Friday, June 30, 2017

The Chinese Lewis and Clark

It was 10 a.m. and I had just come into the trading post from doing the morning line/quality check at the Cafe. I parked myself in one of the heavy duty 2x4 chairs we have resting in the center of the store and took up a conversation with Rick Bell. Rick was working the trading post from the tall stool behind the counter. As we sat and talked, he and I thumped on Trump, worked through a bus load of British, Welsh, and Scottish travelers, and talked with a grumpy septuagenarian couple traveling the states in a 20-foot motor home. As the cantankerous pair departed, Rick commented on how we had not yet met anyone truly fun and interesting today. No sooner had he made the statement than a gregarious Asian couple crossed our threshold.

As they entered the building, the slight and lively, 60-something-year-old woman was talking to her husband in rapid-fire English accented with a Chinese twist. She was complaining bitterly about, “The outrageous cost of access to our national parks.” Her husband looked to be of a similar age, heritage, and opinion. His head bobbed about in agreement and a huge amiable smile was plastered across his seamless face. Rick and I greeted the couple and began to gently interrogate them. Working the trading post sometimes allows us access into the unique lives of people we meet and a small window into the philosophy they embrace. If we are subtle and perceptive enough, we are able to become . . . acquainted. Rick and I were immediately impressed with this couple, especially the outspoken woman. She had personality.

We learned that they were Chinese-American business people from San Francisco, Chinatown to be exact. They dealt in Chinese collectables and conducted ninety percent of their business in their native language. They lived in a 6,000 square-foot home in the heart of the city by the bay. They bought the house in the early 1970s for $120,000, and it was now valued at $1.5 million. “How crazy is that?” questioned the woman. “Am I right?" As we spoke to the couple and got to know them better the lady became more comfortable and found her voice. In other words, she became much more animated, opinionated, and . . . louder.

I looked to Rick who was smiling brightly, as he was having fun now. He nodded in my direction as if to say, “This is getting better by the minute.” We learned that the couple were planning on moving out of the city, leaving their bay-view mini mansion to the kids and traveling the country to see each and every national park, monument, and roadside vista out there. "Because we take pictures of everything and put on slide shows for our friends and neighbors they call us the Chinese Lewis and Clark.” said the lady, “You know Lewis and Clark?” she asked. “I think so,” I replied, “friends of Sacagawea?” “Yes, yes, that’s them." our Chinese adventurers assured us. “We have traveled to 36 states so far."

The couple had a passion for the parks and monuments of this great land. “My husband loves the parks, he wants to go, go, go all the time. Me, I take pictures, hundreds of pictures. I lie down in the road and take pictures of the long desolate roads we travel.” “I think I have heard about you,” I quipped, referring to the people who do the same on Forrest Gump Hill on Highway 163 through Monument Valley. The woman never broke stride, and her volume increased with the continued explanation. "We get home, I throw a party. I take pictures everywhere we go, hundreds of pictures. Our friends think we crazy because we go everywhere, take too many pictures. They love it, am I right?” she said nudging her husband hard in the side.

“The problem is,” said the lady, climbing on her soapbox, “The parks and the government are broke!” The husband nodded knowingly and said, “Not if she is running them, she is smart."

The woman had found her stride though and was on to how the national parks could be improved. Her husband opened his eyes wide and nodded knowingly, as if to say, “She would definitely get their attention.” "I would have a two-tier pricing structure. Because we pay taxes, I would charge us Americans less to get in and the foreigners more, way more.” she said, "Am I right?”

Rick and I nodded in agreement knowing it would do no good to argue with this singular force of nature and hoping her energy would soon dissipate. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, the encounter ended. The woman stopped her tirade, looked upon her husband and said, “OK, we go now. Am I right? Bye, bye.” “So long.” Rick and I said in unison waving good-bye. As the couple walked out the Kokopelli doors, Priscilla walked in and said; “What did you guys say or do to get that woman so wound up? I could hear her from the parking lot.” “It was nothing we did,” said Rick. “Well,” I replied, “Rick asked for a character and the powers that be delivered, in a big, loud manner.

