Friday, December 17, 2010

A Pastoral Christmas

As young men roaming the weathered landscape of southeastern Utah, Barry, Craig and I were infinitely unaware of the larger world. At the time we were primarily interested in adventures among the rocks and washes within and immediately adjacent to the small community of Bluff. We explored every nook and cranny looking for treasure, scaled sandstone walls, dug fortifications in the soft earth of eternally dry drainages and, when the desert became superheated, splashed in the local swimming hole. At that point in our development, we were as independent and rebellious as the South during the Civil War.

Christmas at the Simpson home during this period was universally simple; a tree, colorful lights, clothing, carols, a few sweets and ongoing necessities. There was not a great deal of money for elaborate parties or gifts, but as many who lived through the Great Depression have said over the intervening years, “We did not know we were poor.” In fact, we universally believed we were kings; kings of the back country and kings of our individual destinies. What was happening in the rest of the world rarely, if ever, entered our consciousness. Cash dollars, since we never had any, were not a concern.

Likely the most memorable Christmas for me was the year I turned six years old. I vividly remember receiving several books from Santa. Although I do not remember their titles, I do recall being thrilled with the gift. Whatever else that had found its way under the tree has long since been forgotten. Why that memory has stuck with me so tenaciously I do not know; books were not luxuries in our house and played a prominent role in our daily lives. For some reason, however, that particularly year remains the highlight of my personal Christmas experience.

At Twin Rocks Trading Post the colorful lights have once again gone up in anticipation of another holiday season. In keeping with our early years, Barry and I have kept the decorations simple; a tree, a few colorful bows, four or five happily wrapped packages and holiday cards received from friends and acquaintances. Although the store is eminently empty as travelers head for more populous areas, there is a feeling of quiet peacefulness and restful satisfaction that permeates its interior.

When I am in the more metropolitan portions of these United States during this season, I am delighted by the abundance of decorations. Surely most people would not consider our barren cottonwood trees, sparse lighting, slow breeze nudging fallen leaves and lonely roads a match for such elaborate adornments. Recently, however, I stood on the porch watching Grange and Buffy meander back to the house above the trading post after feeding Jana’s diminishing equine herd. As they entered the gravel parking lot I was overcome with gratitude and a feeling of complete satisfaction. Even though there was no greenery to compliment all the scarlet, the redheaded boy wearing a crimson University of Utah sweatshirt, gentle red dog with her wispy tail merrily swishing from side to side and rosy red rock cliffs rising steeply from the valley floor all seem to speak of Christmas, goodwill.

While others may yearn for the show of the city, I am compelled to admit that the pastoral life in this tiny settlement on the banks of the San Juan River is fulfilling in many surprisingly unexpected ways. It seems the slowness of Bluff allows us to refocus our attention on the essential elements of life in general and the fundamental values of the season specifically.

As Christmas nears, we send out a simple, heartfelt wish: In the coming year may you find the peace, serenity and contentment we enjoy in our southeastern Utah sanctuary.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Driving Test

My daughter McKale is taking a course in Driver's Education this winter; she is 15 years old and ready to experience the freedom a couple hundred horses will allow. It is usually my job to teach our kids to drive, but for some reason Laurie has taken over the reins and bumped me from my designated duties with our last child. It is my belief that Spenser gave me up for swearing at him after he, "Boldly went where no man had gone before", or should ever go during one or two . . . okay, on several training runs. Much of the time I spent trying to teach Spenser to drive was centered around him turning the radio up to drown me out and me turning it off. Between the two of us we wore out the knobs in my Previa "torpedo" shaped van. Alyssa was slightly easier to instruct on the rules of the road, because she actually listened. I am fairly certain I never swore at my eldest daughter, and she turned out to be an excellent driver.

Twin Rocks truck
McKale has taken to chauffeuring Laurie and me to Grandma Washburn's house for dinner on Sundays. Part of an effort to build up the 40 hours she needs to garner that most desired of teenage treasures; her driver's license. On one such trip, McKale, Laurie and I were returning home after dark. The road between Monticello and Blanding is notorious for being a crossroads for the local deer population. Laurie prefers to ride up front and place me on the back burner. From the back seat I calmly told my darling daughter that she was causing me a great deal of anxiety, because she was driving far too fast for existing conditions. "What did you say Dad?" she hollered over Rihanna wailing Disturbia. She must have been taking advice from her older brother, because her "wall of sound" effectively blocked me out. "I said." yelling over the music, "If you pop a deer at this speed things are going to get ugly quick!" She must have heard me that time, because she looked over at her mother (who nodded in agreement) and slowed down perceptively. Why is it, kids these days feel the need to verify all fatherly advice with their mothers? "And turn off that darn radio!" I yelled again. "Nothing heard, nothing said," Rihanna wailed. McKale looked to her Mother once more, which caused me instant aggravation. "Don't make me come up there!" I yelled over a refrain of "It's a thief in the night to come and grab you."

