Friday, February 26, 2010

River Monsters and Such

Recently, while sitting at my desk researching Water Monster, a Navajo mythological creature, I heard the Kokopelli doors swing open. To get a better look, I scooted back far enough to see the entrance. Standing in the center of the large Klagetoh rug that graces the entry was a raggedy character. As I watched, he bobbed his head in either agitation or appreciation, I could not decide which. Raising myself from the chair, I entered the store hesitantly and greeted the shaggy young man with a smile and began to say hello when, "Boom!" he shouted in a high-pitched falsetto, "This place really grabs ya!" I am sure my step faltered and my face betrayed a trace of shock, because the youth smiled shyly and said, "Sorry man, I didn't mean to scare ya."

Navajo Klagetoh Weaving

"More of a surprise than a scare", I replied. We both laughed. "I know I can't afford anything in here," he said politely, "but I would really like to use your facilities." The kid looked like he could use a shower as well. Covering his bony torso was an old Community College of Denver T-shirt with an orange flame-looking flower on the left breast. The smock had once been a purple/blue color, but the sun had faded it and it was now the shade of well worn Wrangler jeans. Barely covering his skinny backside was a wrinkled pair of Khaki hiking pants, the kind you unzip at the knees to make into shorts. On his feet was a heavily soiled pair of once yellow flip-flops. His clump of dirty blond hair, unshaven face and bright blue eyes were pleasant enough, so I nodded my head in the direction of the . . . head.

When he returned, the twenty-something queried, "Isn't all this moisture we're getting great?" I looked outside at the slushy rain falling in the parking lot and nodded in agreement. "Man," he said, "when this stuff melts and hits the San Juan she is going to be a beast! When it does I'm going to be here. That's the way I like it!" In my brain a light came on. "So you're a river runner," I said. "Yep, a guide," he responded. Remembering my interrupted studies, I said, "Well don't let Water Monster get you." "Who's that?" he asked, stepping closer. I explained that Water Monster ruled the river, at least below the surface and if people showed the proper respect and paid him appropriate homage Water Monster may allow them access and not pull them under. "Good to know," said the young man, "What does he look like?" "According to legend" I explained, "Water Monster looks very much like an otter, but with horns like a buffalo. His young looks something like buffalo calves, but have spots of all colors, yellow hands and a generally strange appearance. Some people say Water Monster resembles Thunder, but with an elongated body." "Hmmm," mused the scruffy fellow, "so if I see something really strange, that might be him or his kids." "You got it," I nodded in agreement. The youth told me he appreciated the heads-up and assured me he would do his best to be respectful and use this new information when introducing his clients to the river. He thanked me and headed back out into the slush.

Returning to my office, something the kid said struck me like a bolt. "She is going to be a beast!" he had said. From my library, I fished out Indians and Outlaws, a San Juan County standard. Searching through its index, I was directed to Chapter Seven. In that book, Albert R. Lyman, an early pioneer and settler of Bluff, spoke of the San Juan River thusly, "If the depredations of Indians and white thieves lacked any of the stimulating elements of adversity needed by the people of Bluff, that element was more than supplied by the river, which like a 'grim monster' ravaged their irrigation ditch. What still remained of the ditch was about level-full of silt, but much worse still, a hundred rods of the ditch had been cut away with all the bottom land in that quarter on which another ditch could be made. The river boiled along the base of the vertical cliff, as if exulting in final victory over any more ditch building." Year after year, the pioneers rebuilt that irrigation ditch in an attempt to bring life-giving moisture to their minimal crops. Almost every year, however, the Mormon settlers watched dejectedly as the fruits of their labor were flushed downstream with the spring run-off.

Looking for something positive about the local rivers, I pulled Sacred Land Sacred View by Robert S. McPherson from the shelf. Turning to Chapter Four, I read, "Another powerful source in the [Navajo] universe is the river. Like the sacred mountains that bound Navajo territory, there are four potent rivers inhabited by holy beings who answer prayers and provide protection. Everything within the boundaries of the Rio Grande, San Juan, Colorado, and Little Colorado rivers is protected and sacred, but that which extends beyond these limits is foreign and dangerous. And, the San Juan is a powerful river described as an older man with hair of white foam, as a snake wriggling through the desert, as a flash of lightning, and as a black club of protection to keep invaders from Navajolands. Within it is a holy being who married a female, the Colorado River, and where the two spirits joined in nuptial bliss, they created water children of the cloud and rain people." I also pulled Gladys Reichard's book on Navajo religion and found this reference, "River waters are associated with beauty and happiness and are, often, mentioned in Navajo song and prayer. The belief is that man is aided by the elements on his walk through life. Water is significant in becoming one with the universe, it is cleansing and sustaining, in harmony with life giving and life preserving principles."

