Friday, April 30, 2010


“All I need is gas money,” she said, staring straight into my eyes. It was Friday afternoon, and the week had been long and hard. As a result, her logic escaped me and her words rambled around my head in an incomprehensible, irreconcilable jumble. “All I need is a little money for gas,” she reiterated, noting the far away look in my eyes. “Okay, but what does that have to do with me?” I inquired. “Barry told me about a woman on the other side of the state, over by Torrey, who wants pinon cream. I can’t get over there without gas!”

Nellie Tsosie @ Twin Rocks Trading Post

“Barry is out of town. You can take it up with him Monday. This is after all the Great Recession. I’m not the bank. Don’t you know this is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? Barry made me promise not to loan money anymore. Who is going to give me gas money? I won’t be able to eat lunch. I’m hungry,” I said in an irrational stream of consciousness that baffled her as much as she had me.

Apparently it was going to be one of those, “every day is a new opportunity to learn,” experiences at Twin Rocks Trading Post. Knowing full well what the answer would be, I said, “All right, why should I be the one to buy your gas.” “Who else is going to do it? We’re practically kin,” she responded. “I don’t want you to give me the money, I have cream,” she reassured me. “I have oodles of cream,” I countered. “Well, get some more,” she pushed back.

As always, Nellie’s timing could not have been better. Just a few hours earlier, I had been talking with an elderly man about his experiences on the Navajo Reservation. Bringing up the issue of legacy, he had said, “It’s not about what you take, it’s about what you leave behind. It’s not about acquisition, it’s about connecting with people.” I was still pondering the importance of his statements when Nellie rolled in looking for economic stimulation. As she explained to me, she had to keep the wheels turning or they might fall off.

Over the years, Nellie has used many traditional techniques to sell her pinon cream to Barry and me. First it was novelty, then the soft sell, then the hard sell, then hugs and now it was . . . family. It was as if she had read my mind, and knew the exact method to use. I began to wonder whether the old fellow had been a plant, maybe Nellie had sent him in to soften me up.

By this time Nellie knew she had me, so she headed for the pickup. Bringing in her inventory, she began stacking bottles on the counter, mentally calculating how many it would take for a round trip to Torrey. Indicating additional containers, I said, “Add those, you will need cash for pop and chips.” “What about sandwiches?” she asked. In full retreat now, I sighed, “Okay, write it up, I can’t have you going hungry.”

As Nellie pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto the highway, the old gentleman’s words came back to me, “It’s not about what you take, it’s about what you leave behind . . . it’s about connecting with the people.” Although she had taken my money, unknowingly Nellie had left me with something important. “We’re practically kin,” she had said, indicating that we are all one family. I felt . . . connected.

This experience reminded me of the old African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I guess the corollary is that once the child is raised, it takes a family to support the adult.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Another Coyote Tale

And they all still came! The bold and brassy Bear; the sleek and cunning Cougar; and the elegant, high-flying Eagle. Even though they knew better, they still showed up. The rangy and rank Wolf; the racy red, ghostly gray and steel blue kit foxes all came, along with the crafty, and usually cautious, Great Horned Owl. Coyote even invited his brother, the stocky and stubborn Badger. They made themselves available despite their unimpaired knowledge of how chaotic Coyote was known to be. They made their way to the small table mesa by way of the cottonwood-encrusted wash just a few miles from the little river valley surrounded by red rock bluffs. Their arrival corresponded with the rise of the full moon in the crazy, mixed-up time of year claimed by Coyote himself. The mesa rose above the surrounding countryside as a platform topped by a single, long dead and mightily twisted Juniper tree. There stood a large boulder to the east and the surface was pockmarked by waterpockets in the sandstone and thin patches of desert soil. A medium sized pile of wood was placed to the west of the boulder, almost dead center of the island in the sky. With his keen yellow eyes, the master of mayhem himself rested on his haunches just in front of the large boulder watching their arrival, as would any respectful and patient master of ceremonies.