McKale turned off the radio and looked at me in the rear view mirror, as if contemplating my mood. In an effort at diplomacy she asked, "When did you learn to drive Dad?" "When I was three," I shot back, still agitated. "Seriously, Dad." she said like she meant it. "I don't remember exactly." I answered, trying to recover from my rude reply and then attempting to recall the first time I crawled behind a steering wheel. I told McKale that as kids, my brothers and I would try to drive everything on wheels. Our parents had a second-hand store in Blanding, south of town, by the Plateau gas station we also ran. Grandpa Duke would bring home Tote Goats, motorcycles, Dune Buggies and all sorts of used vehicles to sell or trade. There was an empty field south of the large tin building which housed the store, and we would drive those vehicles around that field every time Dad turned his back. We wore a dirt track around the border of that field in short order. The track was our place to practice driving and in Dad's words; "Destroy everything he brought home!" Good memories, those.

"When was the first time you drove on the highway?" McKale questioned. I thought back, pushed aside the cobwebs and recalled a trip to Grand Junction, Colorado with my father. Dad and one of us boys used to travel there nearly every weekend to attend two or three auctions. Either there or the Flea Market, at the Dog Track, in Phoenix. I recalled one trip where Dad and I drove to Grand Junction and bought so much furniture I was certain we would not get it all on the pick-up. I was 14 years old and well versed in packing furniture and roping loads with "truckers knots". We had a steel rack that extended over the cab which allowed much more room for such large payloads. After the auction I stood there looking at the massive pile of furniture and "stuff" sitting on the ground waiting to be put on the truck. I turned to my father and said, "We are never going to get all of that furniture on that truck." "Yes you will," said my father confidently. "Mike here will help you load it." I turned to see a young man Dad had hired to help me load the truck. He smiled a toothless grin and smacked his gloved hands together as if to say, "Let's do this." "It's too big a load!" I said to my father again. "You can do it boy," said my father, "just use a bigger hammer!" At that, Dad turned and went inside to settle his bill. I mumbled something about using a hammer on him which brought a chuckle from Mike.

If I recall correctly it took Mike and me over two hours to load that darn pick-up truck. Just exactly the amount of time it took Dad to pay his convenient! Just as I cinched down the last rope, Dad strolled out and eyeballed the load. He walked around the truck testing my lashings and returned to the driver's side, climbed in and started the truck. I climbed in the passenger side and asked, "Did you enjoy your hamburger?" "Yes I did son, and I brought one for you." he said pushing a greasy white paper bag and a soda in my direction. "Thanks!" I said sarcastically. "You did a good job boy!" said my father, "That load is not going anywhere." "Thanks Dad." I said again, this time with a more appreciative tone. I knew there would have been a long line of patrons waiting to settle their dues with the auction company. I never knew my father to shirk manual labor, I was simply angry about that oversize load. We drove south as I wolfed down that burger and fries and washed it down with an ice-cold Orange Crush. About 20 miles outside of Grand Junction, just over the hill from Mack, Dad began to get sleepy. He had been working a lot of overtime hours and must have been really tired. I started to worry. We still had 150 miles to get home, and it was just the two of us. I could just see us parked alongside the highway like a gang of Hillbillies straight out of Steinbeck's, The Grapes of Wrath. It was 9:30 at night and I had school in the morning. Dad pulled to the side of the road, looked over at me and said, "You drive." "Me?" I asked incredulously. "Sure," said my father, "you have driven every vehicle I have ever brought home, you should have no trouble driving this pick-up."

