Thursday, October 26, 2006

Of Monuments and Markers

It was my studious son who reintroduced me to the literary genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Spens is taking an English literature class from Mr. Nielson and had been assigned to unravel the mysteries of Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil. All I could remember about the tale was that an early American preacher had curtained himself off from reality, forsaken quality of life, abandoned love and died a lonely, misunderstood martyr; or something to that effect.

Twin Rocks Trading Post
Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah.

Spenser's mother sent him to me, claiming her high school home work duties centered around higher math, science, social skills and hygiene, not literature. She said it was my job to interpret indecipherable metaphor. Laurie told our son that I was somewhat skilled at creating semi-believable missives and might be able to help him bluff his way through this assignment. Spenser was frustrated by the subtleties Hawthorne had so skillfully woven throughout his message, so, putting aside his skepticism, Spenser asked me for help.

Approaching the story with an open mind, I completed it with disillusionment. Looking at Spens, I shook my head in frustration and told him all I had gotten from the story was that Mr. Hooper was a NUT; he had passed up a babe to make a statement that no one wanted to hear or see for that matter. "Well, that was helpful," said my cynical son, "With that interpretation, I'll be sure to get an A." "No worries little dude," I said, "Mr. Nielson and I played high school football together; we are tight. Just remind him of our glorious past and you will score big." Spenser sat back, viewed me with an amused air and said, "Yeah, I heard about that. Mr. Nielson told me to never speak of it; something about the sins of the father possibly causing the son a great deal of grief!'

Having failed miserably at evaluating the scholarly mindset of the past and present, I wandered off to ponder my personal reality. I sat down at the computer hoping to dial-up the internet and tap into an educated interpretation of just what the heck Hawthorne was trying to say. I hoped that with a little insight into the author's logic, I might redeem myself in my son's eyes. I googled Nathaniel Hawthorne and came up with twelve thousand some odd hits. The first highlighted listing was titled The Ambitious Guest. I have very little patience for filtering through internet listings, so I clicked on the first entry and began to read.

What I found in this story, contrary to a overly zealous dude parading around in a black veil, was something I could personally relate to. The story of The Ambitious Guest tells of a closely-knit family in the business of serving travelers. What struck me most was the similarity between this historical family and ours. In the introductory paragraph, Hawthorne writes, "They had found the 'herb, heart's-ease,' in the bleakest spot of all New England. This family was situated in the Notch of the White Hills, where the wind was sharp throughout the year, and pitilessly cold in the winter, giving their cottage all its fresh inclemency before it descended on the valley of the Saco. They dwelt in a cold spot and a dangerous one; for a mountain towered above their heads, so steep, that the stones would often rumble down its sides and startle them at midnight."

Substitute Bluff, Utah for New England, sharp wind for red wind and cold for hot and you have the Simpson family and Twin Rocks Trading Post. In the third paragraph of the story, I was again struck by the similarity of our situations. "Though they dwelt in such a solitude, these people held daily converse with the world," Hawthorne wrote. We too are privileged to share refreshing moments with a culturally diverse mix of friends and visitors on a daily basis. The unique introduction we receive to the outside world via our guests provides us a familiarization, communication and education few can claim in such an isolated environment; a treasure indeed.

In Hawthorne's story, a passionate young guest finds warmth and simplicity of spirit in the New England family. As time goes on, he opens his heart and expresses his dreams to them. The youth's secret is a desire to find personal satisfaction in life and to leave a legacy of honor and glorious substance that future generations will recognize long after his death. It is his wish that he not, "pass from his cradle to his tomb with none to recognize him." The story was too close to the bone for me to ignore; I was enthralled and read on.

"As yet," cried the stranger--his cheek glowing and eye flashing with enthusiasm--"as yet, I have done nothing. Were I to vanish from the earth to-morrow, none would know so much of me as you: that a nameless youth came up at nightfall from the valley of the Saco, and opened his heart to you in the evening, and passed through the Notch by sunrise, and was seen no more. Not a soul would ask, 'Who was he? Whither did the wanderer go?' But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument!"

The adults of the family were drawn into the conversation, they spoke of opportunities lost and desires unfulfilled, but also of unsuspected twists and turns in life's road. Looking upon their children, the bounty of their harvest, they found themselves happy to have declined more worldly desires. The general consensus was contentment and happiness. The heart of Hawthorne's message, for me, was the youth's concluding statement. "There now!" exclaimed the stranger, "It is our nature to desire a monument, be it slate or marble, or a pillar of granite, or a glorious memory in the universal heart of man."