Coyote Storyteller

The whole idea behind this meeting came about last winter as Coyote visited the southern boundaries of his vast territory. The ground was cold, covered in early morning frost, and Coyote was hot on the trail of long-eared and fast-paced Jack Rabbit. Coyote was so close to the creature he could smell its fear and taste its flesh. As Coyote closed in for the kill, the rabbit veered to the right and cut through a patch of mescaline cactus. The rabbit's high-speed change of direction caused his powerful hind legs to spin out for a fraction of a second. Coyote spun with the rascally rabbit, but was hit in the face and mouth with pea gravel and bits of cactus. A button from the cactus pelted Coyote directly in the mouth, which caused him to lose concentration for a fraction of a second and eventually lose the race. Coyote was so put-out by the loss of breakfast that he bit down hard on the button in his mouth and swallowed it whole. A little later Coyote was still looking for food when he became nauseas and overheated. Before he knew it, Coyote was in an altered state. He experienced a heightened state of euphoria, then great fear and total loss of control. Several hours later Coyote awoke in a cold sweat and with high anxiety. Now Coyote was no fool, he knew the only thing he had eaten in the last several days was a cactus button. That had to be the reason for his delusional state. Coyote found himself another patch of cactus and sat down to think.

As Coyote crafted his plan, he gathered a large number of cactus buttons and made his way north. It took several months to refine his thinking and determine the perfect location for his ploy. Coyote's stratagem was to become friendly with the animals he intended to draw into his game. He endured the entire summer spending time with and gaining the trust of the targets of his ruse. By the time of year when the days became confused and cannot decide whether to be cold or hot he had their trust. Coyote invited the animals to a delicious dinner in their honor on a high mesa. A feast was to be held upon the next full moon. Incredibly, they agreed! Coyote went to work, he spent several days trapping Prairie Dogs at a nearby town until he had a large number of the fatally fat fellows. He took them to the top of the mesa, stuffed them and buried them in moist sand. Coyote then piled juniper bark for kindling and dry wood upon the carcases. The nearby potholes were full of water from recent rains, so there would be plenty to drink. The time was now, so he scooted up next to the large boulder, sat back on his haunches and waited for Moon to rise.

As his friends arrived they seemed skeptical, but their keen sense of smell assured them there was fresh game nearby. This calmed their fears. When everyone was present, Coyote greeted them each in a pleasant welcoming manner. Eagle and Owl rested comfortably in the branches of the skeletal tree and Bear, Mountain Lion, Wolf, the foxes and brother Badger sat in a semi-circle facing their gracious host. They seemed confused at the pile of wood between them, but were soon treated to a great spectacle. Each and every one of them was aware of Coyote's attempt to steal an ember from the great Fire God on Fire Mountain and his inability to control the flame. Coyote had turned the ember over to humans who were better able to manage the unmanageable. What the group did not know was that Coyote could re-establish the flame by raising friction in his tail. It was very dangerous, but doable. In an instant Coyote bolted upright, setting the group back on their heels and began running circles around the stack of wood. As he reached maximum velocity Coyote lowered his tail to the bare rock and ignited a spark. Before the flame became uncontrollable Coyote touched his tail to the base of woodpile and set it ablaze. He then raced to a nearby pool of water and extinguished the flame flickering on his backside. As the fire began to lick at the dry wood, Coyote bolted back to the boulder and regained his previous position. The animals were amazed and frightened at this fiery feat, but Coyote calmed them with his composure and soothing words. The animals relaxed and enjoyed the unexpected warmth, which sheltered them from the now cool evening.

As Moon watched and wondered overhead, Coyote began to regale his guests with exaggerated tales of personal might and valor. As the fire blazed and delicious odors of cooking meat permeated the area, Coyote's tales of wonder became even more magnificent. The animals tolerated the stories, after all they would soon be treated to a marvelous meal. When the fire died down Coyote sprang forth and brought up the wondrous morsels for his guests to feast upon. Someone asked what the prairie dogs were stuffed with to cause the unusual taste. Coyote assured the group he had discovered a seasoning that enhanced the flavor of the food, bringing them to the point of ecstasy. Everyone ate until they could eat no more, but no one noticed Coyote had not eaten even one bite. They all agreed the food was delicious, beyond expectation. Everyone ended their meal with a long, cool drink from the nearby pools. Again, no one noticed the taste that permeated the food was also in the water. Before long, Coyote's guests began to feel the effects of the peyote they had ingested. Coyote sprang to the top of the rock and began to retell his stories of the power and might; of his magic and incredible accomplishments. The entire group began to hallucinate. They experienced ecstasy and great fear, they lost control of their senses and Coyote took full advantage of their confusion. Coyote told profound tales of his greatness, and they believed. They experienced his glory through their clouded minds and became transfixed with his greatness. Just as Moon was setting, Coyote unleashed his coup de gras; he emphasized the fact that he was greater even than the stars in the heavens, Moon and the Sun in the sky. At this, Moon trembled at the sheer audacity of the statement and, upon setting, informed the all mighty and powerful Sun of the con being committed and Coyote's bombastic boast.

