Friday, April 29, 2016


Last week I was working at my desk, doing the double-digit hunt and peck at my computer. Priscilla was working out front, reorganizing one of the jewelry cases and directing telephone traffic as the calls arrived. With her efficiency, Priscilla would have made Ma Bell proud. On one particular occasion she picked-up the receiver, spoke pleasantly to the caller for a few minutes, and then put the individual on hold. Hollering in to me, she said, "Hey you, Spenser is on the line." "Hey you," I hollered back, "what happened to the polished, professional receptionist I have been listening to all morning." Priscilla laughed merrily; she enjoys giving Steve and me a hard time.

Spenser Duke is my one and only son, and he doesn't call often enough. As a result I usually drop everything when he reaches out. I have discovered my children divulge relevant information on their own terms and I better be prepared to listen when the time comes. Spens is fiercely independent, and although he is going to hate me saying this, he is more impulsive than the rest of our family. If we call him, we often discover he is either on his way to Timbuktu or just getting back from some other exotic venue. Most often we had no idea whether he is coming or going. As one might guess, this drives his mother crazy. I am proud of the boy for being so adventurous, but I do wish he kept us better informed.

Today Spens was talkative and more willing to share his life experiences with me. It was turning into a fabulous conversation until he dropped the bomb, telling me he had just bought a Mexican dream vacation for a third of the usual cost. The phone solicitor was a sweet-talking girl who, somehow, discovered Spenser's zest for travel and honed in on his weakness for a bargain. "Dad, are you still there?" he questioned. "Yes, I am son" I replied," and you just caused me heartburn." The first image that popped into my head was one of my boy marooned in southern Mexico, sleeping on the beach under a blanket of sand because this holiday turned out to be a scam. "Well," Spens said, "that is why I called you. I have been thinking about it. I am worried about what I may have stepped in."

While speaking with Spens, my mind wandered back on the day I was having thus far. Earlier Priscilla and I had been talking with customers when a Navajo couple came into the store. The man asked if I spoke his language. "Well," I told him, "I was born and raised around here, so I have picked-up a little. I do know when I am being cussed at and can return the favor if necessary." The guy appreciated my jest and kidded with me awhile. He was easygoing and quite personable. His wife was stoic and not prone to conversation. Before long he asked if were buying Navajo rugs and, if so, whether I would like to see one. "Sure," I replied, "you are here so let's take a look.” The lady went out to their pick-up truck and returned with a package wrapped in a green plastic trash bag. She opened the wrapper and handed me a three-foot square weaving. Right away I knew there was a problem. We buy and sell a lot of Navajo rugs at Twin Rocks, and this one was not speaking the correct language.
Priscilla Sagg

I set it on the counter and called Priscilla over to take a look. She is an accomplished weaver, and our resident "go to girl" on rugs. Steve and I consider her our quality control inspector. Not much gets by her. Priscilla walked over and took a brief look at the rug. She did not even have to touch it. Giving the lady, who claimed to have woven it, and me a disdainful look while wrinkling her nose, she said, "You know what that thing is." I laughed out loud and asked the man, "Do you speak Spanish?" "No why?" he asked. "Because this rug has a distinctly Mexican accent!" The lady took-up the weaving, wrapped and bagged it and headed for the door. Through the grapevine we had heard a Native couple was out and about selling Mexican rugs as Navajo textiles. They had snookered several locals and must have been feeling overly confident when they strolled through our doors.

Not twenty minutes later this elderly Anglo gentleman walked in through the Kokopelli doors and wanted to know if I did any trading. "Only if I fall in love," I told him. "I understand," he said, "I too have to want something badly before I trade for it." The guy reached into his back pocket and pulled-out a sheath knife and began telling me how wonderful it was. I took the knife and looked it over carefully; informing him it looked remarkably like one I had just seen on the Smokey Mountain Knife Works web page. It was made in Pakistan and on special for $8.99. "Yup, you have a nice day," he said, placing the knife in his hind pocket and exiting the building.

There had also been a couple of slick talking salesmen who made it past Priscilla's answering service. The first attempted to pressure me into investing in oil and gas futures and the second assured me I had won a beautiful $18,000.00 bass boat, which he would deliver for one easy credit card payment of $499.95. I passed on the petroleum futures and told the guy with the boat I would gladly pay his delivery charge, plus an additional $500.00 cash money, when he pulled-up in my parking lot. He rejected my offer.

Steve and I won't begin to tell anyone we know everything about anything, but we have both been around the block several times. Between the near misses and the times we have been "worked," we could write a book; thus the reason behind my highly skeptical nature. Because I genuinely hate to be messed with, Laurie refuses to let me answer our home phone. "You are brutal on those people," she tells me.

