Saturday, July 29, 2017


It was Saturday morning and the world was bright and beautiful. Laurie and I had spent the night on the mountain, and I felt as if my batteries were being recharged by the golden light of the rising sun. I was sitting at the picnic table in front of “The Shack,” which is our little Tough Shed shanty that rests on the edge of a grassy field on the northeast slope of Blue Mountain. I had just returned from walking Laurie back to our van that was parked on the dirt road at the top of the property. She was in a hurry to get back to work. Laurie lives for yard work and is not truly happy unless her hands are in the dirt or trying to tame untamed vegetation. Steve and our fabulous staff were tending to business in Bluff, so I had the day off.

Sitting there happily, I munched on venison and a Bisquick biscuit left-over from dinner the night before. I was loving life. An Abert squirrel poked his head out of the woodpile and watched me carefully. He was looking for the unsalted peanuts I always leave behind. The nuts are for the guilt I harbor from having kicked him and his super-sized stash of acorns out of the shack before renovating it. I contemplated the creature, thinking of the Navajo legend of Changing Bear Maiden and how Squirrel played a role in that affair. As one is meant to do, I thought about the meaning behind the metaphorical tale. In a nutshell, the myth speaks of how even the most gifted and beautiful of beings can be tempted by the dark side and turned into something hated and miserable. The saving grace, and there is always a saving grace, is that life is an evolving spiral of understanding, and from the ashes of such a crash-and-burn comes new and precious fruit and knowledge. 

Having finished my breakfast, I decided to walk the property, look and listen for wildlife, and appreciate the trees. There are some massive and amazing pine, maple, and oak trees on the place which I find impressive, interesting and appealing. Since I was not going far, I left my backpack behind so I could move about more freely. A Red-Tailed Hawk screamed at me from the heights of a nearby aspen as I walked near its nest. I could see a fledgling watching and waiting for its parents in the tangled mass as I walked underneath. I looked for a prayer feather in the debris below their perch, but found nothing more than the down of a turkey.

Making my way to the lower east side of the property, I found a giant pine tree with branches near enough to the ground to get a grip on and haul myself up. It seems those step-ups need to be lower and easier to reach each year. The limbs allowed me to get a good 20’ into the tree, where I found a crotch with few enough branches to look out over the oak brush and see into the open spaces. I was enjoying the view when I felt something come over me. Tiny black pizz ants were climbing my trunk and biting me fiercely. I was rudely reminded of the Navajo emergence myth and how the ants of different colors had played an essential role in the Upward Moving Way and the final ascension of the original beings through the reed. In short order, I was covered in the miniature vermin, and the air was becoming pungent from the acidic odor they emit upon being squashed.

Hurriedly descending from my own emergence, I wandered off, scratching, swatting, and picking at my hair and eyelashes. Those little buggers had covered a lot of my personal space in a very short time. As I walked and itched, I noticed a small group of heifers gathered around the trunk of a big, old tree with much character. The age-old pine had limbs low enough to the ground to tempt me into the sky world once more. I walked up to the group talking calmly as I came, “Hey girls, what’s happening with you?” Just then I realized there was something else up that tree. I moved in closer and leaned around to see what it might be, thinking there was a porcupine among the branches. A chill ran up my spine as I realized this was no porcupine, it was a black bear cub. “Oh crap!” or something like that, escaped my lips as I began to back away and look franticly around for Mama Pajama.

Every hiker knows or should know, that coming upon a black bear cub means there is a high likelihood a mad sow is near at hand. I tried to blend in with the cows thinking they might allow a bit of protection, but they were not interested in adopting me at the moment. If an angry mother bear was about, I would be more than willing to grab onto one of their crusty tails in order to attempt a quick get-away. I admit it. I was scared and not interested in being the last one standing around scratching himself or bear wrestling if the scat hit the trail and fur began to fly.  I backed toward the small herd, and they backed away from me, whereupon the cub saw an opening. It hurriedly maneuvered itself around, dropped to the ground, and began a sprint. The cows and I turned and ran in one direction and the cub in the other. Lucky for me, no mean momma made an appearance.