That was it, the key I ultimately realized is harmony, balance and acceptance. As with all things, we must recognize both the positive and negative aspects of our lives and what we see in others. Remembering the skinny and scruffy character who had so recently visited Twin Rocks Trading Post, I wondered at my initial impression. When he first sounded off, I thought he was a genuine Fruit Loop. After we had spoken for a while, however, I found him pleasant and unassuming; gregarious, but acceptably so. He cared only to see the San Juan River at its fiercest, while the pioneers wanted it tamed. Water Creature can drag you to your death, but only if you are careless and do not respect the power and danger he represents. When it comes to the San Juan, the Navajo seem to have struck a balance. They see the river as a living being offering protection and blessings, but they are always wary of what dwells below. One day that young man may learn to enjoy a casual float, just as the pioneers learned to love the San Juan River in all stages of flow.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, February 19, 2010

O-Pinon Cream

It is often said that Bluff is a place where everyone has strong opinions. Community issues universally get a thorough vetting, and arguing is a passion, not just a pastime. When I was a child growing up in this community of 250 residents, it was frequently noted that Bluff had the highest number of Ph.D.'s per capita of any community in the United States. It had a grand total of one, but with our small population that was enough to distinguish us from the rest of the country.

Steve with Nellie's O-Pinon Cream @ Twin Rocks.

We now have numerous inhabitants holding doctorates, including a distinguished public service lawyer who attended Harvard Law with President Obama. Countless others have undergraduate and graduate degrees. Bluff is without a doubt the most intelligent community I have ever seen; even the dummies are smart. Well, most of them anyway.

One might rightfully ask how Barry and I exist in such an enlightened environment. As a means of survival, we have learned to listen carefully, nod our heads often and say things like, “right on,” “okay” and “yes, I understand.” While that strategy has been mostly successful with our spouses, it has created more than a few problems at the trading post.

The latest concern arose when Nellie Tsosie came into Twin Rocks to sell a batch of her world renowned Pinon Cream. Nellie wanted to know when the economy might improve. She was not worried about broad economic indicators, this was personal. Apparently things had been slow at the pinon refinery and her cash reserves had run out. “Well, right on,” I said. “Yes, sure, we understand,” Barry agreed, nodding his head.

Nellie let us know in no uncertain terms that our responses were unsatisfactory. She wanted concrete answers, not platitudes. It seems things were about to get serious, and Nellie knew hard times demanded decisive action. Barry and I finally had to admit we did not have an opinion on the matter. In frustration, Nellie stormed out. “Well, right on,” Barry said.

Less than 48 hours later Nellie returned with her latest invention, O-Pinon Cream. “This stuff is guaranteed to work,” she declared. “If you hard heads can’t independently form an idea, O-Pinon Cream is what you need! You’ll have more damn opinions than you can possibly express!” “Does it really work?” I asked. Without hesitation she shot back, “Does my Miracle Cream work?” We had to admit she had a point, her Miracle Cream is, well, a miracle.

Wondering how you might apply this new invention, Barry and I gave her obviously confused looks. “Well, how do you think?” she asked. We had to admit we really did not know. “You rub it on your head,” she whispered as if disclosing a closely guarded secret. “That’s the complication,” she continued, “We’ll have to shave your heads.”

“Well, right on,” Barry said. Within minutes we had rounded up a shaver and Nellie began removing our locks. Once the job was complete, she dug into her gallon jug, took two big hands full and massaged the goo onto our newly exposed pates. “You can’t wash your head for 72 hours,” she cautioned. “Guaranteed to work!” she again declared.