“Hey,” I said directing my query at Priscilla, “why are you getting here so late? You should have been to work two hours ago.” Priscilla gave me a sour look, pointed a crooked finger in my direction, and in a loud surly voice said, “Don’t give me a hard time. I have already had a bad morning. Oh, and by the way, I’m retiring soon.” 

I got up out of my chair and headed for the Cafe where the tone was much less amplified. Rick jumped off his stool and headed upstairs mumbling something about checking on Susie. “Am I right?” Priscilla said as we went our separate ways.

Talk about a force of nature!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Days Gone By

The other afternoon I was bussing tables and refilling coffee mugs at Twin Rocks Cafe when Don arrived for a bite of lunch. As often happens at moments like that, Don felt inclined to needle me about being demoted from my former position as trading post lawyer and chief turquoise salesman. Since Twin Rocks is an egalitarian enterprise, everyone believes he or she is a chief. As Barry and I have become more deeply involved in selling fry bread, beef stew, and Navajo tacos, Priscilla has stepped in to fill the trading post void and now maintains she is the "Head Chief." It’s a little like George Orwell’s Animal Farm; everyone is equal, but Priscilla is more equal. Barry worries she may become the Tyrant of the Trading Post, but so far she has kept her composure. Priscilla, of course, has always kept her cool, so I advised Barry to stop fretting. He’s trying.

After several months on the cafe floor and the expo line, Barry no longer attempts to correct Priscilla's stories when he feels she has, “gone off the reservation.” As for me, I just look on in amazement. She, like her long-time mentor and negotiating idol Duke, has developed an extraordinary and ever-expanding talent for “storytelling." There are times when I can’t tell whether she is inspired by Duke’s tales or acting on her own instincts. No matter really, the customers are mesmerized, and turquoise and silver jewelry, Navajo rugs, and Southwest baskets are routinely exported out the Kokopelli doors to various points of the globe via U.S. Highway 191. That makes Barry, and Dustin the U.P.S. man, happy. When it comes to negotiations, Donald Trump has nothing on Duke and Priscilla. Consequently, I am trying to get them a book deal, and maybe even a reality show.

As Don continued to pester me, I vigorously argued my new assignment was a promotion, not a demotion. After all, who has ever heard of a busboy joke? As everyone knows, however, wisecracking about lawyers and traders is common. Don was not buying it and to drive his point home sarcastically asked if I had gotten a raise. I informed him that although I had not seen any increase in my pay stub for the past 20 years, I had, despite my advanced age, recently been allowed to train at the Busboy Institute of America and was now Gold Star Certified. Don asked to see my certificate, and I had to claim postmaster malfeasance. A Navajo couple sitting in the next booth listened quietly, eating fish and chips, and smiling broadly as Don and I sparred.

Don is the son of Kenny Ross, the founder of Wild Rivers Expeditions, a local institution. Wild Rivers has been around since 1957 when Kenny established the enterprise to satisfy his yearning for adventure and gin up funds necessary to support his young family. While the earliest commercial river-runners on the San Juan were likely Bert Loper and Norman Newels, Kenny was not far behind. Prior to the formation of Wild Rivers, Kenny had earned his reputation as a guide on the free-flowing Colorado, before construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of Lake Powell. Bluff, however, became Kenny's base, and over the years Wild Rivers developed a reputation for providing archaeological, geological, and natural history excursions. As youths, Craig, Barry, and I often looked over Kenny's operation as we scrambled up the steep cliffs and rambled the dusty streets of Bluff. Don was a bit older and had no time for the cropped hair, clod-throwing, hell-raising ruffians spawned by Rose and Duke. We, therefore, did not really get to know him until much later.

During his youth, Duke had been dragged down by a San Juan River whirlpool and survived only when it uncharacteristically spat him back out into the meandering channel. As a result of Duke's near-death experience, Rose became extremely nervous whenever her whelps encountered flowing water of any magnitude, bath water being the exception. Consequently, Kenny and his rafting operation never became an integral part of our routine. While we may have enjoyed signing on with Kenny so we could swig a cool one and urinate in the river, which is apparently one thing Wild Rivers guides have always done exceptionally well, Rose would not allow it. Duke on the other hand might not have objected. Although I was a bit too young to recall specifics, Barry remembers a few occasions when Duke proposed to put us in a potato sack and pitch sack and spawn, along with a few feral cats, stray dogs, and several large stones, into the San Juan River. Fortunately, Duke could never collar us all at one time, and multiple operations was not an option. Rose would never have stood the strain of losing cats, dogs, kids, and rocks over an extended period.

