Thursday, December 21, 2017

2017 - The Year in Review: Life in Our Parking Lot

The large gravel parking lot serving Twin Rocks Trading Post and Café often functions as Bluff’s Town Common. It is the local meeting place to start or end parades, welcome visitors from around the world, rest your horse or your Harley. It is wide enough to turn around huge semi-truck trailers, tour buses, or horse trailers. Our parking lot is also the place where more selfies are taken (with the Twin Rocks in the background) than perhaps any other location in San Juan County, Utah.

Susie and I live in the apartment above the Trading Post, and at any hour of the day or night, one of us will tell the other to come and see what just pulled into the parking lot. Bluff is a town of only 265 individuals, but the world seems to want to stop here for a visit to the Trading Post or a meal at the Café. Below are only a small selection of the scenes from our entertaining front yard in the past year.

The open Kokopelli doors of the Trading Post presents the perfect frame to watch life in the parking lot. This year it served as the staging area for the annual Utah Navajo Fair Parade.

Any time of the year (except the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day when we close), the lot can be jammed. The winter of 2017 was extremely mild and this shot in early January was one of the few occasions of snow.

Last April saw the first Founders Day celebration in Bluff’s history and the parade began at Bluff Fort and ended up at Twin Rocks. Floats, musicians, pioneers, and princesses made this location their final destination on Saturday morning.

Parades of another kind are the large groups of rental RVs that gather at the Post. One day last summer, 31 vehicles arrived together, parked within inches of each other, and their passengers enjoyed a meal at the Café. Each of the RVs sported an identical Danish flag in its rear window.

A paradise for selfie photos, as many as eight or nine buses arrive nearly every day in the tourist season, and the first duty for every visitor (even before the mandatory rest room break) is to depart the bus and start taking pictures. From our upstairs window, we enjoy watching people performing wild contortions, leaping into the air, and mugging for the camera.

Not every day produces 51 Harley-Davidson motorcycles in our front yard, but Hogs are not unusual guests. Large groups of French and German tourists frequently come to the U.S. and rent Harleys for cross-country tours. One group last summer even brought along a film crew to document their Southwestern adventures.     

Horses, dogs, and the occasional sheep are let out of their trailers to take a rest break of their own. We often run out of the Post to warn dog owners about the nasty little stickers called Goatheads as they let their pooches out for a little relief in the side yard.

An amazing array of unusual vehicles grace the parking lot, and some of them defy descriptions, like this Easy Rider hybrid. Last fall, four rare Bugatti automobiles, valued at $2.5 million each, parked for a quick lunch break, and then roared elegantly away

The rock formation, known as the Navajo Twins, is reflected in a front window of one of the many tour buses that park out front. A stunning number of foreign languages, including Chinese, Russian, German, Danish, Norwegian, Japanese, French, and even New Yorker, can be heard. 

For the annual Navajo fair parade, Twin Rocks was the place to be. In the early morning, floats were constructed, horses saddled, and Navajo princesses climbed on to truck and car roof tops to receive the applause of their loyal subjects.

Susie’s 2017 “You’re Not Going To Believe This” Award goes to the medical helicopter that pulled into the parking area one evening. Stripped of its rotors, the whirly-bird was being transported on a giant flatbed truck to somewhere.

It was not on fire, but it looked like it. This heavily loaded movable light show pulled into the parking lot last week, just in time for Christmas. The truck driver stopped long enough for a good dinner and a short nap. When he fired up the big rig to depart, it appeared that the entire area was on fire.

I have learned to keep a camera ready at all times, as it has become my personal mission to document the various comings and goings in the parking lot. As Susie said shortly after we moved here 18 months ago, “Bluff – this place is different.”

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Of Friendship and Passing Years

I recently received an e-mail from a sweet young lady with a special request: “Hi Barry! I hope you are doing well! I’m writing you to ask a favor. My Dad’s birthday is coming up and as a gift I am trying to compile a book of sixty letters to give him in celebration of his sixty years. I would really appreciate it if you could help me by writing a letter to be included in this book. It can be handwritten or typed, as long or short as you like. It can include pictures or none. Even just a little note to wish him a happy birthday would be great. Dad is a very sentimental person and I know anything that you could say or include would mean a lot to him, especially since you have been one of his best friends since childhood. I’m trying to get all the letters pulled together by November 20. You can email them to me or mail it to my home address. Thanks so much! Sincerely, Jenny”

 “Well, Heck!” I said to myself sputtering and fussing. I will be honest-- I HATE to do these type of letters. I tell myself that I haven’t the time nor inclination, and knowing Wayne, the whole book idea would just embarrass him. He is a shy and unassuming individual and does not seek the spotlight in any way. That is one of the many reasons he and I have gotten along so well over the years. But I am fond of Jenny and Wayne is a good friend, so I decided to write the letter in the vein of our weekly missive. Jen would get the letter, but not in the way she might expect. It would be a little more widely distributed than she might have wanted. The memories are mine and my good friend might recall a slightly different version of things but, as with the release of a genie from their bottle, you don’t always get exactly what you wish for.

