspection. There were no locks on his outbuildings, no fences and no ferocious dogs to impede our progress. In fact, if we found something that sparked our curiosity we would simply go to Roy and ask him about it. Roy was exceedingly patient and tolerant of our presence and more than willing to educate us with his knowledge of construction and mechanics. There was always a "Help Wanted" sign on the door of Roy's gas station when it came to us. We would often earn quarters by emptying trash cans, stacking oil and sweeping up around the place.

Bill Huber's Silver Dollar Bar was a favorite hang-out of ours as well. Bill often left the door open, and we would peek into the cool, darkened interior to see who was there playing pool and drinking beer. There were quite a few oil workers in Bluff at the time, and if there was not an excess of coarse language and bawdy humor Bill would allow us to hang there. If the opposite were true, Bill would sic his little, ratty dog on us and send us scampering. In that case we would slip around back to where Bill lived with his family in hopes of catching a glimpse of Bill's teenage daughter, Barbara. I am sure Barbara was not aware of us since she was extremely popular and much courted by area high school boys. No matter; we were strangely impressed by this raven-haired beauty and kept a keen eye out for her.

Hiking back across Cottonwood Wash took us to Clemma Arthur's Turquoise Cafe where we would spend the quarters we earned at Roy's gas station. Powdered Hostess donuts under glass and orange soda in a frosted glass were always available for starving young adventurers. Clemma had a group of rough and tumble boys of her own and two girls that could hold their own with any of them. Tammy was the youngest and feistiest of them all. She was our age, and you simply did not mess with her unless you were in the mood to lose some hide and hair. To this day, I consider Tammy to be a true and valuable friend. I have the scars to prove our hard won friendship!

The highlight of our days had to be the first of the month. Our two sisters would join up with us, uninvited of course, and head over to the post office. Dorothy Nielson was the benevolent post mistress back then and managed a quaint and wondrous world of miniature bronze vaults with twist and turn dials that allowed access to communication with the outside world and local interaction. Wanted posters plastered one wall forcing us to consider our actions and the dubious honor of being recognized as infamous, but the real draw was the parade of Indian people who flooded the town on "payday".

Satin and velveteen swirled and shimmered about the hips and shoulders of patient women with copper-colored skin. Tall black hats of felt, and crisp new blue jeans rolled up at the cuff showing off highly polished cowboy boots adorned many of the men. Shining black hair, combed and pulled tightly back and meticulously tied into the traditional bun with fresh white cotton string was worn by both. On days like this, the people were much more animated and excited, flashing brown eyes and brilliant white teeth, it was a sight to behold; nothing like what Hollywood portrayed in the movies.

They arrived driving all manner of vehicles, from bicycles to pick-up trucks, and if we were lucky a horse drawn team pulling a wagon outfitted with rubber car tires. By the end of the day, the wealth of the Navajo Nation would be redeemed from many a dark and dusty pawn vault to gleam and glimmer in the afternoon light, only to be returned to darkness within the week. The Indian people were patient with our inquisitive gawking and seemed to accept us as we did them.

At that time in our lives, I am sure that we thought we were preying on the people of Bluff. If the truth would be known, it is my guess that the people of Bluff were praying for us. I know for a fact that they were looking out for our best interests and watching out for our well being. It is a different life now: computers, fashions from the east and west coast and modern high speed connections available to everyone. Most importantly, what remains, is a deep seated concern for the children. We all set aside our petty disagreements with each other and keep a sharp eye of compassion and care for our youth. They are our future, and it would be best if we all made a concerted effort to keep them off of the post office wall.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, December 1, 2005

A Few Stones Short of a Full Cluster

Navajo Brooch

Once in a while Barry and I have visitors to the trading post who say something like, "Wow, I am glad I finally caught you open. I have been here several times and you are always closed." Since our official hours for most of the year are 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., seven days a week, and Barry and I are usually here early and late, I always wonder how these people consistently arrive when we are closed.