Dad got out of the truck, and checking the load one more time, walked around to my side. He opened the passenger door and motioned with his hand for me to move to the driver's side. I looked at him for affirmation and he said; "You can do it, I have faith in you." I felt a jolt of pride and confidence as I slid across the saddle blanket seatcovers and strapped in. Dad settled in as I grabbed first gear and jolted forward, ground out second then third and fourth. Dad never said a word about my less than practiced hand with the stick shift. The only thing he did say was, "Look down the road as you drive, it's easier to keep it straight that way, otherwise you are going to shake me silly trying to keep this thing between the lines." I searched out fifth gear as I hit 55 and looked over to my trusting father for assurance. He was sound asleep! Luckily that old road was fairly straight and I did not have to shift much, I gained confidence with each mile. As we passed Thompson Springs I began to worry about making the turn off the Interstate toward Moab. As I slowed and down-shifted Dad opened one eye the nodded off again. We did not make the greatest time, because I was not driving all that fast. We were, however, making progress. I drove through Moab and Monticello before Dad sat up and started paying attention. It was after 1:00 a.m., and the thrill of driving was starting to wear off. I began to slow so as to let him drive, but he waved his hand down the road and said; "You might as well finish it, we're almost home."

As I recounted my story to McKale, I recalled how proud I was that my father put so much trust in me; not only to effectively tie down that cumbersome load, but to drive him and our livelihood home safely. Either that or he was completely exhausted and beyond caring. I choose to believe the more exemplary explanation. As I came to the end of my reminiscence, I noticed my wife looking, in a Disturbia manner, at me over her shoulder. I am sure she was wondering at the point of my story. Was it all right to steal the car when your father wasn't looking, or to let an underage, untrained child drive on public thoroughfares, unsupervised? Good and fair questions for rational thinking people, but as we all know few are rational and even fewer sane. As Rhianna sings; "It is too close for comfort. Bum bum beedum bum bum beebum dum!"

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Art is Not Concrete

Last Saturday evening Kira and I decided to go for a run after I finished my Sunday shift at Twin Rocks Cafe. Sunday morning dawned cold and blustery, so as I turned the key in the restaurant door I seriously thought about canceling our outing. By early afternoon, however, the sun was brightly shining and the temperature had greatly improved. There was a slight breeze from the west, so we asked Jana to drive us to Sand Island so we could run into town with the wind at our backs.

Elsie Holiday with her Winter Butterfly Basket.

As is often the case, Kira was in a philosophical mood. Since it was Sunday, we began by talking about God and various world and local religions. By the time we arrived at the trading post we had gone through a great deal of spiritual material. As we sat on the front steps winding up our thoughts, I could feel the cold seeping into my bones from the cement porch. Thinking I was extremely clever, I pointed down and said, “Well, God is not concrete. Instead of being cold and hard like these steps, He is warm, flexible, compassionate, varied; difficult to precisely define.”

Since I know more about art than I do about God, I began to think about the statement in terms of the artistic creations we buy and sell at Twin Rocks Trading Post. It did not take long to realize that art too is not concrete. Trying to define art is a lot like trying to define love; there are simply too many permutations to actually get your arms around the concept.

Several years ago Gregory Holiday brought in a sculpture of four or five Kokopelli figures dancing across a piece of drift wood. This was before Kokopelli became well known, so the carving was extremely innovative. I remember standing behind the counter for what seemed like an interminable period of time trying to decide whether Gregory had made something extraordinary or just more firewood.

After about a half hour, Gregory became anxious and started shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Assuming he needed to use the facilities, I directed him to the back of the store. No, he assured me, he did not need the restroom, he was merely impatient for me to make a decision. One way or the other, he needed to move on.

About that time Duke walked in and said, “Hey, that’s nice. Why don’t you buy it.” Thinking he was probably right, I purchased the sculpture and put it up on a shelf in the back of the store. Less than an hour later, a customer came in, spotted the carving, raved about how beautiful and creative it was and insisted I sell it to him. “Surely,” I thought, “I have no idea what is and is not great art.”

Having spent over 20 years at the trading post, I have come to understand there are no strict definitions of art, and that art is not hard or static. Instead, the best art is fluid, simple, clean, warm, sophisticated, moving, touching, inspiring and many other things I cannot even begin to explain.

I have also realized that art is about the people who create, sell and collect it. For Barry and me, art is very personal. We feel the creators are at least as important as the creations. Much of what we do is in support of the people who live and work in the Four Corners region. Of course, we enjoy the constantly changing exhibits; each a masterpiece in his or her own right. Maybe it is the God in art or the art in God that convinces me neither is concrete or subject to strict interpretation. Both are very personal and subject to a variety of interpretations that are ever changing and infinitely beautiful.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.