Hawthorne states, "Every domestic circle, should still keep a holy place where no stranger may intrude." Yet in his story, the writer found a way for the reader to witness the innermost wishes and desires of an intimate group. Their dream of leaving behind a monument to their existence became extremely personal. Because of the parallel lifestyles, dwelling places and desires to leave a lasting memory, I longed to know that the family had achieved their lofty goal

Alas, this was not to be. The sacred mountain towering above their heads let loose a thundering, scouring landslide that ended any hope of future recognition for this thoughtful and conscientious group. Each and every one of them was brutally interred among the rock and rubble, not a trace of their existence remained. Looking up at the towering twin spires of rock and faulty mortar above our humble heads now makes me terribly nervous. I fear that any positive mark we might desire to leave upon this earth may be reduced to a stain upon the sandstone. What a dreadful thought!

With a great deal of thoughtful consideration, I solved our dilemma. I have left instruction with my wife and children that if the cliffs surrounding our romantic and dangerous place of business release their tenuous grasp and entomb us, we are to be left as we are. They have been instructed to simply place a plaque upon the largest stone stating that here lie a goodly number of the Simpson clan. We will then have achieved our dream of a spectacular grave site and monument to our dubious trust in the stability of sandstone. With this solution we may obtain posthumous satisfaction. I apologize in advance to anyone else caught in the landslide, but, in this case, the needs of the few are greater than those of the many. Rock on!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Grange on the Rocks

Fall was settling in, and it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Two suicidal deer had elected to stand their ground as Jana hurled the Travelin’ Van towards Dinosaur National Monument, so she and the kids were marooned at home for a few weeks after a good start to their big adventure.

Grange Simpson

As I sat on the porch next to the house above the trading post, reading the latest installment of Newsweek magazine, I was fascinated by the afternoon sunlight playing on the cliffs. Anna Quindlen’s most recent column was about, “[T]hat sense of waking up in the morning and thinking there may be good things ready to happen.” She expressed a great deal of concern over how that excitement gets lost in the incessant cautionary remarks we feel compelled to dispatch our children’s way.

In the background, I could, from time to time, hear rocks rolling down the talus slope. Lately Grange had become obsessed with scrambling up and down the slope between the trading post and the cliffs. Every time I went looking during the past week, I had found him crawling over the boulders behind the house. Although I had cautioned Grange not to roll the stones towards the buildings, his sense of adventure quite often overwhelmed my remarks; so the rocks kept rolling.

As Anna Quindlen educated me about teaching kids “Love of life,” an internal debate raged inside me. Should I re-advise Grange to stop, or should I let him enjoy himself? He could not move stones large enough to do any real damage, so I chose to let let him continue. For a long time it was quiet, so I assumed Grange had merely found something else to distract him. After about a half hour, I heard his voice, “Kira [pause]. Kira [long pause]. Kira, look at me.”

Steve on the Twin Rocks
Steve going up the Twin Rocks in Bluff, Utah.

By this time I was curious, so I extracted myself from the chair and walked behind the house. Grange had somehow managed to climb the almost vertical cliffs and was sitting at the base of the Twin Rocks, smiling like the Cheshire-Cat. My heart leapt into my throat as I envisioned him tumbling off the tall cliffs. In my youth, I had known someone who had done exactly that, and, although she survived, she was never quite the same.

The next instant my mind flashed back four decades, and I remembered myself sitting in almost that exact location. When we were Grange’s age, Craig, Barry and I had climbed these same cliffs hundreds of times without fear or fall. As I shouted up to him, “Just sit down; don’t move,” I imagined Anna saying, “Careful, don’t destroy his adventurous spirit.” So as I laced on my shoes to climb up to him, I knew I had to proceed carefully and let him enjoy his success, but teach him to stay safe. Anna’s comments had come at a convenient time.

steve and grange on the Twin rocks
Steve & Grange on the Twin Rocks.

Following a route I knew well from my youth, I was amazed how much more difficult the climb had become. Probably some geologic shift I assured myself. As I carefully picked my way to his level, Grange peered over an outcropping; on his face was a colossal smile. He was obviously proud of himself, and I was extremely proud of him too.

For the next two hours, we boulder-hopped, chimney-climbed, found “valuable” quartz crystals and investigated small caves. I was amazed that Grange showed so many of the same emotions I remembered feeling when I was his age exploring these cliffs. As we got ready to descend, I asked him to sit down next to me near the edge. He gave me a questioning glance as I placed both feet on a large rock and began to push. As the boulder crashed to the ground, he laughed with delight. “That one was obviously going to fall soon, and I wanted to make sure it didn’t fall on anyone,” I lied. The next day, a longtime trading post visitor stopped by to see what was new. “Hey,” he said, “did you see those two kids pushing rocks off the cliff yesterday? Very dangerous.” I just smiled and thought about the love of life.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Power Is In The Ritual

As I stood at the counter of the trading post hurriedly adding strips of packing tape to a boxed order I needed to ship, I began to worry that I would miss my deadline. Dave the UPS driver would be arriving any minute, and I needed to send this package with him that day. So I was a little preoccupied when our friend Austin poked his head in the door and declared, "The Power is in the Ritual!" Looking up at my thoughtful friend, I said the first thing that came to my mind. "No . . . the Power is in the Woman; at least the women in my house!"