During the winter, traffic through the store slows dramatically, so in late October we begin closing Sundays. Last Sunday, I was out washing the car when Nellie Tsosie drove up in a large Dodge truck pulling a horse trailer. Nellie is the purveyor of Natural Pinon Cream; that magical, mystical stuff Duke and Barry maintain will cure any ailment and make you younger, smarter and sexier. Duke tells everybody that all it takes to turn your life around is a little dab on your toast each morning. From time to time it is clear our patrons are wondering whether it is worth a try. When that happens, I am required to give the customer a wink and explain that Duke is really just joking; the bread is not necessary.

As I scrubbed the long neglected car, Nellie strode up the front steps and crashed into the locked door. After coming to an abrupt stop, she looked at me and asked, "Closed?" "Yep," I explained. "Why?," she wanted to know. "Because, after taking advantage of the Navajo people all week, I need to go to church and ask for forgiveness," I said. She cautiously bobbed her head, unsure whether I was serious or not and certainly not wanting to do anything that might prejudice her chances of nailing down a sale. "Well, Grandpa always told me that the white traders who take the whole package go crazy when they get to be 55 or 60," she said. "In fact, the one down home did go crazy and move to Mancos. You just can't always take the whole package," she continued.

"Where's my buddy, Barry," she wanted to know. "Also gone to church. He needs more help than I," I laughed. Again she knowingly bobbed her head. She was working hard to get me to unlock the trading post and the checkbook. "You know how Grandma is, she always wants you to give her something extra, even after the deal is done," Nellie said. "Yes, I know, that's why I will never go crazy and will go straight to heaven when I die. You guys always get the best of me." She laughed out loud, knowing I was right.

All the Navajo people around here understand that I am an easy mark, so once the deal is negotiated, they ask for a set of earrings, a ring, a pin or a few dollars for gas. Nellie's explanation made me feel a little better, because I have always felt the reason for their requests was that they knew I am a sucker for a sad face or a good story. I now realized it is simply a matter of tradition.

Lorraine Black, for example, told us several years ago that during her latest healing ceremony, the medicine man had instructed her to get a piece of turquoise whenever she sold us baskets. If she did not, he cautioned, she would surely become gravely ill. So, for several months she insisted on receiving a nice pair of earrings to go with her check. At some point, I decided I could not stand the additional financial strain and suggested I just give her a simple, undistinguished turquoise stone. "No way," she said. "I need some new earrings." That was when I knew for certain I had been led down the garden path. When she realized the game was up, she just laughed and went on her way; happy in the knowledge that her scheme had worked for quite awhile.

I reminded Nellie that indeed her mother, Cecelia, had been getting the best of me for a long time. About seven years ago, Cecelia had wanted one of my rugs. She had a customer who needed a storm pattern weaving and did not have time to make it. So we made a deal, Cecelia would leave her squashblossom necklace with me until she was paid for the rug. When she received payment from her customer, she would redeem her jewelry. A few months later she wanted to swap the necklace for a brooch that, like most of the people here at the trading post, was a few stones short of a full cluster. I let her take the necklace and put her pin in the safe. Every month or so for the past seven years Cecelia has stopped by to assure me she will come for the brooch and that I must not give up and sell it. During each visit, I go to the safe, pull out the by now well worn paper sack containing her jewel, and show it to her. After being reassured that our arrangement is unchanged, she happily climbs back in the truck and heads home.

Nellie, being the focused type, patiently listened to my story about her mother and said, "So, do you need any cream." "I can't buy on Sunday, it's my day off and I won't get the redemption I need if I take advantage of you today," I said. "Oh, okay," she replied and began to walk back to the truck. "By the way, that's a nice T-shirt, do you want to trade," she asked. "No thanks, you are trying to get too much of my package," I laughed "By the way, did Grandpa say you will go crazy if you keep taking advantage of the white traders," I asked. "No. It doesn't work that way," she responded. I bobbed my head knowingly.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post