Anxious to put some distance between me and the bear tree, I quickly started walking back toward the shack. As I went, the thunder began to roll and the lightning strike. From when and where this storm had blown in, I did not know. Much like the Navajo and the great flood, I was not intending on getting caught up in the storm surge. Lightning was striking all ‘round, near enough that I could feel static electricity in the air. “Great!” I said to myself, “first ants, then bears, and now lightning is about to fry my bacon.” I made it back to the shack just before the heavens opened and the rain came down. As I laid back on the comfortable cot, closed my eyes, and listened to the water droplets hit the tin roof, I thought to myself, “Not a bad day thus far, not bad at all. When the rain stops, I will go back and see what new adventures are out there. This time though, I am taking bear spray!”

Friday, July 21, 2017

Elvis is in the Building

As is often the case on these hot July days, Barry, Priscilla and I were hunkered down, sheltering behind the Kokopelli doors. Outside the temperature was 104° Fahrenheit and rising, it was hot. Inside the store, however, it was cool and calm, tranquil. Despite our comfortable circumstances, a dark cloud hung over us and our mood was sober. We had begun to worry someone had closed the tourist valve, and like grapes in the California sun we were about to become economic raisins. Turquoise and silver was not selling, and even Navajo taco and fry bread sales had softened. 

As with everything that goes wrong these days, we assigned blame for our slump to Donald Trump. Likely it was just that we were nearing Independence Day and Bluff is not considered a July 4th destination. Trump is, however, a convenient scapegoat, and we shamelessly abused him and his administration. After the Great Recession of 2008, it does not take much to spook Barry and me. We are still suffering the psychological effects of that slow down and have never fully regained our financial courage. While we have considered alcohol or counseling to overcome our cowardice, we cannot afford either and are therefore stuck with our malady. Although we have tried, we have yet to find a way to pin this situation on our current president. We are confident, however, that, like Robert Mueller, we will eventually find the smoking gun.

In our small community, there are no parades, no picnics, and no fireworks commemorating the birth of this nation. Indeed, there is typically not even a large glass of lemonade to be had, since most local businesses close so their staffs can enjoy the holiday. As we crept closer to the day Americans celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and our separation from the crown, those of us at Twin Rocks were actually hoping, maybe even praying, for a few Brits with pounds in their pockets to find their way in. We were fully prepared to forgive and forget the past injustices and embrace them as brothers and sisters once again, so long as we could shake ‘em down. As difficult as they are, we would have even welcomed the French. Frankly, once we realized they were not responsible for French fries, we lost all fondness for them. We are not, however, above taking their money.

As the afternoon wore on, our mood grew progressively gloomy. Suddenly the door burst open and a gentleman in his middle-sixties ducked in out of the heat. We noticed he left his traveling companion outside. I could see the second man sitting on the Yertle the Turtle King, which is located on the westerly side of the broad porch, immediately adjacent to the cohab. When Kira and Grange were young, we spent many an evening reading Dr. Seuss, marveling at the stories created by that extraordinary man. Although not my absolute favorite, a title then and forever held by the Sneeches, Yertle was one of the most popular. So, when Jana, Grange, and I arrived at the Sipesonian Institute for Creative Endeavor several months ago and spotted the carving out in the yard, I knew it had to live among the folk art already incorporated into Twin Rocks Trading Post. After searching out Dave Sipe, artist, curator, and cofounder of the illustrious institution, which is headquartered just west of Mancos, Colorado, we got down to business. Dave is a tough negotiator and we did our best to hide our enthusiasm. Consequently, it took some time, and a few crocodile tears, but we eventually arrived at an accommodation. Once payment arrangements were satisfied, Grange and I loaded the marine reptile into the Subaru and headed home.

Noting the other gentleman seemed to be bordering on heat exhaustion as he reclined on Yertle, I asked, “Why doesn’t your friend come in?” “He has a dog”, the visitor responded. As a result of our Buffy the Wonder Dog phase, which tragically ended about three years ago, we are pet friendly. So, after receiving assurances our furry friend would not pee on the carpet, Priscilla invited the overheated man and his dog inside. As it turns out, the canine was a Parson’s Russell terrier, a breed of small, white, feisty, energetic animals known for digging up badgers. They are reputed to be extremely smart, and this particular pup fit the mold. According to the information we gathered, the breed is named for the Reverend John “Jack” Russell, who in 1819 purchased a small white and tan terrier female named Trump from the milkman in the hamlet of Elmsford, England. That particular Trump formed the foundation for the parson’s breeding program. While we were inclined to draw parallels, we withheld judgment to avoid slandering the dog.

