Friday, March 30, 2018

The Storyteller

The young man stood close to the sales counter, his eyes slightly downcast. With his freshly scrubbed face and carefully pressed walking shorts and polo shirt, he was the picture of a well-bred youth. Digging the toe of his river-sandaled foot into the carpet, he answered his mother’s inquiry with a determined, “No.” Unfortunately for him, his body language admitted what he would not.

A few minutes earlier, as he and his parents entered the trading post, his father had gently, but firmly, instructed him to keep his hands in his pockets and not touch anything. Giving the boy a trickster’s wink, I inquired, “How will we make any money if kids are not allowed to break a thing or two?” The boy’s parents did not overtly express displeasure, but their disappointment was apparent. I imagined them thinking, “Don’t listen to the bad man. He will only cause you problems. You can tell from looking at him he’s trouble.”

Barry and I had been preparing to price certain antique jewelry pieces, so a Ray Lovato tab necklace, several bracelets, some earrings, and a few brooches were on the counter. The young man had not been able to restrain his curiosity and reached across the glass to more closely inspect one of the bracelets. As he did so, his inexperienced fingers fumbled and the cuff tumbled to the floor. It was at that moment the young man made a grave error.

Giving him a sharp look, his mother asked, “Did you touch that after we specifically asked you to keep your hands in your pockets?” “No!” he answered far too quickly, trapping himself before he could consider the consequences of his actions. At that point, an inquisition and lecture ensued. “Sweetheart, don’t you know you should never lie to your parents? What kind of man will you grow up to be if you can’t tell the truth? I’m not angry, I just need you to be honest, don’t tell me any stories.” When the boy still could not bring himself to admit the mistake, his mother said, “This is the way it starts, with a small, insignificant lie, and the next thing you know you’re stealing cars and going to prison for a very long time. Do you want to go to prison?” Up to that point I was supportive of the mother and felt she had been quite compassionate. Stealing cars and going to prison was, however, overstating things a bit. Not that I hadn’t used similar logic on my own children when they were young. These parents, however, appeared much better prepared to guide their child in the proper ways of the world than I had been. I have since learned a great deal about parenting and work hard at not making unsupportable statements.

As the couple walked out with their newly minted miscreant in tow, their comments reverberated in my mind. Although I had wanted to intervene in the boy's behalf, out of respect for his parents and with the hope he would soon redeem himself, I refrained from doing so. Barry gave me a knowing look and went back to his office.

Standing by the cash register, I watched the family cross the parking lot and get into their car. They were extremely nice, and I regretted seeing the young man in trouble. As their vehicle pulled away, I sat down at the computer to write the next Tied to the Post essay. When I had finished the story, I asked Barry to let me read it for him. “Did that really happen?” he asked. “Yes,” I said defensively, looking down at the floor and digging my shoe into the carpet. Looking at me with a penetrating stare and a smirk on his face, Barry said, “You shouldn’t tell stories. What kind of man will you grow up to be if you can’t tell the truth? The next thing you know, you’ll be stealing cars and going to prison for a very long time.”

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Settled in Bluff

Recently I have had reason to read and re-read several books about the pioneers who settled our little river valley. As a result, I have grown to appreciate those who have gone before even more. My studies have been a lesson in faith, dedication, and tenacity, and a reminder of just how spiteful and cantankerous this land can be upon first contact. It is hard to imagine the effort it took to creep across the shifting sands and crawl through vertical rock clefts just to get here. The scrapes and scars acquired from such a journey would have been evident for time and all eternity. Then to settle in the middle of nowhere with a whole lot of nothing to help you survive and only your brethren to lean upon. Well, Bluff must have seemed a lot like Purgatory.
Looking out from the Kokopelli doors of the trading post, I see spring creeping into Bluff and extending across the upper benches. For me, it is a time of wonder, a time to witness and appreciate the gifts Mother Nature provides. Changing Woman is young and beautiful again; youth and vitality are in the air, and she inspires and refreshes our attitudes. With the aid of sinus medication, I look forward to a green carpet of grass upon the red sands and the arrival of cliff flowers at the seeps where vertical slickrock meets talus slope. The bright warm days and cool nights enhance my wellbeing. My guess is that the pioneers felt this way as well, but for them spring usually brought a rabid and unmanageable river; a torrent of runoff bearing silt and sludge which came crashing downstream. The river seemed able to tear asunder the tremendous effort expended excavating a ditch and building head gates and cribs. At risk were the essential farmlands, crops, fruit trees, and even home sites. Hopes and dreams were often flushed down stream to the mighty Colorado.

