Friday, August 28, 2009

The Storyteller

The young man stood close to the sales counter, his eyes slightly downcast. With his freshly scrubbed face and in his carefully pressed walking shorts and polo shirt, he was the picture of a well-bred, well-mannered boy. Digging the toe of his river sandaled foot into the carpet, he answered his mother’s inquiry with a determined, “No.” Unfortunately for him, his body language admitted what he would not.

1960's Natural Gem Grade Bisbee Turquoise Heavy Gauge Silver Bracelet
1960's Natural Gem Grade Bisbee Turquoise Heavy Gauge Silver Bracelet

A few minutes earlier as he and his parents entered the trading post, his father had gently, but firmly, instructed him to keep his hands in his pockets and not touch anything. Giving the boy a trickster’s wink, I inquired, “How will we make any money if kids are not allowed to break a thing or two?” The boy’s parents did not overtly express displeasure, but their disappointment was apparent. I imagined them thinking, “Do not listen to that bad man. He will only cause you problems. You can tell from looking at him that he is trouble.”

Barry and I had been preparing to price certain antique jewelry pieces, so a Ray Lovato tab necklace, several bracelets, some earrings and a few brooches were on the counter. Apparently, the young man had not been able to restrain his curiosity, and had reached across the glass to more closely inspect one of the bracelets. As he did so, his inexperienced fingers fumbled and the cuff tumbled to the floor. It was at that moment the young man made a grave error.

Giving him a sharp look, his mother asked, “Did you touch that after we specifically asked you to keep your hands in your pockets?” “No!,” he answered far too quickly, trapping himself before he knew what had happened. At that point the inquisition and lecture ensued. “Sweetheart, don’t you know you should never lie to your parents? What kind of man will you grow up to be if you can’t tell the truth? I am not angry, I just need you to be honest; don’t tell me any stories” When the boy still could not bring himself to admit his mistake, his mother said, “This is the way it starts, with a small, insignificant lie, and the next thing you know, you are stealing cars and going to prison for a very long time. Do you want to go to prison?”

Her last comment startled me. Up to that point I was completely supportive and felt she had been quite compassionate. Stealing cars and going to prison was, however, overstating things a bit. Not that I hadn’t used precisely the same logic on my children when they were young. These parents, however, appeared much better prepared to guide their child in the proper ways of the world than I had been at their age. I have since learned a great deal about parenting, and work hard at not making insupportable statements.

As the couple walked out with their newly minted miscreant in tow, their comments reverberated in my mind. Although I had wanted to intervene in his behalf, out of respect for his parents, and with the hope he would soon redeem himself, I refrained from doing so.

Barry gave me a knowing look and went back to his office. Standing by the cash register, I watched the little family cross the parking lot and get into their car. They were extremely nice, and I regretted seeing the young man in trouble. As their vehicle pulled away, I sat down at the computer to write the next Tied to the Post essay.

When I had finished the story, I asked Barry to let me read it to him. “Did that really happen?” he asked. “Yes,” I said defensively, looking down at the floor and digging my toe into the carpet.

Looking at me with a penetrating stare and a smirk on his face, Barry said, “You shouldn’t tell stories. What kind of man will you grow up to be if you can’t tell the truth? The next thing you know, you will be stealing cars, going to prison for a very long time and getting tattoos.” I couldn’t help thinking, “Tattoos?”

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Natural World

The other morning I saw a magnificent sunrise. I had to be in Bluff early, so I left the house before dawn and was graced with the amazing spectacle. It had rained the night before, so the earth smelled fresh, new. The heavy cloud cover made it darker than usual. Before I left the house, I hurried into the garden and picked a handful of fresh peas, two small tomatoes and a cob of sweet corn for breakfast. To me, there is nothing more tasty than vegetables straight from the garden. I hopped into the torpedo shaped Previa, pointed its nose south, split a shell and popped a few glorious peas into my mouth.

Navajo Fire Dance Ceremony Basket

Cruising slowly towards Bluff, and munching my freshly picked appetizers, I inhaled the refreshing fragrance of earth and sky flowing in through the open window. Approaching the newly mowed hayfields just south of Blanding, I looked to the east and was struck by a sky more wondrous than Elizabeth Taylor's eyes. The heavens were a magnificent lavender, with accents of vanilla highlights brushed across it. The whole scene was embellished with a tinge of rose blush about the edges. Driving to Bluff took approximately 35 minutes, and during that time the sky constantly transformed, ebbing and flowing in ever changing modifications of light and color. It was almost a shame to drop into the warm morning glow embracing Cow Canyon and leave behind this enchanted scene.

Often I speak of the natural world, probably because it often speaks to me. The Navajo people declare that humans were created of Earth and Sky, introduced through water, supported by wind and nourished by corn. Every aspect of human creation is recognized and granted sacred status. When I look closely at their interpretations, I see that every element of this creation story, every nuance, is essential to their survival and understanding.

Consistent with the Navajo traditions, modern science tells us that our bodies are primarily water (H2O); 65-90% by weight. Fundamentally we are oxygen molecules. Carbon, the basic unit for organic organisms, comes in second. In fact, 99% our bodies is comprised of just six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. The parallels among our differing stories are striking. As human beings with vastly varying life experiences, we simply interpret the stories differently.

