Thursday, November 1, 2007

Embracing Change

It was the summer of 1977, and I was sitting at a workbench in the back room of Blue Mountain Trading Post, contemplating what to do next. The trading post had opened a year earlier, and Craig, Barry and I soon recognized the need to develop new work skills. No longer could we get by pumping gasoline, changing tires and checking oil; our employment opportunities had changed and we needed to evolve.

Southwest Jewelry by Craig Simpson
Southwest Jewelry by Craig Simpson

In an effort to ensure a continuing source of walking around money, we had begun to make and repair silver and turquoise jewelry. Craig showed a real talent for it, but Barry and I were scarcely tolerable. As I sat considering what project to begin, my favorite Eagles song, Ol’ Fifty-five, blared in the background on KUTA, AM 790, The Voice of the Canyonlands. As a recent high school graduate, the song’s references to the sun coming up and time passing so quickly were extremely meaningful, and made me think of the new path my life was about to take.

KUTA, the local station, and, as I recall, the only radio signal available in Blanding at that time, was an extremely small operation, with very limited geographic coverage. The last time I toured the old trailer that constituted its broadcast office, the facility seemed in imminent danger of collapse, both physically and financially. There was no water to the building, and the bathroom consisted of a portable camp toilet. Not long after my visit, the station closed permanently, leaving a void on the AM dial.

In the 1970s, southern San Juan County seemed, to me, an isolated, almost impenetrable, fortress. Very few outside influences pierced its secure walls. The roads into this region were serviceable, but not inviting, and the communities were far from mainstream America. I have often thought of them as being more than a little like Mayberry RFD; safe, simple and secure from the influences of the larger environment.

In my mind, radio reception has become a metaphor for the changes occurring in this region of the country. In the not too distant past, there were few reliable signals available between Bluff and Salt Lake City, Phoenix or Denver; the options were severely limited. During the day, you could generally have country, country or a little more country. By night, you might pick up KOMA, a clear channel from Oklahoma City. Fuzzy air time was, however, guaranteed as you descended into the canyons breaching the Colorado Plateau.

Recently I traveled to Salt Lake City, and was amazed how many new stations are currently available. Oldies, country, rap, pop, NPR, classical, Christian and hip hop frequencies are all broadcasting. To individuals living in metropolitan settings, this may seem trivial; to those of us accustomed to more spartan accommodations, however, it is a significant change of circumstances.

When we opened Twin Rocks Trading Post in 1989, there was a lot of talk about technology changing our world. High speed communication, it was argued, was about to alter the way people lived. No longer did we have to persevere in a congested parking lot to make a living, we could reside in even the remotest locations and telecommute. Since Bluff is one of the most isolated places in the United States, that dialogue interested me greatly.

At the time, I concluded the “lone eagle” model did not operate in a community like Bluff, telephone equipment servicing this area was antiquated and would not accommodate new technology; travel into and out of San Juan County was inconvenient, if only because the distances are so vast; and there was no reliable air service within a reasonable distance.

Just as new stations are populating the radio dial, so we have begun to see improved services; regional roads have improved, high speed internet connects us to a broad range of services and cellular telephone waves will soon breach our sandstone walls. As a result, the world has started to discover the benefits of our insulated oasis, and we have begun to appreciate the advantages of that larger environment.

As I flipped through the numerous selections on the radio dial while the miles between Salt Lake City and Bluff rolled away, never staying with one station too long, I was reminded how simple it was when KUTA was the only alternative. Change, it seems, can be complicated.

Lately Grange and I have been reading Melville’s Moby Dick, and in Ishmael I found the inspiration needed to openly embrace the changes occurring in our local culture. “[Y]et see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them,” Ishmael said of his unusual associate, the cannibal Queequeg. Love, it seems, is the balm which softens our emotions, and allows us to embrace the changes we fear; love of place, love of one’s companions and love of progress.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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