Design by Damian Jim

Austin gave me a frustrated, "How can you be so dense" look, and moved towards me in his sliding, shuffle-like manner. Austin is a poet and thinker; he is forever planting seeds of thought in my mind, hoping they will germinate and bear fruit. On that day it seemed Austin was serious about his well-considered opinion and wanted me to understand it as well. Unfortunately for Mr. Lyman, I was in an antagonistic mood. I assured him I was thoroughly aware of the meaning of my words and had often considered the implications of a coup, but decided it was more prudent to leave matters of state to more experienced individuals.

Austin placed his palms flat on the glass counter in front of me to emphasize his point and said, "I am talking about belief here, not issues of Mars and Venus!" Looking at Austin's hands on my newly polished display case, I said, "I believe I am going to have to clean this case again, because you are smudging my glass!" Over the years Austin has become acutely aware of our perturbing manner of altering the direction of simple conversations. I blame the problem on Steve, because I was not nearly as bad about practicing the craft before we started working together full time. Which of us is considered the worst, or best, at the art is a matter of debate, or misdirected comment as it were.

Austin shook his head in frustration, and said he did not have time for such nonsense, but thought the message was important for me to consider. He made me write the quote on a scrap of paper and swear an oath to at least think about it. As Austin headed out the door, I sent him a parting shot, saying that I had often cussed, most vehemently, concerning my household power struggle, but other than a short-lived sense of gratification from swearing openly, I had received no significant long-term satisfaction. Austin gave me a hostile look and said, "I' know exactly what you mean".

That darn note and the intense look of frustration on Austin's face have been floating around my desk and mind for months now. Much like one of McKale's morning ditties that I cannot get out of my head the rest of the day, Austin's comment was firmly implanted in my memory. I have thought about his statement a lot over the last few months and have tried to focus on just what he meant. I assume he was speaking of the Navajo people and the ceremonies they practice in order to heal themselves of all manner of ailments.

Since there are few scientifically qualified medications used in these ceremonies, there must be something more the medicine men draw on to bring about relief. I once spoke with an evangelist who swore he had helped bring about the cure of a young woman suffering from an advanced case of incurable breast cancer. This energetic and outspoken individual said he had asked a crowd of 20,000 people to come together and focus their love, prayers and hope on this young woman in order to heal her. According to the preacher, the young lady is alive and well 20 years later and claims that one night of high-powered, highly concentrated energy cleansed her of the disease.

Navajo ceremonial practice has been well documented over the past century. Everything I have ever read on the subject indicates that belief and participation are the key to the cure. In the old days, whenever a ceremony was conducted every individual in the surrounding country attended; often several thousand people would show up. It was thought that residual healing occurred in those who participated as well. The patient was not the only one who benefited from the ceremonial act; the medicine man, the participants directly involved and those simply observing were also healed. All one had to do was believe wholeheartedly to give and partake of the benefits.

Since Austin first intruded into my consciousness, he has caused me to read a number of books on traditional and nontraditional healing practices. My personal interpretation points to the belief that one must truly embrace the ritual in order to realize a positive outcome. It seems the human mind has the ability to convince the body that it can evict any and all poisons, toxins or disease by simply having faith in the power of ceremonial practice. Myth, magic or smoke and mirrors aside, the power of the mind is an awesome medicinal tool.

The more people I speak with on the subject, the more convinced I am that Austin was right; the power is in the ritual. Not only in the tradition of the Navajo, but in most or all other cultures as well. When people get together to practice ritualistic tradition and focus their positive energy amazing results occur. I am sure there is much more to learn on the subject, and I look forward to getting into belief and ritual on deeper levels. It seems that as human beings we are all connected on one level or another; community, ritual and tradition provide us a sense of emotional belonging and empower us to heal ourselves and others in mysterious ways. I concede Austin's subject matter was worth looking into, but next time he's polishing the glass.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Harley, But Not Davidson

A few years ago, probably about the time I turned 40, I remember a group of people who seemed of similar age roaring into the trading post parking lot on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Although I had never really been taken by that particular mode of transportation, I began wondering how it would be to tour the country on one.

Steve & Harley at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Steve & Harley @ Twin Rocks Trading post

When Jana arrived at the store a few hours later, I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about getting a Harley . . . and a tattoo.” Although I anticipated biting commentary about mid-life crises, trading her in for two 20s and budgetary constraints, I was fully unprepared for her response. “Okay,” she calmly said, “but you better get two, because I’m not riding behind you.” I have never again concerned myself with motorcycles, tattoos or 20 year olds.

