Friday, December 6, 2013

Find-A-Way People

A few weeks ago, Kira asked me to help with her college admission essays. As a high school senior, she is actively searching for a place to continue her education and apparently thought my experience writing about Navajo rugs and baskets; silver and turquoise jewelry; and the trading post life might be useful.

Kira (lower right) and her cross country team mates

Questioning her judgment, I asked if she had ever actually read any Tied to the Post stories. She had not. Advising her that fiction is my forte and facts are often sacrificed in the interest of a good, or even mediocre, story, I suggested she might reconsider her invitation if she was applying to institutions more prestigious than B S U, I C U or I O U. In spite of my counsel she persisted, so we assembled our tools and settled in to write.

Kira had already begun fleshing out a few ideas, and we both liked the one focusing on what it was like to be born and raised in the “Red Rock Wilderness” of southern Utah. Noticing what we were discussing, Jana mentioned the recent U.S. Census had classified San Juan County as “frontier." This designation is reserved for counties with population density of less than two people per square mile. Consistent with that finding, our friend Cleal Bradford has for years labeled the residents of Bluff “modern day pioneers." This of course refers to the challenges faced by the founders of this isolated community, and those confronted by its current residents.

The original pioneers, who set out for this area in the fall of 1879, expected their trek to last six weeks. Instead, the journey turned into a six-month ordeal. As they reached what is now known as the Hole-In-The-Rock, a steep sandstone cleft that led down to the Colorado River, some argued they must turn back and abandon the expedition. Jens Nielson, a Danish convert to the Mormon Church who had seen much worse, advised them, “We must go through. Even if there is no way through, we must go through.”

Nielson’s philosophy has guided Barry and me through our 24 years at Twin Rocks Trading Post. Indeed, although we realize the words were never really spoken by Gene Kranz during the ill-fated moon mission, we long ago adopted the Apollo 13 motto, “Failure is not an option.” Like those in Nielson’s party who feared descending into the sandstone abyss, we frequently ask ourselves, “How we will ever get through?” The answer is most often uncertain. We, however, persist, and in the process have become “Find-A-Way” people. Just as Bluff’s patriarchs conquered the Hole-In-The-Rock, Barry and I have always gone through.

As Kira finalized the essays and sent them to the universities of her choice, I realized it was I who will soon be attending I O U. Oh well, one way or another we will find a way.

With warm regards;
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Too Jazzed To Be Trusted

Here in Bluff, the winter season is upon us. We have experienced precious little moisture in the last month or two, but the mild weather and lack of rain are expected. We realize we live in the high desert, but cannot help wishing for snowy white accents on our red rock cliffs. On average we now greet fewer visitors than we did throughout the summer months. When the temperature climbs above 50 degrees and the slanted sunlight filters through the barren branches of the giant, gnarled cottonwood trees and graces the antiquated stone homes with an appealing golden glow, the scene does draw a few passing vehicles. The look of a quaint and quiet village has its own special appeal. Steve, Priscilla and I enjoy this time of year because we get to spend more time with our guests. We often receive a widely varied menagerie of characters that make life more interesting. Our families assure us the reason we meet so many unique individuals is because, "like attracts like." Whatever the case, we feel the law of attraction is working in our favor.
Navajo Ceremonial Basket - Mary Holiday Black (#347)

And, speaking of interesting people, I met one last Monday. That afternoon I was busily working in my office. Okay, I admit it; I was in there planning an after-Christmas getaway with Laurie and the kids. I was working on the entertainment component when I heard the door chimes ring. Priscilla was vacuuming upstairs, Danny was communing with his computer and Steve had gone to his rock house for a bologna sandwich, so I got up and went into the store to meet a forty-something woman and her twenty-something son. They were from Phoenix, and the woman was still exhilarated after jumping from an airplane over Moab. She and her son were "spending quality time together” before the young man married and moved away. I learned the woman had been born and raised in Sawmill, Arizona, had gone to school at Arizona State and was working as a journalist for the East Valley Tribune. She was dark skinned, had a pleasant face and an extremely outgoing personality. Her son was tall, lean and reserved. The two were traveling home after spending nearly two weeks together. Their skydiving adventure was just one of many they had experienced.

The woman explained that shortly after she jumped from the small plane, tightly strapped to an instructor, she had been "reborn". This somehow reminded her of giving birth to the young man. Before the boy or I knew what was happening, the dear lady began explaining the experience; in graphic detail. Please understand I am familiar with the birthing process. I was alongside Laurie for the birth of each of our three children, and found the experiences both amazing and beautiful. For some reason, however, hearing someone else's story made me queasy. I must have begun taking on a green cast, because the young man stepped in and said, "Mom, he does not want to hear this, nor do I." "Sure he does,” said the woman, he has kind eyes and a good heart, I can tell just by looking at him." Then she looked closer. I must have failed the second scan, because she paused. My look of shock and awe gave me away, because the lady stopped and said, "Oh my, maybe that is too much information." "Indeed," said the young man, taking his mother's arm and leading her from the building. As they left, I stood there shaking my head in frustration; I had failed the test. Rubbing my temples, I tried purging the images she had placed in my mind.

After her work was done Priscilla, wandered back downstairs and I told her about my uncomfortable conversation. She shrugged off my discomfort and told me such things were not a big deal to the Navajo. She said that in her mother's day women had their children in a Hogan and the entire family attended the labor and delivery. She said it was a great teaching tool for the children. Priscilla understands because she was born on the Rez, right-on the Utah/Arizona line. Recently, our dear friend and associate have spent many days on the telephone with federal, state and tribal offices attempting to rebuild her past. She needs to find her birth certificate. Master basket weaver Mary Holiday Black was also born under the wooden framework and mud interior of a Hogan, so we can only guess her age. Priscilla and Mary only scoff at my shy nature. "Anyway", Priscilla commented, "you say things you shouldn't."

To be fair, I know how wonderful giving birth can be, and how painful, disturbing and unpleasant too. Experiencing the beginnings of life, however, is truly amazing. That was the message this woman wanted to share. I am sorry I did not better receive her storytelling. She was opening her heart to me, and I failed to understand. Oh sure, she might have selected her words better, but she was still too jazzed from the jump. Later that day I was speaking with my daughter Alyssa, who recently turned 22. She is a wonderful child, and I remember the day she was born as clearly as if it were yesterday. In my mind's eye, I can see the event in its entirety. Out of respect for my wife and child, I will not share the intimate details. As mentioned, I retold the woman's story to Alyssa. My daughter is in the nursing program at BYU, and doing labor and delivery clinicals at the University of Utah Medical Center. She assured me the birthing process can be less than appealing, but the end result is altogether moving. Alyssa stressed that one day she too will have kids. "Not yet!" I quipped, "You are too young to be burdened with a man." I often tell my daughters 32 is a good age to marry, but they disagree. "Speak with your mother about spending too much time with a man"; I advise them, "She will tell you how disturbing that can be."

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Minister's Wife

It was a late autumn afternoon when the minister ambled into the store. Barry had thrown open the Kokopelli doors, and Priscilla, Danny and I were delighting in the cottonwood leaves that tumbled across the gravel parking lot and shimmered like hammered gold in the brilliant sunlight. At Twin Rocks Trading Post, we often brake to admire Mother Nature’s handiwork. In fact, we generally break at any time, for almost any reason, sometimes no reason at all.
Cottonwood Tree

The minister’s church is on the Navajo Reservation, so he has acquired a fondness for rugs and turquoise. Consequently, he often stops by to admire our jewelry and weavings. He’s in his middle 60s, and his blond-gray hair is always perfectly combed, his denim trousers crisply pressed, his conservatively patterned button-down shirts wrinkle free and his monotone pointed-toe cowboy boots brilliantly polished.

