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.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Root On Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

Of Mustangs, Broncos, and Cherries That Matter

It was 10:00 on a Wednesday morning, and I was running the Twin Rocks treadmill. Midweek can get a bit crazy around here because we are more short staffed than usual.  Steve closes the cafe on Tuesday nights and gets home around midnight, so he is allowed to sleep in an extra twenty minutes. CafĂ© Manager Marc is off, as are Rick and Susie, so it is down to Priscilla, Toni, and me to take care of business. With the help of those two girls, all would be well. I was running back and forth between the cafe and trading post making “executive decisions” and trying not to go postal on anyone. I was also attempting to write the weekly new items mailer so that our internet team would not lash out at me for being late—again.

I was working in my office typing away at my computer when I heard the front door chimes go off indicating someone had just entered the building. Priscilla, who was sitting and working nearby, jumped up saying, “I’ll get it.” As I worked, I listened to the conversation between Priscilla and an unknown man. Priscilla was showing him around the shop and educating him to our inventory. By his questions and comments the guy sounded interested as he seemed to be plumbing the depths of Priscilla’s knowledge and understanding of the arts. No worries there, Priscilla knows her stuff; she has a firm grasp on the art and is closely acquainted with most of the artists. 

On occasion, if Priscilla was unfamiliar with some small aspect of what the man was looking at, she would call out to me to see if I knew the answer. This type of interaction must have seemed odd to him, but it is not to Priscilla and me because it is one of the only ways I can still write and get anything accomplished.  As I listened, the invisible man began to hone in on the baskets of Elsie Holiday. He found them “incredible,” “alluring,” “fantastic!” I smiled to myself because most people feel the same about Elsie’s art. She is, arguably, the most creative Navajo basket weaver of all time.

Steve and I have been attempting to amass a small collection of Elsie’s baskets in an attempt to get the attention of a major museum. The idea is to impress the scholars into mounting a retrospective show of her work. A presentation in such a setting not only gives us credibility, it helps Elsie as well. We display her baskets in a side room, because we never know when a museum professional may come around.  The baskets arrayed there are not really for sale, but collectors can be quite persuasive, and the trading post business can be an economically ravenous beast which demands to be fed. Every once in a while, one of the herd gets away from us.

At one point, I heard the man ask, “How much is the Mustang basket?” Priscilla pointed out the “Not for Sale” sign and went on explaining Elsie’s textile technique and attempted to move him to the baskets that were for sale. Not willing to be put off, the man asked again: “If you were selling it, how much would it cost?” “Barry,” Priscilla called out, “What is this Mustang basket worth?” Because he had never seen such things before, the chances were that the man was about to have a bad case of sticker shock, but I dropped the bomb anyway: “If we sold that basket, it would be in the neighborhood of $6,000.”

There was an extended silence from inside the trading post while the information sank in. Later Priscilla told me that the man’s face went through several contortions while he thought about what he had heard. Elsie’s baskets are expensive, but she regularly puts more time, effort, and creativity into her work than almost anyone else. The bottom line—Elsie’s baskets are worth more. “Wow!” came back the man’s reply, “You could buy a car for that amount of money.”  I chuckled at his reaction, stood up, and walked into the store and said the first thing that came into my head, “Sure, if you’re buying a well-used 1970s-era Ford Bronco.”

There, standing next to Priscilla, was the sixty-something-year-old man with white hair and striking blue eyes. “Well,” he said, pointing out into the parking lot, “I prefer the Bronco.” There in all its glory sat a 1978, full-size, Ford Bronco XLT 4x4, painted primer grey with only minor patches of rust. “Oops!” I thought to myself. “That choice of vehicles was a major coincidence.”

The man explained that he found the Bronco in a barn somewhere south of Chicago. It only had 137,000 miles, was in “cherry” condition and ran like a champ. “I stole ‘er at $5,500.00,” he proclaimed with passion in his voice, “She’s a beauty,” I said trying to overcome my faux pas. It took the guy another twenty minutes to extoll the virtues of that sway-back mare. All Priscilla and I could do was stand there and listen in wonder, all the while thinking, “There will be no basket sale to this guy.”

When the man left the building and climbed back into his broken-down Bronco, we heard him turn the key and start ‘er up. From where we stood, Priscilla and I could hear the distinct tick, tick, tick of a stuck lifter. The vehicle rolled backward until it was far enough away from the barrier of rocks in front of the building. Putting that old grey mare into gear and stepping on the gas caused an eruption of black smoke from the tail pipe. Away drove the man and his noxious mount, clanking and rattling as he went. “Well,” I mused, watching him go. “I guess one man’s lemon is another man’s cherry.”

“He liked it,” said Priscilla, “I guess that’s all that matters.”