As I recall, Wayne and I became good friends about 50 years ago. That time frame seems like just yesterday and forever at the same time. Wayne and I really bonded in high school. We had the same propensity to ditch school and disappear into the back country. Our teachers may have disagreed, but we figured our grades were acceptable and we were assured graduation, so why not enjoy life a little. We would load up my little Toyota 4x4 pick-up with provisions (pop and jerky), his little white, curly headed dog Chico, and drive to his family ranch in Verger or some other place we had heard of and wanted to visit.

I recall one such escape when Wayne and I passed our football coach while leaving town. He was coming back from somewhere and our eyes met as we passed on the highway. “Oh shoot!” we said in unison, “this could prove to be a problem.” And it did. We were back for football practice that afternoon and the coach was waiting to make an example of us. Wayne and I were two of the three team captains, along with our buddy Jess. This “team captain” thing may sound like bragging, but I assure you I am not. We won one out of like eight or nine games that year, so our leadership skills were lacking at best. Anyway, for punishment, Wayne and I were forced to run “Reindeer” (an all-out sprint and sprawl exercise) for fifteen minutes while the entire team watched. We both figured our outing was worth the pain because we had experienced a great day.

In time, Wayne and I drove that little Toyota all over the Blue Mountain, Elk Ridge and down into Canyon Country. We witnessed broad vistas at lofty altitudes, drove and got stuck in deep dark canyons, fished in mountain ponds and streams-- cooking our catch right there and then. We hunted Sage Grouse in the Chippean Valley, then roasted and ate them on the spot. Wayne, Chico and I were inseparable; we loved being out of doors and could not be harnessed or hampered by other responsibilities. The local indigenous people say that when the Spanish invaders reintroduced horses to the Americas, their world expanded ten-fold. The freedom and mobility that little blue, yellow and white four-wheel drive allowed Wayne and me afforded us that same flexibility and opportunity.

From these excursions, Wayne and I learned to love and appreciate the land, the greatness and magnitude of the Four Corners, the incredible magnificence of the vaulted heavens and most importantly, friendship. During those outings and other adventures we had together, a lasting bond was formed. Even though our lives, wives and subsequent families (along with work) have caused our paths to diverge a bit, we still stay in contact. Wayne lives two doors down and across the street from me now, on Main Street, USA. We cross paths quite often. As we do, our eyes meet and memories flood our minds. Inevitably a smile comes to our lips, we nod in recognition and go about our business. We have no photographs of our travels but the imagery is burned onto our subconscious memory. Those good times will not be forgotten. Happy sixtieth old friend, mine is not far behind.  

Friday, December 8, 2017

Three Times More Fun

Last spring, the good people of Bluff came together to establish a new tradition, a one-day event called Founders Day. The first go-around was so successful we are expanding the occasion next year, and Bluff, Utah, is the place to be April 6, 7, and 8, 2018, for three days of festivities. The earliest Mormon settlers reached our location on April 8, 1880, and last year, our entire community came together to celebrate that event. We believe this year will be three times more fun.

A committee of volunteers from Bluff and the surrounding area planned last year’s Founders Day. Bluff Fort, St. Christopher Mission, Business Owners of Bluff, White Mesa Ute, San Juan County School art programs, Navajo children singing groups, and Twin Rocks Café and Trading Post coordinated activities. The 2017 Founders Day packed a lot of fun into only one day.
Afterwards, it was generally agreed in Bluff that one day was just not enough. We needed to make it a three-day heritage spree.

Preliminary events for the upcoming 2018 Founders Day will begin on Friday, with activities being offered by Bluff Fort. As with last year, descendants from all the original sixteen pioneer families will make the cabins at Bluff Fort their home base. Old friends will meet, remember, and share the joy of coming back together. Each family gives out different colored ribbons to indicate their individual clan, and many visitors sported a rainbow of local ancestors. 

The Fort’s activities will begin on Friday, April 6, with workshops on beginning genealogy being offered. In the afternoon, a “Taste of Dutch Oven Cooking” celebrates this staple of traditional pioneer cuisine. Learning from the best local cooks, coupled with sampling the pioneer gourmet food, will create a need to exercise. On Friday night at Bluff Fort, a traditional square dance will be held on the grounds to work off a few calories.

Again this year, Saturday morning will begin with a parade, featuring costumed marchers, family and tribal floats, Navajo princesses, horses, and maybe even Smoky the Bear. The parade ends up in the parking lot of Twin Rocks where a traditional Ute Bear Dance will be held, with dance lessons provided for visitors and other first-time dancers. Throughout the afternoon, musicians will provide entertainment in the box canyon just behind the Navajo Twins rock formations.

Throughout Saturday, volunteers from Fort Bluff will conduct hayride tours of historic Bluff. Docents are stationed around town and wagons of passengers will hear brief descriptions of local landmarks, the cemetery, and many of the distinct sandstone mansions that dot our town’s landscape.