The parson and I bonded a few years ago, when I asked how things were at the mission. “Well,” he responded gravely in his slightly southern accent, “there’s a lot of sinnin’ going on down there. Nothin’ too interesting or unusual, nothin’ we haven’t seen before and nothin’ to be too concerned with; mostly just your garden variety sinnin’. You’d think if folks were goin’ to sin they’d at least be creative about it.” I nodded my head knowingly, appreciating his frankness, and agreeing that a little creativity goes a long way when it comes to religion. We both recognized a little sinnin’ created job security for the minister without seriously jeopardizing his flock’s ultimate salvation. Indeed, he thought it might actually be “good for business”. That was something I understood, so at that moment we formed a kinship and I began to look forward to his regular visits.

On this particular day, his attractive wife and five or six missionaries accompanied him. Retirement was on his mind, and he informed me that in only a few months he would end his career. He went on to explain that, as a Lutheran preacher, he had built up more than enough credit to ensure his successful entry into Heaven. It was, therefore, time to step aside. He went on to say that he had been on the right path since his youth, and hadn’t done much to offend the Creator.

Obviously concerned for the minister’s spouse, Barry asked, “What about your wife? Does she have enough credit?” “Well, she is a Presbyterian”, the minister responded. Noticing the uncertain look that flashed across Barry’s face, and apparently trying to reassure him things would most likely be okay, he added, “She’s a pastor too.”

At that point I began to fret, and asked if the minister could transfer some of his excess goodwill to his wife, so she could be saved as well. “Kinda’ like trading carbon credits”, I explained, “One person sins a lot, the other not so much. You have abundance and she may not have enough. In the end it all balances out, right?” He seemed to think there might be merit in the proposal and indicated he would take it up with his boss.

Overcome by curiosity, I could not help asking, “What do you think God has to say about having a Lutheran and a Presbyterian in the same church?” “Well,” he laughed, “I can tell you this, when we met I wasn’t thinking about her religion.”

By this time the missionaries had finished their inspection, and it was time for dinner. As they walked out into the evening glow, the minister’s wife turned back and with a knowing smile said, “I think God understands.” I believe she’s probably right.

With warm regards;
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Down Under

Several weeks ago I was doing a stint as manager at Twin Rocks Cafe when I had a harrowing experience. Only recently have I recovered enough to comfortably speak of the incident. The episode began simply enough; my crew and I were scheduled to serve an early lunch to a British coach tour that had been thrown off schedule by our latest federal government shutdown. A couple days earlier the tour director had called in the entire order, so we were already set-up and fully prepared for their arrival. The troop of elderly travelers arrived on time, off-loaded the bus and quickly entered the cafe. I noticed right away the pack was miffed by their rerouted and rescheduled tour. In fact, I overheard several barbs aimed at our dear President and Congress. Not wanting to get into a political debate with the grumbling group, I maintained my distance. Unlike my brother-business partner who thrives on dissension, and seems to be testing the waters of political commentary, I prefer to steer clear of that quagmire. As the boisterous Brits filed in to be seated, I greeted them with an all-American smile and directed them to their tables.
Tara, Janelia and Barry Simpson
As they sat down, Tara began bringing forth the repast our cook, Janelia and her staff had so professionally prepared. The Brits settled in and began to loosen-up. I was helping deliver meals and making certain all was satisfactory when a tetrad of matronly English ladies flagged me over. "A question", one queried, "Might it be possible to balance this table?" The old girl emphasized her point by wiggling the table to and fro on the uneven floor. "Certainly", I said with a smile, "I will be right back." Turning to go for the plastic wedges, I heard the eldest of the group say with much aggravation, "And bring me tea, Earl Grey, hot . . . with lemon!" The old girl was tiny, wizened and feisty. Her silvery green eyes met mine without blinking. She was both serious and intense. My wife Laurie will be the first to tell you that I hate, with a passion, to be bossed. It is clear I have been in this business far too long, because I often say what I think without first considering the consequences of my actions. I remind Laurie that I only spout-off when someone is ornery to me. So, without thinking, I turned, looked down on the 90-something year old girl and said with a broad smile, "Now don't be mean spirited you little sprite, I will get you your tea, just behave."

Most of the people in the group must have heard my retort, because, as if on que, the entire room went silent. The spitfire and I looked deep into each other’s eyes. After a moment, a great grin spread across her wrinkled face and she let out a gleeful cackle. "Well then, get after it my boy", she said with a toothy smile. The tension in the room dissipated in an instant, and everyone began to recount the story to those who had only heard a portion of our interaction. Laughter filled the room, and I turned to walk into the kitchen to fetch the tea and table wedges, thinking to myself, "That could have gone very wrong! Here I am picking a fight with a little old lady. This is going to look great on Trip Advisor." Gathering up my tea service, I took a deep breath and headed back into the crowd. Granny was still in a good humor and obviously waiting for an opportunity to even the score. I laid-out her tea then looked beneath the table to correct the imbalance.

Because of the foursome's abundance of Bermuda shorts, chubby legs and knobby knees, it was hard to see just where the correction needed to be made. I dropped the wedge to the floor and tried pushing it into position with my toe. Having missed the mark several times, the ladies began giving me a hard time about my failed attempts. "It looks as if you are going to have to go 'down under'," said Granny with a crooked smile. Looking into their encouraging faces, then under the table with its abundance of bulky legs and bony knees, I knew that was one place I did not want to be. Groaning inwardly, however, I bent to the task. The women above me began giggling like schoolgirls, and started bouncing their knees in excitement. My head felt like a volleyball stuck between strikes at the top of the net. I was trying to keep my Twin Rocks Cafe T-shirt from riding up my backside and my jeans from slipping off my bottom-side with one hand and attempting to place the wedge with the other. I heard one of the bouncing broads say, "Ooh, I love a man on his knees!" Everyone within earshot busted-up laughing at my obviously uncomfortable position, and I am certain every part of me turned a bright red.

Feeling an emotional trauma coming on, I hurriedly slipped the wedge into place and escaped from "down under". As I walked by another table, one of the ladies called out in a brisk British accent, "Our table is rocking as well, can you fix it?" More laughter. Our catering manager, Tara, saw my distress, grabbed an over-large wedge and slapped it into my hand like a baton at a track relay. I dropped the wedge to the floor and booted it into place with a smooth, even motion. An "Ooh" emanated about the room as the group displayed their dismay at being denied another show at my expense. British humor, you gotta hate it! The remainder of the meal was only slightly interrupted with jibes and catcalls. But for that, all went well. As the old guys and gals departed, I received hugs all round, and a kiss on the cheek from Granny Spitfire. The tour director thanked me profusely for the entertainment, saying I had made her life easier and caused the group to relax. Hopefully they would enjoy the rest of the ride. "Happy to help", I replied reddening once again. I am not certain I will ever recover from playing the clown, but my therapist informs me that telling the tale and admitting embarrassment is where true healing begins.

With warm regards;
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Shaft

After the recent Tied to the Post article regarding my thoughts on the federal government shutdown, Barry and Priscilla became concerned I may have angered our conservative customers, neighbors and friends. They are less accustomed to friction than I, and felt the heat was more than they could comfortably tolerate. Consequently, they recommended I not write another story focusing on that specific topic. “Stick with turquoise, ceremonial baskets and Navajo rugs”, they advised. After due consideration, and significant arm-twisting from this dynamic duo, I caved in and gave them my word. Therefore, the “focus” of this editorial will be relationships, mining and music, not politics.
Our wallets are "slammed" and it seems to make everyone down even Buffy.

Shortly after that story ran, I was sitting at my desk reading USA Today, listening to a country station and trying not to think about how slow business had become since October 1st. On the front page of the paper was a headline declaring, “Economists: Growth slammed by shutdown.” I sure didn’t need a Ph.D. to arrive at that conclusion. Indeed, I didn’t even need a sixth grade education to know the statement was true.

As I read how jobs and economic growth had been stunted by the closure and looked out on an empty trading post, Jerry Reed came over the airwaves singing, “Well, I guess it was back in sixty-three when eating my cooking got the better of me, so I asked this little girl I was going with to be my wife.”

