Thursday, February 26, 2009


“What time is it?” the customer asked as he hurriedly glanced among the cases of turquoise jewelry on display at the trading post. Surveying the rugs, baskets and sandpaintings displayed on the walls, the man, who was apparently in a hurry to be somewhere else, had noticed there is no clock.

Grange 1st place in Yeibichai
Rock Point Ye’ii bicheii 1st Place Winners.

Looking at my wristwatch, I advised him it was slightly before noon. I added that he need not worry; Bluff is a place where time, in many ways, is irrelevant. Neglecting my advice, he quickly exited the Kokopelli doors and hurried off to his appointment.

As the rest of the world speeds by in an unending, unceasing river of events, our small community in the middle of southeastern Utah’s red rock desert is sheltered from the everyday madness. To be sure, we have our own special insanity; as anyone in the Four Corners will confirm, however, our mania is unique to Bluff and has little to do with the rest of the universe.

Our father, Duke, often reminds us that when he arrived in Bluff shortly after the conclusion of World War II, the Navajo people were still living in an extremely primitive state. As a young man in the 1960s, I saw Navajo families riding in wooden wagons pulled by teams of horses. While the animals clip-clopped along, modern automobiles sped past. The inherent conflict was lost on my underdeveloped mind, but many years later I am amazed by that juxtaposition of cultural icons.

Although the teams and wagons are gone, one can still witness ancient rites like the Ye’ii bicheii being performed by Navajo people inhabiting the surrounding regions. This ceremony, which is also referred to as the Night Chant, is a healing ritual which treats the patient experiencing vision, hearing, mind or balance problems. These illnesses are often diagnosed by a hand trembler, also known as a tinilei yeena’idilkidigii, and the actual event can take several months and numerous ceremonial baskets to arrange.

These timeless traditions exist in the midst of an internet connected, cell phone enabled, Blackberry prevalent environment. In the local elementary school, which has all the technological amenities, the Ye’ii bicheii is taught to children of all colors. The Bluff team, clad in their satin shirts and headdresses, dark trousers, traditional Navajo moccasins, turquoise beads, silver concho belts and medicine pouches recently competed in and won first place at the prestigious Rock Point song and dance competition.

Among the championship team members was Grange, my nine year old son, who is only just beginning to grasp the importance of his participation in this ritual. To him, the singing, chanting and dressing up is simply fun; he does not yet fully appreciate the cultural significance or deep meaning of the Ye’ii bicheii.

In our backyard of sandstone cliffs and prehistoric civilizations, we scramble among the ruins and find pottery shards, petroglyphs and pictographs that remind us of the people who have previously inhabited this location. Evidence of earlier habitation is stacked one on top of the other; Paleoindian, Ancient Puebloan, Spanish, Navajo, Ute, Mormon pioneer and contemporary Anglo are all here in an unbroken chain of events.

The other day Grange requested a hike, so we tied on our boots, filled our water bottles and struck out for the canyons. On top of one boulder we found a cross likely placed there by early Spanish explorers. At another site, there were several petroglyphs; pictures pecked into the sandstone by the people formerly known as the Anasazi. As I admired an elegant spiral indicating eternity and the continuous cycle of life, Grange said, “Hey dad, look at this; a man with three legs.” Innocence, like many things in Bluff, is timeless.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Bluff Pond

Our Father, William Woodrow "Duke" Simpson, tells everyone who will listen that when his boys were just pups he encased them in a burlap bag and tossed them into the Bluff Swimming Hole. He apparently figured that any kid worth his salt would escape the gunny sack. If they made it back to shore he had taught them two invaluable lessons; how to survive and how to swim! If they didn't, . . . well he was young enough to make a few more.

The Bluff Pond
The Bluff Pond by Twin Rocks Trading Post.

When we question our mother, Roseline Marie "Rose" Simpson, "The Rose Among Thorns", about being sacked and dumped, she will neither verify nor deny the account. She simply shakes her head at our father and "tisks". After having fifty some-odd years to contemplate the message behind the allegation, I believe dear old Dad was simply trying to tell us that he recognized the responsibility that went along with having children and took seriously his obligation to adequately prepare us. At this point, I realize that both our parents did, and do, everything in their power to teach us to overcome hardship and live a compassionate and caring life.

Reflecting back on our childhood in this high desert oasis brings back fond memories of super heated days on the rocks, and cool refreshing evenings with family and friends at the Bluff Pond. In an attempt to provide for his young family, Dad built a filling station in the early 1950's. The building, which still stands at the base of Cow Canyon, was of solid, substantial native sandstone. He often traded arts and crafts for gas and oil with the Navajo and Ute people, and then sold the goods to the slow trickle of tourists that found themselves high-centered in this cultural backwater.