There is, however, a Harley that has meant a great deal to me. It has been a long time since Harley and I first met, and the facts of our initial encounter are a little fuzzy in my mind, but, to paraphrase Collin Raye, this is my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

It must have been the summer of 1990 when I first spied the cream colored Ford Mustang slowly creeping around town. The car was not one that had been renovated, restored or reconditioned; it was original, right down to the missing hubcaps and dented fenders. Being a child of the sixties and seventies, that type of thing was sure to capture my attention, although the condition of the aging pony did not hold it long enough for me to notice the old codger at the wheel.

It was another year or so before I noticed the car turning into the driveway of the trading post. A spirited man, who looked to be in his early seventies, pushed open the driver’s side door and came trudging up the stairs. He was dressed in a worn yellow button front shirt, cut-off blue jeans with strings hanging down and black Chuck Taylor Hi Top sneakers. His hair was casually combed to one side and his beard unshaven. All in all, he looked like a vagabond.

Did I know a local acquaintance of his, the gentleman inquired shortly after entering the store. “Yes,” I assured him, “I have known him since I was a kid.” “Okay,” he said and, after looking about for a short time, abruptly turned and walked out. As he left, I could not help wondering if he already knew of my tortured relationship with the patron saint of Bluff, and whether his inquiry was really an inquisition.

As it turned out, that is exactly what it was, but I would have to wait another year to discover the truth. The following summer, Harley’s battered Mustang once again rolled into the lot. Once again, he crawled out wearing the same worn yellow shirt, cut-offs and Chuck Taylors. Once again, his hair was mussed and his beard unkempt.

He was a retired lawyer from San Francisco and had been coming to Bluff for a month every summer since I was still in short pants, he informed me. The acquaintance he had asked about the previous year was his friend, and Harley knew all about the small town intrigues that were involved. I think the politics of this little village fascinated him, and my role in it was under investigation.

As we began to explore each other, I learned that he had purchased his Mustang in 1964, the first year they became available, and had driven the same car ever since. Harley and that old car had gone down many roads together. He was widely known and respected for his work in estate planning and he was well versed and extremely interested in world religions.

He was cranky and crotchety, but I loved it; probably because I fear that is my destiny and hope someone will spend a little time with me when I am his age and have developed his disposition. He and Barry struggled to find common ground. Initially, Barry could not endure his critical comments, and Harley was often critical. He was more often congenial, polite, warm and well-mannered.

The first few years his visits lasted only an hour or so, and he would putter off to his other adventures, leaving me to ponder what he was really seeking. Year after year the discussions lengthened, until he began to arrive at 9:00 a.m. and leave promptly at 5:00 p.m.; “Cocktails,” he explained.

Hour after hour, day after day, he sat outside my office in a wooden chair made from two by four lumber. When I had a legal or grammatical question, and I had many, he always answered it clearly and concisely. At noon I would walk to the cafe, order two grilled cheese sandwiches and two iced teas and we would convene a picnic on the outside porch. The schedule and the menu rarely varied. Consistency was important to Harley.

I became accustomed to having him at my side for a month each year, he and Barry found common ground and we all learned to love him. He was ours; as odd and oddly independent as any of the rest of us. We claimed him as our own, and he became part of the trading post family.

We all wondered how such a bright, progressive man was able to survive a full month in the same clothes, and how he avoided becoming odorous; which he never was. I began to anticipate his annual visits and plan my schedule so I could spend time with him. I took him to Albuquerque with me during my brief stint as counsel of record in the ill-fated Native American tobacco litigation.

On our way back from New Mexico, I asked him to drive and he refused. I asked him a second time, advising him that I was extremely tired and that we might wind up in the ditch if he didn’t. He was steadfast. “No,” he said, “and don’t ask me again.”

Then he stopped coming. After two years, I received a call from his daughter, “frontal lobe dementia,” she pronounced it. “Has had it for years. It manifests itself in a cranky disposition, uncertain hygiene and an inability to process new experiences.” She said he could navigate the complexities of the trip from San Francisco to Bluff because he had done so for years, but driving down the block to a new market was impossible. Incredible, we thought, realizing that the eccentricities brought about by his illness were what irrevocably bound us to him.

Earlier this year Harley returned for a few days. This time however, he was in a motor home and confined to a wheel chair. As he crooked his finger at me and asked questions about the months we had spent together, the art of the trading and the people who buy and sell it, I was filled with affection for him. Isn’t it crazy that frontal lobe dementia has given us such an unforgettable gift?

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry & the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post