Friday, December 18, 2015

Over the Top

I was having a bad day! It was getting on toward evening. and because of extenuating circumstances I had not gotten much of anything done at the trading post. I think it was the first telephone call of the morning that got things started off wrong. I received a page from Danny saying there was an irate customer on the line seeking someone to take her frustration out on. I hesitantly picked up the phone and said, "Hi this is Steve, how may I help you?" I sometimes use Steve's name when I need a scapegoat.
Bluff, Utah from above.

The woman on the other end of the line wasted no time letting me know she was angry because of getting a first class runaround. She jumped right on me, saying in an aggravated tone of voice that her ring needed repair and I should take care of the situation, "post haste". "Okay", I said, "everything we sell is 100% satisfaction guaranteed. Simply send me the ring and we will repair it, right away." There was silence, then resignation. I probed, "You did buy the ring from us, didn't you?" The woman sighed and said, "Sadly no, I bought it directly from the artist."

A few minutes later the entire story was related to me. It seems a couple years ago this now unhappy collector bought an expensive coral ring from Hasteen Begay, whose name has been changed to protect the guilty, while visiting the Portal in Santa Fe. Recently the coral had dislodged itself and escaped into the forests of Vermont. The woman had wisely charged the transaction on her credit card, so she called VISA to solicit their powerful aid. VISA, with their supercomputers and know-it-all data base , gave her our 800 number and said, "Go forth and seek satisfaction". So, I found myself attempting to arbitrate a situation that had absolutely nothing to do with us.

How the credit card company connected this poor woman's complaint to Twin Rocks will surely be one of those forever unsolved mysteries. Now that I knew the woman's problem, I began searching for a solution. Realizing I knew this Mr. Begay, I rolled out the Rolodex and extracted his phone number and address and promptly gave him up. The unhappy woman was now on the path to resolving her problem. She thanked me for my somewhat selfless service. I told her it was not a problem and that if she had further complaint's to call 1-800-Steve's your man.

Later in the day, I received a call from one of the turquoise miners we work with. I will not mention his name for fear of retribution, but this guy is, as dear old dad often says, "Rough as a cob!" For years I took this saying for granted, not really understanding its significance. One day I decided to discover the true meaning of the phrase and asked my father exactly what it meant and where the saying originated. He patiently explained the term sprang to life in the days of outdoor facilities. Paper products were scarce, not often afforded and certainly never wasted. Every little thing was used and used again if an additional, beneficial purpose could be uncovered. It seems a feast of roasted corn was not only a treat for the palate, but afterwards the dried cob provided a cleansing tool for the derriere. Thus the saying, "rough as a cob!" I had to ask.

As I spoke with my associate, I felt I was being formally abused, much like the sensation the cob might have provided one's backside. After having my personal safety and life threatened several times, we came to somewhat agreeable terms on the purchase of his highly desirable blue and green gemstones. Just before he hung up, Mr. Turquoise laughed at my sensitive nature and told me that just because he threatened to break my knees and stuff me in a mine shaft, it didn't mean we weren't friends; it was simply his way of showing affection. Ya gotta love the guy!

So it went the rest of the day, until it came to a point where I was feeling chaffed. I felt as if I needed to get out of the shop and reconnect with the natural world. I hoped Mother Earth would treat me with more respect, so I found my coat and headed for the door. Lately, I have been noticing the beauty of the cap-rock on the cliff tops above town. As I drive home, the play of evening light and shadow on the roiled and domed surfaces has captured my imagination and is drawing me in. Leaving work an hour early would give me enough time to view a sunset "on the rocks!"

I told Steve where I was going and that if a Mrs. Norton from New England called to act like they were old friends. I was out the door before he could ask any further questions, jumped into the Toyota and headed north. I drove up Cow Canyon, took a hard right on the belt loop and another right onto the first dirt road that ran parallel to the canyon. Five minutes from the front door of the trading post put me within a short walk of my goal.

Stepping out of the truck, I was struck by a brisk and bitter breeze, my ears immediately frosted over and my eyes teared up. It seemed nature was not going to allow me a reprieve from a less than perfect day. I had only a light coat and no hat, but I was determined to get to the slick rock and see the sunset no matter what. Trudging across the desert caused my toes to become numb, but I soon arrived at the point where the desert met the rock. Looking up through crying eyes, I recognized the bold, bubbly formation before me. I reached down and felt the welcoming sandpaper texture of the rock and felt welcome.

Scrambling up the slick rock slope, I searched for a small protected alcove that would provide shelter from the north wind and allow me to enjoy the end of day while being warmed by the dissipating rays of light. Topping the stone monolith and moving down the other side, I found just the right impression. It was actually quite cozy. The sun was resting right on the horizon, waiting for me to settle in and enjoy the show.

I have to say that I have witnessed much more grand and spectacular sunsets, but never one so calming. The sound of complete silence surrounded me, as did the coarse yet unobtrusive stone. It seemed my self-perceived troubles dissipated into the rock as the sun descended behind the horizon. It felt good to join with nature and ignore the complications of my temporal situation. As all traces of the sun and my bad humor withdrew and twilight overtook me, I raised up and breathed deeply. Turning toward the west I was greeted by a nearly full rising moon. I said a word of gratitude for being able to live in such a strikingly beautiful and unique area and for the ability to access it so so quickly.
The Sunset from Bluff, Utah

Walking back across the short strip of blow-sand and stunted vegetation, under the icy white moon and enveloping purple twilight, made my world feel a bit enchanted . I thought of my loving wife waiting at home and felt warm and comfortable in spite of the nip in the air and frostbite on my nose and ears. I was hoping Laurie would forgive me for being late for dinner, but was certain I would be easier to get along with when I arrived. I also thought I might have to send Steve out tomorrow night to enjoy a similar experience. When he finds out I have sacrificed him in the effort to save my own sanity he may be aggravated. No worries, we all know that he is no saint either.

With warm regards Barry Simpson.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Titans of Turquoise

Craig, Barry and I were all high school wrestlers. Craig, however, was more accomplished in athletics than Barry and I. While we both placed third in the state competition, Craig was twice champion. So, it should come as no surprise that over the years Barry has developed a fondness for the World Wrestling Federation. I am confident he knows the matches are staged and the wrestlers nothing more than actors on steroids, but he does not seem to care.
Steve @ Twin Rocks

In his library are priceless collections of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, The Sheik and Sensational Sherri memorabilia. You can imagine the celebration Barry held when Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. He had a heavyweight hangover for months.

Navajo baskets and rugs aside, if eBay had a special category for WWF high rollers, Barry would be a charter member. When Big Show and Hornswoggle are “wrestling”, we always know right where to find him. It is a sure bet he will be in his Barcalounger with his feet up, an extra large bag of low fat pork rinds and a super-size jug of diet root beer close at hand. Barry explains that he has long since given up the hard stuff (Pepsi), because it was either that or start wearing sweatpants.

Having recently turned 56, however, I was confident our wrestling days were over. As a result, Barry’s latest proposition caught me off guard. When he showed up at the trading post in Sleeping Beauty blue tights, a red coral muscle shirt, Bruce Eckhardt variscite beads, a squash blossom necklace and more turquoise and silver bracelets than I could count, I knew something was up.

“I have it”, he said, “you and I are going to be the next WWF tag team champions. If the Valiant Brothers and the Wild Samoans did it, why can’t we? We’ll go all the way! Oh, not to bruise your ego or anything, I initially wanted Craig as my partner, but he won’t fit into the rig. Here, put this on!” Boy, was I amazed when he held up what looked like a miniature Speedo swimsuit, lace-up wrestling boots and nothing more. “They’re Morenci blue,” he said. “We’ll be the Titans of Turquoise. Twin Rocks Trading Post can be our sponsor, maybe Polygamy Porter too. You know, the Utah connection.” He was obviously rambling.

Staring at that g-string thing, and beginning to feel faint, I remembered the first time our friend Karen Tweedy-Holmes suggested we take a family photograph, in the nude. “Jana will never let me go out in that thing,” I protested. “ And what will Kira and Grange say?” “Come on,” he said. “Just think, once we win the championship, we can maul all those guys who have ever challenged us for dominance of the turquoise business. “Tony Cotner, The Duke of Damale; Ernie Montoya, The Count of Carico Lake; and even Dean and Danny Otteson, The Royston Royals, they don’t stand a chance.”

Taking into account our mutually protruding stomachs, saggy butts and receding hairlines, the only consolation I could imagine was that Barry was not promoting a syringe full of muscle making magic. As he stood there holding the costume, my mind began to race uncontrollably, “The Titans of Turquoise, The Titans of Turquoise . . . THE TITANS OF TURQUOISE!” I had to admit, it has a certain ring, and I do need to get back into shape. “Okay,” I blurted out, “I’m in, but I want matching suits and equal access to jewelry. No bikinis for me.”