Once inside, the pet owner took up residence in a wooden chair and his sidekick set about thoroughly inspecting the premises and then surveying each individual in turn; first Barry, then Rick, then Priscilla, and lastly, me. The inquisitive terrier limped slightly as he completed his turn around the store. “Elvis,” the man said, correcting the dog, “that’s the wrong leg.” According to his master, the terrier had recently had surgery on his left leg, but in an attempt to garner sympathy and a little attention, he mistakenly favored the right. The canine was confused.

The animal wore a harness with an attached notice stating, “Do not pet!” Despite the mandate, after giving me the once-over, the dog jumped up and demanded attention. “Go ahead, pet him”, the owner directed. “Elvis?” I asked. “Yup!” Now, anyone who knows me understands the only person I love more than Dr. Seuss is Elvis, so the dog and I immediately bonded. As people straggled in from the scorching sun, Elvis, still confused over which limb had been repaired, hobbled over to them and extracted a scratch on the belly, a pat on the head, or a thorough rubdown. As I watched Barry overseeing this occurrence, I could tell he was hatching a plan. By the next morning, Barry had copied Elvis’ routine down to a science as he hobbled about the store. Clearly, he had set aside all concern for our financial well-being and become more interested in getting a pat, a scratch, or a rubdown.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Deesdoi (It’s Hot!)

As I drove to Bluff early Tuesday morning to open the Cafe, I noticed a pink blush extending across the entire eastern skyline. It was as if the Sun was taunting me, playing a game of illusion, hide-and-seek, or threatening to rise as a band of light rather than a big yellow orb. Working with the Navajo people has caused me to think of the Sun as a sentient being, rather than a ball of hot gaseous eruptions.

There was a coolness in the predawn breeze flowing across my fingertips as I drove south. I inhaled. The smell of burnt wood was in the air, and I assumed both the aura and aroma I witnessed were caused by the terrible fire ravaging the woodlands on the southwestern side of the state. The assault on my senses made me think of Fire God, the Navajo deity credited with cleansing the Earth by fire. Leave it to Navajo culture to explain how natural occurrences we view as negative actually have a positive side to balance things out.

I arrived in Bluff before sunrise, let the staff in and began slinging hash and cleaning tables. It wasn't until late morning that I emerged from the Cafe and realized how hot it was outside. As I stood on the porch looking out onto the parched landscape, a bead of sweat formed at my temple and rolled down my jaw line. Shaking my head and wiping my chin, I walked across the porch and into the refrigerated air circulating through the Twin Rocks trading post.

Entering my office, I pulled David Carpenter's master’s thesis from my bookshelf and began reviewing the life and times of Jens Nelson, the first Mormon Bishop and an original settler of our small hamlet. Viewing the pictures of early Bluff, I marveled at the hardship those hardy settlers endured while attempting to settle this desolate outpost, evade federal marshals looking for polygamists, and pacifying the Native neighbors they displaced. I looked out of the picture windows at the heat waves dancing off the hard-packed earth and imagined living and working out in 100-plus degree heat for two months each year.

The Navajo and Ute people were mobile; when it got hot they pulled up stakes and headed to the high country. Not so with the settlers. Bluff was established as a self-sustaining community. This meant that every citizen dug in, stayed put, and did everything in their power to help the others survive. They attempted to manage an unmanageable river, raise cows and sheep on short grass, and grow crops in an alkaline soil that had a bad habit of locking up tighter than a wedge. No Bull!

When the temperature soars into triple digits in Bluff, things get hot and stay hot. The rock houses of that period, along with the surrounding cliffs, absorb heat all day, until they match the surrounding heat index. The nice thing about the high desert is that the temperature can drop 30 degrees during the night. Not so with the super-heated red rocks; they radiate stored energy late into the night. Uninsulated as those homes were, they simply became ovens.

Trees were scarce; shade was a rare commodity. I would venture to guess that more than one feud broke out based on crossing boundaries as the sun tracked one direction and shade the other. The lack of indoor plumbing; labor intensive, exhaustive days; uncomfortable, restless nights; and struggling to keep more than one family happy must have caused many a rugged pioneer to suffer the effects of heat stroke in more ways than one. Life was definitely much harder back then than now.

Modern-day Bluff still provides its inhabitants with plenty of hard work and sacrifice. The river no longer attempts to flush us down stream at every opportunity. We manage the heat with refrigeration and cold drinks and get plenty of rest and relaxation. The Native Americans have accepted us to the extent of aiding and benefiting our business, and I have only one sweet, gentle creature keeping me lined out and working towards the common good. Iina ei nizhoni (Life is good/beautiful!).