“Now,” she said “that’ll be Five Hundred Bucks, Seven Fifty if you want the jar. Opinions are expensive.” Knowing Nellie’s reputation for creating powerful salves, we gladly paid the tariff. “See, the economy is already improving,” she said. Stuffing the cash in her pocket, she ambled out, whistling Another One Bites the Dust.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, February 12, 2010


A few months ago, our friend K. Carpenter brought us a new book by noted Utah author Gerald N. Lund. The book, entitled The Undaunted, The Miracle of the Hole-in-the-Rock Pioneers, relates how Bluff was settled. It is because of this gift I have been reading more about the history of our community. As a result, I spent a lot of time thinking about the pioneers who established our fair city. I have considered the elusive outlaws who inhabited the area, the pushy Texas cattle companies and the feisty Native people caught betwixt and between westward expansion and religious expression. The clash of cultures that occurred when that long drawn-out wagon train of down and out Mormon missionaries first rumbled into this little river valley must have reverberated around these red rock cliffs like cannon fire. Each and every one of those groups felt they had inherent rights and privileges in this little patch of heaven. I can just see those diverse groups looking down on the Mormons from their particular vantage point, and asking "What the heck?!"

Navajo Three Yeis Weaving

My wife and kids, who are descendants of Jens Nielson, the first Mormon Bishop of Bluff, are forever getting after me because of my contrasting character. Whenever a controversial issue arises concerning the who, what, where, when, why and how of Bluff, and those involved in Laurie's genesis, I usually side with the opposition. To me, emotional issues are generally the most interesting and rife for stimulating confabulation. Never mind that this form of conversation has a habit of returning to roost on my proverbial back side. Maybe that explains why my rear end is persistently shrinking and my belly growing. Laurie tells me that is what happens when you get old and contrary. I, however, see this type of interaction as research which is necessary to my education and development. My wife views this "character flaw" as "unfortunate aggravation."

Recently Laurie and I became ensnared in a conversation about the impact of the Mormon contingent on the preexisting populations of Bluff. Laurie's argument was that her ancestors introduced a calming and progressive influence upon the land and its people. My reply was, "Yah like lye soap! It may clean your pores, but you are going to loose some hide and hair in the process." Seriously, what would you have thought if a wagon train full of highly industrious and devout, albeit exhausted, pilgrims parked at your favorite summer recreation area and began planting seeds? And what if you were a notorious outlaw hiding among the upended rocks and twisted cedars of this far-flung desolation and were suddenly overrun by scores of proselytizing patricians. When a group of Latter Day Saints moves in next door they often bring cake, then thoughtfully challenge you to change your evil ways.

The Texas cattle companies, so prevalent on the mesa tops and lush mountainsides of southeastern Utah before the Mormon arrival, were bought out and escorted from the area. Not because they wanted to leave, but because they kept loosing top hands to missionary maidens. Many a rank and raucous Texas cowboy was broke, branded and walking in white before he knew what kicked him. These hands were converted from the dark side and dunked in the cleansing waters, all because they were tempted by a pretty, young, trail-tested and endurance-approved saintly sister. Cattle barons could not maintain an inventory of trail bosses in the land of Zion, so they trailed off kickin' horse biscuits and cussin' the brethren for their bovine misfortune.

Later on, and further north, the Mormon immigrants attempted to teach the flinty tough and tenaciously unyielding Paiutes and their equally obstinate Ute cousins conformity through love and understanding. Unfortunately for these Native inhabitants, they were intentionally slow on the uptake and hesitant to give up their free-spirited lifestyle. Love and logic can only be offered and rejected for so long before the offerors realize they have been Polked in the eye. That break down in communications cost Posey a lead stinger in his retreating posterior and a painful demise. For the remaining Native participants, the price of following a misguided prince was internment in a wire cage. Laurie argued that her people suffered and lost as well. Their history also includes tragedies, persecutions and suffering. "No one is perfect," Laurie said, gazing knowingly at me. "At least my ancestors approached the situation with an open mind and compassionate heart", she added. Thinking I had pushed my contradiction far enough, I was reminded how Brother Brigham Young admonished his followers that it was better to feed the Indians than fight them, better to become their friends than incur their ill will.

Currently I am re-reading Indians and Outlaws by Albert R. Lyman. Like Jens Nielson, Brother Lyman was one of the first settlers of Bluff. He is a wonderfully well-spoken writer, and I love his perspective on life and missives about an incredibly trying journey through the Hole in the Rock. His interactions with Posey, the Outlaw of Navajo Mountain, are extremely interesting. One thing I did take issue with was Albert R's perspective on how the Navajo broke so many treaties with the United States government. What was not known then, but is common knowledge today, is that the Navajo did not have a chief. Instead, there were clan leaders, generally a respected elder who spoke for his extended family. There was no one large and in charge of the entire tribe. So, a treaty with one clan was often unknown to and unbinding upon other clans. Thus, such agreements were considered invalid by the vast majority of the tribe. And . . . if you wish to criticize someone for breaking treaties, you might take it up with the U.S. Government. The history books are full of deceit and deception on the part of our trusted leaders, in the name of "Manifest Destiny".