Since I was setting at my computer and Spenser was near one, we both went online and looked on Google for All-Inclusive Vacations & Cruises. Within two minutes we both came to the same conclusion. This was, indeed a scam! Fortunately for Spens, he had used his debit card and had also blocked additional withdrawals before he did the deal. His call to the Zions Bank help desk cleared-up the misstep within a short period of time. Spens felt a bit foolish falling for such a ruse, but in the end it only cost him a bruised ego. "That girl was so nice, and so convincing," Spenser told me. "Yeah, I know what you mean son," I said in an effort to console him. "Your mother has that same effect on me, all she needs to do is smile and wink and I am done for."

With warm regards Barry Simpson and the team.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Spice Guys

A few weeks ago Justin, our lead cook, and I found ourselves sitting in the business office discussing a few of the projects currently under development at Twin Rocks Cafe. One of my favorites is Eggs Atsidi, which is like Eggs Benedict, but with a distinctively different composition and flavor. The name comes from Atsidi Sani, or “Old Smith”, the individual most often cited as the first Navajo silversmith. Legend has it that Old Smith learned from a Mexican metalworker during the early 1850s and passed his skills down to the next generation, who passed them down to the next and the next and so on until the present day. One can hardly consider Navajo art without imagining silver and turquoise jewelry, so the dish is a tribute to Atsidi's artistry and his contribution to Navajo culture.

As we talked about related issues, I noticed Justin, like our general manager Marc, is deeply interested in food generally, and spices specifically. When Justin mentioned habanero, harissa or sriracha, his eyes lit up like it was Christmas at the parochial school. The more time I spend at the cafe, the more I realize how little I understand what motivates people to choose one entree over another. For me, eating is mostly about putting fuel in the tank. Eat, wait six or eight hours, repeat; that’s my personal strategy. Marc and Justin, however, are fascinated by different tastes, textures and aromas, and are obsessed with creating new recipes. They study trade magazines and scour the Internet in search of new trends to incorporate into our menu.

In an effort to understand the psychology of Twin Rocks I read a lot, and lately I have been reviewing a book written by Simon Sinek entitled Start with Why. The book’s premise is that asking yourself why you do certain things, and being able to articulate your vision once you know, inspires those around you. Sinek argues that all too often we explain what we do rather than voicing why we do it. With that in mind, I began asking Barry and Priscilla why we are here. While they were perplexed by my probing questions, with inspiration from Justin, I have begun to hone in on the answer. My conversation with Justin proved enlightening, because he helped me understand people are the spice that flavors my main course. Just as Justin loves food, I hunger for visitors with a good story.

One day we might get to see Jeri, who teaches English at the University of Oxford and stops by a couple times a year on her way to visit mum. Jeri's specialities are James Joyce and issues facing contemporary women. The next day we might see an artist with a novel narrative, someone like Debbie the kachina maker. At the trading post stories arrive and depart in an unending tide. We take them in, process the basic elements and pass the tales on to the next group that happens to drop by. Sometimes we perk up the experience with a few details of our own, and at times we even run them together in a huge mashup, collapsing space, time and events. As Barry is inclined to say, “We don’t let the facts get in our way.”

Jeri found her way to Oxford by way of Meadview, Arizona. Meadview is, like Bluff, an extremely small town in rural America, U.S.A. We therefore see Jeri as convincing evidence that with hard work and a little luck even those of us raised in the sticks can hit the big time. In drawing our conclusions, we have decided to overlook the fact that a higher I.Q. might be helpful in our quest to break out. Barry and I finally had to admit to Jeri we have tried without success to comprehend Ulysses. Even CliffsNotes, which was all we could actually muster, didn’t help. And, when it comes to women and their issues . . . well, you know. In an effort to improve our intellectual standing and comprehend the complexities of the opposite sex, Barry suggested we get James Joyce for Dummies and Women for Real Dummies. It didn’t help.

Yesterday Toni, our gift shop manager, called me over to meet Debbie. While we realize Navajo people do not traditionally make kachinas, Debbie does a nice job carving affordable dolls for the travelers to carry home, and Toni sells them like, well, hotcakes. When we gave Debbie her check, she was so happy you might think she had won the Power Ball. At times like that, I wish we could give the artists enough cash to truly change their lives. I am, however, acutely aware of the financial realities of running a business like this, so we pay as much as we can without sinking our economic canoe (It can’t reasonably be described as a ship). This policy hopefully ensures the items sell so we can support the artist when they next arrive, and the next time after that too.

