Thursday, July 26, 2007

Birds of a Trader

A week ago, Barry, Priscilla and I were cleaning up when a man of about 60 years drifted in through the Kokopelli doors. As is our habit, we stopped what we were doing and welcomed him into the store. Under his arm, the man carried a soft cover text that seemed to be of great importance. My interest was aroused when I noticed the cover contained an image by E. A. Burbank that I knew well.

Old Trading Posts of the Four Corners
Old Trading Posts of the Four Corners

The man introduced himself as Richard C. Berkholz. Handing us the book, he said it was his recently completed work entitled, Old Trading Posts of the Four Corners: A Guide to Early-Day Trading Posts Established On or Around the Navajo, Hopi and Ute Mountain Ute Reservations. I was immediately interested, because it was similar to a project Jana and I had outlined for Kira and Grange. Before she and the kids began their big adventure, Jana and I had discussed taking Kira and Grange to one trading post a week, and having them compare the old with the new. Mr. Berkholz was way ahead of us.

As usual, my executioner did not execute in a timely fashion. Almost everyone at the Twin Rocks trading post will confirm that I am chronically late implementing my ideas. In any case, Mr. Berkholz had pulled together an interesting book. As I scanned the entries, I noticed the listing for Hatch Trading Post. Hatch was one of the few posts listed as original; rather than abandoned, converted or renovated. I had not been to Hatch since I was a school boy, so I decided to make the journey on my next day off.

When Saturday rolled around, I packed two peanut butter sandwiches, asked Priscilla to care for Buffy if I did not promptly return, jumped into the car and headed out. As I snaked my way around the twisty back roads leading to the post, I often wondered whether I had taken a wrong turn. Eventually, however, I noticed a native stone building hiding behind a jumble of greenery as I sped past. Quickly turning the car around, I saw the wooden “Hatch Trading Post” sign hanging on the facade; notifying me I had arrived at my intended destination.

As I strolled into the extremely small display area of the post, which was stocked with soda, beer, candy, chips and a few art items, a pleasant woman asked me if I needed any assistance. I purchased a Gatorade to go with my peanut butter sandwiches, exited the store and wandered around outside, admiring the inviting profusion of trees and plants.

Climbing back into the Subaru, I felt a little hollow, like something had died. Many people agree that the modern derivation of the historic trading post is the reservation convenience store. Hatch’s, located in a very isolated area, seemed most like an inconvenience store, rather than the classic post I had unrealistically hoped for.

As I drove off, I could not help thinking about a dinosaur video I had recently watched with Grange. The documentary argued that birds are actually avian dinosaurs. It indicated that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of birds being the descendants of a maniraptorian dinosaur.

An article I later read indicated this theory arose from a discovery made by a German quarryman in the 1860s. In the limestone deposits the man had been quarrying, he discovered the now famous “London specimen” of Archaeopteryx lithographica, which is widely held to be the ancestor of all living birds. As I stood outside Hatch’s, I felt I had made a similar find. Hatch’s was the remains of a classic trading post which had become frozen in the evolutionary process.

Automobiles and developing roads doomed the original trading post business model, and virtually none of them survive as originally conceived. Those that have endured generally evolved into small markets or arts and crafts outlets, like Hatch’s. At Twin Rocks, we realized long ago that our business would be notoriously difficult to maintain in the long term. Outside influences have come to the Reservation, and the impact has been huge. Survival in such a rapidly changing environment can be difficult.

Until recently, our greatest asset was also our greatest challenge. Being located in this lonely outpost on the northern boarder of the Navajo Reservation allowed us immediate access to the art of the Navajo; tourist traffic however was, at best, sparse. The internet has begun to change all that. As we attempt to survive our Archaeopteryx phase, we have discovered tools like high speed internet, the talking metal and video to help us bring the beauty of our local art and culture to those living outside this isolated red rock sanctuary.

Recently Barry discovered the Flip, a compact device which allows us to easily take video of the artists with their work. In the past, we often stood back in amazement as the artists described the techniques used to create their work and the meaning woven into their creations. We mourned the loss of that important cultural information which we had not captured. Because of the work done by Rosita, Tarrel and Tina, we can now grab and hold those stories. We may yet become a falcon.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Deesdoi (It's Hot!"

Lorraine Black Fire God Basket
Navajo Fire God Basket by Lorraine Black

As I drove to Bluff early Tuesday morning to open the Cafe, I noticed a pink blush extending across the entire eastern skyline. It was as if the Sun was taunting me, playing a game of illusion, hide and seek or threatening to rise as a band of light rather than a big yellow orb. Working with the Navajo people has caused me to think of the Sun as a sentient being, rather than a ball of hot gasous eruptions.

There was a coolness in the predawn breeze flowing across my fingertips as I drove south. I inhaled. The smell of burnt wood was in the air, and I assumed both the aura and aroma I witnessed were caused by the terrible fire ravaging the woodlands on the southwestern side of the state. The assault on my senses made me think of Fire God, the Navajo deity credited with cleansing the Earth by fire. Leave it to Navajo culture to explain how natural occurrences we view as negative actually have a positive side to balance things out.