Hearing of Coyote's intonations and great boastfulness, Sun exploded upon the horizon to thwart the sham. The great orb lit the world with his wrath. It appeared there was a great fire in the cloud-filled sky; brilliant rays of light split the atmosphere. Coyote had anticipated this reaction. Standing high above his guests, Coyote placed himself directly in front of Sun and took full advantage of the light and color. In their drug induced state, the delusional animals bore witness to the incredible magnificence of Coyote's aura. Coyote had stolen the power of Sun through deception and deceit. The animals could not bear to stand so close to this newly formed deity, so they slunk off to their nests and lairs to contemplate their supernatural experience. As expected, upon their recovery the biggest, strongest, highflyingest and most intelligent of the creatures began to espouse Coyote's greatness. Before long every creature in the land believed in the majesty of Coyote. The entire population of creatures began to pay homage to Coyote; they brought him food and exalted in his presence. Coyote was King! Sun looked down upon the fools of the earth and wondered at their gullible nature. Although he was increasingly angry, Sun decided to take no further action, he simply stood back and watched, knowing reality would one day set in and the counterfeit monarch would be disrobed, dethroned and kicked off of his mesa top. Beware the Coyote.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Make Work

Make work! The term sounds more like a honey-do than a principle to order your life around. That would, of course, be honey-do as in the spousal request or demand, not the melon. As I recently discovered, however, like all such terms, make work has several different meanings.

Grange and Kira @ Twin Rocks Trading Post.

As I was surfing through financial web sites the other day trying to decide whether America in general and Bluff specifically is in recession or out, inflating or deflating, prospering or regressing, I ran across an article entitled 21 Best Money Tips Ever. The title intrigued me, so I clicked on the link and began to read financial advice from captains and captainesses of industry.

For the most part, I found the stories somewhat trite or completely indecipherable. There was one, however, that resonated with me. It was by Joline Godfrey, CEO of Independent Means, an organization that teaches financial literacy to families and children. Having been raised in a trading post family, I was not sure I knew what financial literacy meant, but it seemed important, so I read on. Joline’s advice was, “Raise your children to make a job, not take a job.”

While it is true that I have rarely been employed by someone other than myself, I have often thought that may be because I am actually unemployable and as a result have been left to shift for myself. Until recently, I had not truly considered the possibility that my parents might have designed me that way.

Based upon the structural flaws I am intimately aware of, at this point I am not sure they designed me at all. Be that as it may, I am certain they did intend to instill the entrepreneurial spirit in all their children. Although they frequently deny paternity, there is incontrovertible evidence I am indeed their offspring, so I believe the tutelage was universal.

From a young age, I have been employed; first as a filling station attendant and now Indian trader and restauranteur. Indeed, I have been almost continuously working for the past 40 years. Which leads me to question, why my kids, at ten and almost 14, are still unemployed, and what do I teach them about jobs.

It is estimated that there are 29.6 million small businesses in the United States. In fact, those enterprises employ over half the country’s private sector workforce, hire 40% of high-tech workers, represent 97.3% of all exporters of goods, represent 99.7% of all employer firms and generate a majority of the innovations that come from American companies. So, it seems Ms. Godfrey is on firm ground advising us to make our own work.