Now, I have always enjoyed Reed’s homespun, rockabilly style of music, and under present circumstances this particular song seemed unusually pertinent. After describing the well-known stages of honeymoon, loss of lust and separation, Jerry crooned, “She got the gold mine, I got the shaft. They split it right down the middle and then they gave her the better half. Well, it all sounds sort of funny, but it hurts too much to laugh. She got the gold mine, I got the shaft.”

I began to wonder, “Isn’t Jerry’s experience just like our relationship with Congress?” Hadn’t we married ourselves to these Congressmen and Representatives thinking we would be better off with them than without them? Hadn’t we had a brief honeymoon, and hadn’t the mystery and wonder all too quickly worn off? Hadn’t they broken their promise to love, honor and cherish us, to always have our best interests at heart? Hadn’t they made things difficult for us while maintaining their own comfortable lifestyle? Indeed, hadn’t they stopped caring for us altogether? Hadn’t they in fact become antagonistic to our wants, needs and desires?

The song continued, “Why, they gave her the color television set. Then they give her the house, the kids and both of the cars. See, then they started talking about child support, alimony, and the cost of the court . . . I’m telling you they have made a mistake, ‘cause it adds up to more than this cowboy makes.”

After the mortgage crisis, the bail out of the car companies, the Great Recession, bank failures, sequestration and now the federal government shutdown, this Indian trader’s wallet is empty too. Like Reed, Barry and I are working two shifts, eatin’ balongna and askin’ ourselves, “Why did we let those guys to move in?”

Ever the optimist, however, Jerry summed it up for himself and the rest of us too when he concluded, “Well, I don’t have to worry about toting a billfold no more . . . I’m gonna be carryin’ food stamps . . .. ”

It’s time to move them out of our House (and Senate). Oh yeah, did I mention turquoise jewelry, ceremonial baskets and Navajo rugs?

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, October 11, 2013

On Main Street

It is well known that Indian traders associated with this family do not retire. At 80 years old, Duke and Rose still open their store every day during the tourist season. Jana’s dad is 101, and scheming to purchase historic Ganado Trading Post so he can reestablish the empire built by Lorenzo Hubbell. Pensions, 401(k) accounts and the like are relative unknowns in this profession. In spite of that, I often surf the World Wide Web to check the financial news and see what the market is up, or down, to.

Since I am economically conservative, when it comes to politics, I have always considered myself a Republican. I was born into a Republican family, I was raised in a Republican state and I expected to die a Republican. Recently, however, I have begun to question my party identity.

Last week, while I was on the Internet checking the state of the economy, I ran across a questionnaire designed to determine precisely what party one is most closely aligned with. When I completed the survey and received the results, I was astonished to find that I am actually a Democrat. While I suspect this may have been one of those phantom sites that mislead and misdirect unsuspecting individuals, it nevertheless has me worried about my political future.

Whether I am in fact a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, a Libertarian, or simply nonaligned, I am currently dismayed with our Congressman in Washington. As we move into the second week of the federal government shutdown, I have become convinced our “representatives” are not representing those of us out here on Main Street America.

Last week, for example, a sixtyish woman from New Jersey came into the trading post. With a heavy heart, she explained she had waited her entire adult life to see Arches National Park. She said she had Arches on her screen saver, on her office and home walls and even carried pictures in her wallet. Having finally saved enough money to make the trek to southern Utah, she was heartbroken to find she will not realize her dream.

We have heard countless stories of small businesses affected by the shutdown, including those in Estes Park, Colorado, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park. They were initially struck by flooding and now have been dealt a death blow by the federal insanity. These small businesspeople will not see another season. When Congress furloughs government workers and then proposes back pay for the time federal personnel cannot work, one wonders, “What are they thinking?” The answer is a loud and resounding, “No!” Do those politicians know what we out here on the pavement are experiencing? Who is going to pay us?

My biggest frustration is, however, that we out here in middle America will likely take no action. So, Bob Lach, our friend from Chicago, has suggested we start a Main Street Movement designed to permanently furlough all existing members of the administrative and legislative branches of our federal government. Let’s send out the pink slips today.

With warm regards
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, September 27, 2013

They Are People Too!

The heavy rains had come a week earlier. As a result, the weeds were pressing in on the trading post. I had put off attending to the ever-increasing patch longer than I should and they demanded attention. The morning was bright and sunny, so I decided it was time to act.

Pulling on the working gloves Bob “Grasshopper” Lach, our friend from Chicago, had sent after Barry’s last story about Grange, I prepared for my assault on the invaders. Bob had actually sent two pairs to Grange, and I had nabbed one set shortly after they arrived. Grange initially objected, but finally gave in when I explained I needed them to help complete his Eagle Scout project, some of which included removing trash from approximately four miles of highway.

In any case, there I was, sitting on a milk crate in front of the trading post, extracting goat-heads and cheat grass, when a restored 1969 Chevelle convertible pulled up a few feet away. The stereo, which was set to LOUD, blasted out Sly and the Family Stone’s Every People; a song released about the same time the car was manufactured. “There is a yellow one that won’t accept the black one, that won’t accept the red one, that won’t accept the white one”, Sly harmonized.

The driver wore a loose fitting tie-dyed T-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign, looked a bit like Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead and likely had come of age during the 1960s. He leaned over, gave me a friendly wink, switched off the car and headed into the cafe for breakfast. As I sat there uprooting noxious plants and scrutinizing this visitor from era of Vietnam, free love and Woodstock, a beat-up Reservation car lurched to a stop just west of where I had seated myself.

Two sixtyish Navajo women got out of the jalopy and headed my way. Sitting down on one of the boulders next to me, they asked, “Do you know where Lena Poyer lives?” “Of course I do”, I responded, “I used to buy rugs from her.” “She lives over there”, I said, pursing my lips in the Navajo way and indicating south towards the Reservation.

One of the women explained she was Lena’s relative, but had not seen her in decades. The woman had moved away, to live among the “whites”. Feigning disappointment, I said, “Really, you left us for those guys?” “Yea,” she said, “I married one too. My kids are half. Even my nullies (grandchildren from your son) are white.” This time I acted even more disappointed that she had traded the Reservation for the Anglo world.

The woman seemed to have assumed I was serious, and that I was at least part Navajo. Maybe it was my Portuguese ancestry, which gives me darker skin, or maybe it was the way I indicated direction with my lips. In any case, she looked at me in earnest and said, “Well, they are people too!”

The Navajo ladies left to continue their search, and a few minutes later my guest from the 60s strolled out to his car and fired it up. As he backed out into the street, the stereo kicked in, and I heard Sly singing, “We got to live together.” I couldn’t help thinking that insight often comes at unexpected times and from uncommon messengers.

With warm regards;
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Small Business

Barry and I are proud to be small business owners. In fact, it would be fair to say we love giving people the business. Sure we have dreamed (maybe fantasized would be a more accurate term) of one day having a Fortune 500 company. We do, however, recognize that being located in a town of 250 people limits our opportunities.

Duke and Rose Simpson
Like many budding entrepreneurs, when we established Twin Rocks Trading Post, Barry and I were convinced our latest endeavor was destined to set the world on fire. We have, however, come to understand we are only fortunate enough to throw off a spark every once in a while. We know the likelihood that one of those cinders igniting a financial inferno is, well, unlikely. Nonetheless, like Boy Scouts on a camp out, we continue to put flint to steel, hoping for a flame.

According to a recent University of Vermont study, the life expectancy of family-owned businesses is 24 years. Twin Rocks Trading Post has now been in existence for . . . you guessed it, 24 years. Sure that fact has caused us some concern, and even a few sleepless nights. The Kokopelli doors are, however, still open, and, like the broader economy, our fiscal health is constantly improving. We have discovered that, in this instance, average is not so bad.

When we look back over the history of the trading post, we are amazed how far we have come, and aware how far we still have to go. In the early days, Barry was still at Blue Mountain Trading Post in Blanding, and Duke, Priscilla and I “manned” Twin Rocks. Duke was approximately the age Barry, Priscilla and I are now.