Barry next to Jens Nelson Sculpture
Barry @ Twin Rocks Trading Post

I arrived in Bluff before sunrise, let the staff in and began slinging hash and cleaning tables. It wasn't until late morning that I emerged from the Cafe and realized how hot it was outside. As I stood on the porch looking out onto the parched landscape, a bead of sweat formed at my temple and rolled down my jaw line. Shaking my head and wiping my chin, I walked across the porch and into the refrigerated air circulating through the Twin Rocks trading post.

Entering my office, I pulled David Carpenter's masters thesis from my bookshelf and began reviewing the life and times of Jens Nelson, the first Mormon Bishop and an original settler of our small hamlet. Viewing the pictures of early Bluff, I marveled at the hardship those hardy settlers endured while attempting to settle this desolate outpost, evade federal marshals looking for polygamists and pacifying the Native neighbors they displaced. I looked out of the picture windows at the heat waves dancing off the hard-packed earth and imagined living and working out in 100 plus degree heat for two months each year.

The Navajo and Ute people were mobile; when it got hot they pulled up stakes and headed to the high country. Not so with the settlers. Bluff was established as a self-sustaining community. This meant that every citizen dug in, stayed put and did everything in their power to help the others survive. They attempted to manage an unmanageable river, raise cows and sheep on short grass and grow crops in an alkaline soil that had a bad habit of locking up tighter than a wedge. No Bull!

When the temperature soars into triple digits in Bluff, things get hot and stay hot. The rock houses of that period, along with the surrounding cliffs, absorb heat all day, until they match the surrounding heat index. The nice thing about the high desert is that the temperature can drop 30 degrees during the night. Not so with the superheated red rocks; they radiate stored energy late into the night. Uninsulated as those homes were, they simply became ovens.

Hopi Sun Pin/Pendant
Hopi Jewelry

Trees were scarce; shade was a rare commodity. I would venture to guess that more than one feud broke out based on crossing boundaries as the sun tracked one direction and shade the other. The lack of indoor plumbing; labor intensive, exhaustive days; uncomfortable, restless nights; and struggling to keep more than one family happy must have caused many a rugged pioneer to suffer the effects of heat stroke in more ways than one. Life was definitely much harder then than now.

Modern day Bluff still provides its inhabitants with plenty of hard work and sacrifice. The river no longer attempts to flush us down stream at every opportunity. We manage the heat with refrigeration and cold drinks and get plenty of rest and relaxation. The Native Americans have accepted us to the extent of aiding and benefiting our business and I have only one sweet, gentle creature keeping me lined out and working towards the common good. Iina ei nizhoni, (Life is good/beautiful!)

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Reading Glasses and Big..., Well You Know

A change is in the air; a dark cloud has drifted onto our horizon and cast a shadow over our otherwise sunny existence. Although Barry and I have denied it and tried to hide it, the problem can no longer be kept in the closet. A scourge has crept into the Twin Rocks trading post, with all its implications and complications. For years, we have looked the other way, turned the other cheek, and now the reality of our neglect has crashed full force upon our shores. It is a calamity of monumental proportions, with no remedy in sight.

Barry and Steve Carvings
Steve & Barry's Carving by Marvin Jim & Grace Begay

Age, more appropriately middle age, has come to the Twin Rocks trading post, and it is frankly not a pretty picture. The most common refrains around the store these days are, “Where are my reading glasses,” and “I wonder why my clothes are so tight.” Excuses like, “I had them here just a moment ago, someone must have moved them,” and “I told my wife to stop washing my pants in hot water” abound. No mention is made of chocolate doughnuts, milkshakes, candies or cookies.

Kira and Grange have begun to avoid the Twin Rocks trading post when possible, because they are universally blamed when something goes missing. My favorite saying has become, “Those darn kids must have gotten into my stuff again.” Although that excuse worked for a while, Barry and Priscilla now view me as the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Buffy the Wonder Dog has started her training as a seeing eye dog. Although I know there is a more contemporary, more appropriate, term for such animals, I just cannot remember what it is. We are planning for the time when the magnifiers we have scattered about the Twin Rocks trading post can no longer be found and we can’t even remember what they look like to describe them to someone who might assist in the search.

The other day, Barry wandered into work about three hours late, looking a little bewildered. When I inquired where he had been, he informed me he had mislaid his watch and therefore overslept. He then discovered that Laurie had once again laundered his trousers in extremely hot water.

After a lot of stretching, and lying on the bed to button his fly, he was able to get dressed and start out the door on his way to Bluff. The problem was that someone had apparently moved his keys and he could not get his mini-van started. When he finally realized the key ring was already in his pocket, he could not extract it because his pants were too tight, so he had to go back into the house and disrobe to retrieve them; thereby making him late. Since he was already overdue, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to stop for a latte’ and sugar bun.

Being the understanding type, I only gave him a written warning, rather than a pink slip. Later that afternoon, I was outside guiding Buffy along her new career path, when I heard Barry talking to two young children. “Don’t mention this to that old guy on the porch,” I heard him say to the youths. His comments provoked my interest, so I sneaked up to one of the windows and peeked inside, making sure Barry didn’t notice me.