And so, our trading post tarts are spiced with many different people who have many different tales to tell. Leaven that with a pinch of patience from Priscilla, and you have a flavorful recipe that sates our appetite for adventure. That is, I believe, why we do what we do. And that, as they say, is our story and we’re stickin’ to it.

With regards Steve Simposn.

Friday, April 15, 2016

What Might Have Been

When Evelyn Cly drove onto the gravel parking lot, Steve, Priscilla and I were standing behind the counter having an animated discussion regarding the Kokopelli doors; the entryway to Twin Rocks Trading Post. For the past couple months Steve has been trying to keep them open throughout the day. He explains his diligence by saying, "I like to see the red rock bluffs, and having the doors wide-open is more inviting to customers." Somewhere he read saloon doors were invented so passers-by would hear the music and merry-making going on and be enticed to come inside. Steve believes that if those slatted half-doors were effective, opening our oversized carved doors will prove even more inviting. Priscilla argued that flute music and our misguided jokes are not the same as "merry-making", and that spring breezes allow dust to blow into the store, causing her extra work. Because I am still feeling the effects of a long, cold winter, I am pushing for keeping the doors closed whenever the outside temperature is below 67 degrees.

Priscilla, who is still trying to teach us Navajo, referred to Evelyn's car as a "liba' Chebrolet chidi", which loosely translates into small grey Chevy. As we watched, Evelyn exited her vehicle and strolled up the porch steps. Upon entering the trading post, she produced a red and black basket with a banded hearts motif. Evelyn was unaware that just a few minutes earlier our restaurant manager, Marc, Steve and I were engaged in an impromptu menu planning meeting. As these discussions often do, someone got completely off track, bringing up the cafe's speaker system and how its volume is at times out of control. Going further awry, we moved onto our favorite love songs, and finally, loss-of-love songs. Eventually, we got so far afield the meeting was suspended. That crazy interaction was still on our minds when Evelyn walked in with her weaving.

"Hey", I said, " that looks like a love gone wrong basket." Steve chimed in that it reminded him of a, "Hearts on Fire" basket. Since Priscilla could see we were in a downward spiral, she wisely avoided the conversation. Evelyn stood across the counter and listened to our litany of speculation about just what her basket was based upon and how many love and loss songs we could relate it to. Through experience she knew we would eventually wear ourselves out and get down to business. When we finally did exhaust the bad guesses, Evelyn told us the real story.
Evelyn Cly "What Might Have Been" Basket

"Actually," she said, "you guys are not far off”, and went on to explain that she had received an order for a modified wedding basket. It was meant to have joined hearts in the middle of the weaving with the surname "Tsinajinnie" stitched into the outer edge. The name Tsinajinnie originated from a Navajo clan designation which loosely translates as, "Black-streaked-wood-people". Unfortunately for Evelyn, and the wedding party, the engagement was called off and the basket order cancelled. Fortunately for Evelyn, the cancellation occurred before she wove the name into the piece. Because she thought we could use a heart basket, she cut the weaving process short and brought the restructured basket to us. "Anyway", she said, "I need the money to finish the set you ordered." "No pressure there", I thought.

Since I was not yet finished with my metaphors, I quoted the chorus of the last song I had heard before leaving the restaurant earlier in the day. It was from a Gordon Lightfoot song entitled, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. That tune really has nothing to do with love, or the lack of it, but I thought I had nicely tied in the meaning. "They might have split up or they might have capsized, they may have broke deep and took water." "Enough," Evelyn demanded, "you are making me crazy. Since you are so set on interpreting my basket, why don't you just call it a, 'What might have been basket'"? "Explain", Steve and I said in unison. "Think of the song by Little Texas Evelyn said, the chorus goes like this, "So try not to think about what might have been, cause that was then and we have taken different roads. We can't go back again, there's no use giving in and there's no way to know, what might have been." "That," said Evelyn, "is what this basket means to me."

"Good one!", we agreed and bought her basket without further discussion. As Evelyn turned to leave, she stopped, thought a moment and turned back. "Just thinking", she said, "I know you two are always looking for a story, I wouldn't write this one if I were you. You should probably leave me out of it." "Write!", I replied, misleading Evelyn into thinking we would not involve her, and finished with, "No worries." She looked at me dubiously and departed. I headed to my office and the well worn keyboard. Inspiration is difficult to come by, so we never waste such obvious fodder for feature material. "I see a bad moon arisin'", said Priscilla, shaking her head sadly.

With warm regards Barry Simpson and the team.