When our parents, Duke and Rose Simpson, came to this less than hospitable river valley I doubt they realized the cultural implications. Our mother was educated in parochial schools, and was determined to familiarize us with Catholicism. The traveling priest was scheduled to pass through town once a month, but often missed his appointments because of other, more pressing, obligations. Concerned about raising a group of heathens, and undaunted in her religious efforts, Mom, with Dad's stern support, herded us over to Saint Christopher's Episcopal Mission, where Craig and I were installed as alter boys. Our parents adapted and evolved.

A multitude of rich and varied cultures surrounded us; Ancient Puebloan, Navajo, Ute, a smattering of outlaws and, from Bluff's founding fathers, Latter Day Saints. Most people would have been confounded by the convoluted infusion of articles of faith, natural interpretations and archaeological hypotheses. My wife, Laurie, will tell you that this is the origin of my addled state of mind. Our parents did their best to introduce us to all these traditions. They patiently counseled us to educate ourselves to all, take what we considered the best and most thoughtful from each and build a firm foundation from the available materials.

It was from the Navajo that I acquired my love of the natural world, and my desire to know more about myths and legends flowing in from all corners of the globe. Listening to Navajo creation stories and embracing the simple, basic elements of life illuminated the world around me. These tales allowed me to experience the unique color variations of dawn and dusk; the depth and emotion of landscape rendered texture, the visual uniqueness and appeal of stunted Juniper trees; the invigorating aroma of sage and rabbit brush at various seasons of the year; and the humor and life lessons of the animal kingdom. These experiences came from listening to traditional stories and interpreting Native art. In doing so, I gained a grasp of many simple realities.

For example, when I see turquoise I visualize a fractured piece of the sky thrown to earth as a gift of the gods. For me, Navajo rugs portray enchanting mountains, mesas and monuments enhanced with thunder, lightning and much desired moisture. In baskets I see sacred ceremony and life ways essential to the upward movement and forward motion of tradition and culture. In the art of the Navajo people, and the stories it tells, I see a sensitivity to the earth, sky and water. In it I witness an age old honor and respect for that which we depend upon to survive. I see common ground.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, August 14, 2009

In Search of the Old Ones

Not long ago I was leaning on the counter, thumbing through a copy of In Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts, when a couple from Flagstaff began pushing on the Kokopelli doors. The book, which is about the Anasazi culture, has been on my “to read” list for several years. Like many things, however, I never seem to find time for it.

Navajo Monument Valley Mitten Basket
Navajo Monument Valley Mitten Basket

Not wanting to risk losing a potential customer in these challenging economic times, I put down the book and hurried around the counter to assist them. The trading post doors have gotten old and cranky. The automatic closer (not being mechanically inclined, I am at a loss for the correct term), has gotten sticky, requiring a strong push to enter and a powerful tug to exit the store.

Although Barry and I have attempted several repairs, none has been completely successful, and the thing-a-ma-bob is surely doomed. Replacing it, however, has been difficult because acknowledging that it is worn out will also be acknowledging the obvious; that it is not the only old and cranky thing that needs to be replaced. Barry and I realize we are not far down that list.

The couple wandered into the back room and noticed several piles of Navajo baskets Barry and I had laid out for transfer to the Utah Natural History Museum. We recently concluded an arrangement to convey our collection of approximately 300 weavings to the institution. After 30 years of accumulating, Barry and I have a serious case of separation anxiety, so we wanted to live with the baskets for a while longer before shipping them to their new home. The collection not only chronicles the evolution of contemporary Navajo basketry from its earliest days until now, it represents much of our work as Indian traders. Aside from being beautiful art, each piece serves as a repository of trading post memories.

Looking through the stacks with us, the couple was amazed by the variety, creativity and beauty of the baskets. As a result, they stayed for hours talking about Mary Holiday Black, Elsie Holiday, Joann Johnson and Lorraine Black, and the extraordinary creativity these artists have exhibited over the years. Barry and I explained how the art seems to be contracting, and that many of the basket weavers have slowed their production or quit weaving altogether. We talked about the halcyon days of basketry and discussed a time when the traditional Navajo people regularly came into the store with their beautiful turquoise jewelry, traditional clothing and leather moccasins. Admittedly, we were all a bit melancholy as we discussed the loss of traditional culture, including Navajo basket weaving.

At one point, the couple wandered past the cash register and noticed my book laying open on the counter. Picking it up, they read the title and, referring to the Navajo rather than the Anasazi, asked, “Where have all the old ones gone.” “I don’t know,” I responded, “but I genuinely miss them.”

Their question reminded me of Espee Jones, an elderly Navajo man who used to come into Twin Rocks Trading Post to pawn his rifles and turquoise beads. Espee had a congenital hip problem and walked with a severe limp. In spite of that, he was generally cheerful and fun to talk with. I always wanted to photograph him, but never seemed to have the right equipment when he arrived.

