Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Tesla and the T


The story is often told of Oen Edwin Noland, who in the 1880s, decided to start a trading business on the lower section of the San Juan River. His idea was to trade with both Navajo and Ute customers, and his chosen location was not far from the present-day Four Corners Monument. Being down on his luck, Oen saddled up his pony and proceeded to the newly formed mining town of Durango, Colorado. There he was introduced to Ed and Pete Schifferer, co-owners of a successful general merchandise store. Upon entering their enterprise and announcing himself to Ed and Pete, Oen made a declaration. "I want $10,000.00 worth of merchandise, but I'm broke." At that point, the brothers began to wonder whether Oen was crazy or just a little unwell. Having determined he was in fact sane, they made a proposal; they would give Oen the goods if he took out a life insurance policy in the amount of $35,000.00, naming them beneficiaries. The policy would insure Oen's earthly existence and remain in effect until his financial obligations were fully satisfied. "Deal," Oen replied, and he promptly set about obtaining the necessary documentation. Apparently, the shrewd businessmen considered it pretty good odds Oen would not last long enough to satisfy the debt and their investment would therefore return a handsome profit.

Oen's post opened in 1884 or 1885. At that time, Ute and Navajo people were not necessarily congenial to white folks or to each other, and Ed and Pete must have concluded Oen would meet his maker sooner rather than later. To them, the return was surely worth the risk. With a lesser man, the Schifferers might have collected on the policy, but Oen was not one to panic in the face of danger and always managed to maintain good trading relationships. In fact, due to his unwavering courage and eternal fairness, Oen became so deeply respected by local tribesmen that Navajo people called him Ba’dani, son-in-law. The debt was duly paid.

The other day I was peddling my bicycle south towards Bluff when I arrived at Mile Post 31. This marker is just before the rolling hills that indicate I am only five miles from home. As I approached the uprising, a Model T crested the knoll and made a quick turn back towards town. A few days earlier, Jamie Olson, artist extraordinaire, had been talking about launching his Jon Boat downriver to find the remains of Noland's store. As a result, during my ride that evening I had been considering Oen and his involvement in the history of southeastern Utah trading posts. Within seconds of the T turning immediately in front of me, a brand spanking new Tesla Model X sped by going north. Grange is fascinated by Elon Musk, Tesla's founder, so I have closely followed the company’s development. The Tesla was quiet as a ghost; the T, not so much. The old Ford chugged and burped along, and despite only being on a bicycle, I almost caught up to it. There, right before my sweat-encrusted eyes were two symbols that exemplified the automobile industry’s evolution over the past century.

The confluence of Oen's history and the appearance of the distinctly different cars started me thinking about trading posts, in general, and the future prospects for Twin Rocks Trading Post, specifically. William W. "Duke" Simpson, our father, acquired the Twin Rocks real property in the mid-1980s and subsequently declared that he, like Oen almost 100 years earlier, desired to establish a trading post on the banks of the San Juan River. As with the Schifferer brothers and Oen, many wondered whether Duke was crazy or just a little unwell. Like Oen, Duke was indisputably sane. Thirty years after the Kokopelli doors swung open for business, most of those questioning Duke's sanity have had to admit he was fully competent. Notwithstanding that conclusion, there are times Barry and I still debate Duke's logic. We have, however, come to accept our fate as individuals charged with seeing the vision through to completion.

Early trading posts generally provided food, livestock supplies, clothing, tobacco, coffee, cooking utensils, and other necessities to the Native populations they served. That economy was primarily barter and travel was difficult. In time, hard currency and reliable transportation arrived on the reservations and most of the early posts went broke, closed, or evolved into convenience stores or art galleries. Few historic locations still exist. When Twin Rocks Trading Post opened in the fall of 1989, there was serious discussion about its mission. Like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Twin Rocks is 100% family owned and operated---and argued over from its inception.

Jana's father, John Kennedy, an old "Indian trader" himself, lived to 103 and saw the world change from horse and wagon to space exploration and the Internet. John was in Zuni early on, trading with the well-known entrepreneur C. G. Wallace. While he came through much later, and only lived to age 85, Duke took a similar path. Both men experienced massive, structural changes to this industry. They lived through the boom times of the 1970s, when anything Native American was in high demand. They even participated in the creation of trading's modern era, and also witnessed the Great Recession of 2008. That economic collapse had devastating effects on Southwestern artists and Native art, indelibly changing the business.