Having come from a career in the secondhand business, Duke was fond of going to the swap meet in Phoenix to find “bargains." Priscilla and I indulged his habit until the day he brought back an entire pickup load of futons. When we objected, saying the beds had nothing to do with turquoise jewelry or Navajo rugs and baskets, Duke defended his decision by pointing out the mattresses had Southwest designs.

Realizing we were stuck with them, every day we packed the futons out onto the porch in the morning and lugged them back in at night. After a time we began worrying our backs would give out before we found takers for Duke’s treasures and began leaving them outside overnight to see if someone would steal a few. They didn’t.

While it took us a while to comprehend why Duke liked the beds so much, we did eventually discover the answer. That happened one afternoon when a customer excitedly entered the store to inform us a man was outside sleeping on our inventory. When Priscilla and I checked into the situation, we found Duke napping peacefully in the late afternoon sun.

Having reached his middle 70s, a few years ago Duke retired from Twin Rocks. Having reached our middle 50s, Priscilla, Barry and I have begun searching for futons, with Southwest designs.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; The Team.

Friday, August 30, 2013


Last week it rained. No, that is an understatement, it poured! On Sunday the rain came down so hard it nearly flushed us down the creek. Because we get so little moisture in Bluff, this is a high desert ya know; heavy rains are hard on us. Rampant floodwaters tend to find their way through, around and over any obstacle in its path. When those turbulent waters bump-up against our hard-packed sand, it melts on contact and is carried away. Soon after the rain began, the San Juan River ran at almost fifty percent solids. After the deluge I walked through town and viewed the near ruination of our drainage system. Culverts were washed out, low-lying properties were flooded, branches were down and sinkholes of all shapes and sizes were everywhere. The scene reminded me of what the Mormon pioneers must have gone through when they first put down roots in 1860. Their attempts to manage the San Juan and protect themselves from such downpours gave the local Native Americans much to cachinnate over. It can be argued that "water", or the excess of water, nearly pushed those undaunted individuals to the breaking point. With the spring floods and frightening thunderstorms, those Saints realized Mother Nature could bring you to your knees in a flash of white-hot lightning. The unmanageable river and heavy storms disrupted hand-dug ditches and undercut stone foundations with random ferocity.

Waterfall behind Twin Rocks Trading Post

Walking up to a sinkhole and kicking in a small rock to plumb its depths, I recalled that as kids Craig, Steve and I dug underground forts near our home. After watching one of those infrequent flash floods we quickly realized that water was a key excavation tool. At that point we began laying out the desired parameters of our subterranean structure and chiseling out the first shallow layer with shovels and a worn-out posthole digger. When we accomplished that semi-laborious aspect of the project, we simply dragged a hose over and filled the depression with water. All that was left to do was let it settle to break-up the hardpan. After the first twelve to eighteen inches, we made much more progress because the sand below was softer. When the hole was dug we would scrounge around for wood or metal overhead beams for support. That was then covered with a corrugated metal roof. A thick layer of dirt and debris hid the fortress from view. We would add a rabbit hole entry which was hidden behind a nearby sagebrush and, voila! Standing there looking down into that sink hole reminded me that my brothers and I had many below ground good times together, even though cave-ins were common.

During our early years, when the heavy rains came, our parents loaded-up the family in our sun faded blue step side Ford pickup truck, which sported a camper shell with flaked paint and missing windows. It was our goal to view the waterfalls spilling their frothy contents over the front range of the rusty red and black, mineral stained cliff tops. Dad, Mom, Susan and Cindy would slide neatly into the cab, and we three boys always clambered into the bed of the truck. Dad would then drive the perimeter of town and we would ooh and awe at the overhead spectacle. When the waterfalls come one can witness red water spouts shooting out over the precipice of the bluffs and hear the rumble of tumbling river rocks. These stones, which were left on high after the last ice age, along with gnarled, finger-like branches of juniper trees came crashing down on the rocky rubble below. I can still feel the spray of rainwater blowing in through the windowless frames of the truck topper, spritzing our faces and dampening our t-shirts and Levis' jeans.

With a head full of memories, I walked over to the 70 some odd year old bridge Bob Howell had built to span the ditch in front of his store. This span was constructed of a four foot corrugated culvert and capped with ancient railroad ties that are still saturated with creosote. The ribbed tube has been hammered, crumpled and bumped-out over the years, and the railroad ties are a bit askew. With only a small amount of concrete as reinforcement, the bridge served Mr. Howell for years. Many a truckload of Navajo people has crossed that bridge in support of his mini mercantile. My family bought the old store years ago and has used it as a trading post/pawn shop, a pottery factory, a storage facility and finally an accountant’s office. After more years and rainstorms than I can count, the structure is still viable. As I climbed into the ditch to inspect the damage, I bent to look inside the tube and was struck with an image of 5 young children sitting in the cool sand. They had bought grape and orange Nehi sodas along with small bags of Tom's peanuts as filler. The Simpson kids were enjoying an impromptu picnic in a protected and safe space. The memories were good here.

Straightening up, I blinked at the raw sunlight and looked around our fair city with a refreshed outlook. The morning sun filtered through the leaves of giant cottonwoods surrounding me, and the rough and tumble landscape looked as if it had been scrubbed clean I could still hear an echo of the laughter we had left as children, and it did my heart good. I took in the towering, undulating cliffs surrounding Bluff City and felt at home. Scraping the moist sand from the tread of my hikers, I climbed into my car and returned to Twin Rocks Trading Post. As I did, I realized that a cleansing, albeit gritty, rainstorm may have its drawbacks, but there was also a positive side. They often wash away the gray, obscuring dust of the past and remind us that there is both a positive and negative side to all things.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; The Team.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Root On Me

It was a hot Saturday afternoon in early August and I was in the yard pulling, chopping, hoeing and raking weeds. As Momma Rose, my mother, will attest, when I was young it was virtually impossible to convince me weeding was honorable work. I wanted nothing to do with it, and did not hesitate to let Duke and Rose know how I felt. Try though they might, they never succeeded in convincing me those vegetative invaders were better out of the ground than in it. Since moving from the house above the trading post and into my own home, I better understand their perspective.
Steve Simpson Home

As I pulled, tugged and cursed at one particularly well rooted plant, I was reminded of a recent visitor to Twin Rocks Trading Post. This man, who was long past middle age, came in, politely greeted Priscilla and me and began carefully inspecting each turquoise bracelet, bolo tie, bangle and bobble in the store. I worried that if he expanded his task to include Navajo rugs and baskets, I would be there all day and all night; maybe into the following week.

As his investigation proceeded, he began to fire off questions about Navajo legends, medicine men, healing ceremonies and cultural taboos. With his intelligent brow, round reading glasses, careful diction and precise questioning, he might have been a professor at some expensive Eastern liberal arts college. All that was missing was a tweed jacket, rumpled white shirt, woolen trousers, bow tie, paisley stockings and loafers.

Filling him in the best I could, and relying on Priscilla to back me up when I had no insight into the specific inquiry, I wondered at his interest in these cultural phenomena. After about 30 minutes of constant questioning from this elderly gentleman, I felt compelled to put a question to him. “What is your interest?” I asked. “Well, I’m from South Carolina”, he responded, “and down home we still have people practicing Voodoo. Our West African traditions have some similarities to your Navajo beliefs.” “Oh yeah?” I replied, baiting him to continue.

We had already considered the Navajo legend that arrowheads are made by Grandfather Horned Toad and that they are used as protection against evil spirits. I had explained how Navajo people sometimes feel they have been cursed by someone who has placed a turquoise bead or other foreign object in their body. “It takes a medicine man to extract the substance and get the patient right”, I advised.

Momentarily forgetting his geography, he asked, “Has anybody ever put a root on you?” “A root?” I replied, puzzled by the question. “Oh, sorry,” he said, “that’s South Carolinian Voodoo terminology. Down south, if you want to place a spell on somebody, you ‘put roots on them’ and then a ‘root doctor’ must be engaged to undo the curse.”

