Friday, April 27, 2018

Ant Attack

And the ants came marching. Actually, the feisty insects violently swarmed out of the stump of the Oak brush I was sectioning with my chainsaw. I first noticed them when one stumbled into the cut of my biting blade and shot out of the opposite side. I looked down and to my right and saw them roiling up the trunk of the tree and across the ground at my feet. Like an oil slick spreading across the pond, the black mass was moving in my direction. Having dealt with these aggressive mighty mites before, I quickly stepped back and away from my woodsy prize. There is plenty of firewood available on our mountain property, and I was not willing to quarrel with the black horde for a few more sections of wood. I shut down my saw, quickly stacked the chunks I had already cut in the bed of my pickup, and moved up the rocky road thirty yards. Thinking I was well out of range of the mass attack, I began to gather more dead and down logs to complete my load.

To be perfectly honest, I really don’t need the wood. Laurie and I don’t have a fireplace, but there is always someone who can use a load. I cut wood because it brings back good memories of when Craig, Steve, and I would go onto the mountain and gather firewood. We were in our high school years: young, strong, and competitive. The three of us could cut, bust up, and load a massive amount of pitchy pine without breaking a sweat. I recall how the bed of our long-wheel-base Ford would be sitting right down on the frame, springs maxed-out, and the front wheels of the pickup barely in contact with the road. Because the pickup was so difficult to steer, it was always an adventure getting back to town without pitching down a steep slope or winding up in a deep ditch somewhere. During long winter nights, our family would gather in the front room of our trading post/home, where there stands a grand sandstone hearth Craig built, and enjoy the warmth of a fire and each others’ company.

These days our family can fuss and fume about each other with the best or worst of them, but, do not get betwixt and between us because, deep down, we are bonded. When it comes right down to the nutty nitty gritty, we are a close family unit. Nowadays, everyone is extremely busy and finding time to get out into the forest together is tough. There are instances though that I can slip away and gather a less large load of aspen or oak by myself. I enjoy being out in the trees, running a chainsaw, under a deep blue skyscape with the peaks of the Abajo Range at my back. The physical labor is good for me and trimming off limbs with an ax allows me to vent any frustrations I may have accumulated during the week. Often times, for a service project, I will just cut logs and bring them into town to let our Scouts cut and bust them into chunks. Although much direction is required when you hand an eleven-year old boy a maul---things will get broken.

At the trading post, Steve and I are lucky enough to have our very own Navajo mentor on staff. Priscilla tells us of varying versions of the creation story and patiently advises us on traditional subject matter and verbiage. Our sage counselor tells us that Navajo origin stories begin with a First World of darkness (Nihodilhil). First Man (Altsé hastiin) and First Woman (Altsé asdzáá) were there as were a Coyote or two (Altsé Mąʼii). From this Shadowy World, the Dine created their own Deity and began a journey of emergence into the world of the present. There were very few beings that existed at that time, but the Ants, they were there. Dark colored they were, with sectional bodies, six legs, thick lips, and black protruding eyes. They were the Black Ant People (Wo’ia’zhini Lizhin Dine’è). They knew the secrets of existence, were known to be industrious and cooperative spirits, and with their powerful jaws had an impressive form of protection. Priscilla tells us that the ants live both above and below, and that there are worlds beneath the surface, some very small, that we cannot see and don’t understand completely.

When the ants first flowed out of that stump and marched on my position, I admit it, I was insulted by their aggressive attitude and was ready to sprinkle their little home with petroleum product, but common sense prevailed. For one thing, Priscilla has often warned me not to harass Ants because they are all connected through string theory or some such thing. “Harm one and you harm them all. They will come for you.” she said, “They will find you and disrupt your world.” Through a search on the Interweb, I did know that ants are tough characters. They can survive falls from incredible heights, freezing temperatures, lack of oxygen, you can’t drown one and, I have heard, they can survive being nuked in a microwave.

When I finally finished loading the wood and stowing my gear, I headed for the highway. As I hit the blacktop and made my way down the mountain, I felt a stinging sensation just above my right hip. Reaching down and back I felt something there and plucked it from my hide. Bringing it into the light, I saw that one of those little, black nasties had made its way up my pant leg and fastened its pincers onto my backside. I flicked the little demon out the open window then quickly realized that it would, most likely, survive the fall but hoped it acquired a bit of road rash in the process. Then I thought about what Priscilla had been sharing with me about Ants and realized that little devil I just tossed out had a tiny sample of my DNA on its nippers. I am hoping that Priscilla has misinterpreted the culture, stories, and/or that thing about Ants holding a grudge and searching you out is just myth and legend. At any rate, I will be on the lookout for the black horde; the fight may just be getting started.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Founders and Frybread – An Unbeatable Combination

Bluff’’s second annual Founders Day and Frybread Festival wrapped up two weeks ago, and this year it was expanded into a two-day celebration. Several new events enlivened the festival and spread the party all over the Bluff landscape.