As I sit here writing, "Aunt Kathy" is out front, armed with Roundup to inhibit the advance of noxious weeds. The pioneers had no such chemical aid. There are reports that the weeds grew so high around town that livestock could be lost for days while only a hundred yards from the shed. If this were the case today, we might have to attach bells and whistles or a GPS implant to Steve just in case he wandered off. In the not too distant past, the grass of spring brought with it Texas and Colorado Cattle Companies forcing their caustic longhorn cattle across the countryside to eat as much forage as bovinely possible. Navajo shepherds pushed their flocks of sheep and goats north across the variable reservation boundary of the San Juan River. This was tradition with the Navajo, and they had fed their sheep thusly for generations. Their flocks had to be fattened before the heat of summer dried the grass into nutritionless stickers. Who were the settlers to tell them otherwise?

All elements knew the Mormons to be meek and mild, choosing to avoid conflict and promote good relations. They elected to feed the Native Americans rather than fight, and showed patience toward the rowdy cowpunchers. In today's society, we tend to negativity and intolerance, Bluffoons included. One thing we can learn from the past is that with careful thought and consideration we can work through our issues. Much can be accomplished when common ground is established, the goals and dreams of everyone fulfilled with concentrated effort. It also helps to settle on the most uncompromising land left in the western wilderness, since most of the competition eventually gives up and walks away, shaking their heads in disillusionment at the high cost of settlement.

We now anticipate the Holy People of the Navajo to let loose the Red Wind Yeis. During the winter, the Supernaturals contain the youthful beings in a Hogan located in the center of Monument Valley. When they are set free, the Red Yeis have a nasty habit of raising a red ruckus and forcing the earth up to meet the sky. In the "good old days," our ancestors could expect dust and grit in every aspect of their lives. Red pearls were known to have grown from grains of sand, inescapably implanted in warm, moist areas of the body. Those implants went undiscovered for years, laying down layer upon layer of human nacre until, one day, at some of the most unexpected times, a thing of beauty; a gift of the desert gods sprang forth. These 'Red Pearls' are now extremely rare and valuable. Seriously! We are fortunate enough not to have to deal with such things in this day and age. Modern building materials help keep the blow sand at bay, and consistent bathing rituals keep it out of delicate areas of our bodies. It's a good thing too, because as with most things of rare beauty, there is a price to pay. Those darn pearls could become terribly irritating and uncomfortable before they emerge.

Those early Mormon settlers did eventually discover treasures in Bluff and San Juan County. They found peace, solitude, and room to grow. There was wonder and a stark beauty here amongst the scattered red rocks, pinion forests, and shaded canyons of the high desert. The lofty and majestic Blue Mountains allowed them life-giving water to expand their territory, to grow cattle and sheep to feed and nourish themselves and, most importantly, plenty of space and time to populate and lay claim to southern Utah. Their relationships with the Navajo grew as they came to know and understand each other. The Navajo were a creative, industrious people producing some of the most exquisite rugs,
baskets, and jewelry the pioneers had ever seen. The local co-op bought, traded for, and sold much of the local art, giving the people an outlet for their creativity. It was not unusual for the settlers to decorate their homes and selves with local crafts. Turquoise and silver was as much a part of the settlers' life as it was the Natives. The art of the people was gifted to visiting friends and dignitaries alike and was adopted into the culture of the pioneers.

Those first settlers gave up much to come to Bluff; they sacrificed comfortable homes, good businesses, and close family ties to build a better world for those who followed. The pioneers were a diligent people focused on the future of their unique culture and the ties that bind. More sweat and blood was shed to put down roots in Bluff than most can even imagine; their story is heartwarming and tragic at the same time. Those people were not my ancestors, but I feel a common bond because of where I was born, raised, and work. Without their efforts, I am not sure there would even be the town of Bluff. Without one of their descendants, I would not be blessed with a wonderful, incredibly hard-working and tolerant wife and marvelous children. I, for one, appreciate their sacrifice, their tenacity, and their commitment to building such a place as Bluff.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Of Outlaws and Outhouses

Once she hitched her wagon to Duke, Momma Rose kept 'em coming fast and furiously. It was the middle 1950s, and Duke and Rose were newly wed. You know the routine, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” At least that’s how it once was. Not so much anymore. Over the next six years, there would be five occupants in Rose's buggy. At that point, there was no more room at the inn. When the Simpson tribe traveled, it was a mob. When we ate, it was every man, woman, and child for him or herself. If you went hungry, it was because you weren’t quick enough or tough enough, not because there was inadequate grub on the table. Indeed, the groceries were typically piled high and deep. The competition was, however, fierce. When people ask about the numerous scars on my face, wishing to project a tough image, I typically answer, “I was talking when I shoulda’ been walking.” In fact, the internal and external trauma is mostly home grown. Ours was a tough crowd.