Friday, April 8, 2016


Early last week a married couple from Madison, Wisconsin strolled into the trading post and reminded me how things such as rivers and human beings drift, ramble and roam in an eternal cycle. Both Barry and I are extremely proud of our respective offspring, so, as we often do, we found ourselves talking with these trading post patrons about our children. While discussing their youngest son’s educational experience, the woman explained, “He took a meandering path.” The comment brought to mind the San Juan River, which only two miles south of Twin Rocks Trading Post snakes westerly on its journey to Glen Canyon. Draining an area of almost 25,000 square miles, its headwaters begin in the mountains of Colorado at an elevation of approximately 14,000 feet. After rippling through parts of New Mexico and Utah, the watercourse empties into Lake Powell, where it mingles with the waters of the Escalante, Colorado and Dirty Devil to form the second largest reservoir in the United States.

Named for St. John the Baptist during the Domingez-Velez Expedition of 1776 (also known as the Domingez-Escalante Expedition), the San Juan has been host to a number of civilizations over its long history. Centuries ago ancestors of today’s Pueblo people lived along its banks and in its side canyons. When they departed in the late 1200s, they left behind sacred images pecked into burnt red sandstone cliffs, secure storage structures tucked into high ledges and small masonry communities.

Historically Ute and Navajo people have claimed adjacent land as their own and included the tributary in their rich cultural histories. More recently, Mormon pioneers encamped in what is now known as Bluff, attempting to divert the San Juan's waters into their head gates and irrigation ditches for purposes of cultivating fruit trees and vegetable gardens. The settlers, however, soon discovered the river was altogether unmanageable and abandoned their quest to tame the nomadic beast. While its average flow is 2,200 cubic feet per second, in 1927 the channel crested at close to 70,000. Presently constrained by the Navajo Dam project located in northwestern New Mexico, the water does not rage much anymore, and contemporary farmers and ranchers have successfully harvested its moisture for their crops and livestock.

Approximately seventeen miles west of Bluff, the river carves its way through the desert landscape 1,000 feet below a small roadside pullout known as Goosenecks State Park. Looking down from its parking lot, visitors can view the results of 300 million years of water erosion and gaze at the rare and amazing geologic formation known as an entrenched meander. From the moment I first experienced its twists and turns, Goosenecks has stood as a metaphor for my life at Twin Rocks Trading Post. As with the young man's schooling and the San Juan River, things at Twin Rocks tend to meander.

Like the Goosenecks, Barry and I are at times referred to as “rare” and even “amazing”. When applied to us, however, the terms seem to have altogether different meanings. I have to admit, there are times it seems Barry and I have been together at the trading post well over 300 million years and that we have accordingly worn each other through to bedrock. Mostly, however, we flow through our days in a generally amicable manner; we come to work in the morning and meander to Twin Rocks Cafe for coffee; then we meander to our desks to check email and review the news of the day; we meander out to the sales counter when visitors arrive and meander back to our offices when they depart; and finally, after a hard day of buying and selling turquoise, silver, Navajo rugs and Native American baskets, we meander home. Through it all, Priscilla bobs alongside, diligently attempting to keep our watershed productive despite overwhelming odds.

For years I worried the trading post needed more direction, and that its unconstrained and at times fiercely erratic twists and turns might eventually spell disaster. As I have grown older, however, I came to recognize the elegance in its chaos. Barry and I never know from moment-to-moment who will navigate the wilds of southeastern Utah to arrive at our Kokopelli doors. And, we cannot predict what treasures, both artistic and human, they will unveil once they enter the store. Whatever their origin, we mingle our stories with theirs in an ongoing attempt to create a larger reservoir of cultural and historical information to share with anyone who cares enough to ask. Maybe by the time Barry and I are fully eroded our entrenched meandering will have created something of enduring interest. That is surely our ambition.

With warm regards Steve Simpson.

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Day in the Life

Last Sunday I took an afternoon stroll through the trees on the shoulder of the mountain. It was a gorgeous day, the temperature was in the upper 60s with high, wispy cloud formations looking like finger paint smudges upon an azure sky-scape. The mountains to the west stood high and mighty above me, their snow capped peaks contrasting sharply with the sapphire blue of the upper atmosphere. The purple depths of the thick pine forests on the steep, angular slopes beckoned to me. Alas, I knew the snow would be deep there and dangerous for a solitary hiker. It would be best to wander through the oaks with their winter flattened mat of pale, yellow grass and what looked like tea stained leaves with curled edges. Many northern facing spaces were interrupted with thin, crusty patches of snow. I truly appreciate the quiet places there.

Albeit not all that far from civilization, this near edge of wilderness is one of my sanctuaries. It is an open-air art gallery consisting of ever evolving exhibits that are affected by sunlight, shadow and season. It is also a place to cool my jets and find some peace and quiet. One would not think a trading post and cafe as a place of stress, but they can be. In many ways, these wanderings are my time to stabilize, regroup and reconsider.