Friday, April 6, featured offerings at Bluff Fort during the morning. Traditional crafts, like rag-rug weaving, offered an opportunity to reach across generations to recreate life among the pioneering families who reached this site adjacent to the San Juan River in 1880.

One of the most popular attractions was the demonstrations held in the blacksmith shop at the Fort. Old and young visitors were attracted to the clanging of hammers on anvil and learned to appreciate the skill needed to forge useful items from cold steel.

A new event, a local and regional Storytelling Session, was held in a beautiful new outdoor porch area at the Desert Rose Inn, located at the southern end of town. With the southern bluffs of the San Juan in the background, listeners heard tales of the Ancestral Puebloan people, Mormon settlers, cowboys, and other bits of local lore.

Another new event was the concluding event for Friday night. Billed as a square dance, it was that and more. Reels and promenades took a back seat when local teenagers let loose in a spirited version of the Cotton-Eye Joe. 

Saturday morning began with the annual parade from the Community Center to the Twin Rocks parking lot. Entries included revered senior citizens, groups representing the original families of Bluff, a Bluegrass band, and a few horses, both large and small.

Native American royalty, both Navajo and Ute, were well represented in the parade. The Blue Mountain Unity float was complete with a princess, Pendleton blankets, and all the appropriate jewelry and traditional costumes.

Aldean Ketchum, of the White Mesa Ute community located just north of Bluff, played his flute and helped lead a Bear Dance for visitors. The Ute community provided a new tipi, which soon became a favorite location for photographers and their subjects to use as a great backdrop for pictures.

The San Juan County School District Student Art Show and Sale was held upstairs in the Bluff Fort Co-op building. Young artists from the region demonstrated their work in painting, ceramics, and other creative skills in this annual juried show and sale.

On Saturday afternoon, most of the Founders Day activities shifted to Twin Rocks, where Joann Johnson and her mother Betty Rock Johnson demonstrated Navajo basket weaving. Skilled as both a teacher and a weaver, Joann shared her techniques of preparing and weaving sumac reeds into beautiful works of art.

FRYBREAD UP! Each contestant was given a four-ounce piece of Twin Rocks frybread and told to get chewing. It sounds easier than it is, especially with a crowd cheering (and jeering) you on.  

The ever-popular Frybread Fling was divided into two divisions, Juvenile and Old-Timers. Santiago Davila won the Juvenile Division and walked away with a 20-pound bag of Blue Bird Flour as his reward.

Spenser Simpson dominated the Senior Fling competition with a Herculean toss of 89.5 feet, obliterating the previous record by almost ten yards. Preparation, practice, and a favorable wind were all elements in Spenser’s victory, the concluding episode in Bluff Founders Day and Frybread Festival for another year.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Scout On!

Ted and I walked casually around the supply trailer in the swirling breeze and threatening sky. We were discussing cooking responsibilities for the various Scouts and rummaging through the grub box for spice and spatulas to help accomplish the task. My Co-Scoutmaster was off my left shoulder and a quarter step behind, when a mighty gust of wind whirled through the circle of red rock and hoodoos. The large back door of the trailer was caught in the gust and viciously swung around on its hinges. Like a huge fist, the door smacked me full force while missing Ted completely. “Umph!” I groaned realizing in a flash of bright lights what it must feel like to be hit by a truck. “Dang!” I said out loud while stumbling back, “that really hurt.” Ted and the Scouts watched closely and wondered if I would tear up and/or share the blasphemous comments bouncing around in my brain. Fortunately, I withheld any inappropriate remarks. I quickly became aware of several points of painful interest on my arms and legs and a growing ache in the pit of my stomach. To escape further scrutiny and to shed that tear, I continued my ill-fated journey to the back of the trailer. 

Because each of us have a shortage of boys and assistant Scoutmasters, Ted and I have merged our two troops to make a single, well-rounded unit. For months now, our mixed bag of young men has been trying to coordinate a campout. Due to an overwhelming list of other after-school and weekend activities available to the boys, it has been difficult to nail down a date where everyone could attend. We would settle on a date with the boys and then check with their parents to discover someone, somehow had something else scheduled. After many false starts, we finally just set a date and hoped for the best attendance possible. The location we choose was Recapture Pocket, which is an engaging rock-rimmed basin tucked in behind a long, undulating mesa that rests on top of the Bluff bench. Because of the fascinating hoodoo formations, restricted mine shafts, and towering rim rock, area Boy Scouts have been holding spring campouts there as far back as the earliest troops in San Juan County.