All in all, Bluff is a wonderful place to live and learn; there are still Indians, outlaws, cattleman and Mormons. Although the Saints retreated for a while, to settle better climes to the north, they are moving back with great enthusiasm. The best part about it is that we all get along. Oh sure, we have our differences, and there are some of us who will do our darnedest to stir up a blinding dust-devil of controversy. The community, as a whole, however does its best to learn from its history and grow together in a diverse and adaptive manner. It would be better if more writers had recorded their thoughts and emotions, but at least we have some material from those who did. To ensure historic accuracy for our day and time it is essential we get out our pads and pencils, exciting times are afoot. Just be sure to leave out the nonsense.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Born To Trade

Shortly after I arrived at Twin Rocks Trading Post, I began to question whether my decision to come home and enter the family business was preordained or a matter of free will. For many months I vacillated between the two alternatives; was it destiny or personal choice. Initially I was convinced it was the result of a conscious decision on my part, but as the months rolled by I was less and less sure.

Steve @ Twin Rocks Trading Post

Wrestling with this question for days on end, I began to believe it is suspicious how seemingly unimportant occurrences turn out to be the most important happenings in one’s life. The entire course of your time on earth can be altered by a seemingly innocuous decision; right or left, yes or no. Admittedly, coming to Bluff was a major change, but in reality was the result of an ostensibly trivial choice made years before.

The day the Simpson family acquired its first television set in the early 1960s, an interesting but certainly not groundbreaking event, would turn out to be one of those life altering incidents. Back then not many families in Bluff had TV. Of course back then there were not many families in Bluff anyway. The original signal came through a two strand wire held together by cylindrical black spacers. That cable was lashed to small towers and slug over the cliffs, a crude but workable system; at least until the wind blew. Remnants of this early network can still be seen protruding from the sandstone behind the trading post.

Although I do not recall much about the early programming, I can still remember the broadcast symbol which came on at the end of the day and hear the humming sound that accompanied it just before the television went dead. Although I have never been a great fan TV, there was one program I really loved. No, it was not I Love Lucy or Mayberry R.F.D., it was in fact Let’s Make a Deal.

It was probably not until the show came to nighttime television in 1971 that I realized the impact it was having on my life. I remember sitting on the edge of my chair each night as the contestants tried to outsmart the host Monty Hall. Their goal was to take home the super prize, rather than the mediocre gift they had been initially awarded. “Choose door number 3” or “Don’t fall for that, it’s a trap,” I would shout at them, as though they could hear my advice.

Soon I discovered myself trying to make deals whenever possible; a few bucks for an old watch, an old watch for a turquoise ring. When I found myself at Twin Rocks I was like a pig in slop, I fit right in. Big deals or small deals, it made no difference; I was a deal junkie.

One day Bob Slaven wandered into the trading post. Bob was a legendary trader who bartered literally anything; guns, saddles, coins, jewelry, feed, horses, cars. Whatever you needed, he usually had and was willing to swap. Once, during my tenure as a single man, I even considered asking Bob if he had any prospective brides among his trade goods, but decided that was an idea better left alone. Bob would surely have one, and I would end up with the short straw.

Bob had been on my radar for some time, but realizing he could end my trading career in one short afternoon of negotiating, I had studiously avoided him. Standing behind the counter as he approached, I tried to be brave. I was, however, genuinely worried. “What do you have to trade,” he casually inquired. I surveyed my stock of Navajo rugs, turquoise jewelry and folk art. I even thought of offering up Barry. In the end, however, there was nothing I could afford to lose, and losing was a sure thing when it came to trading with Bob.

“Let’s Make a Deal,” he said. The words shook me to my core. Here was a trader I actually feared using my own strategies against me. Screwing up my courage, I resolutely said, “No, Bob, I’m not trading with you today!” Bob looked as though he had been struck in the face. He was not, however, the type to give up easily. Attempting to draw me in he said, “You’re a smart guy. You can handle it.” “Yes,” I said, “smart enough to know when I’m outgunned.” As Bob walked out the door I felt badly for him, he lived to trade. I had spoiled his fun by refusing to engage, and Bob was sorely disappointed.

As I watched Bob climb into his pickup truck and drive away, I began to think trading must be genetic. Let’s Make a Deal had only brought out the latent tendencies that smoldered deep in my breast. Like Bob, I was born to trade.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.