In 1938 Harry Goulding packed up his wife “Mike” and drove west to see legendary filmmaker John Ford about making movies in Monument Valley. When Harry threatened to camp out in Ford’s office until he got an interview, Ford finally gave in and agreed to a meeting. The rest, as they say, is history. With that in mind, I have dispatched Barry to see Pini Zahavi, the great sports agent. I packed Barry a large picnic basket full of chips, salsa and soda; gave him a history lesson and a blowup sleeping mat (the blowup doll stayed at home) and instructed him not to come home without a contract.

As Barry always says, “If you do, you can.” I have never been sure what that means, but I am confident we can do. In preparation for our debut, yesterday I lifted two 20 pound sacks of Blue Bird flour and jogged next door to Twin Rocks Cafe for a mug of coffee. I can already feel the burn. Surely it won’t be long before Bluff is known as the home of the terrible, the tumultuous, the tremendous Titans of Turquoise. Look out Big Show and Chris Jerico, here . . . come . . . the . . . Titans.

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

Friday, December 4, 2015

High Country Tripping

The season of snow and ice will soon be upon us, so I was looking forward to one last hike upon the flanks of our Blue Mountain. It was Sunday afternoon, Steve was managing the cafe and the trading post was closed for the day. Laurie was enjoying the company of her mother in Monticello and I figured there were four hours of good daylight left to get into the forest and back, five if I pushed my luck. My goal was to hike the old power line road leading up to Abajo Peak. I have studied it digitally, using Google maps, several times and decided I could traverse the path and not get lost. Actually, I could easily keep track of where I was because I would have intermittent views of the eastern slopes of the "Blues", the valley below and the LaPlata mountains far to the east. I would begin my journey on the lower extremities of Pole Canyon, then catch the power line road at the southwest corner of the Jones property and head uphill from there. I was excited about undertaking the trek.

My wife has often offered to loosen the purse strings and let me purchase a gently used four-wheeler to carry my aging bones to places I can't easily walk. Since I love the quite and solitude of a hike and, to steal a phrase, "take the path less traveled,” I have declined her offer until I can no longer carry myself. "When that time comes", I tell her, "I will require the latest, greatest model available, nothing used." She waves me off and says, "Then you may walk for now." So I do, and I have a great deal of fun exploring thick timber and crossing ravines where a four-wheeler should not or cannot go. This time though I would be traversing an old road, one that was quite steep, rocky and becoming chocked down by encroaching trees and brush. Shouldering my bug-out bag, I set my hiking boots to the task. An occasional mule deer bounded by, grey squirrels barked at me and I could hear but not see heavy beasts moving through the thickets. My imagination told me there were bear, but common sense said cows were about.

Thick strands of twisted and gnarled oak brush, the stuff that grabs at your clothing and pokes you in the eye if you are not careful, border the first course of the trail. There are also statuesque and fragrant yellow pine and stumpy juniper with smatterings of sap that can be chewed like a stick of Wrigley's gum. When the Mormon pioneers first came to Bluff, the Navajo people were using the sap as a healing salve, a natural Neosporin that is proven to draw out infection and foreign objects. Because it was effective, the pioneers adopted it and adapted it for personal use. (Ask me about this later. It will be the next pyramid scheme I invest in. It works, it really does. Only this time I intend to be at the apex of said pyramid.) Anyway, I digress. It was not long before the path became exceedingly steep and rocky. I most often hike alone because on increasing inclines I begin to huff and puff like a locomotive. It is less embarrassing if I am the only one to hear the steam vent. On a hike like this I generally set my sights on a rock or tree up the hill and trek to it, then take a breather and do it again.
Going Up

As I tripped up the slope I could feel my heart beating like a drum on parade. The shale was semi-loose under my boots as I made my way up a particularly steep incline. Tall shoots of yellowed grass grew in scruffy patches in the midst of the slide rock and scattered boulders. There were blue spruce all around, and for contrast the white scarred trunks of quaking aspen mixed in with the pines. The forest around me was getting thicker; there were numerous giant deadfalls with their massive roots sticking into the air like the petrified tentacles of a monster squid. Lightning struck trees was common up here, with their shattered bodies and shocked trunks oozing with highly flammable sap. There were tall standing pines, dead for ages, stripped clean of bark and standing like oversized skeletons refusing to fall by force of wind and weather. As I climbed higher the trees started to thin and I began catching more glimpses of the far-reaching views in the distance.

I topped-out on a lower peak which opened to a magnificent vista encompassing a vast and beautiful landscape. On the slopes just below me there were clusters of trees sporting the fall colors of yellow, green and red. I could see the rooftops and reservoirs of Monticello below me and the highway to Blanding stretched out to the south with the forms of singular farmhouses and out buildings along its length. Deep and steep canyons cut the surface of the land interspersed with the fields of dry farms connected by a spider-web maze of dusty dirt roads. From where I stood I could see to the tops of the far peaks in Colorado, the faint outline of Shiprock to the south, in New Mexico, and if I looked to the right of South Peak I believe I was viewing a snippet of Arizona.

As I stood on this high and mighty place, my mind was drawn to the Navajo perspective of mountains; all mountains are sacred to The People. Deity, gifted with Holy People, created them one male, one female. Those beings communicate with the sky, beckoning clouds to gather and lay down moisture, which allow the plants and animals upon them to grow and prosper. Every mountain reacts to song, prayer and offerings, has a personality of its own, and will bless those who honor and respect it. Failure to do so can cause harm or accident to the individual. The values associated with sacred mountains are pervasive to the Navajo; they are called upon in every ceremony to aid in the healing and protective process. I thought about this and wondered if I had approached the mountain correctly and shown respect while treading upon it. I had no corn pollen to give, but placed a couple Fig Newtons in an obvious spot as an offering and said a little prayer of appreciation.

When I started this hike, I imagined making it to the top of Abajo Peak, the highest point in this range. Sadly though my time was short, my lungs and legs were nearly spent and I realized I was not going to accomplish that goal this time. I recently read a book by Jon Krakauer titled: Into Thin Air, about hiking Mount Everest. It was still on my mind, because in a very small way I felt like so many of those climbers that nearly made it to the peak of Everest but were turned away by similar circumstances. To be sure, Mount Abajo is nowhere near as difficult to climb as Everest. The term "a mountain to a mole hill" also came to mind. As I contemplated these issues, the sun went behind the peaks and the wind picked-up. I looked again at the slope before me and once again thought about attempting the summit. The wind whipped and the temperature dropped. Because of the climb my t-shirt was still wet and I had only my Twin Rocks sweatshirt with me to fend off the cold. If I did not want to spend an unprepared night up here, the wise choice would be to head down the mountain.

I thought maybe I would make the trek back to the truck in a much quicker manner, but my legs were tightening-up and I began to wonder if that would be the case. I found and fashioned a couple walking sticks to help avoid a face plant and started down the hill singing what I could recall of Bohemian Rhapsody and humming the melody of what I could not. By the time I made it down my toes were jammed into my boots so far I probably would never get them out and my legs were hammered to the point I could barely stand. I had one more fence to cross and a quarter mile to go when I hooked a toe on the top wire of a gate and flipped onto my back, on the opposite side. I lay there for a moment, slowly taking stock of my situation and wondering if I had broken anything. I wiggled my fingers and toes, my back and my front and realized nothing was damaged, other than my ego. I had landed in a prone position, flat on my back. My pack had absorbed the blow; some of the stuff in there hadn't done so well, but could be replaced. I don't know if the Newton cookies or the Rhapsody had hindered or helped that fall, but the mountain sent me home safely and for that I am eternally grateful. I look forward to my next excursion there.

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

Friday, November 27, 2015


On the northeast side of our majestically scenic town stand two rock pillars commonly known as the Navajo Twins. Perched on a slight promontory rising above town, these geologic masterpieces are named for the mythical Hero Twins of Navajo legend, Monster Slayer and Born for Water. Sculpted by wind and water over many millennia, the towers have stood guard over numerous civilizations, the earliest established in approximately 650 A.D. These silent sentinels presently watch over the approximately 225 modern day pioneers who call Bluff home.

Inspired by an alternative name for the spires, in 1989 Twin Rocks Trading Post was established at the base of these natural monuments. From that day forward Barry, Priscilla and I have “manned" the sales counter. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we “entertain" visitors to Bluff with stories of local lore and cultural complexities. Anyone interested, or foolish, enough to ask is regaled with mostly true stories of our experiences buying, selling and trading turquoise jewelry, Navajo rugs and woven basketry. Despite notable gaps in our expertise, we do not hesitate to also expound on the history of the community and the Paleo-Indian, Anasazi, Navajo, Paiute and Mormon people who populated this region from the earliest times.
Read description below $500 for more info on how to WIN!