A root doctor, like a Navajo medicine man, treats ailments with a variety of remedies made from indigenous plants. Unscrupulous root doctors may be also asked to place a root on one’s enemy. This involves preparing potions from graveyard dirt, powdered snake or other compounds.

After thinking it through, I assured him that, “As far as I know, there are no roots on me.” “That’s good. Best to keep it that way,” he cautioned, concluding the conversation and exiting the building.

As I pulled and scratched at my obstinate weed, I questioned whether I had indeed been rooted by someone who had it in for me. “Maybe it’s my parents”, I thought, remembering the past. Surveying my yard, I wondered whether I could find a root doctor on Angie’s List or in the local Yellow Pages.

With Warm Regards;
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Communications and Characters

A couple came into the trading post last Saturday, and together we spent some enjoyable time communicating. I say communicating, because they spoke poor English, and my French is, well . . . nonexistent. How we aquatinted ourselves, without the spoken word, is highly advanced for an old coot like me. When they arrived, I recognized they were a gregarious duo, but because of their troublesome elocution of my native tongue and the brisk pace in which they approached it, I had no idea what they were saying. It was the woman who first noticed my quizzical look and let her man in on our lackluster interaction. He stopped speaking for a moment, had an epiphany, reached into his satchel and pulled-out an iPad.

In no time at all the couple and I were effectively interfacing. Because we offer free Wi-Fi, the Frenchman was quickly able to pull-up a world map and zero me in on Guadeloupe Island, West Indies. I saw their home, her boat, his business and their kids who were staying with his parents in Paris. They were on a second honeymoon. Yup, you guessed it! They shared digital images of their wedding, first honeymoon in Kenya, and updated me on their trip thus far. It did not take long for Francois and Margarete to provide an uploaded version of their entire lives. In 20 minutes I knew more about those people than their next-door neighbors. By the time they left I was wishing for an iPad of my own so I could share my life and family with them as well.

As we said adieu and my new friends exited the building, a hip looking character of about 40 dressed in a faded camp shirt, cargo shorts and flip flops entered the store. He was well tanned and wore a mop of curly blond, sun bleached hair. As the sun worshipper began walking around the post, I noticed he had a notebook under his arm. "I wonder?” I thought to myself. I struck-up a conversation with him, and before long he was showing me images of his home on the big Island, his girlfriend on the beach, underwater shots of tropical fish and travel shots of his most recent trip. By the time he departed I felt I knew him well. I even garnered an invitation to visit him at his beachfront home.

The next guy to come in was absent the notebook, but he was an interesting character. Without images, this 65 to 70 year old guy painted a picture of rock art portraying alien visitation, life forms and space ships. His lecture left me with no doubt he believed we have been visited by beings from the outer limits. This white haired man, dressed in khakis, a blue t-shirt and hiking boots, asked if I was a religious man. Suspecting a trap, and wondering where his thought process might be leading me, I hesitated to answer. Without waiting for my reply he continued, "God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, right?" "Genesis?" I said. "Yes", said the thoughtful man, " but where was he standing when he created it?" I raised my eyebrow in a questioning manner and waited for enlightenment.

By the end of our discussion I knew his answer to the question and many more unsolved mysteries. His imagination and detailed descriptions overcame any technological disadvantages he suffered in comparison to my other guests. Because of his excellent communication skills, and since I just finished reading The Host, by Stephenie Meyer, I am now suspicious that there are, indeed, aliens among us. If nothing else, I am certain we get a goodly number of characters walking through those Kokopelli doors and the communication goes on.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the Team.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Ol' Buther

It has been hot, painfully hot, in Bluff this week. In spite of the 108-degree temperature reading, however, Buffy the Wonder Dog is at her station in front of Twin Rocks Trading Post.

For the past nine years Buffy has maintained a steady vigil on the cement porch, greeting customers and overseeing day-to-day operations, rain or shine. With equal enthusiasm, Buffy welcomes artists selling their work and the tourists, travelers and collectors looking to acquire Navajo baskets, turquoise jewelry and Navajo rugs. She does not care whether the guest is red, yellow, black or white, young or old, tall or small, rich or poor, republican or democrat. To her it is all the same, if the visitor loves her, she loves them back. Few are immune to her outreach, and many have traveled miles out of their way to give Buffy a scratch and a kind word.

As I walked back to the trading post after a discussion with the manager of Twin Rocks Cafe about daily specials, I noticed Buffy panting at her post. She was obviously affected by the heat, but held steady. Reaching down to give her a bit of moral support and assure her the monsoons would soon be arriving, I heard the voice of my paternal grandfather, Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Simpson floating in from the parking lot. Although he has been gone over 25 years, his words were as clear as if he was standing just a few feet away. He was singing a song about his favorite canine, Buther. “Old Buther, that’s my good ol’ dog,” he sang. Woody was good at a great many things, but song writing was not one of them.

At the trading post people often ask how Barry and I came to live in Bluff. The answer lies in Woody, a Marine who had seen too much during WWII and wanted a place far from the excitement of the larger and busier communities to raise his four children. Bluff in the ‘40s fit the bill.

Woody enjoyed living in Bluff and loved dogs. I often marveled at how comfortable he was in this community, and how he talked, sang and listened to his pets as if they were human. It was not until I returned to Bluff after being away several years and Buffy came to live at the trading post that I understood his connection to the town and why his pets were so important. The dogs comforted and soothed this man who had experienced death and destruction on a massive scale, and Bluff, with its embracing, sheltering cliffs protected him from the outside world. That was a winning combination. As I talked with Buffy as though she could understand my words, I realized there must be a lot of Woody in me.

With Warm Regards;
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Cash Crop

Early Thursday morning I arrived at Twin Rocks Trading Post to discover my nephew Grange on his hands and knees picking weeds in front of the building. Greeting him as I walked-up the front steps, I said, "Hey Grange, what the heck?" He tersely replied, "What the heck does it look like?" "Hey now", I shot back, "don't be nasty to me pal. It is far too glorious a morning to start out on the wrong foot." "Sorry Uncle Barry," he said, "I am just frustrated because my dad has me pulling weeds. I hate weeds!" "Misguided", I said to myself as I entered the side door and strolled into our place of business. Switching on the lights, I noticed a note on the counter. It read, "Barry, Grange will be working at the trading post today. He is there to help. Have him pick weeds in front of the store. Steve"

Going about the place, I fired-up the computers and lights in the back rooms and unbarred the Kokopelli doors, propping them open so I could enjoy the morning. It really was a fabulous day. The rocky alcove embracing the trading post and cafe was still subdued by shadow. There was a slight breeze moving the air, which made it feel cool and refreshing. Just across the road to the southeast, the sun peeked around the rocky abutment and lit-up the day. The cottonwood trees, out buildings and rusted farm implements on the edge of the Gaines property stood exposed by the revealing rays. Sunlight also fell upon portions of the bluffs across the valley, creating a scenic study of shadow and light. The heat of the day was not yet upon us, but it promised to come soon. At the edge of the porch, near the sandstone boulders placed there as impact barriers, Grange worked diligently.

My short-term intentions were to sit on the front steps and harangue my nephew, but my plan was interrupted by a call from the cafe. Over the intercom Toni notified me there were two artists waiting to sell us their wares. Grange would have to wait for my intervention. It did not take long to finish my business at the gift shop. Toni already had the beadwork and carved dolls picked out before I arrived, so I just had to approve the expense. When I returned to the trading post, Grange had moved away from the steps. I knew he was trying to avoid me, but I would have none of it. I caught-up with him, leaned against a porch post and listened while he grumbled at his task. "Ya know", I said showering wisdom down on my nephew's red head, "when your father, Uncle Craig and I were your age we looked upon weeds as a cash crop." "What, prey tell, is a cash crop?" asked Grange impatiently.