People often ask whether our children will take over Twin Rocks Trading Post or Twin Rocks Cafe when they are old enough. “No!” Barry and I resoundingly reply. “Why not,” is the typical follow-up question. To which we really do not have an adequate response. Barry and I love the trading post, dealing with local artists and buying turquoise jewelry and Navajo baskets and rugs. We also genuinely enjoy the cafe, although mopping up after 10:00 p.m. is admittedly not much fun. So why don’t we want the kids to have the same experience? Wouldn’t working in the business unusual as turquoise mercenaries be fun for them too?

Young though they may be, McKale has expressed interest in working for NASA, currently Kira wants to be an astrophysicist and Grange thinks engineering might be exciting. I guess the answer to the question is that we want them to pursue their own passions, not ours. Maybe they will indeed start their own businesses and “shoot the moon.”

While times like these make us wonder whether we should be working in steady, predictable government jobs, with benefits, we know our passion lies in the art and people of the Four Corners and the Colorado Plateau. Besides, we both realize everybody already knows we would be terrible employees. Even I would not hire us, so we must make work.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Last Saturday Steve took Grange to a wrestling tournament in Colorado to help fine tune his grappling skills, so I was alone in the trading post. Craig was next door managing the cafe and Priscilla was on Grandma duty at her home across the river. Aside from cleaning a mile of glass by myself, I don't mind running the store independently. Craig, Steve and I have been doing this sort of thing so many years it is second nature to us. It was late in the afternoon and, because of the extreme angle of the sun, brilliant golden sunlight streamed into the building through the large plate glass windows. It was still a bit chilly outside, so I had the front doors closed to the westerly wind. As I stood near the cash register writing an order, I heard a slapping sound on the steps just outside the Kokopelli doors. At first I thought it might be Buffy, greeting customers by whipping her tail against the wooden threshold. That good natured and mellow dog has more friends than Steve and I combined.

1940s Fred Harvey Bracelet

Because of the unusual sounds emanating from the opposite side of the entry, I watched the front doors closely as the left one opened and a dust cloud rolled in. I could tell there was a man there somewhere, but he was not clearly visible because of the aura of red dirt. The fellow must have been slapping his clothing in order to liberate the accumulated dirt he had somehow acquired; a generous gesture considering I would be the one cleaning up after him. The golden glow of the setting sun back-lit the character and caused me to think of an adult version of Pig-Pen, the character in Peanuts. As the dust settled, a man emerged from the haze. He was slightly over six foot tall, around fifty years of age and filthy. He was reasonably well dressed, but looked like he had just come in from the wilderness. The man smiled brightly, slipped off his Carhartt jacket and, halting by the door, turned to me and said; "I know I am dirty, but I realized you would be closing soon and wanted to pick up something for my daughter."

I waved the man in, and asked where he had acquired such a goodly amount of grime. He replied, "I have been in Grand Gulch for ten days, and it was marvelous!" As he came closer, I could see the man's bright brown eyes behind a grungy, mostly gray beard which was capped by a matted mane of brown hair also streaked with gray, but less so than his whiskers. From where I stood I could see this man had probably not bathed for the duration of his trek. As the soiled son looked through the cases, I finished my chores and discovered he was from Chicago. He was in the habit of coming to the Southwest every spring and fall to clear his mind and reconnect with the good earth. He told me that without refreshing his spirit at least twice a year he would not be able to survive his fast-paced lifestyle in the great Illinois metropolis. His dingy jeans were scuffed and torn from hiking the canyons and his khaki shirt was deeply stained and salt encrusted from heavy perspiration. The man had indeed made close contact with Mother Earth. I have to say, however, that under all that grunge the guy looked invigorated.

As we spoke, the man noticed a Fred Harvey bracelet and asked to have a closer look. I walked over, opened the case and handed him the bracelet. I had begun to explain the provenance of the piece when a pungent perfume assaulted my olfactory. I stepped back in surprise, snorted to clear my nasal passages and wiped my eyes, which had instantly begun to water. I had just caught a whiff of "ode de ten days on the trail." A powerful aroma of wood smoke, stale sweat, dirt and potent cigars hit me like an offensive overture. The guy really smelled bad! I tried to continue my presentation from afar, but the odoriferous fellow noticed my distress. I suppose the inadvertent gasp, and tears running down my face, must have given me away. The guy looked at me, laughed out loud and asked; "Do I really smell that bad?" I apologized for my reaction and said, "You definitely make an impression!" He laughed again, handed me the bracelet and said, "Okay, my daughter will love it!"