While there are a great many stories we have read, been told or simply made up regarding the establishment of this village, there is one mystery that continues to confound Barry and me. I was reminded of the issue about three months ago as I wandered through Twin Rocks Cafe sipping my morning mug of coffee laced with honey and cream. “Hey Steve”, one of our buddies from Blanding said, “what about the story that the twins were once triplets?” The question relates to the often cited lore that there were three sandstone siblings standing when the Mormon pioneers arrived in this river valley in April of 1880, and that one was blasted down to build the Victorian homes constructed during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Of the many elegant rock homes built during that era, only a handful remain. These include the residences of Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr., Platte D. Lyman, Frederick Joseph Adams, Hyrum Perkins, Jens Nielson and John Albert Scorup. These individuals are legendary in the annals of San Juan County, and their extraordinary homes stand as testaments to their faith and tenacity. Jens Nielson became the first bishop of Bluff, L.H. Redd and John Scorup established cattle and sheep ranches of vast scope, and together these men planted the seeds of family trees that have matured into an ever expanding forest.

The historical record as we know it, however, is devoid of information documenting the third sandstone offspring. For years Barry and I have examined oral histories, perused historic photographs and interrogated old-timers, looking for information that might help resolve this riddle. Despite our diligence, we have come up entirely empty. Not long after our friend put the bite on me, I sat in Barry’s office lamenting our inability to solve this topographic teaser. “Well”, Barry pointed out, “you never were good at that sort of thing anyway. Why don’t you just offer a reward?” “A reward”, I shot back, a bit too defensively, “aren’t those for outlaws, miscreants and persons gone missing?” “Sure”, he said, “but there’s no reason you can’t use one to locate the mislaid monolith." Despite my belief he had underestimated my critical thinking skills, I wondered whether he might be on to something and went to discuss the problem with Priscilla. Priscilla’s grandmother had always referred to the twins as her babies, so I concluded she might have some valuable insight.

Priscilla agreed we should use our limited resources to resolve this quandary once and for all. As a result, Barry and I have pooled our pesos and determined to issue a bounty on the truant. Therefore, the first person providing verifiable evidence of the existence of the third sibling will receive a $500.00 cash reward. The offer stands so long as Barry and I are standing. Let the hunt begin.

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

Last week I was manning the sales counter at Twin Rocks and visiting with customers when a strong storm blew in. Because the weather has been pleasingly moderate, we have been leaving the Kokopelli doors wide open so we can experience the outside world while working inside. As I casually conversed with a California couple concerning several pieces of Navajo jewelry they had recently inherited, I became interested in what was happening on the porch. As I watched through the open doors, several tumbleweeds rolled clumsily past, heading east along our wide red porch. A few minutes later, those same high desert travelers rolled back in a westerly direction.

As the man rambled on about an old turquoise, cluster style bracelet, the woman noticed my distracted gaze and followed it out the door. "Ooh!" she commented, interrupting her husband, "The wind must be gusting in circles. It reminds me of that old cowboy song, the one about tumbling tumbleweeds. Who sang it anyway?" "I think it was The Son's of the Pioneers", I said, "They also sang Ghost Riders, they were great." "Yes!" she said exuberantly and began to hum, then sing Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Let's just say her singing voice was . . . less than great. I smiled amicably as she sang. Then her husband scrunched his face, put a hand on her sleeve and shut her down. “That's the one!", I said with gusto, trying to ease the hurt.
Navajo Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Cluster Bracelet - Eugene Livingston (#141)

The woman had her own way of dealing with the man, she punched him a solid blow in the upper arm. Hard enough, I witnessed, for him to visibly flinch. "I could have been a cowgirl", she said, "riding all day, nights underneath the prairie moon." "I'll bet you could have", I agreed, looking to her husband who was rubbing his bruised appendage. "You seem tough enough." The woman laughed merrily and made another playful jab at her companion, he was not amused. The couple soon departed, with the woman humming and her guy keeping his distance.

There was plenty to do, but the golden light filtering through the doorway and cottonwood trees across the road were beautifully soothing so I lingered a while. The dancing tumbleweeds continued their awkward pirouette across the porch and graveled parking lot. I relaxed back into the stool I was sitting on and thought about how it might have been to be a cowboy, drifting along with the breeze and living the lonesome life. Just then a whirly-gig sprang-up in the middle of the parking lot and began to toss-about tumbleweeds, red dirt and anything else it could whisk-up into the disrupted air space. All heck broke loose, causing me to jump the counter and force the Kokopelli doors shut in an effort to keep the oscillating debris cloud from entering the trading post.

Moving to the plate glass windows, I watched the dust devil crank its way across the parking lot. The wind ripper stripped yellow leaves from the trees and hurled tumbleweeds, which looked like bundles of barbed wire, into the atmosphere. I saw my guests racing to their car, dodging stickery masses as they went. Followed closely by a cloud of dust and debris, they jumped into their car, slammed the doors shut and drove away. I guess the romantic notion of being a high-plains drifter had dissipated with the first stiff breeze.

I too have had romantic notions of being a historic cowboy or mountain man, living off the land, free to go anywhere I like and do what ever I want. That lonely life, however, was not my lot and I would not want to live without the love and joy my precious family and friends provide. Bluff is a great place to be, so I will settle for straddling the intersection of tradition and innovation here at Twin Rocks Trading Post. Anyway, if I had lived back then I probably would have lost my top knot early on. Even in these modern days, Steve and I have been scalped a time or two. Luckily though, there has been no hair loss. I truly am satisfied with my life, so I'll just keep rolling along. Deep in my heart is a song, here in Bluff I belong, drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

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

Friday, November 13, 2015


Late in the afternoon I stood behind the jewelry counter watching the day fade to black. It was the type of fall day that causes Twin Rocks Trading Post patrons to ask, "Is it always this nice here?” As we all know, nothing is universally the same, and in Bluff everything, including the weather, can change in an instant.

Bluff Cottonwood Trees

During evenings like this I long to bottle a few early November hours to remind me of autumn during the heat of summer or the chill of winter. On this particular evening, the golden sunlight streamed through yellow cottonwoods and splashed on the ground, creating pools of gold I treasure more than any precious metal. This serene beauty makes my heart beat slower, and at times leaves me in an almost hypnotic trance.

As the sun set, the smell of ripe melon permeated the store and I noticed customers unsuccessfully attempting to identify the scent. A young man in his early twenties strode in sporting waist length hair imprisoned by a series of rubber bands and an Australian accent that seemed too forced to be authentic. Neglecting the unusual aroma, he asked, "Do you have knee-high moccasins and bone chokers?" "Sorry, no", I answered without further explanation, putting him on notice this is not a knee-high moccasin and bone choker kind of place.

Moments later an elderly couple wandered through the store, smiling, pointing and complimenting in a friendly fashion. Their senses worked hard to define the unrecognized fragrance. Only a few hours earlier Ray Lovato had delivered the aromatic fruit, along with blue corn cookies and several chilies. "Grown from my own patch," Ray proudly proclaimed as he handed over the produce.

Ray had informed me the melon was a highly effective means of exciting the opposite sex. He said one must eat its fruit and boil the left over rind in alcohol to produce the desired effect. Once the husk was completely rendered, he advised me to rub it on my face, chest and other anatomical parts that should not be mentioned in polite company. "Guaranteed to work", he affirmed. His daughter blushed and turned away.

After Ray exited the trading post, a mining economist who had previously been holding forth on existing and extinct turquoise mines asked, "Has he been drinking?" "Drunk on the fairer gender," I explained, "Ray gave up booze decades ago. Now he's addicted to turquoise and memories of the past, maybe hoping for future adventures if his melon recipe works out."

The question posed by the economist reminded me how difficult it is for our customers to understand local culture. It also brought to mind an incident that happened several years earlier when two women came striding into the post. "Are you here for the Bluff Arts Festival," I asked. "Yes," they responded, "we were out at St. Christopher's Mission for the Spin Off. There was a live sheep when we arrived that was dead when we left”, they explained with unvarnished disgust. The women failed to understand that, on the Navajo reservation, sheep are considered a gift to the people; an expendable resource.

Ray's romance melon and chilies

Later that same evening, Kira's friend Gabby and I were discussing the proper method of slaughtering sheep when Kira announced that killing them was “awful." Gabby patiently explained the process to Kira and described delicious foods created from sheep intestines, brains and blood. To Gabby, butchering animals for food was as natural as taking ground beef from the freezer. Kira, however, found the process foreign. Gabby's patient explanation opened a window of understanding for Kira, and helped her appreciate the differences that define their lives.

In our modern world of prepackaged everything, society has forgotten the basic functions of rural life. Like Gabby, many of our Native American friends still understand how it used to be. Ray, however, must not be one of them. As Barry and I can attest, his "traditional" love potion was a complete flop. Just don’t ask how we know.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, October 30, 2015

Growing up, and Living in Bluff

The rugged landscape of the Four Corners region suffuses its occupants with a unique perspective. Ours is a beautifully harsh world of majestic mesas; vast, vertical canyons; and twisting, swirling sandstone. To those born into it, the land is rich in texture and mystery. This home of the Navajo provides room to expand one's personal space and explore life's unanswered questions.