After struggling to survive and feed his growing brood in the petroleum business, Dad found better luck driving truck for McFarland Hullinger. He hauled Uranium ore from Fry Canyon off of the crazy, dangerous switchbacks of the Moki Dugway to a mill in Mexican Hat. Mom is of Portuguese decent from San Leandro, California. Dad stole her away from the bright lights of the big city and brought her to Bluff, Utah, where there are only starlight skies over a tiny town. At the time, this was about as far from civilization as one could get; quite an adjustment at any time. Dad says Mom cried for two years straight before settling in. Five kids in six years may have played a significant role in grounding her to this red rock valley.

Dad would arrive home after a treacherous day's work on the road only to face a house full of rambunctious renegades and a frazzled, frustrated Portagee. There were no fast food joints, movie theaters, arcades or even a city park to ease our stress. There was, however, the old swimming hole. Dad knew that he could mitigate the heat, dissipate the tension and calm raw nerves by taking us to the pond. Often there were several family groups, of all local cultures, frolicking in the healing waters in the shadow of the bluffs.

The old swimming hole is located on the east side of Cottonwood wash, facing south, as it opens into the town of Bluff at the back of cemetery hill. The pond rests in a catch basin within an indent of the towering slickrock cliffs. There is a huge locomotive-like rock facing away to the southeast. The talus slope of jumbled, rocky debris at the foot of the cliffs falls right up to the water's edge. The pond is fed by an artesian well which cannot be easily found upon the cold, clammy, heavily mudded bottom. There is a check dam holding back the tide on the western border. From the top of the cliffs to a nearby electrical sub-station, directly over the water, runs several strands of high tension power lines carrying 69,000 volts of raw electricity. The pond is surely heaven on earth on a hot summer day.

What some might perceive to be an over sized mud puddle was, and is, precious to us. That old, dirty swimming hole is as much a part of our family as it is of Bluff. More of that red-stained, silty, arsenic-laced water passed through our sinuses and intestines than I believed was healthy, but we survived. Our memories of the pond are of a happy, carefree time. I recall Dad resting on a truck inner tube, grasping the belt loops of our cut-off Levis' as two of us tugged him around the pond in high style. Mom and the girls rested on the hard packed beach, tossing stones and making cat calls. There were days we felt so hot we released steam as we settled into those cool, refreshing waters. Times were good and bonds grew strong. The old swimming hole will always remind me of family, laughter, joy and love. Oh yeah, throw in an object lesson or two for good measure. Dad would appreciate that we actually figured it out.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

There Must Be a Pony in There Somewhere

Male, female; the sun, the moon; good, bad; positive, negative; compassion, hatred; black, white, all are terms generally considered contradictory; opposite. Just as death follows birth, however, none exists without the other.

Coyote Placing the Stars Navajo Basket by Peggy Black
Coyote Placing the Stars Navajo Basket by Peggy Black

Last week Grange and I were driving to Blanding to attend his first wrestling meeting of the 2009 season. I was too excited to think of anything else, but he obviously had something much more important on his mind. As we drove north in my old Ford pickup, Grange remained quiet. After a time, he inquired whether there is a line on the earth where it is day on one side and night on the other.

My explanation that day and night are progressive concepts which flow into each other in a never-ending stream of light to dark, with lots of gray in between, was unconvincing. He was not yet prepared to agree that the world is in a constant state of flux, and believed there might be a place where we would be in absolute darkness one moment and bright light the next. To him, once we properly identified that point, we would simply step across the line and the world would change.

At Twin Rocks Trading Post, Barry and I long ago became familiar with the Navajo concept of hozho, which incorporates the theme of opposites. In finding the natural balance associated with hozho, one must accept that everything is both male and female, positive and negative; there is no clear division; each abstraction incorporates elements of the other and neither exists independently. Navajo basket weaver Peggy Black often uses this theme. In her Coyote Placing the Stars basket, one can see black mirroring white, chaos emerging from order and identifiable constellations rivaling the randomness of the Milky Way.

As the world spins into what seems like incomprehensible economic disarray, I cannot help but think of Grange. Surely we would all like to step across his imaginary threshold from financial darkness into the light. Instead, we are likely destined to grapple with the difficulties of an impenetrable gloom for some time.

In San Juan County, Utah, we have not felt the strains that other larger, more populated areas of the United States have experienced. We joke with each other about not losing much, because we never had much to lose. In many ways, that comment is accurate. The truth, however, is much more complicated, and much more human. In these strange times, we have begun to remember that we are not opposites; that we are instead inherently intertwined and must rely on each other to thrive in good times and bad.

Artists like Elsie Holiday and Marvin Jim are adjusting their work. They may have become a little more conservative, but are also more thoughtful in their creativity. The return to basic values is apparent everywhere, and we are generally more responsive to the needs of others, even when the only thing we have to offer is emotional support.