Kenny is of course long gone, and the rafting company has been through a number of subsequent owners. Wild Rivers has, however, survived and is still providing high adventure. When I returned to Bluff in 1989, Don, who now lives in Colorado, reestablished contact and visits us at the trading post and cafe a couple times a year to relive the old days. While he claims his recollections are better than mine, I believed he may be misleading me when it comes to certain historical events, especially if the discussion involves the opposite sex.

As Don and I wound up our professional development discussion, the Navajo couple in the next booth called me over and asked, “Are you really Gold Star Certified?!” Looking over at Don, I assured the inquisitive pair my stories are at least as reliable as his. Priscilla has nothing on us.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Bluff Bohemian Lifestyle

With a spring-like freshness, the distinctive local flora is bursting forth from the high mesas and craggy canyons in and around Bluff. Those of us who take this landscape personally have also been graced with the extra, delicate, and fragrant scents which accentuates the views and vistas we hold dear to our hearts. Unaided and unattended, these hardy, tenacious plants add a formal beauty to our little crevice of the world.

Recently I noticed the wild yellow rose bush across the road, in the yard of Melvin and Betty Gaines, come to life. I had driven down from Blanding before dawn to open the cafe and witnessed its coming-out party. Standing in the window, I noticed the orangy-red sunlight unveil itself upon the cliff face across the valley. Slowly and gracefully, a beam of golden light split the shadow along the canyon floor in front of me and lit the bramble like a burning bush. The magnificent reality lasted only a moment before the light stream broadened and pushed further into the heart of town.

It is odd what comes into your head in such instances. My mind jumped back in time to when I was dating a green-eyed monster woman from Monticello and playing it safe by giving her yellow roses on special occasions, because they signified friendship. Later, when Laurie finally consented to marry me, that dainty little golden cluster of ultra-soft petals and gentle aroma took on a much more significant and passionate attraction.

One of our Navajo friends informed me that the wild yellow rose represents the strength and magnificence of the Sun, but also speaks of an opposing, softer, gentler side to this most powerful of Navajo deities.

The yucca is also blooming on the mesa above town. The stiletto-like leaves guard and protect the stacked blossoms of these intermittently spaced sentinels, which spread across the sandy hillocks and sun-baked desert.

Recently I spoke with Priscilla, our longtime friend and associate here at Twin Rocks, about the yucca plants. As we talked, she began to share more about their uses and meaning. She said her mother was quite knowledgeable about native plants and that she often gathered the yucca fruit just before the plant bloomed and grilled the delicacy on the hot coals of a nearly spent fire.

A mischievous look came into Priscilla’s eyes when she told me the root of the yucca was often dug, cleaned, and pounded to produce a shampoo which is used to ceremonially cleanse a patient and his or her possessions. This brings about a blessing from the supernaturals, allowing more spiritual and material blessings to the newly scrubbed individual.

Priscilla insinuated that if Steve and I would invest in the aid of a medicine man, we might significantly improve our economic and personal affairs. By using the shampoo on our graying locks and our trading post inventory, we might look and feel younger and expand our net worth. “At least” said Priscilla, with a broad smile, “things would smell a whole lot better around here.”

One of the most common questions Steve and I field is “Aren’t you guys afraid those rocks are going to fall?” This inquiry is second only to, “What do you guys do here; what lifestyle do you lead?” Well . . . we sit around all day discussing the wondrous landscape; rub shoulders with world-class artists and unique individuals attempting to expand our knowledge and understanding and debating philosophy; and we live, laugh, love, and experience life in a canyon. If I had to describe it in a nutshell, I would have to say that we are living a rather remarkable Bluff Bohemian lifestyle.