Picture of Twin Rocks Trading Post
Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff Utah

At Twin Rocks Trading Post Steve and I are often asked, "What are you doing here?" Being of rather smart and caustic natures, we have developed a litany of answers that never adequately addresses the question. It does, however, force the inquisitor to stop and consider what he or she has said. There are those, however, who are sincere in their questioning, those who simply cannot understand why anyone would choose to reside in such an unforgiving environment. They see only heatwaves raising from blistering asphalt and feel the penetrating bite of blowing sand.
Although we face the oppressive sun and stinging soil from time-to-time, we are trained by persevering neighbors to see things through their eyes and to appreciate these circumstances as glimpses into the mythological world. The inherent beauty of the occasion is, however, not always readily apparent. A mirage for example is seen by the Navajo as a window into the land of supernaturals, and spring wind storms are believed to be a side effect of rambunctious Wind Yeis at long last released from their winter containment.
As one might expect, growing up in Bluff was an education in its own right. We learned in the same public school system as the rest of America, same curriculum, same textbooks. We were, however, also introduced to other cultures with strange and unusual beliefs that ran counter to what we were being taught in the classroom. When I look back on our school pictures, I see a minority of white faces surrounded by the happy, mischievous, earth red faces of Navajo and Ute children. To be sure, we were tested in the classroom and on the playground.  As a result, we learned many lasting lessons.  The photographs nevertheless bring back happy memories.

Included in my scrapbook of memories are Navajo women in brightly colored satin blouses adorned with turquoise jewelry and full velveteen skirts, stoic Navajo men wearing tall black hats with rounded crowns flashing silver. We were the wild, liberated children who were frequently left to their own devices. I specifically recall a Navajo man walking down the highway, making time to an unknown destination. He was followed by his wife, who, even though she retained the family wealth and right of discipline, was always in the rear, never leading. As they passed our yard, I fell in behind the tall, stern man and his gaily clad spouse. For my efforts, I earned a harsh, disapproving look from the Hasteen, but received a brilliant welcoming smile from his mate. For a short time I followed in their footsteps, a rag tag boy, imagining an adventurous trek with Native guides. I was all too soon lured away by another distraction, but distinctly remember the woman’s friendly wave of farewell and her husband’s look of acceptance.
The Ute people also taught us many lessons, usually relating to pugilism. It was always interesting to deal with their devil-may-care, fun at all cost, attitude. Their sense of humor frequently had a biting edge, and they always appreciated a well executed gag. We spent many hours sneaking up on these cagey characters, attempting to relieve them of an object of interest and knowing full well that identifying an avenue of hasty retreat was in our best interest. The local deputy once caught us antagonizing his inmate through the outside bars of the holding cell and threatened to provide us similar accommodations if we did not quickly disperse. The thought of being incarcerated with this unruly individual made us scatter and steer clear of the jail house from that point forward. The inmate never let us forget it, and often invited us to, "Come visit."

Bluff was and is a wonderful place. So, if I have to answer the question, "What are you doing here?", I would say, "I am here because this is where I belong, this is my history, my emotion and my heart. Navajo people believe they come from the earth; that Mother Earth gave them life and that she continues to provide for them. They know one day they will return to her. Until that time they choose to remain close to her, and so do I.

Friday, October 23, 2015


Navajo Rug Weaver Mae Yazzie's hands
Navajo Rug Weaver Mae Yazzie's hands

Lately I have been obsessed with a song I heard long ago which goes like this, “Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle, but I’ve come to understand, there was always love in Daddy’s hands.” Although I can recite that part of the tune word-for-word, I cannot remember a single other phrase.

The melody got me thinking about the Ancient Puebloans who occupied this land centuries ago and left beautiful handprints in many of their cliff dwellings. Maybe that was their way of leaving a mark on the world, an eternal signature of sorts. Those personalized pictographs open a window into the past and inspire me to visualize painted pottery, corn, beans, squash and nurturing farmers.

Old songs and ancient people started me noticing the hands of our Native artists and the effects rug weaving, basket making or stonecutting has on their extremities. Basket weaver Evelyn Cly may have kicked off my latest mania when she brought a ceremonial basket into the trading post. These weavings are extremely important in Navajo culture, and she seemed to caress the basket while passing it to me for inspection. For the first time, I noticed her fingers are slightly angled from dipping sumac strands into water. Hydrating the splints makes them pliable, less brittle, easier to manipulate. The moisture had apparently swollen her joints, and the strain of stitching fibers into art had raised callouses on her fingers.

What brought my obsession out in full force, however, was a telephone conversation with my friend Gerald. Gerald frequently calls to relate bad jokes and discuss the local business climate. His call reminded me of several years ago when we were talking about his now grown son and Gerald said, “I knew I had lost my little boy when I looked at his hands and there were no more dimples.”  After that conversation, I immediately located Grange and was relieved to find his chubby paws were still dimpled. At almost 16 years of age, Grange has long since lost that particular physical characteristic and is no longer small.  I have, however, not yet lost him.

One thing led to another, and Mae Yazzie, my favorite rug weaver, and Bruce Eckhardt, my favorite bead maker, crept into my thoughts.  Although I have not seen her in many years, I remember Mae’s hands had the patina of seventy-something years.  Mae's skin was paper thin, wrinkled and beautifully brown, her fingers were crooked from decades of tamping wool with a weaving comb. I could never see Mae without wondering if her hands were painful. Although Mae's rugs had become somewhat simple at that stage, many stunning weavings had sprung from her skilled digits.

Bruce is a stonecutter who searches far and wide for suitable materials to make his fabulous necklaces. Barry and I buy Bruce’s jewelry whenever we can and will go a long way to purchase his work. Several years ago I met Bruce in Cortez, Colorado to look at his latest creations.  The arrangements made me feel we were setting up a clandestine operation, and in fact Bruce mentioned one meeting in Gallup, New Mexico where he was buying uncut turquoise and was mistaken for a drug dealer. He and the stone seller had their scales out on the backend of a pickup truck, weighing and measuring. Apparently a passerby concluded they were engaged in an illicit transaction and contacted the police. Officers arrived with lights flashing and sirens wailing, only to discover it was rock, not narcotics, the two were haggling over.

Bruce and I arranged to meet around 9:00 p.m., and as I walked into the restaurant he was sitting at the bar. After a few minutes we moved to a dark corner table and Bruce began telling stories about old miners.  At the appropriate moment he placed a rumpled paper sack on the table and said, “Well, it’s about time we had a look at this stuff.” He then carefully extracted bracelets, pendants and crosses encrusted with stones of deep green and sky blue from the bag and placed them on the table. The lighting was low, so we inspected the jewels using his Bic cigarette lighter. The striker wheel kept getting hot and burning our fingers, so we could only look a short time before stopping to let the cylinder cool. It felt like a scene from a gaslight movie.

As we looked through his treasures, I kept noticing Bruce’s fingers. After years of cutting stones under the perpetual drip of a diamond wheel, his grip had become permanently fixed at an almost 90 degree angle. His love of turquoise had cost him the mobility of his hands. In spite of that, Bruce would not give up cutting; it was his life, he is made to interpret the beauty inherent in those stones.

I have often heard people say eyes are the window to the soul, which makes me wonder whether hands are the portal to the heart.

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mormon, Indian or Outlaw?

WWorking in the Indian arts and crafts business, "for a good number of years”, has left me with a great appreciation for the the local artists and their work.  Southwest Native art often incorporates traditional themes which are used as a vehicle to communicate culture and tradition.  Delving into those legends is an activity I enthusiastically endorse, and anyone who takes time to investigate this history will find a unique and magical society that displays great respect for the wonders of the natural world.


As with most things, however, there are both positive and negative aspects associated with Southwest cultures. To me, the fact that Native people of this region have retained such complex beliefs systems is nothing short of amazing. Just slow down long enough to introduce yourself to their world and you will see how really interesting these people can be. Contemporary scholars are discovering just how important it is to the human psyche to incorporate tradition into your everyday life. It seems a well considered historical perspective, combined with an understanding of where you came from, provides the necessary structural support to our inner being.

As children we were exposed to a wide array of people and belief systems. Before she met and married our father, our mother, who was raised in the Catholic faith and educated in parochial schools, was on track to become a nun. Needless to say, we are grateful for the persistence of dear old dad. Without his tenacity, we would not be where we are today. Surely he believed bringing his new bride to this primitive outpost in southern Utah, and quickly establishing a large and active brood of children, provided the best opportunity for sustaining the relationship, and it worked.

It was our mother's intention to raise her children in the church of her youth, so we were baptized at an early age. She did her best to maintain our religious instruction, but in rural Utah that was an ongoing struggle. Priests were available only on a monthly rotation, and since ours was a small rough and tumble congregation it was not unusual for the priest to delay his visits in favor of more productive parishioners. Our mother, preferring not to be exclusively responsible for her developing gang of heathens, chose to attend mass at Saint Christopher's Episcopal Mission. Craig and I soon became altar boys, but that provided only temporary relief.