"A cash crop is", I explained, "the fat of the land, a gold mine or a windfall." "These weeds are not a gold mine," argued my nephew. I asked, "You are being paid to pull them, are you not?" "I better be!" he retorted. I laughed at Grange and tried to make clear to him that there would always be weeds, and a person could usually make a buck or two by helping people keep them at bay. I tried to explain that his father and I met people every day trying to discover a way to make a living or subsidize their income. Grange admitted that ever since he was a small boy he had seen a steady stream of artists and trades people selling or attempting to sell their product to us. "Indeed," I replied. "A lot of those people depend on us for, at least, a portion of their annual income, and we depend on them to supply our stores. "And your customers are the third leg to that three legged stool," Grange repeated by rote, “without any one of those supports we all fall down." "Good job boy," I said, "your father has taught you well.”

I reminded Grange his "cash crop" would supply him with plenty of spending money until he grew-up, became educated and found his way in life. Just then a small, dark cloud passed overhead, and a few meager raindrops fell upon Grange and his declining weed patch. Grange looked-up at the cloud and then at me, saying, "I suppose you have an analogy for those raindrops as well, don't you?" Just then we heard the telephone ring inside the trading post and a page from Toni saying the call was for me. "Those raindrops are pennies from Heaven my dear boy," I said turning on my heel and heading inside. "Those pennies will help sustain your cash crop and keep you in business for many years to come." "Great!” I heard Grange reply as I passed over the threshold and approached my own opportunity.

With Warm Regards
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Basket Maker’s Hands

After 23 years at Twin Rocks Trading Post, I have begun to notice significant changes in many of the people we have known over that period of time. “Changes”, as most will realize, is code for how they, and Barry and I, have aged, physically, mentally and emotionally.
The Basket Makers Hands

Whether it is related to our age I do not know, but Barry and I have begun to sit for a time in the mornings, recapping the previous day and talking about things we need to do. Things like spending more time with our children before they leave home and fishing.

Years ago we would come in, sweep the porch, polish the glass and get right to work. Now it takes a while to prime the pump, and at times it is noon before we are fully engaged. Then we have to eat lunch, and before you know it, it’s quitting time. We are talking about incorporating a daily nap into our program, but have not been able to fit that into the otherwise busy schedule. As an alternative, during siestas we may just hang a sign around our necks which says, “Please wake for service.”

In addition to all the other changes, recently I realized Buffy and I have grown sensitive. As my hair and her face have turned whiter and whiter, more and more visitors to the trading post refer to her as “old dog”. When that happens, I advise them Buffy does not like that term and becomes extremely upset when it is used to describe her current circumstances. What I do not say, but what they surely realize, is that I am actually more concerned about me than her.

This morning Elyce and her sister, whose name I did not ask because she spoke only Navajo, came in looking for ceremonial baskets and Etta Rock pitch pots. It has been incredibly dry in southern Utah this year, so they, like the local farmers and ranchers, are water starved. Consequently, these siblings have decided on a traditional ceremony to bring down the rain. They promised to send some our way if we gave them a special deal, so Barry and I did not hesitate to oblige. Indeed, we would have donated the weavings all together if they had asked. We too are suffering from moisture deprivation. It is so bad around Bluff that Barry was recently researching how he might get an appointment to the federal government’s waterboarding research project.

Elyce is likely in her 50s, but her sibling just turned 80. Elyce said her sister used to make gobs of baskets, but her eyes have dimmed and rheumatoid arthritis has deformed her hands. At this point she cannot focus well enough and does not have adequate dexterity or strength in her fingers to properly place the stitches. The weaving machine has therefore ceased production, and she is forced to purchase rather than produce ceremonial baskets.

Unfortunately this is a situation Barry and I find quite often. The older basket makers can no longer execute, and the young people are too busy, too uninspired or just patently not interested. Looking at those hands, I was reminded of Mary Holiday Black and how many times I have wondered when she will also stop producing.

When Barry and I were young, many of the older traders told us we would not see any more Navajo rugs and baskets by the time we were their age. We are now their age, and wonder whether the prophecy is coming true. If it does, who’ll start the rain.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Buffy the Duck Dog - Tales of a Trader’s Dog, Part Four

As anyone who has visited Twin Rocks Trading Post in the last nine years knows, my name is Buffy and I am a trading post dog. My duty is to lie on the porch, wag my tail and greet patrons as they come up the stairs to meet Barry, Steve and Priscilla. I have been at my post through rain and shine, heat and cold, winter and summer almost a decade, and it may be time for a little variety.

Buffy the Duck Dog

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, primarily because I get to meet people from every walk of life; red, yellow, black and white. Most of them are kind; they talk to me, scratch me behind the ears, rub my belly and, from time-to-time, give me doggy treats. Never have I been handled roughly. In fact, the people of the trading post take care of me exceptionally well. The customers even show me rugs, turquoise jewelry and Navajo baskets they have purchased and must instinctively know of my taste for Southwest art.

Admittedly, however, I have grown restless. While I don’t care to give up my day job, I am looking for a way to make extra income. My people, Steve, Georgiana, Kira and Grange do not watch television, so I have been scouring the local newspaper and numerous periodicals scattered around the house for ideas. I have toyed with a number of alternatives; mixed martial arts fighter, marriage counselor, building contractor, long-haul trucker and many others. Unfortunately, I am too old to get into the ring, failed relationships make me sad, hammers don’t fit my paws and I am too short to see over the steering wheel of a big rig, so none of those professions have panned out.

The other day, however, I was perusing a copy of Time magazine and noticed a story about A&E's Duck Dynasty. Last year I saw an episode on cable television while Grange, Steve and I were traveling, and became enamored of Phil, Alan, Willie, Jase, Jep and Si. The article reminded me how fond I am of this family. These guys have made a fortune in the duck call and hunting business. They have also become as famous as the Kardashians, and had countless wedding proposals. Having never been in a serious relationship of my own, that interests me.

As a Golden Retriever, I was bred to be a gun dog, raised to retrieve downed upland game. My breed is intelligent and versatile, many of my extended family have become guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf and even . . . hunters.

While the magazine talked about Miss. Kay, Terry Bradshaw, wives, in-laws, outlaws, children, grandchildren and members of the local church, there was not a single mention of hunting dogs. “How,” I asked myself, “can these guys get along without a dog like me on the show?” Since I am a lover not a biter, I have a few reservations, but nothing that can’t be overcome. Consequently, I have sent in a resume and hired Steve as my talent agent. Since those guys are currently renegotiating their contract, maybe I can get a spot on the show. If you don’t find me at the trading post next season, look for me, Buffy the Duck Dog, on A&E. Until then, happy tails.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, May 31, 2013


Trekking the high desert surrounding Bluff, you soon come to realize trees are in short supply. Granted, there are a few cottonwoods located in canyon bottoms or along the San Juan River. There are also a small number of Russian olives growing among the tamarisk along the river, but they are few, far between and not much loved. The flats nearer Blue Mountain sponsor the stunted and sparsely populated "juniper forests" we hold near and dear to our hearts. Throw in a smattering of imported shade and fruit trees around our sunburned homes and there you have it. We are more likely to find shade behind a rock than a tree, and if a test were taken of the oxygen our little portion of the world contributes to the earth's daily requirement, we would certainly come-up short. Maybe that is the reason Steve and I are so often told we are acting "light headed".

Navajo Black and White Tree of Life Basket - Elsie Holiday (#355)

The other day I was working in my office when I heard the voice of Elsie Holiday. I groaned inwardly, because Elsie is most often looking for "Help". Yup, you guessed it help equals a personal loan. Elsie is, in our opinion, the most gifted Navajo basket weaver working in this modern age. The problem is that she is also, arguably, the most economically challenged Navajo basket maker of the common era. Because Steve is the softest touch of the two of us, Elsie will search him out instead of me. Steve is such an easy mark the locals call him, Steve Quicken-loans Simpson. I, on the other hand, am known as Barry McScrooge. If we were ever able to collect on all the loans we have passed out over the years, our retirement would be assured. In the mean time, it is anything but a sure thing. Anyway, when I heard Elsie's voice, I jumped-up and headed into the store in an effort to block Steve from blowing the down payment on my beach house in Florida.