As the man departed he promised to go straight to the Desert Rose Inn and get cleaned up before dinner. I thought of calling Cindy and Amer to warn them of the redolent fellow but thought better of it, lest the gentlemen discover my disclosure. When the man drove off, I quickly opened both the front and back doors and turned on the overhead fans to purge his perfume from the building. It took awhile, but I finally felt comfortable that I had accomplished the task. I turned the open sign to closed, shut and locked the doors and headed home for the evening. On my drive north I contemplated the unusual people we so often meet in this business. Many of them come to this country to connect with the natural world. Bluff City and the surrounding countryside seems to call to those in need of solace and reflection; a portal to Gaia can be found here. As I pulled into the driveway of our home, I wondered if my close encounter with Wildernessman had left his essence on my being. Laurie has an extremely sensitive sense of smell, so if I wasn't careful I would be eating dinner on the back porch with her nasty cats.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Bugaboo Owls

Owls have always fascinated me. For one involved in trading with the Navajo people, this may seem a serious handicap. That, however, has not been the case. In fact, in spite of their notoriety as harbingers of death and representatives of the dark side, owls seem to have a relatively good reputation among the Navajo.

Steve and his money tree @ Twin Rocks.

One of my favorite Navajo legends tells of a time when day and night animals played a shoe game to determine whether it would be all day or all night. The day animals had Coyote as their leader, and the night animals elected Owl to head their team. Many believed the contest should result in a tie, because if either side won there would be no balance, the world would be all light or all dark.

For a long time the game surged back and forth, with no apparent winner. At one point, however, the tide turned in favor of the night contestants and some began to suspect Owl was cheating. Red Bird finally revealed Owl’s deception and all agreed that from that point forward the earth would be half day and half night.

Priscilla has explained that owls are actually viewed as intermediaries. Instead of being bad luck as many in Western culture have been taught, they act as a warning to a person in danger. When Owl appears, Navajo people believe you should bless him with corn pollen. In doing so, you ward off troubling times and protect yourself from harm.

Many years ago I was traveling home from an evening in Blanding when I saw a flash and heard a muffled thump. Immediately pulling over to see what I had hit, I noticed a small lump in the road and feathers scattered about. As I approached the mass, it became apparent I had struck an owl as it swooped down to capture a mouse that had been illuminated by the headlights. Wrapping the bird, which still held the mouse in its death grip, in an old jacket and placing the two in the back seat of my car, I continued on my journey.

The following day I dug a large hole behind the trading post and planted the owl and mouse along with a mimosa tree I had recently purchased. Over the years the trio blossomed into a beautiful planting which frequently reminds me of the magnificent bird and the cultural stories associated with it. Once in a while I imagine the owl hooting at me from beneath the cliffs. As its voice echoes across the rocks, I am reminded of the bird and its importance in Navajo tradition.

Probably because of my interest in this avian species, of the countless items brought into the trading post over the past 20 years, one of my favorites is a talisman commonly referred to as a bugaboo owl. According to Jana’s book, Navajo Ceremonial Baskets - Sacred Symbols Sacred Space, local basket weavers often make these good luck charms as a means of ensuring proper utilization of leftover basketry materials. These “protection devices” are generally hung in the corners of a building to ward off evil spirits. Although four are recommended, two or even one will work. As legendary medicine man June Black horse once explained, “It’s a little bit like insurance; the more you have, the better off you are.”

Realizing these charms might have a positive effect on sales, years ago we hung one over the cash register and spread several throughout the trading post. Since we have remained solvent, it seems to have worked. Through the years, however, our owl population has decreased as we distributed them to people who seemed in need of a little luck.

Based upon the success of the mimosa tree and our cash register experiment, as the economy worsened in 2008 and 2009, Barry and I decided on an innovative strategy; we planted one of our last bugaboo owls with a cottonwood sapling to see if they might sprout into a money tree. So far the seedling has only grown a few singles, but we are hopeful it will soon begin producing larger denominations.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.