The Mormon culture has deep roots in Bluff, and our family grew up in close proximity to LDS people, history and beliefs. The original settlers of this community left a deep and indelible stamp on the town, and the descendants of these hearty individuals arrive at Twin Rocks Trading Post on an almost daily basis to discuss the adventures of their ancestors.

The cultures of the Navajo and Ute people were also ever-present, and when we were children it was common for us to witness traditional ceremonies being celebrated.  Squaw dances, pow wows, bear dances and many a Mormon and Navajo fair, complete with all the traditional food, were commonly on the agenda. We still believe the only way to eat fry bread is with salt. Powdered sugar and honey are newcomers to that Navajo delicacy and not to be taken seriously. It was a great way to grow up, and it gave us a better appreciation for what others believed and practiced. If you look closely at our school pictures, you will see a minority of white faces.

Steve and I are constantly quizzed about our relationship to the area. Most people cannot believe we are originally from Bluff. They look at us with skepticism, and wonder about our place in the larger scheme of things. I recently spoke with an elderly couple from Seattle who came to Bluff on a fact finding mission. It was the woman's intention to discover more information about Jens Nielson, her great grandfather. Bishop Nielson was one of Bluff's founding fathers and left a prodigious lineage in his wake. The woman asked the standard questions, "Are you Mormon?" "No, ma’am."  "Are you Indian?" "No, we are not Indian.” The next question generally is, "Then, what are you?" This is characteristically where our sarcastic natures kick in and we become creative with our answers.  This sweet, innocent woman, however, beat us to the punch when she said, “Well, according to the historical record, and the late, great Mormon historian, Albert R. Lyman, there is only one alternative." "What's that?" we jointly inquired, setting ourselves up for her reply. Turning towards the Kokopelli doors, she replied, "Why, outlaws of course!"Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Baffled Mind

Because my editor is out of town and my word prospector has developed a virus in its potatoe chip, I begin this missive with a certain cents of fore-boating. The machanical affliction, I think, may be silicosis, which is directly related to the Trojan strain recently affecting many similarly situated devices and their neophyte operators.

After my machine began acting out, I contacted a local family practitioner to request a penicillin prescription. The doctor informed me that penicillin is an anti-bacterium, not an antivirus, and refused to comply with my request. He said something that made me think I may need a suppository, and concluded by suggesting that I contact Norton. Since I was unable to find Dr. Norton’s number in the telephone book, I am still afflicted.

Even the local medicine man refused to have a look. Therefore, I beg forgiveness in advance for any missteps I may make in writing this story. Any such mistake is directly related to my viral infection and editorial loss, and does not necessarily indicate a mental or emotional deficiency. Now that I have made the appropriate excuses, I am ready to move forward, so let’s begin.

The other day my wife and I were having a lively discussion when she informed me that I have a “baffled mind." Initially I thought it was a reference to Russell Crowe’s movie, A Beautiful Mind. After a time, however, I began to wonder whether my initial assumption was accurate and went for the dictionary. Mr. Webster defines a baffle as, “A device (as a plate, wall, or screen) to deflect, check, or regulate flow (as of a fluid, light, or sound)”. Knowing my wife as I do, I felt comfortable that she was referring to my mental ability to compartmentalize things, thereby baffling them. That set my mind at rest, and I went back to polishing the glass.

My wife and I often discuss weighty subjects, and, although I have studied Ghandi for years, and consider myself a pacifier, the conversations sometimes get a little heated. I can assure you that I generally try hard to understand her point of view, but have begun to believe there may be a great deal of merit to that book she recently asked me to read. The title was something like, Men are from Vesuvius and Woman are from Marianus. I believe the thesis of the book is that men generally blow and spew like a volcano, and women are deep thinkers. That concept certainly has merit when it comes to our relationship.

I have thought a lot about that book, and have recently begun to notice pairs of ravens sitting on the rocks just above the old mission road during my morning runs. They stare down as I jog past, caw at me, and I caw back. Initially they would fly off after our little exchanges, but have apparently concluded that I am harmless and now stay put. Because of my pace, they must have concluded that I am associated with certain marine reptiles, and am therefore too slow to pose any significant threat to their general welfare.

I have often been told that the ravens are monographist; meaning they mate for life. I am a firm believer in monography, and have done extensive research into why men and women choose to live together forever. The ravens, combined with my wife’s kind comment, had once again set my mind at ease, and I felt a wave of contentment wash over me as I plodded down the highway. I figured that if those ravens can stick it out, so can my wife. After all, I have never asked her to eat road kill, or live outside.

Although I was feeling quite comfortable about my wife’s baffling comment, something happened that caused me to question my prior assumptions. That something was the visit of a middle aged woman to the trading post. The woman walked through the door late in the afternoon, and, as is my habit, I struck up a conversation with her by asking where she lived. She very politely answered, “Chicago.” The conversation continued on a congeniable basis for about ten minutes, when I once again said, “So, where ya’ from.” She looked sideways at me and said, “Chicago, still!” Obviously I was taken aback, and began to wonder whether Mr. Webster’s alternative definition, “To defeat or check (as a person) by confusing or puzzling” may have been applicable to my wife’s compliment.

Although Barry and I try to be egalitarian in our treatment of tourists who ask silly questions, we are not always equilateral. We readily excuse our own faults, and chatter instantaneously and incessantly about theirs. This woman’s comment forcefully reminded me of that specific shortcoming in my personality. It also started me thinking about my ambitions, and opportunities for long term employment at the trading post.

When I was young, I just knew I would set the world on fire; then I’d stand back with a smug look on my face as the praise poured in. I wasn’t sure how or why, but I was sure. As I have approached middle age, however, I have come to realize that I may not even spark.

In those earlier days, the trading post seemed a good opportunity to shine. When we opened its doors, everything was sparkling and new. I had a feeling that this was going to be really great, and it has been. My shining however has been generally restricted to Windex and the showcases.

As a result of our work at the trading post, Barry and I have even been compared to Lorenzo Hubbell, which is a huge indictment; but I wanted Moore. The other day, Cally, one of our trading post friends and trusted advisor, sent me an e-mail with one of those winky things ; ) in the text. I had frequently seen the smiley thing : ), but this was something new to me. All of the sudden I knew that I had missed the boat. I began to question why I hadn’t invented that winky thing? For the last 13 years, I have been trying to convince the people visiting our business that I am truly sublime, rather than just keylime. All that time, I could have been inventing winky things, a truly Nobel calling.

Now I am in a quandary. I don’t know whether to move to the Florida Keys, like Jimmy Buffet, and start a new career inventing those fabulous symbols, or stay here at the trading post. I am convinced that if I can come up with just one winky like thing, I will be a rousing success. I might even have it placed on my headstone when I die, and people will walk by and say, “Oh, that’s the grave of Steve Simpson. He invented that winky like thing. What a visionary he was.”

On second thought, since I have requested cremation and therefore will not even have a gravestone, I may just stay here. Barry probably can’t keep the glass clean without me anyway, and that virulent virus affects my ability to create.

With warm regards Steve Simpson and the team.

Friday, August 21, 2015


Some time ago I received a telephone call from a man who said he ran an arts and crafts business in the east and wished to learn more about the Twin Rocks Trading Post. The gentleman wanted to know who we are, what we do and what connection we have to local Native Americans. As we talked, I realized his questions indicated an interest in preserving Native culture. He said his name was Leon, that he was from the Micmac and Penacook tribes and that he had become seriously concerned the history of his people, and of Native America in general, was all too quickly being lost.

Over the years many legends had come to him, and he accumulated them for transmission to the members of his tribe and to any other interested party. Leon counseled that we must collect the thoughts of our grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, children and grandchildren, whether or not they are Native American. He told me that of all the stories he had heard, there was one in particular that was most meaningful. The story was about a young man and his journey on the road home.

The legend tells of a group of Native people who lived in an expansive wood. One by one the people passed on, until only the youngest was left. One evening the youth fell asleep and dreamed of traveling a path populated by his relatives. As the boy greeted each one in turn, the elders related their personal stories. Eventually, the young man came to a rainbow with a longhouse on the opposite side. In the longhouse were people of all nations speaking openly about their traditions and living in harmony. Beyond the greathouse stood the Creator with his arms open, welcoming the young man home and telling the boy he had learned much and been given a great gift.

As the story unfolded, I began to think of the youth as an ark in which the history of his people was being invested; a vessel to carry the traditions across the waters of time. I was reminded of my paternal grandfather Woody Simpson singing his Biblical chronology, “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, I saw the apple they was eatin’. I’m the man who swore, cause I’m the one who ate the core. Then came Noah stumblin’ in the dark, tryin’ to find a hammer just to build himself an ark. Then came the animals two by two, the hippopotamus, the kick kangaroo, then came the lion, then came the bar, then came the elephant without any har.” I could see Woody bouncing my brothers and sisters on his knee as his tune spilled out into the living room of his small white house in great clumps of irregular harmony.
Navajo Monument Valley or Bust Basket - Lorraine Black (#232)

I distinctly remembered Woody sitting next to me at Blue Mountain Trading Post on an old blue sofa purchased at the Phoenix flea market, relating his experiences as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II. I have since discovered some of his adventures were fiction, but I still love having them. Although I remember him well, I have virtually no stories from my maternal Grandfather Joseph Correia, a quiet, gentle man who worked hard and said little.