Duke worked day and night to keep the chuckwagon stocked, and while he was on the road Rose stoked the fires, cooked the meat, and mashed the taters. Despite their diligence, they could barely keep up. As Duke described it, he hammered away day and night, and even worked while he slept. I have yet to discover exactly how that was possible, but assume the statement is accurate. Duke, born to be an Indian trader, would never misrepresent the facts.

Susan was the first to drop, then Craig, Barry, me, and Cindy. Five jokers in one package. Obviously, someone had stacked the deck. Years ago, I noticed a family like ours as they unloaded from their station wagon. I was amazed how many small beings there were in the vehicle and what a challenge the parents had corralling the teeming horde. It reminded me of clowns at a Barnum and Bailey Circus, the bodies just kept tumbling out of the car. I am sure it must have been the same for Rose and Duke. How they avoided misplacing one of us still confounds me. Surely, they could have gone months without noticing the loss. Just as surely, they would have been happy for the reprieve.

At some point, they decided enough was enough and put an end to the maternal multiplication. That conclusion, however, seemed to dawn slowly. Although Susan and Craig were born in the Bay Area of California, Duke and Rose must have realized the coming apocalypse and bugged out for the wilds of the Colorado Plateau before Barry, Cindy, and I emerged. In the late 1950s, Bluff was as far removed from civilization as one could get. In fact, in many ways it still is. Likely that reality made the prolific procreators secure that whatever damage their wild bunch inflicted on each other or their surroundings would go unnoticed by the national networks or regional authorities. They were flying under the radar, hoping to keep us out of the penal system.

In 1947, about a decade before Duke dragged Rose to the red rock wilderness, Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author wrote, “Once Bluff was alive. There were cattle there, and people were rich. But that was long ago. Bluff was dead now, and well it knew it. The immense square stone houses, reminiscent of past wealth, stood like ghosts, only one or two to a block. Sand was deep in the streets. People moved slowly, for there was no competition. Nobody new ever came to Bluff.” Things had not changed much when our clan settled in for the duration. Rose had gone from the cosmopolitan atmosphere of northern California to the outlaws and outhouses of southern San Juan County, but she didn’t seem to mind. Who needed indoor plumbing when you could sit in a wooden latrine and hear the wind whistle through the slats or watch the moon rise? Maybe it was the thrill of adventure, or maybe she was just too exhausted to complain. Either way, she soldiered on without ever attempting to go over the wall.

Not long before Pyle filed his report, H. Baxter Liebler established St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission, which is located approximately two miles east of Bluff. Liebler, a priest from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, came to the northern border of the reservation as minister to the indigenous people. He studied and became proficient in the Navajo language, wore his hair in a bun, and delivered his sermons in their native tongue. His chapel even included a dark-skinned Madonna wearing traditional dress and carrying her newborn in a cradleboard. As a result of Liebler's dedication, the original wooden meeting house quickly expanded to include living quarters, a school, medical facilities, a commissary, public meeting spaces, and a variety of other buildings.

Momma Rose was raised Roman Catholic. As for Duke, well, nobody is exactly sure. The historical record provides no clues and he is unwilling to discuss the issue. In order to ensure their offspring would receive proper salvation, as a prerequisite to expressing their eternal love for one another, the papacy required Duke to swear his offspring would be raised in the Mother church. This proved to be a difficult task in rural Utah. Due to a shortfall of Catholic worshipers and Catholic training in the immediate area, Rose turned to St. Christopher’s and Father Liebler as the only viable alternative. As Merle Haggard would later sing, "Momma tried.”

Craig, Barry, and I attended school with Miss Sally, were installed as altar boys, and even had our wounds attended at St. Christopher’s. Every Sunday our shaved heads were scrubbed and inspected for mites; our tanned, half-naked bodies clad in freshly pressed clothing; and uncomfortable shoes placed on our thickly calloused soles. Then off to mass we went. Having been raised in a devout family, Rose confidently assumed her efforts would bear fruit, and that we would grow to be respected members of our community. At this point, however, as she sheepishly, and proudly, explains about her children, “Although they may have been captured and tried, they were never convicted.” No one could steer us right, but Momma tried.