Barry and I often consider Duke's trading legacy and attempt to evaluate how it affects our decision-making processes. Sometimes, Bishop Marx Powell comes by to participate in the discussions. Marx isn't a real bishop. He is, however, Mormon and has good advice from time to time. Consequently, Barry awarded him the honor. Not that Barry has authority to entitle Marx, but it makes the two of them happy and that seems to be the most important consideration. My experience is that Marx's recommendations are generally viable only when it comes to heavy equipment, construction, or excavation, otherwise, I remain skeptical. Marx's dad was also an Indian trader, working on the Navajo reservation at Black Hat and Yah-ta-hey. So, if Marx is involved in the conversations, we have generations of hard-luck tales to consider.

When the discussion turns to Twin Rocks Trading Post, we know that, in all too many ways, Barry and I hew to the obsolete Model T business model. Lately, however, we aspire to be a Tesla. Consequently, we have decided to make ourselves into the "Trading Post of the 21st Century." We just don't yet know what that means or how to achieve the goal, so we schedule regular convocations to explore the possibilities. During one of our recent conclaves, a family from New Zealand came by to visit. The father, a tall, powerful man clad in expeditionary garb, explained that his GPS had gone rogue and directed his team to our location. Priscilla thought that might be a viable long-term strategy; if we can only get enough devices to glitch, we might find ourselves in the pink. She suggested we call the Russians for advice. No one seems to have their telephone number, so we tabled that approach for the time being. We have to admit that at present we have more confusion than conclusion.

Marx recently reminded us that the most dangerous time to be a pedestrian on the streets of New York was when the city transitioned from horse and carriage to automobile. Many lost their lives, and others were permanently injured or seriously maimed during the transformation. "We must be careful not to endanger our customers," Priscilla has cautioned. In this age of acceleration, however, we can't risk being left behind. Change is never easy, so buckle up. This may be a bumpy ride.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Try If You Might


Who knew that a massive accumulation of tiny, delicate snowflakes could bring down a barbed wire fence? Most farmers and ranchers, I suspect. I thought the fence would simply become encased within said snow drift until the spring thaw released it in fine fashion. Not true! The heavy and malicious snowfall of this last winter pretty much brought down all of the fences surrounding our Monticello mountain property. Luckily for me, the fine folks renting the place for summer pasture were willing and able to reset the posts and re-stretch the wire. When I told Laurie that a massive, dead Quaking Aspen had been blown over and obliterated a set of gate posts she decided it might be time to replace the stretched wire gates with welded metal panels.

Since replacing gates was not in the agreement with the cowboys, the job fell to me. I grew up in and around gas stations, trading posts, and restaurants so I know the basics of those endeavors, but next to nothing about fixing fence or setting gate posts. Thank goodness for YouTube! I soon discovered though that everyone who posted a video had differing opinions on how to accomplish such a task. I also realized that setting posts and gates is not rocket science, but there is a science to the process. After researching various approaches, I was beginning to get caught up in the entanglement of conflicting details. Luckily for me, Laurie ran into a tried and true fence-building phenomenon at the business fair sponsored by the college where she works. Wayne Button of the Bar None Fence Brace Company had me lined out in no time.

Because of obligations at the trading post and cafĂ©, along with missteps caused by input from Steve, Bishop Powell, Rick, and Frances, the job took me much longer to complete than I would have liked. A word of warning: Never listen to free advice from a gaggle of goosey do-gooders. Whether intentional or not, they will lead you astray each and every time. On the last day, all I needed to do was to set the last post, hang the last gate panel, and, finally, stretch and nail down the last few strands of rusty barbed wire. But first, I needed to drop a couple of those pesky quakes before the spring winds brought them down on my handiwork.

I do have to admit that a little instruction from Bishop Powell on how to lay a tree down in the opposite direction of which it is leaning did come in handy. I parked my pickup way out of reach of the old, dead tree I was looking to bring down, grabbed up my Stihl chainsaw, and began walking toward it---the 70-foot-tall snag that stood right along the roadway, just 50 feet from my unfinished gate. As I walked down the double track toward the tree, a squirrel came rushing down the trunk at a furious rate of speed. It jumped onto one of the furrows lined by knee-high stalks of grass and bolted in my direction. The darn thing looked like a mini- Tsavo lion charging me through the long grass!

I stood at the intersection where the gate and two dirt roads met and wondered if I was facing a rabid rodent bent on sinking his frothing choppers into my shin bone. Several offensive moves flashed through my brain, one of which was the indefensible crane leg stance/kick I learned from the Kung Foo Panda movie. I meant to lay out that mangy cur with one lightning-fast assault. Then I realized I was carrying a rip-roaring weapon in my right hand. I reached for the pull cord but there was no time, the ferocious fellow was nearly upon me. The little beastie must have seen my set-up but seemed undeterred and came to within six feet of my boot. As I stood in indecision, the squirrel veered right and headed up hill away from me. The last I saw of him was when he turned into the oak brush about thirty yards up the road.