Kira and Grange with reading glasses
Kira & Grange Simpson @ Twin Rocks Trading Post.

As I looked on, Barry reached into the cash register and extracted two one dollar bills. “Help me find my reading glasses, and don’t tell that man outside,” he said to the two redheaded children; waving a single at each of them. The children laughed heartily and began turning the Twin Rocks trading post upside down, looking in every nook and cranny for the much desired spectacles.

Barry seemed amazed that their parents did not appear, and how well the children knew the ins and outs of the store. At one point I even heard him comment to the boy and girl that he was especially fond of redheaded kids, because his niece and nephew both had red hair.

At some point the younger child decided he needed visit the water closet and went into the restroom, whereupon the glasses were discovered setting atop an AARP publication on the back of the commode. Barry snatched up the readers, rewarded the children for their good work and turned to go into his office. The kids ran out the front door and, upon stumbling over Buffy and me, said, “Hey dad, look what Uncle Barry gave us.”

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Metaphorical Mayhem

Navajo Monument Valley Rug
Navajo Pictorial Rug

I was overwhelmed with contrary information: What was once good is now bad; the negative has become positive; the villain becomes the hero; and the hero falls from grace. Awareness only confounds the issues, right became wrong and what was fact is truly fiction. My mind was reeling; I was confounded, confused and to be quite frank . . . loving it!

The reason my world was in such a chaotic state was a recent visit to the northland. Laurie, the kids and I were in Provo on another short and quick whirlwind weekend tour of necessity and pleasure. The necessity included doctor visits and the like. The pleasure included, family, food and movie marathons.

On our off hours, Laurie takes great pleasure in visiting with her sisters and enjoys the associated family interaction. I love those girls, but they can only tolerate my contrary attitude and off-kilter sense of humor in short bursts. For their benefit I often excuse myself. Luckily, my brother-in-law, Wade, has similar taste in cinema and cuisine, so we hook-up, drag any kid along who desires the finer things in life and hit the theaters.

On this particular day we took in a Spiderman 3 matinee with Alyssa and later that evening Pirates of the Caribbean, At Worlds End, with Spenser. The only thing that could have improved the day would have been a preview of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Alyssa and McKale did give me a Star Wars III video for Father's Day on Sunday, which we watched in the van on the way home; "Good Stuff".

Navajo Folk Art Sculpture
Navajo Folk Art

"Kids Stuff" you may say! "Brain dead nonsense", think you! Au contrair say I! Marvel Comics, Disney Pictures and yes, even Tolken. Lucas and Spielberg admittedly draw inspiration from clearly established myth, legend and religious dogma. What better to inspire interest in moviegoers than to tap into age old stories that have survived the test of time. It is truly fascinating to witness the mix and presentation of cultures in these movies. Throw in a healthy dose of fantasy, creativity, drama and the excitement of special effects, and "boom, bang, bing!' you have a blockbuster.

I make my kids crazy at these films, they tell me I over-analyze what I perceive to be the metaphor. "Just sit there and watch the movie," they say. "Easier said than done", say I. I have trained myself to keep (mostly) quiet during the show, but after the fact I want to talk about it. The kids have learned to anticipate my wishes and opt out of any discussion as soon as they possibly can.

I am fascinated by the hidden meaning, struggle to interpret the message and can't wait until a new clue is unveiled. Because of the deeper meaning and relationship to basic human emotion the movie comes alive for me. We learn that the lines between good and evil, right and wrong, heroes and villeins are often smudged, unclear in the face of love, hate, fear, pride, greed and jealousy. Human (or alien) emotion is often the cause of great disaster and/or even greater triumph. To discover the intended is great fun; fascinating!

I became interested in various cultures, myth and legend and associated metaphor here in Bluff, and, mostly, at the Twin Rocks trading post. We are gifted with the association of a myriad of unique individuals and beliefs. I feel there is much, much more to learn and room to grow mentally and emotionally. These people, and especially the artists we deal with, are our own personal tutors and mentors.

Navajo Pictorial Basket
Navajo Pictorial Basket by Peggy Black

Through the art we learn of Navajo myth and legend, ceremonial practice and life ways. Walking through the store causes me to ponder the message each piece of art represents. Tales of superheros; unsuspecting activists; disruptive beings; the search for understanding; management of emotion; and the discovery of who and what you are and where your potential lies,"It's in there".

As we share the Navajo interpretations our customers often open up and relate their own parallel thoughts and beliefs. By listening closely and striving to be open-minded, we learn what is important and meaningful to others. This sharing of thoughts and information creates an atmosphere of education around here. We enjoy the interaction on all levels, and find it stimulating to mind and soul.

So, until a Bluff film festival evolves out of the red rock, you may run onto a couple of guys and a couple of kids enjoying an action adventure movie or two somewhere in Utah Valley. If so, be a little patient with the emotional outbursts of the one in the middle. He is probably high on "Killer Dog", hot dogs, hefty doses of carbonated corn syrup and pumped up with metaphorical mayhem.

With warm regards,