On Friday afternoon, three boys showed up at the church and loaded into Ted’s pickup truck to make the trip off the hill. The weather in Blanding was cool and overcast with a slight, intermittent drizzle on the breeze. Bluff is 1,500 feet lower in elevation, drier, and 10 degrees warmer at night. I worked a short shift at the cafe and trading post, then left Steve and the Twin Rocks team in charge to meet the troop at Recapture Pocket. The minute the boys hit the ground they were off and running, climbing, jumping into sand dunes, and gathering shiny, colorful rocks and Moki marbles. Their excited, upbeat voices reverberated about the majestic alcove. Ted and I pulled out our folding chairs and sat awhile, feeling good about having finally pulled this outing off and waiting for some of that unharnessed energy to dissipate into the surrounding landscape. When it came time to prepare a meal, all three of the Scouts proved to be chefs of the highest caliber. That night we had some of the thickest most substantial hamburgers I have ever eaten and Dutch Oven potatoes, both well-seasoned with Jet's super-secret spice mix.

I have been a Scoutmaster long enough to have a well-supplied first aid kit on hand at all times and luckily it was well stocked with Ibuprofen. My run in with the swinging door was giving me a little trouble, but it was nothing a few pain killers would not manage. The spring winds were packed with pollen and many of us were sniffling and sneezing, but it felt too good to be outside to worry about. I have also been around long enough to know that a Scoutmaster does not get much sleep on these over-nighters, and the sooner you accept that fact the better your mental state will be. That night I fell upon my cot inside the enclosed trailer and, in the light of the Coleman lantern, checked for bruising. Sure enough, I had plenty. One, the size of a dinner plate, had come to light just above my belly button. Laurie has always maintained that I go through life leading with my stomach. It seems she had a point. 

Around 9:00 p.m., we were joined by Anthony’s dad. After feeding him leftovers and chatting around the fire, we settled in for the night. Several times I roused myself from my cot and toured the perimeter of the camp to make certain the natives were at rest. I heard Ted get up and move around as well, so I knew the sheltered cove was well covered. Dawn broke over the pocket way too soon. I was cozy and comfortable in my sleeping bag and perfectly happy about being there. But, Ted was up and had a small fire going and the filtered rays of Southwestern sunlight lit the towering cliffs above us giving them a golden glow. We had breakfast to make and a five-mile hike to pull off, so I kicked at the covers and sang out reveille to get the boys going.

Breakfast was a tad gritty, but altogether enjoyable. We had refried potatoes and bacon and eggs stuffed inside hot tortillas with a choice of milk or orange juice. Yum! After eating, we cleaned up our cookware, packed our camp gear, and grabbed up our back packs. One of my contact lenses had somehow chipped in the night and was giving me trouble but opportunities like this did not come around that often; we needed to do this hike. When we asked the boys where they wanted to go, they pointed straight up. To the cliff tops, along the top of the ridge, and back through the northern drainage was their request. “Oh my,” said I, “this is going to hurt." Suffering from a smackdown, wheezing with allergies, and dealing with a lack of depth perception was causing me to feel like the hapless dog Lucky, who through life trials and tribulations has lost a leg, was blind in his left eye, missing a right ear, wagging a broken tail, and other, even worse, unmentionable maladies. No matter, it was my job to move these boys along and advance them through the ranks, and so onward and upward we went.

It turns out that Ted is a certified Mountain Goat, and those boys proved to be as agile as any kid who has grown up in Canyon Country. Although I hate to be the caboose of any train, I was relegated to that role on this occasion. Laurie and I get some exercise by walking the streets of Blanding and keeping up with that woman is a workout, so I was not completely unprepared for the task at hand. But, we all know that walking the asphalt byways is completely different than climbing cliffs and bounding down steep hillsides. I did fine on the rolling hills, but sucked wind on the uphill climb, carefully crawling around, over and under ledges and dodging rocks sent skittering down the talus slope from above. Because I was only seeing clearly out of one eye, my downhill glide was hampered; it was my turn to send rocks tumbling down around Ted and Traken. I was determined to hang in there though and prove that I was a worthy leader or, in this case, follower.

We made it back to camp around noon, a little stiff and sore from the trek, but in good spirits. Ted and I actually beat the boys back but only because they were zig-zagging about the country side chasing rabbits, lizards, and each other. I am certain the boys covered half again as much ground as we did. We followed the 5-miler up with a bountiful lunch and a discussion on what we had seen and done, passing off several requirements, then loaded up for home. After dropping my last charge off on his front porch, I pulled up to the house and began to off load the camping gear. Laurie was working in the yard coaxing all things bright and beautiful from the good earth when I arrived. She stopped long enough to help me with the chore, then suggested I go cleanse myself of the sour smell of sweat and stink of wood smoke. That I did, then laid myself out for a leisurely nap. I nodded off feeling like we had a successful camp. We left no one behind, no one was injured, except for a few scrapes and bruises, and everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves. Next week we would begin the process again and, hopefully, I would be a little better prepared. Scout on!