While most are wondering what the ultimate result of this crisis will be, we are searching for opportunity; opportunity to expand the art, to improve our business techniques and to infuse our operation with compassion for our neighbors and fellow travelers.

At the trading post these difficult times are resulting in an unexpected benefit; we are all a tad more understanding. It is, at times, hard to know whether we are currently in darkness or light. The answer probably lies, as with all things, somewhere in between, with aspects of both. In every male there is a female, in every disaster an opportunity.

As Jana once said while we stood looking at an extremely large pile of manure, “There must be a pony in there somewhere.”

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Reservation Run

The Navajo Reservation is a mysterious and magical place. Having traveled the rough, twisted and scenic byway from Bluff to Window Rock, Arizona and Gallup, New Mexico more than I can remember, I can honestly say that I never tire of it. It has been about a year since I last journeyed that way, so I was excited when the invitation to speak at the Navajo Nation Museum arrived.

Barry speaking at the Navajo Nation Museum
Barry speaking at Navajo Nation Musuem.

The occasion was the opening of an exhibit featuring Navajo baskets from Twin Rocks Trading Post. The trading post is in possession of a truly magnificent collection of pictorial, geometric and ceremonial baskets brought together over the last 40 years. These weavings provide a comprehensive history of the innovation, creativity and productivity of the Douglas Mesa weavers. They also illustrate inspirational views of ceremony, culture and history of the Navajo people. Clarenda Begay, Exhibition and Collections Curator for the museum, discovered the collection when a portion of it was loaned to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Committee. Ms. Begay introduced us to Manuelito Wheeler, Museum Director, late last year and the rest, as they say, is history.

The loan of approximately 100 baskets was negotiated, and Clarenda went to work. The museum staff created an impressive display, and invited us to their opening ceremonies last Thursday. We were told that for a short talk on the history, meaning and artistry of the baskets, we would be plied with food, drink and attention. We would also be allowed to witness and film several traditional dances. When someone says "Party!" it gets our attention.

Steve was off visiting an ailing friend in California, so we closed Twin Rocks for the day. After securing the cooperation of "The Team" (Tina, Rosita and Priscilla), who brought along all of the camera gear, we piled in the Ford van and headed south on US Highway 191. Good times were to be had by all. As we drove to Window Rock, the monuments and mesas of Navajoland were illuminated by the early morning light. The day was bright and sunny, and the contrast between earth and sky was magnificent. It did not take long before we began to share stories of past experiences and tales of mysterious valleys, ancient hogans and red people of the red earth.

We rolled into Window Rock, unpacked the camera and descended upon the museum to record the event. The museum staff was gracious to a fault. We previewed the show and were impressed at the accuracy of theme and attention to detail. We were soon invited to lunch and found our way to the dining hall. The staff introduced us all around and we were sent to the front of the serving line. Now that's my kind of people!

We sat down to eat and listen to speechs by the Honorable Ben Shelly, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, and George Arthur, Council Delegate/Resource Committee Chair. I realized, again, that when politicians speak you better be prepared to endure an ordeal. Microphones and elected officials seem made for each other. Both men were well spoken and appreciative of the basket loan.

By the time it was my turn, the crowd was in no mood for further comment. I considered offering up my candidacy for Tribal Chairman, but decided the humor would be lost on the now discontented group. Since I was the last on the docket and everyone had long since finished their meal and become fidgety, I decided to let them off easy. Thanking the tribe, museum staff and artists, I relinquished the podium and released the crowd. Everyone seemed to appreciate the gesture, and a sigh of relief passed through the hall as all in attendance quickly got up before anything more could be said.

A group of Navajo teenagers presented several traditional dances that were greatly enjoyed by the crowd. Our own San Juan County Commissioner and Navajo Tribal Council Delegate, Kenneth Maryboy, Mexican Water/Aneth/Red Mesa Chapters, made a brief statement of appreciation and we were done. Vice President Shelly stopped by on his way out and invited me to return for the unveiling of a sacred Buffalo hide shield that had just been reacquired by the tribe; an invitation I will hold him to and anticipate with much enthusiasm.

The pomp and circumstance of the basket exhibit was a great deal of fun. We were thrilled to participate in such an educational and visually appealing event. The show was based on the art of a people, speaking of their culture, lifestyle and history, and was set in the midst of their homeland. It does not get any better than that.

The ride home was just as interesting as the trip down. Tina, Rosita, Priscilla and I revisited our conversation concerning the romantic, less than subtle landscape, and stories of canyon echoes, mountaintop missives and mythological circumstance. I discovered new perspective on an old, well-traveled friend, was inspired by that which stimulates artistry and initiated associations with people of similar interests.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post