As these memories eddied through my mind, I suddenly realized the young man of Leon’s story had died, and with him the stories of his tribe ended; the ark had sunk and the legends of his people were lost. My grandfathers both died many years ago, and with them their family stories. There is much I would now like to know about these two men, but it is too late, that boat sailed without me.

Leon cautioned me we must preserve the past, and practice the traditional ways when possible. He said most of us are not sharing the legends the way our forebears intended. At 56 years of age, Leon had made a commitment to spread the word, so he can help stop the cultural hemorrhage and keep this body of knowledge alive.

For much of Native America, and the rest of us as well, the rain has been falling some time, our culture and traditions are drifting away. Many of our narratives have either not made it into the ark or have been washed overboard and are forever lost. We must build a solid vessel and fill it with the stories of our ancestors, our own stories and the stories of our children and grandchildren. If we don’t, like the unicorn, they will not survive.

With warm regards Barry and the Team.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

As Bob Dylan once wrote, “The Times They are a Changin’". And they are surely a changin’ round Bluff. After an exceptionally dry winter, which made us wonder whether there would be any water left to drink when summer arrived, and caused some to question whether beer might be our only alternative, the last three months have brought storm after storm to our parched landscape. Indeed, in June the San Juan Record reported a tornado touching down near Bluff, hailstorms, rock slides and precipitation at 439 percent of normal.

Now, I am a desert dweller, I was born in the desert, I have spent the overwhelming majority of my life in the desert and from all indications I will receive my ultimate reward, or final penalty as the case may be, while residing in the desert. As such, rain is sacred to me. Indeed, as a long-term Indian trader and purveyor of Southwest art, I am exceptionally fond of Hopi jewelry. With its clean lines and precise motifs, this artistic movement often communicates clouds, lightening and life-giving moisture. The Hopi, being dryland farmers and sophisticated artists, have developed an entire economy around silver and gold work representing rain. That symbolism speaks to me in a deep, resounding voice.

Never will I forget the man, who professed to be the grandson of visionary Lakota holy man Sitting Bull, leading me outside during a particularly heavy thunderstorm and instructing me to wet my hands and rub the falling droplets over my face, arms and chest. Not only did Stormy's exercise refresh me, it also left me feeling cleansed in body and spirit. Eventually Stormy ran off with two; that’s right, not one but two, German women. Notwithstanding his errant exit from southern Utah, from that moment forward, when raindrops begin falling I uniformly rush outside to repeat the ceremony Stormy taught me that afternoon. Always, that is, until this year.
Hopi Clouds and Rain Symbols Bracelet (Look for the bracelet in next weeks mailer)

When the storms initially began rolling in during May, I was, as usual, the first out the Kokopelli doors and into the deluge. After first reinvigorating myself in the downpour, I would retrieve a metal bucket and water the plants arrayed in clay pots along the trading post porch. They too seemed regenerated and appeared to dance with delight. I imagined them saying, “Nuts to tap water with its chemicals and artificial additives, this is the real thing.” During that time Priscilla tutored me on legends relating to thunder, the evolution of rainbows, coyote and To’ Neinilii, the Navajo chief of wet things. Life was good, my knowledge of local culture expanding and my thirst sated.

Then the next and the next and the next thundershower hurtled Comb Ridge or circumnavigated Blue Mountain and inundated our small valley, causing the river to rise and the weeds to spontaneously sprout. Once the ground became saturated, however, water began to seep under the back wall of Twin Rocks Cafe and percolate through the basement of the old Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. home in which Jana, Grange and I have taken up residence; Kira having abandoned us in favor of college and various other high adventures. The first few times that happened, we happily mopped up the mess and went about our business, happy in the knowledge the gods had finally smiled upon us. Comfortable our personal appeals had not been acted upon, Barry and I speculated whether it was Native rituals or Mormon fasting and prayer that eventually opened the floodgates. We desired clarification and proper documentation, so we would know how to precede and whom to contact in the event future dry spells occurred.

But the rains kept falling and we began to wonder whether someone had requested a larger allocation than was actually required. We questioned whether the experience was similar to that of a hungry man who finally finds food; once he gets started it is impossible to stop. All too late he realizes he has overdone it and must bear the consequences of his unrestrained exuberance. In our case excess water saturated our carpets, moistened our mats and whetted our weeds to the point they grew into forests. Like John Fogerty, we found ourselves asking, “Who’ll stop the rain?” While we realized our inquiry was heresy for people of the desert and that we risked being excommunicated from our red rock sanctuary, we could not restrain ourselves.

Something had to be done. So, in an effort to moderate the flow without terminating it altogether, Barry was dispatched to discuss our dilemma with the deacons and Priscilla hastened to hunt down the hataalii. For my part, I reluctantly cancelled the beer order and stood by with the shop vac. Priscilla, realizing I was feeling overwhelmed by the additional responsibilities and depressed about having to redirect the Budweiser truck, reminded me of a quote I once read to her, “Rain clouds come floating in, not to muddy our days, but to make us calm, happy and hopeful."

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

Friday, July 10, 2015

Blame it on Barry

This morning Fannie King stopped by Twin Rocks Trading Post with a beautiful basket, one might rightly say another beautiful basket. Fannie was born and raised in Monument Valley, a member of the Bitsinnie clan. Early on, however, she married a Paiute man and moved to Navajo Mountain to live among his people. Likely due to her relocation, she weaves in the Paiute style, rounded coils, flat bottom, interesting shapes, tight stitching and such. Barry, Priscilla and I unanimously admire her work. Indeed, Jana and I have some of her pieces in our own home, and I recommend Fanny's work to all serious collectors of contemporary Navajo basketry.

Fanny’s baskets are traditional by nature, which is a departure from the innovative geometric and pictorial Navajo baskets Twin Rocks has become known for. For several years Barry and I have speculated just how many traditional ceremonial baskets one might collect before discovering he or she had an adequate supply. One, two, three, maybe as many as five we estimated. After wondering for such a long time, we finally decided to stop questioning and take action Accepting the challenge, we began encouraging local Navajo weavers to make what are commonly referred to as ceremonial basket variations. It wasn’t long before the artists began flooding in with their creations. Our goal was to fill the space above the trading post’s large picture windows, which, depending on their size, we estimated would require 60 to 80 baskets. We believed the project might take at least five years to complete. Two years and almost 100 specimens later, however, we already have more than enough baskets to satisfy our original ambitions and are wondering, “What do we do now?"
Feather Modified Ceremonial-Part of Twin Rocks Basket Collection

We have kitty baskets, goat baskets, eclipse baskets, sunflower baskets, positive baskets, negative baskets, positive-negative baskets, kinaalda baskets, old baskets, new baskets, placing the stars baskets, feather baskets, needlepoint baskets, emergence baskets, and some we cannot even describe. The creativity shown by the weavers has been, well, revolutionary. Fannie’s latest was an old style ceremonial, so I decided it should be added to the evolving collection. As I rummaged around the store for a hammer to nail our new acquisition to the wall, a habit that drives museum curators absolutely crazy, I could not locate the necessary implement. Priscilla, who is usually in charge of such tools, had no insight into the hammer's whereabouts, so I was stumped. “Probably Barry’s fault”, I muttered, echoing my common refrain when something goes haywire at the trading post. “Barry has been gone almost two months”, Priscilla reminded me, “maybe it was you this time."

When Rose and Duke recently decided it was time to retire from Blue Mountain Trading Post and RV Park, they shanghaied Barry and me into taking over their holdings. Consequently, Barry was reassigned to Blanding and given the title, “Tyrant of Turquoise Trading and Top Man of Travel Trailers”. Although he received an impressive title, and argued he should receive combat pay for having to survive Duke and Rose, there was no raise in salary associated with his new responsibilities. He now lords over that entire empire and only consults Priscilla and me when there is a crisis. That of course means we are in constant contact. That also means Priscilla and I are forever in the stew, since we only have each other to blame when things go wrong.

For all too long, when we couldn't find the loupe to scrutinize a turquoise specimen, we knew Barry must have misplaced it. If the checkbook was empty, we were sure Barry had spent the cash. If reports were not timely filed, that was probably Barry. Tools gone missing, surely Barry. The door left open overnight, likely Barry. Anything else Priscilla and I did not want to accept responsibility for, Barry was fingered. Now don’t get me wrong, Priscilla is astute enough to play both sides of this game, so when I was gone or out of earshot, all those things became my fault and Barry readily agreed. Correspondingly, when Priscilla was out of sight . . . well you get the picture. At the end of the day, everyone got his or her turn in the barrel and nobody felt left out, except Danny.