I saw turkey tracks in the snow, heard them gobbling across the way and eventually saw their shadowy shapes racing through the underbrush. Later on, I found myself sitting upon a large rock on the edge of a tiny clearing. A stately and fragrant yellow pine stood off to my left, and water from melting snow trickled downhill at my feet. The sun warmed my soul and all was right with the world.

There was a long dead, but still standing quaking aspen just down the hill from me. It towered over the oaks in a forlorn fashion, making me sad at its passing. As I watched a northern flicker fly onto a branch of the tree and let go its reverberating whistle-like call then hammered away at a knot. I thought to myself, "That little dude is going to scramble his brain beating on that stick." Just then an answering call came echoing back at the silly bird.

After several hours of wandering, Laurie called me to dinner. I am especially fond of meals my wife and mother-in-law create, so I exited, stage left, and hustled on down the mountain. It was delicious as usual. After our meal Laurie announced that before dessert we would be going to see the new windmills, up close and personal. Since I have never been near a wind turbine, I thought it a grand plan. We drove out among the whispering giants and stood at their base—they are huge. I realize that there are folks both for and against these behemoths. I guess I am on the fence with this one; I could live with or without them. After touring the windmills we followed the back roads north, looking for the Gordon Reservoir road. Years ago, Grandpa Clem took me there and I wanted to see it once again.

We rolled down the dirt road, trying to stay out of the ruts and take in the scenery. Up the lane we saw a large prairie dog sunning himself at the entrance to his underground tunnel system. The little critter had done himself proud by excavating nearly ten square feet of roadside. It sat there tall and proud, barking at us as we came near. At about 50 feet, Laurie let out a gasp and said, "Look at that!" From the north sped a red-tailed missile. Right before our eyes, a hawk flared its wings and hit the dog. It was great for us, but a tragic ending to the prairie-pup. As the hawk struck it fanned completely out to slam on the brakes and gain lift all at the same time. Laurie, Grandma Donna and I were witness to a spectacular display of feathered finery. It reminded me of a basket Damian Jim designed a few years ago which was executed by Chris Johnson. Incredible!

Navajo Hawk Basket - Chris Johnson (#037)

I stepped on the brakes so as not to run over the poor bird as it attempted to regain altitude. Laurie grabbed my leg with her left hand and her right arm shot-out to hold grandma in place. Laurie say's she didn't yell, but I distinctly recall my ears ringing with her words, "Don't hit the bird!" Grandma had her hands on the dash trying to keep from going through the windshield and laughed merrily. We skidded to a halt as the bird, with his dinner, collided with the fence on the opposite side of the road. Luckily the hawk didn't get caught-up in the barbed wire but it did drop the dog before it regained attitude and flew away, low over the field. We all watched it go, thrilled at the experience, but sad about disrupting the red tail's dinner. It took me a minute to dislodge Laurie's fingernails from my thigh, but we were soon on our way again.

We drove further up the road until we came to a washout and turned around. As we returned to the scene of the prairie dog's demise, we noticed the hawk had regained its prize. It sat off in the field feasting, not happy at our return. Just then Laurie yelled. "Look at that, just look at it!" What appeared to be a badger was shuffling across the road, heading for a small clump of oak brush. Once again we went through the entire skid, slide and claw scenario. Looking down and out, I saw by the raised spines the creature was a porcupine. I slammed the pick-up in park and jumped-out to chase it down. I wanted a picture to prove that we had, indeed seen this wild thing. I jumped the fence and limped after the prickly character.

The porcupine and I entered the trees, it waddling as fast as it could go and me bent at the waist, pushing aside branches trying to keep-up. Before I could get my phone out and capture an image, it climbed one of the skinny trees and lodged itself in the tangle of branches. I took a few pictures then called Laurie and Grandma over to see what I had treed. Grandma opted-out of jumping the fence, she was afraid of becoming high centered. "The Claw" came around though and Laurie and I were but a few feet from the beastie. I wanted to shake it loose and get some better images, but Laurie was having none of it. "Leave the poor thing alone," she said. "Like my old dog, you just might get a face full of quills." Grumbling to myself and walking away, I claimed, "I am smarter than your old dog!" "Humph!" was her only reply.

Having just learned how to group text, I had been sending images and sharing the adventure with our three children throughout the day. They all seemed appreciative, but McKale said it best, "It looks and sounds like you had a wonderful day Pappi." "Yes", I texted back, "except for a bruise and puncture wounds on my right thigh, it was great."

With warm regards Barry Simpson and the team.