As pawn became complicated by gun registration laws and a variety of other issues, Barry and I determined to give it up. When we explained to him that we would no longer be pawning, Espee shook his head knowingly, and said, “Okay, just for me then?” It almost broke my heart to tell him that we would not be doing it for anyone, including him.

Although I never knew if the story was true or not, several years later I was told that one day Espee decided he had lived long enough and simply walked out into the desert to let nature take its course. I guess Barry and I have gone soft on old people and old things. Maybe we will hang on to that door thing-a-ma-bob a little longer, if only for sentimental reasons.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, August 7, 2009

It's Fly By Me!

Tis the season of the fly; the pesky little buggers are everywhere. I have to say there is no love lost between me and those miniature, hairy-legged, bug-eyed fiends. Through the years I have discovered that these "super brats" of the insect world gather on the trading post porch during the evening to rest and rejuvenate. If I catch them before the morning sun discovers our protected little alcove, I can quash a large number before they fire up their Messerschmidt's and begin to pester me.

Old Navajo Couple Carving.

The other morning I was out early, "whacking winged ones" and happily counting casualties. I was so engrossed in my task that I was not paying attention to anything around me. From behind I heard someone say; "Don't kill the messenger dude!" I turned quickly, a bit embarrassed at my over-zealous behavior and surprised someone had come up on me. Because of the nomenclature the speaker used and his well spoken manner, I was expecting . . . well I don't know what I was expecting. What I found was a short, rail thin, elderly Navajo man with a heavily weathered brow.

Dude? I thought to myself. The slightly built old-timer smiled brightly from underneath his marred and soiled, faded green and gold John Deere baseball cap. Pure white hair recklessly forced itself from underneath the bedraggled crown. He pursed his lips at the stone wall I had been impregnating with flattened flies and said, "The messenger, Hoss!" "Hoss?" I said. "Short for Hasteen," the wrinkled little man said, "Mr. in Navajo". Shaking my head in consternation, I said; "Don't you mean, 'Don't shoot the messenger' or 'Don't shoot the piano player?'" "You weren't shooting and there is no piano, you were killing flies . . . Messenger Flies, Slick!"

"Slick?" I looked the wizened character over carefully while I contemplated his intimation and manner of using pet names. I noticed he was dressed in a red and black plaid, short sleeved, western style shirt underscored by a white t-shirt. The shirt was tucked neatly into fairly new Wrangler jeans, which were pulled up far too close to his armpits. His, overly long pants were rolled up at the cuff, exposing about four inches of denim viewed from the inside out. White socks encased bony ankles, which poked out of half boots. The footware was of a well worn, blond leather variety, with matching laces, round toe, heavy soles and traces of red mud. Around his slender middle, woven through his belt loops, was an aged black dress belt with a plain, once gold buckle.

Coming out of my trance, I said "Dotso! You are speaking of Dotso, Messenger Fly, aren't you? The Navajo guardian that is all-wise and can help you know the unknown?" "Well Bubba," said my well-dressed friend, "If you know who he is, why are you smashing him?" "Because he bothers me," I said, "and that wasn't him anyway, it was his other brother Darryl, the bad seed of the family. He deserved it" The man's brown eyes twinkled merrily, then became serious as he said, "If we killed everything that bothers us or those we feel deserve it, there won't be anything or anyone left will there? Maybe the fly was trying to tell you something."

"Oh great," I thought to myself, "A little, old, unabashed Navajo philosopher." "Who are you," I asked, "Yoda?" Just then there came an obtrusive "HONK" from the parking lot. I turned and saw a rusted out, 1970-something, red and silver Ford pickup truck trembling in the graveled driveway. Sitting behind the wheel was a female version of the man. From what I could see, she wore a translucent pink scarf over her tightly pulled-back gray hair and traditional bun. A faded red valor blouse covered her gaunt torso. I imagined a complimentary colored satin skirt covering her hips and white socks with sneekers on her bony feet.

The old guy turned to go, then paused, turned back, and said, "Use the Force Luke. Believe in it and it will believe in you!" I waved my fly swatter at the guy as he departed. "Luke!" I mumbled to myself. He climbed up beside his mate in the belching beast and waved good-bye. The woman ground out a gear with the stick shift, pumped the gas pedal and popped the clutch. I could see the force of the take-off throw them back in their seats as the rickety old truck found a few horsepower and sped away in a cloud of gray dust and black exhaust. A fitting departure for an altogether weird experience.

A few days later, Laurie, Alyssa, McKale and I were returning home from Provo after an outing that covered everything from doctor appointments, back to school shopping and a wedding reception. It had been a crazy weekend. I was ready to get back home and to the trading post where I felt warm and comfortable. As we drove towards Spanish Fork Canyon, McKale let out a groan. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw my daughter waving a book in the air as if trying to smack something. "There's a nasty fly in here," she said, "help me kill it!"

"Don't kill the messenger, Snot Box!" I said, "It's trying to tell you something." "Snot Box?" said McKale with much disdain in her voice, "Who are you calling 'Snot Box', what the heck is a Messenger Fly and why would it be speaking to me?" All heads turned my way as they waited for a plausible explanation. "I'm just sayin," I began.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post