Now that Priscilla and I only have each other to blame for the infinite number of things that go wrong around this joint, we are in desperate need of a scapegoat. Our trading post tapestry has come unraveled. Not knowing exactly what to do, we have begun soliciting applications for a full-time patsy. Since there is no shortage of blame to assign, the pay is pretty good. Necessary skills include, broad shoulders, forgiving nature, easy-going character and patience, lots of patience.

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

Friday, June 26, 2015


At 10:00 a.m. it was already hot. Summer had finally arrived in Bluff, and that combined with the effects of global warming had pushed temperatures into the extreme range. Even the lizards were scared. As I ambled across the porch to Twin Rocks Cafe in search of my second iced tea of the young morning he sat stoically at a metal table situated just outside the entry door. Looking southeast towards the old Jones hay farm, he didn’t say anything as I approached, did not even acknowledge my advance. “Hey, Bud”, I said, startling him, “how 'bout a soda to cool you off? I’m buyin'.” “Iced tea would be fine,” he replied with a barely perceptible smile. He seemed surprised I had spoken to him at all, let alone offered a free drink. He was obviously expecting a less congenial reception. His response made me think of all the stories I have read and been told about Native people being treated badly in border towns. Bluff is not like that and Twin Rocks is definitely not.

Going inside to retrieve our drinks, I encountered the cashier and manager who advised me, “We think he’s drunk.” “Any problem”, I asked. “No”, they responded, “He’s just waiting for a ride." As I put the to-go cup, straw and sugar caddy in front of him, he said, “Sit down.” “Got a lot to do”, I countered, beginning to turn away. “Sit down”, he reiterated, gently, but firmly. “Allrighty then,” I acquiesced and pulled up a chair, curious what this encounter might bring. If Twin Rocks is anything, it is interesting, and one never knows what to expect. “Another adventure”, I counseled myself.

He was a past middle age Navajo man, tall, maybe 6’2”, strongly built, still somewhat handsome, although a difficult life had clearly exacted its toll. He wore a black three-button golf shirt and blue denim jeans. Functional cowboy boots covered his feet and a worn, sweat-stained cowboy hat sporting a woven horsetail band sat nearby. His eyes were weary, and, as the staff had speculated, a tad bleary. I guessed he might have seen things most of us studiously avoid. “I’m a veteran, Marines”, he said. “Vietnam?” I probed, noting his age. “Yea.” “How many tours?” “One. Sometimes it makes me sad”, he said, tears welling up. Quickly controlling his emotions, he continued, “My name is Lee.” No last name, just Lee. “Where you from Lee?” “Monument Valley. I know those basket weavers, the Blacks. They’re my cousin sisters."

Having known my share of Vietnam veterans, I felt a special affinity for this world-worn stranger. Politics aside, those who served in that conflict deserve special consideration from the rest of us who were spared the trauma. Because I fear they may not grasp the significance of the 1960s, I often speak with Kira and Grange about the events of that era, including the war. For most young people their age, the 1960s are insignificant, too far gone to be meaningful, ancient history. Like the old men of my youth who wanted to ensure I understood WWII, I worry Kira and Grange may not grasp the enormity of those years and how they continue to impact our lives.

After a time he said, “I know you, I read those stories you write.” Surprised, embarrassed and flattered all at the same time, I gave him a startled look. “Yeah, they make me feel like home”, he continued, “You have a lot of Navajo brothers and sisters, don’t you?” “Yeah, guess I do”, I acknowledged, looking around at the Navajo staff I consider my extended family. At that point he began regaling me with stories of the Bluff he knew from his early years. “That place was an ice cream shop”, he said pointing to a small shack across the street. Indicating the Historic Loop, he said, “That was the old highway, before the new one was built. I rode my horse from Montrose, Colorado to Monument Valley one time. Deputy Dufur threatened to shoot me when I got here. I didn’t pay any attention to him, so he turned on his lights and escorted me out of town. Kept me safe. Looked after me.”

“My grandfather taught me that you talk with your eyes”, he said, looking directly at me. “That’s how you get lots of girlfriends” he joked. “Be kind with your eyes,” he advised. I couldn’t help thinking that if someone had taught me that lesson 40 years earlier I might have been awash in adolescent dates. "Too late for girlfriends now, but maybe I can try it on my wife”, I said, "test your theory, pass it on to my teenage son if it works." Kindness did seem like an exceptionally good idea. “Maybe if we were all nice to each other we wouldn’t need wars”, he said. “It makes me sad”, he said, repeating his earlier comment, his tired eyes watering once again.

“Gotta go get my son at White Mesa”, I said, "wanna ride?" “Sure”, he nodded, so I walked over to my old red pickup truck, fired it up, drove to the cafe steps and shouted, “Saddle up cowboy.” He climbed into the cab and fell silent. As we crested Cow Canyon heading north he asked, “You want poetry, Navajo poetry?” “Sure”, I said. “I’ll bring it to you”, he assured me, “bring it to you at Twin Rocks." At that point it struck me that I could have easily passed up my encounter with this exceptional man. All too often, we move past, circumnavigate, avoid those who seem different, those we don’t immediately comprehend and those who look like a problem waiting to consume our time. In the right light, however, these unusual individuals are opportunities rather than difficulties. As it turned out, that was the case with Lee. “Sit down”, he said, so I had and was all the better for having done so. Strange how you never know.

Looking back as he climbed out of the truck, he said, “Maybe you’ll write a story about me.” “Yeah” I said, “maybe.”

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

Friday, May 29, 2015

Twin Rocks Museum

Visitors to Twin Rocks Trading Post often comment that the shop looks like a museum. Although our primary mission is to sell turquoise jewelry, Navajo baskets and rugs, the statement is still flattering. A few days ago, a woman walked through the Kokopelli doors, took a quick look around and declared, “This place is just like a museum, and I could live here." After I got over my fear of the store becoming a flophouse and stopped wondering what Barry would look like as a fossil, I gave considerable thought to what we do at Twin Rocks.

Many people view museums as a place to view extraordinary objects and, if you are fortunate, have informative conversations with the attendants. I can certainly appreciate that sentiment, since some of my best museum experiences involve looking at displays while talking with staff members. I have even been invited into a few curation rooms and have seen many unusual artifacts. In most cases, the explanations of curators and docents added more to the relic than I could have imagined.

One thing I have realized is that art is primarily about the artist, and the artist is molded by his or her work. When I look at a rug by Eleanor Yazzie, I see her woven into the fibers, I can hear her voice and remember her children and the family’s yellow pickup truck. In a Tommy Jackson bracelet, I envision him pulling into the gravel parking lot on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, eyes shaded by narrow sunglasses. To me it is those memories that make Eleanor's weavings and Tommy's jewelry extraordinary. People are clearly the most important part of our operation, and depending on who is in the store at any particular moment the exhibition can be quite captivating.
Navajo Cross Roads Twin Rocks Collection Weaving - Eleanor Yazzie (#123)

Each visitor to the trading post has his or her own story to tell and distinct attributes to reveal. They have all experienced life on their own terms and are like mobile museums. Their demonstrations include culture from around the world, adventure in countless environments and knowledge about an endless variety of topics.

Yesterday our friend Skip strolled into the trading post after hiking in Cottonwood Wash. That afternoon his focus was on trees. After many years as an architect, Skip decided he was destined to be a fruit grower. As a result, he purchased acreage with a grove of apple trees and begun life anew. As he talked about the land and how it changed his life, a smile spread across his face. Skip described his grandfather, a man who allowed his young grandson to work in the elderly man’s extensive garden. That experience sparked a hunger that had lain dormant over 40 years. Unexpectedly, those seeds recently sprouted and Skip's passion blossomed.

Skip told me how he had once come upon a sandstone drain where several juniper saplings had taken root many decades before. He said the trees were huge, twisted and strikingly beautiful. Then he whispered, "I just went over and gave them a hug." I understood his emotion, since that is how I feel about many of the people who visit our trading post. Being a bit shy, I have most often refrained from embracing our patrons. As I grow older, however, I feel less inhibited.

Skip and I talked about a tree Jana recently purchased from a nursery in Moab. After we completed our transaction, the greenhouse attendant helped me put it in the back of our truck and bid us farewell. Before we drove off, I asked whether the unprotected tree would be all right during the 100-mile journey to Bluff. The assistant responded, "No problem, we have pretty strong winds here in Moab." Watching in the rear view mirror as we drove home, I agonized over every leaf that went skittering down the highway. When we finally pulled over, I saw the damage that had been done.

After I finished relating my story to Skip, he said, "You know Steve, it's going to take a long time, buckets of water and lots fertilizer to make that tree feel good again. It will need love to survive." That is the beauty of the human exhibits on display almost every day at Twin Rocks Museum, you just never know what treasures will be unveiled.

With warm regards Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Lesson Learned

Many years ago, when I was extremely naive about Navajo culture, I did something terrible . . . I twirled Navajo baskets. That's right, and after years of cultural therapy I am free to admit my indiscretion. In hope of cleansing my conscience and putting this matter behind me, I am ready to openly confess. I need to unchain my psyche and allow myself to heal. I know many of you must be thinking, "What the heck does that have to do with anything?" Some may even ask, "Is he crazy? What's wrong with spinning baskets?"