In the afternoon, many activities will shift to Twin Rocks, with artists conducting demonstrations of basket and rug weaving in the Trading Post. At Twin Rocks Café, frybread is the thing, and we will be heating up the oil for an expanded version of last year’s Frybread Festival. This year we will have an outdoor frybread bar serving build-your-own Navajo Tacos or Deserts. We also will be offering the indescribable Bears Ears Ice Cream Sandwiches (on frybread) and other treats.

A frybread speed-eating contest will lead to a highlight of the Founders Day celebration, the annual Frybread Fling. Last year’s 60 foot-4 inch toss is the current record, and challengers are expected to see who can propel their Frybread Frisbee the greatest distance.

All over town, artists and craftsmen are invited to set up booths to sell their creations. In addition, regional food trucks will offer hot meals to visitors and residents alike. 

Founders Day weekend will conclude Sunday afternoon with an interdenominational service at St. Christopher’s Mission, with religious leaders from the area sharing their faiths with our visitors. The Mission, located just two miles from Twin Rocks, has been an integral part of Bluff since the 1920s. Preliminary conversations indicate a barbecue and dinner-on-the-church grounds will follow the service.

If you know Bluff, you know that accommodations are limited, so folks are encouraged to make reservations in advance to be a part of the sharing, comradery, and fun that will be Bluff Founders Day 2018 on April 6, 7, and 8.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Embracing the Changes We Fear

It was the summer of 1977, and I was sitting at a workbench in the back room of Blue Mountain Trading Post, contemplating what to do next. The trading post had opened a year earlier, and Craig, Barry, and I soon recognized the need to develop new work skills. No longer could we get by pumping gasoline, changing tires, and checking oil; our employment opportunities had changed and we needed to evolve.

In an effort to ensure a continuing source of walking-around money, we had begun to make and repair silver and turquoise jewelry. Craig showed a real talent for it, but Barry and I were scarcely tolerable. As I sat considering what project to begin, my favorite Eagles song, Ol’ Fifty-five, blared in the background on KUTA, AM 790, The Voice of the Canyonlands. As a recent high school graduate, the song’s references to the sun coming up and time passing so quickly were extremely meaningful, and made me think of the new path my life was about to take.

KUTA, the local station, and, as I recall, the only radio signal available in Blanding at that time, was an extremely small operation, with very limited geographic coverage. The last time I toured the old trailer that constituted its broadcast office, the facility seemed in imminent danger of collapse, both physically and financially. There was no water to the building, and the bathroom consisted of a portable camp toilet. Not long after my visit, the station closed permanently, leaving a void on the AM dial.

In the 1970s, southern San Juan County seemed, to me, an isolated, almost impenetrable, fortress. Very few outside influences pierced its secure walls. The roads into this region were serviceable, but not inviting, and the communities were far from mainstream America. I have often thought of them as being more than a little like Mayberry RFD; safe, simple, and secure from the influences of the larger environment.

In my mind, radio reception has become a metaphor for the changes occurring in this region of the country. In the not too distant past, there were few reliable signals available between Bluff and Salt Lake City, Phoenix, or Denver; the options were severely limited. During the day, you could generally have country, country, or a little more country. By night, you might pick up KOMA, a clear channel from Oklahoma City. Fuzzy air time was, however, guaranteed as you descended into the canyons breaching the Colorado Plateau.

Recently I traveled to Salt Lake City, and was amazed how many new stations are currently available. Oldies, country, rap, pop, NPR, classical, Christian, and hip hop frequencies are all broadcasting. To individuals living in metropolitan settings, this may seem trivial; to those of us accustomed to more Spartan accommodations, however, it is a significant change of circumstances.

When we opened Twin Rocks Trading Post in 1989, there was a lot of talk about technology changing our world. High-speed communication, it was argued, was about to alter the way people lived. No longer did we have to persevere in a congested parking lot to make a living, we could reside in even the remotest locations and telecommute. Since Bluff is one of the most isolated places in the United States, that dialogue interested me greatly.

At the time, I concluded the “lone eagle” model did not operate in a community like Bluff, telephone equipment servicing this area was antiquated and would not accommodate new technology; travel into and out of San Juan County was inconvenient, if only because the distances are so vast. And, there was no reliable air service within a reasonable distance.

Just as new stations are populating the radio dial, so we have begun to see improved services: regional roads have improved, high-speed internet connects us to a broad range of services, and cellular telephone waves will soon breach our sandstone walls. As a result, the world has started to discover the benefits of our insulated oasis. We have begun to appreciate the advantages of that larger environment.

As I flipped through the numerous selections on the radio dial while the miles between Salt Lake City and Bluff rolled away, never staying with one station too long, I was reminded how simple it was when KUTA was the only alternative. Change, it seems, can be complicated.

Lately Grange and I have been reading Melville’s Moby Dick, and in Ishmael, I found the inspiration needed to openly embrace the changes occurring in our local culture. “[Y]et see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them,” Ishmael said of his unusual associate, the cannibal Queequeg. Love, it seems, is the balm which softens our emotions and allows us to embrace the changes we fear: love of place, love of one’s companions, and love of progress.