When I reached the register Steve and Elsie were standing there looking over a most beautiful Tree-of-Life basket. The weaving was so nice I forgot about our financial woes and fell in love . . . with the basket. It truly was gorgeous. Elsie saw my interest and, in an effort to boost her bargaining power, began to explain the meaning behind the weaving.

The Tree-of-Life is one of the most unique and interesting of Navajo legends we have heard during our many years at Twin Rocks Trading Post. It is a metaphorical interpretation of where the Navajo people came from, their evolution, movement of life, connections with natural surroundings and involvement of the deities. It stands for who the Navajo believe they are and the life they intend to lead. At the base of the tree there are roots, which symbolize the emergence or center of all things. These roots reflect a connection to the lower worlds, the knowledge gained from the experience and the respect for the forefathers. The roots also represent the birth of the Earth Surface People and their appearance into this, the fifth world. Emergence from the lower world came about when Water Creature flooded it, due to Coyote's theft of his children. The water withdrew only when his youngsters were returned. Those same waters, along with the creation tales, feed and nourish the Tree-of-Life.

The trunk of the tree is symbolic in that it represents the Upward Moving Way of the Navajo. It is strong and supple due to ceremonial practice and the intervention of Changing Woman, the deity who cares for all green and growing plant life. The upper branches of the tree spread out in a protective manner. The limbs and leaves represent the chant ways and life ways the people have come to know, respect and live by. As a whole, the tree suggests a progressive, adaptive nature; one willing to learn, assimilate and even divests itself of cultural implications no longer viable. Navajo land is sacred ground to her people. It provides sanctuary to The People, providing protection from the outside world. Through an abiding honor and respect of the ancient culture and the accompanying deities, The People are promised health and prosperity. Above all things; Elsie explained, are the sky worlds, showing room for further growth and upward movement. The Sun provides essential light and energy, while the Moon softly nourishes. The stars reflect the past. In its entirety, the story told by the Tree-of-Life is rich with Navajo culture and tradition and gives rare insight into its nuances.

When Elsie completed her explanation I was sold as I could be. We negotiated a price and paid the toll. Just before Elsie departed, she peeled a hundred dollar bill from her freshly acquired wad of cash, handed it to me and said with a grin, "Take that off my bill, someday I'm going to pay you back completely." I took the bill with a sheepish grin and thanked her for both the basket and the payment. Steve turned on his heel and headed upstairs with the weaving. Don't think you are off the hook pal,” I called after him, "my retirement comes out of this place first, you get what is left after we forgive all these loans." Steve just held up the basket and waved it at me as he mounted the stairs. "Stinkin’ Steve,” I mumbled to myself.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the team.

Friday, May 24, 2013

No Cows Please

At the trading post Barry and I exist in what can only be described as a cultural cyclone. We invariably get caught up in interesting and unusual circumstances involving local traditions, folklore and mythology. Sometimes these situations include employee matters, but most often they are a sharing of personal stories, philosophies and beliefs. We are often swept up like Dorothy and Toto, and find ourselves enveloped in the colorful world of the Navajo, in the land of coral cliffs and turquoise skies.
Recently I was talking with Jenelia, a morning cook at Twin Rocks Cafe, about the upcoming marriage of her daughter to Wesley Simpson, a young man with no direct connection to us. Jenelia has three children, Jalvin, Menvalia and Melvida. She and her husband Melvin devised each name using a combination of letters from their own monikers. Menvilia, the middle child, is the bride-to-be.

Jenelia has a fascinating perspective, so whenever I can I engage her in conversation. Because she has diligently worked to educate her offspring and improve their lives, Barry and I have a great fondness and respect for her. On a recent occasion she and I hit on the topic of growing up poor. “It was bad for us”, she said. “Not any worse than it was for us” I countered, explaining that when we were boys, Barry, Craig and I slept on the living room floor of a partially burned, partially repaired trailer house that had surplus U.S. Army blankets for doors. “Oh”, she said, “that’s nothing, when I was a girl, at the beginning of each school year my family bought three pairs of pants and one package of underwear. My two sisters and I alternated the clothes so we didn’t have to be seen always wearing the same thing.” After comparing additional notes, I had to concede she had the better argument.

When we got back to talking about the wedding, she told me how she would be meeting with the family of the groom to, “sell her daughter”. This, she said, involved a complicated negotiation wherein she, as the presumptive mother-in-law, would receive turquoise jewelry, livestock and other items in return for arranging the marriage. In essence it seemed similar to the western culture’s tradition of dowry, just in reverse. This is probably because the Navajo have a matrilineal society.

As she explained the details of her negotiating strategy, she said, “Horses are good, sheep are good, you just don’t take cows!” “Cows”, I exclaimed, picturing the herds I see munching grass along our lonely reservation roads and those charismatic bovines on the Chick-fil-A billboards that say, “Eat mor chikin.” “What’s wrong with cows? I inquired, “I thought you liked them”. “I do”, she explained, “but if cows are involved, the bride will wander, so you never take cows.” Sometimes I think she says those things just to throw me off.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; The Team

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hogan Hunting

One of the many benefits of owning and operating a trading post and cafe in southeastern Utah is that it provides an opportunity to travel Navajo-land. Wither it be tracking down artists, making a mad dash to Farmington, New Mexico for last minute restaurant supplies, going to the Gallup Ceremonials, visiting the Santa Fe Indian Market or speaking at one of many museums in the Four Corners region, Steve and I have traveled "The Rez" most of our lives. The landscape is fascinating, there is cultural significance around every corner and the people are friendly. There are, however, a few obstacles to watch for. For example, when you see a pick-up truck cannonballing toward the main road from an ambiguous side road, know the driver will probably not stop when he hits the pavement. The driver will almost always pull out in front of you, turning right or left without any thought given to who may be coming or going. This will, certainly, cause you grief. Also be aware that there is a high probability a herd of sheep and goats will be parked in the middle of the highway just over the next blind rise. You must beware of emaciated horses along the roadway too. Many an unsuspecting traveler has T-boned one of these "prize ponies." Other than these trivial tribulations, the path is generally clear and easy.
Sterling Silver & 14K Gold Story Teller Bracelet - Robert Taylor (#30)

One of my other passions is studying the unique and varied communities spread out across the high desert country. From the air, family settlements have the appearance of a wagon wheel. Because they hold the home site leases, elders generally live at the hub. From there you will see double-track dirt roads radiating out in every direction not impeded by monument or canyon. Adult children wanting their own place will move a short distance from the main group, building a new dwelling or moving in a mobile home. Each generation spreads a little further out from that of their parents. Eventually a good-sized network develops. It is an interesting arrangement, but seems to work well because most Navajo families are closely connected and dependent upon each other for support.

In my mind, one of the coolest things these compounds contain are hogans. The interior of an authentic hogan, i.e., one built in the manner prescribed by Navajo deities, is truly beautiful and has a look and feel of tradition and culture. The main upright posts are forked at the top and planted deeply in the ground to support the upper, interwoven framework of skinned logs of various sizes. The cross over beams and angular ceiling braces are reminiscent of a woven Navajo rug or basket; they add a great deal of character to the dwelling. Because Hogans are covered with earth, they are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were, and may still be, the perfect shelter for this environment. That is because, except for the need to replace a little dirt after a rainstorm and the need to weed now and then, Hogans are low maintenance. To Navajo people the hogan is a sacred dwelling; it is a gift from the gods, and the womb of Mother Earth. It shelters the earth surface people. It also protects them from evil and, because it is safe and secure, allows them harmony and balance. The first hogans are believed to have been built by the Holy People with layers of turquoise, white shell, jet and abalone shell. The rounded hogan is female and the conical shaped one is male. Male hogans are rare. The doorway of both styles always face east, because that is the direction life began and begins anew each day.

The construction of a new hogan is almost always a family and community affair. Those who help are believed to be blessed for their donated labor. Once completed, the new hogan undergoes a Blessing-way ceremony, which invites the Holy People in to bless and sanctify it. The position for people and familial objects all have their designated place within the hogan; the south side belongs to the women and the north to the men. The hearth rests in the center of the room, it is communal, has cleansing powers and brings the family closer together. The male head of the family and any distinguished guest sit on the west side of the hogan, facing the doorway. During ceremonies or other important events everyone has a prescribed position.