There may also be those of you who are so surprised and saddened by my disclosure that you turn away in shame. Many may be genuinely disturbed by what has happened. I assure you, however, at the time I was ignorant of the magnitude of distress I was causing, distress to those who had woven the baskets and distress to those who knew there was so much emotion and meaning stitched into those sacred objects.

As hard as it may be to believe, at the time, I viewed those beautiful baskets as nothing more than "things". Some of my earliest memories are of my parents, Duke and Rose, using Navajo baskets to decorate our home. For years, they were nothing more than “baskets” to me. It wasn't until I accepted the mantle of "Indian trader" that I learned the truth about their proper care.

Here's the scenario, I am stationed in the trading post, sitting behind the counter and trying to maintain an important air. Remember, I am young and trying to establish my reputation. I have access to dollars, and believe that he who controls the cash is king. Thus, I feel all-powerful. In walks an unsuspecting weaver, who with great ceremony unveils her latest accomplishment. Laying the basket on the counter for my viewing pleasure, the artist begins to explain its meaning. My inexperienced mind is not focused on what she is trying to communicate. Instead, it is focused on trying to get the weaving at the lowest possible price, and wondering whether I might get a date with the fiery girl I have just met.

As I ponder these important issues, I place my index finger upon the center coils of the basket and give it a spin. Beginning negotiations, I am unaware the artist’s focus has shifted from what I am saying to the circular motion of her basket. Her head begins to move in the same fashion, she becomes dizzy with the movement and her stress level increases significantly. Finally she can take the sacrilege no longer and reaches out to grasp the basket with both hands, stopping its rotation. I simply continue with my objective of relieving her of the work and adding it to our inventory, not realizing I was causing so much chaos.
Navajo Double Ceremonial Basket - Kee Bitsinnie (#02)

As time went on, my "spinning" continued until it became an obsession. For me, it seemed a habit, not an addiction. A certain someone from up the road was consuming a great deal of my time, interest and imagination and I needed something to help me focus. I am sure there was a bit of psychology involved, but even now I cannot explain it. I was gradually becoming aware the basket weavers were reacting strangely to my routine and began to test them. When they would reach out and stop the basket mid-spin, I would hesitate for a moment then begin again. I noticed this resulted in a higher level of agitation, which at times pleased me.

Not only is it in my nature to pester others, I reasoned that by spinning the baskets I would cause the weavers to lose focus, thus allowing a break in their concentration and a better negotiating posture. I am not sure how long this went on, but I am confident the Navajo weaving community had lost patience. They must have been ready to bury me in the nearest anthill. It all came to a head one day when I was dealing with a young weaver, spinning her basket and causing great frustration. At the time there just happened to be an older Navajo woman in the store who was paying a great deal of attention to what was happening. The woman's name was Mary Grisham, and I knew her well. She had a bad attitude and was vocal about anything that ticked her off, a true radical. As I wrapped up the purchase, Mary angrily approached me and said, "Just what do you think you're doing?"

Remember, I was young and at that point I had not learned to deal with angry women, so I could only stammer, "What do you mean?" Mary proceeded to inform me that a Navajo basket represents the world, and by spinning it that way I caused serious disruptions. Mary and the weaver stormed out of the trading post, loudly proclaiming my ignorance. I was flabbergasted; I had no idea. I began to investigate, and found books that better explained the meaning behind Navajo basketry. I found the traditional basket was a sacred object used by medicine men to practice healing ceremonies. The interpretation of the weaving is deep, meaningful, and much reverence goes into its production. This was to say nothing of the pictorial baskets I had carelessly spun; they represented chant ways, morality tales and legendary heroes.

My basket spinning had spun a disturbance because it showed disrespect. In effect, it had caused a chaotic reaction in a deeply spiritual sense. Not good, I assure you. I was then, and am still, embarrassed by my lack of understanding. It was a hard lesson, but one I learned well. I have also gained a great deal of humility, and now work hard to recognize what the weavers are trying to communicate through their art. I have gained a great deal more common sense and work hard to understand others. I am more focused on respect for other people.

Although it took seven long years to break through, I eventually married the girl who had distracted me from my calling. My wife has taught me much indeed, and I am more experienced in the ways of women since settling down with her. I still do not understand them, but I am a bit wiser when it comes to interpreting their ways.

Over the years, my habit of purposefully aggravating others has often gotten me into trouble. As a matter of fact I have been blessed with a son and two beautiful daughters who have elevated some of my bad habits to new heights, but I guess what they say is true, "What goes around comes around." I am now paying back for my indiscretions. Needless to say, I no longer spin baskets, and I only rarely antagonize others just to make a profit.

With warm regards from Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, May 15, 2015

On the Horizon

Bluff, this beautiful little economically challenged town on the northern border of the Navajo reservation, has been my home on and off since the day I first arrived in this earthly realm. As a young man, I roamed the washes, climbed the cliffs and hurled dirt clods at the other children without a care for the financial demands of everyday life. There was of course the occasional need for a dime or two to satisfy my desire for sugary treats, but for the most part money was not a consideration. On occasion Craig, Barry and I were able to sneak into Roy Pearson’s workshop to pinch a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup or two, further mitigating our need for cash. We, however, did not need coins jingling in our pockets to make us feel like kings.

In my youth I did make note of the Navajo women who looked regal in their velveteen blouses adorned with dimes, quarters and the occasional John Kennedy half dollar. Although I knew those coins could buy enough candy and red soda to make me hurl something besides stones, I do not remember ever conspiring to relieve the ladies of their adornments. I must have felt the silver served a higher purpose accenting Navajo clothing than it would have purchasing pop.

When I returned to this pink sandstone paradise after many years in Northern California, money was a more pressing concern. I had left my secure job at the age of 30 and was beginning to feel my financial ship had sailed. In fact, I wondered whether I had bought a first class ticket on the Titanic. My future appeared to be taking on water.
Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Ut

A few years later something arrived on my desk that made me reconsider my fiscal fate. No, it was not the death of a rich uncle leaving me a cornucopia of cash, they were already gone with no indication of inheritance. The thing that made me reconsider my monetary misgivings was a book, a thesis actually.

Barry generally avoids the chaos of my office unless there are serious matters to be addressed. There he was, however, peeking around the door frame with something green and rectangular in his hand. “What’s that?” I asked, in my most congenial voice, since he seemed to hold the object in high regard. “A book”, he said. “I know it’s a book”, I replied, “what kind?” He handed me the explanatory note that came with his newly acquired treasure.

The missive indicated our friend Kay had sent us a copy of her son’s master’s thesis; which was entitled Jens Nielson, Bishop of Bluff. “Oh,” I said, still trying to sound pleasant, “let me see.” Since I had obviously fooled him with my kindness, I am sure Barry thought I would immediately return his jewel. He was, however, sadly disappointed. I kept the manuscript and carefully studied its contents so long Barry began to worry he might never get it back.

As indicated by its title, the monograph focuses on Mormon bishop Jens Nielson. The background and history relating to the colonization and development of Bluff is, however, what captured my attention. The writing details challenges the settlers had just getting to this remote location, and outlines the problems associated with taming the San Juan River, raising crops and dealing with local tribes. It describes Bluff as, “[T]he back eddy of empires”, and quotes Parley Butt, one of the early pioneers, saying, “When God finished makin’ the world he had a lot of rocks left over an’ he threw them down here in a pile in Utah.” Those two statements accurately illustrate our small town.

As the pioneers attempted to gain a foothold in this difficult land, the river all too often destroyed their hopes for an abundant harvest. The wind blew red dust into every crack and crevice of their log homes, covering the settlers and their belongings with a continuous ruby film. Skirmishes between the Mormon pioneers and Navajo, Ute and Paiute people sometimes turned deadly. Like me, the settlers began to believe their economic transport would never turn up. Through hard work, faith and perseverance, however, they eventually succeeded.

Although we have always survived the raiding parties of our contemporary Navajo basket and rug weaving adversaries, Barry and I know we are in for a scalping when the Holidays, Blacks or Rocks arrive at Twin Rocks Trading Post. Generally, the skirmishes involve lots of gesticulation, protestations and haggling; sometimes even coin tossing and arm wrestling. When the deal is done, however, everyone is still healthy and generally happy. The weavers almost always seem more content than Barry and I, but we have become accustomed to that outcome.

Like Bluff’s settlers, Barry and I have a strong faith we will eventually prosper if we persevere. Way out on the horizon we think we see the sails of success, so we have asked Priscilla to help us send up smoke signals to guide the vessel through waters that are as treacherous as the Bermuda Triangle. The pioneers believed there was a higher purpose to their establishment of Bluff, and Barry and I feel the same. We just don’t yet know what that may be.

With warm regards from Steve, Priscilla and Danny.