Hogans are extremely durable, and if properly maintained will serve a family for generations. The only time they are intentionally taken down is if they are struck by lightning or someone dies inside. In the case of death, a hole is broken through the north side to let the decedent's spirit escape and it is abandoned. Because a hogan is essential to everyday life, a replacement is generally built post haste.

It is well worth running the roadside gauntlet of the Reservation to see the variety of hogans. You will witness everything from the original styles to modern variations. Some may disagree, but to me the construction materials are not as important as the intent to maintain cultural values and traditional ceremonies. For some years now I have thought someone with a creative eye and a good camera might produce a picture book on the many styles of hogans and their significance to the Navajo. The audience might prove to be limited, but the work useful in helping to enlighten those interested in the Navajo experience. So, the next time you are out and about the Reservation, beware of free ranging critters and keep your eyes peeled for the ceremonial hogan.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the Team.

Friday, May 10, 2013

One Indian Short of a Tribe

Grange and I were wrestling in New Mexico when the call came in. Since this is our all time favorite activity, I usually don’t allow any distractions during the matches. Seeing it was the trading post, however, and thinking it might be important, I picked up. “I sold one of your Indians,” Barry said when I answered. “What?” I shouted over the din, “you sold what?” “One of your Indians,” he repeated. Thinking he may have missed the lesson about Abraham Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment, I assured him I did not own any Indians. “I think that would be both illegal and immoral”, I said in my most sincere voice. “No, no, one of your wooden Indians”, he explained.
2 Indians and 2 Anglos

My 22 years at Twin Rocks Trading Post have taught me not to get overly attached to the inventory. “Can’t get high on your own supply,” a customer recently counseled while trying to convince me that Barry and I did not need a set of Ray Lovato beads Barry had become extremely fond of. Apparently one of the shopper’s friends had been a drug dealer during the 1970s and had given him that sage advice many years ago. Additionally, Duke always says everything is for sale except Rose. When we were young, I assumed that meant he would sell Craig, Barry and me if the right offer came along. Apparently no one was interested enough to make a proposal, so we stayed on.

My Cigar Store Indians are, however, almost sacred, and Barry knows that. They have been outside the trading post as long as Priscilla and I have been inside. “How could you sell my Indian?” I wailed, astonished he would even consider the possibility. “They are part of my family, like my kids. They have stood by me, stoically supporting me through thick and thin, through good times and bad, through sickness and health. They even got me through the Great Recession“, I said dramatically.

Thinking it would ease my pain, Barry said, “Hey, let’s get Dave Sipe to carve us Barry and Steve sculptures to put out front.” “You don’t know Dave”, I explained, “He’s temperamental and won’t like that idea. Dave has provided some nice carvings over the years, but he only does what he wants to do. I estimated the odds of him doing a Barry or a Steve were low, and the odds of him doing both were about zero. When that ploy didn’t work, Barry said matter-of-factly, “She bought several rugs and baskets, spent lots of money. She wanted your Indian and was extremely persuasive. She’s not the kind of woman you say no to, so I let her have it. She’ll be in tomorrow to pick it up.”

I felt Barry was rubbing salt into my wound. He would be gone and I would have to pack up the carving and load it into the woman’s car. When she arrived the following morning to retrieve her purchase, I put on my best sad face and protested that Barry was not authorized to sell my Indian. She, however, was not buying the argument. “Hah,” she said, “the deal is done. That’s not your Indian, it’s mine.” I had to admit, she was one tough customer.

With only one Indian out front, the trading post seemed unbalanced, without hozho, so I knew I had to find a solution. When I explained the situation to Craig, he said, “Duke has three of them. Why don’t you make a deal with him? You can probably get a replacement for half what Barry got for yours. You can get yourself right and might even make a profit.”

Thinking Craig was correct and that I had a chance to out trade the old trader, I packed up my wallet and headed north to talk with Duke. It was too late, however, word of my plight had reached Blanding and Duke was way ahead of me. “Yes”, he said, I will sell you an Indian. Everything is for sale, except Rose of course, but it’s not going to be cheap.” In the end Duke got all our cash, I got my replacement, Twin Rocks Trading Post regained its hozho and Barry promised to never again sell our Indians.

With Warm Regards, Steve, Barry, Priscilla and Danny; the Team.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Grand Illusion

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It was a Saturday afternoon and the clouds were rollin' in. Wind swirled about the parking lot, snatching up fine grains of red dirt and sandblasting tourists. People were driving up to Twin Rocks Trading Post and Twin Rocks Cafe, exiting their vehicles and leaning into the wind, forcing their way toward the buildings. To be perfectly honest, we do not disdain days like this because they force visitors to our small pioneer village to slow down, find shelter and stay a while. This type of weather can actually be good for business. Every time the Kokopelli doors at the trading post opened, a new guest was blown in or a recently acquired old friend was drawn out. It was one of those times when a dusty delusion turns into a positive situation.
Navajo A Grand Illusion Basket - Alicia Nelson (#213)
Just after 3:00 the phone rang. Alicia Nelson was calling about a basket. In her always-pleasant voice she asked, "What time do you close tonight?" "Old friend", I replied, "you have known us over 20 years. You know what time we close as well as I do." "I do know," replied Alicia, " and I know you are also closed Sundays. My question was just a nice way of asking if you will stay open until I finish this basket." "Uh huh", was my reply, "and just how long might that take?" Alicia explained that she needed at least three hours to complete the last coil and then another half hour or so to travel from her home near Red Mesa, Arizona to Bluff. I did the math and figured it would be a push for her to get here by closing time. I also reasoned that I had spent many an evening sitting around the store waiting on artists.

While I hate to stereotype, my opinion is that Reservation dwellers are notorious for not paying attention to the clock. They often see time in an altogether different light. Meeting someone in an hour or six is frequently all the same to them. "Can't do it", I said, "supper's waitin' at home and I gotta get to it." "I've heard you sing that tune before,” said Alicia, "but my daughter Caitlin is leaving on a school trip and I need to send traveling money with her." I groaned out loud, raising a curious look from the customer standing by the register attempting to extract sand from his ear and pay for a packet of Serena Supplee note cards. Priscilla moved in to pass him a Q-tip, which we keep around just for such an occasion, and cash him out.

Refocusing on Alicia, I recognized she has struggled since she and Jonathan Black separated. Although it broke my heart to do so, I have turned away a few of her weavings in the past two years because they were not up to her unusually high standards. Alicia recognized my hesitation and seemed to read my mind, saying, "You are going to love this basket. I guarantee it!" Because I am a born skeptic and was also looking forward to visiting with my daughter, Alyssa, who is home from college, I really did not want to wait. "Here's the deal", I told Alicia, "Stay home tonight and take your time finishing the basket. Steve is managing the cafe in the morning, so he will be here to appraise it." Alicia agreed to my proposal, said good-bye and hung up.

As it happened, Steve was roped into working the Saturday night shift, so the Sunday morning opening fell to me. Alicia showed up around 10:00 a.m., and we walked next door to the trading post for the unveiling. I will freely admit that when she handed me her weaving I was blown away. She had woven an extremely intricate and symmetrical illusion basket, one of the hardest designs to make. This masterpiece was easily one of the best baskets I have ever seen her execute. It seems Alicia has found peace and settled back into the mastery of her art. As she drove away, I set her basket on the shelf and stood back to appreciate it. Illusion baskets attempt to fool the eye and trick the mind into seeing subtle movement through complex designs. The patterns need to be placed precisely, and there is no room for error. If it is not properly done, the design fails to create the desired effect. I stared at the basket and in short order the darn thing made me dizzy; it worked perfectly. Not only is Alicia's basket extraordinary, but also a dear friend has regained her balance. In one fell swoop a grand illusion was dispatched and a grander illusion created.

With warm regards, Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny: the team.