“What the heck was that all about?” I wondered. I squinted up into the snag I wanted to down to see if there was a nest up there. The long-dead tree was slick as a peeled onion from top to bottom with nothing visible to the naked eye. Walking around the trunk I nearly stepped on a baby deer curled-up in the grass. It was a tiny thing that blended in beautifully with the ground cover. I quickly stepped away from the benign Bambi because I knew Mama Faline would be near and I didn’t want to leave a scent trail to the little guy for some predator to discover. Our Navajo neighbors are always telling me how important it is to pay close attention to your surroundings. “The earth, sky and all of their creatures have things to teach you,” says Priscilla. “Pay attention!”

I don’t know for certain if that bushy squirrel was trying to tell me the fawn was there, or it was just angry that I was attempting to bring down an essential element of its high-flying trapeze act. Either way, the tree still stands. I saw the fawn tripping through the trees on the trail of its mother later that week. I am hoping I created enough good Karma with the natural world to keep that big-ole-snag from dropping on my new gate.

I guess that remains to be seen. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Legendary Landscape


Bicycling from Blanding to Bluff in the early evening, or Bluff to Blanding in the early morning, has for many years been one of my passions. Lately, I most often take the southerly route, probably because it is down hill and helps me forget how slow I have become over the past decade or two. To do so, I hitch a ride with Barry when he is heading home after a day at the trading post. He and I own a building at the southwest corner of Center and Main, so that is where I generally suit up, check the tires, and begin my journey. Late in the day, light moves quickly across the land and under the right conditions the ground ignites with the color and intensity of an inferno. Shadows expand and contract, momentarily illuminating or highlighting certain geologic features, then move on. That visual explosion lights me up, too, and reminds me just how extraordinary the Colorado Plateau is, both visually and geographically.

Once I break free of the city limits, off to my right is a clear view of the Bears Ears buttes, two prominent monuments that rise above the surrounding canyons. They are aptly named because they resemble the ears of a bear rising just above the horizon. This is the birthplace of Chief Manuelito, a prominent Navajo headman, born in 1818. Manuelito led a small group of courageous warriors who resisted the federal government and Kit Carson’s efforts to relocate them to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This forced removal is known as the “Long Walk” of 1864 and Navajo people refer to it as the dark times. These buttes anchored Bears Ears National Monument, which was established December 28, 2016, by President Barack Obama and dramatically reduced in size by President Donald Trump approximately one year later. Several Native American tribes claim ancestral connections to Bears Ears, and stories abound about is historic and prehistoric use. The fate of this land is now in the hands of the courts, or Congress, and supporters and detractors of the monument are all holding their collective breath until a final resolution is reached.

About half way to half way, what some who are better at fractions than I might refer to as a quarter of the way home, I can look southwest and see the sheer desert-varnished cliffs west of Bluff. Between me and the rosy sandstone escarpment are canyons and mesas arrayed in what one Bluff settler described as a “slantindicular” arrangement. The phrase comes from Jens Nielson, the first Mormon bishop of Bluff. A native Danish speaker, Jens had a curious accent and was known for encouraging the 1879 Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition members to continue when they thought they couldn’t by saying, “We must go through even if we can’t.” As a result of his “sticky-ta-tudy” or “stick-to-it-iveness,” we modern day pioneers enjoy the natural beauty of this riverside sanctuary.

As I approach the small Ute village of White Mesa, inhabited by members of the Weminuche or Ute Mountain band, the Sleeping Ute lies resting in the east. Tribal legend describes the Sleeping Ute Mountain as the Great Warrior God who fell asleep while recuperating from severe wounds received in a fierce battle against the Evil Ones. In the early days, these evil doers caused much chaos and hardship, and the Great Warrior God was summoned to defeat them. The cluster of peaks resembles a Ute chief lying on his back with arms folded across his chest.

The Evil Ones were formidable, and the battle that ensued was angry and long-running. The chief’s power, however, proved too much for the Evil Ones, and they were eventually overcome. By the time the conflict closed, the earth had been gashed, folded, bent, pushed up, and pressed down into valleys, mountains, and rivers. Afterwards, the successful warrior lay down to recover from his battle wounds. He lies there still. Ute people believe he changes his blankets throughout the year. During spring, he rests under a light green covering, dark green indicates summer, his fall cloak is yellow and red, and a white blanket warms him during winter. When he is happy, he allows rain clouds to slip from his pockets, refreshing his people and nourishing their land.

Exiting the White Mesa community, I pass by the slumbering Siberian Huskie. In earlier days, he jumped up and ran to the fence encircling him to challenge my passage. That typically set off a chorus of canines that escorted me out of town. As the months have gone by, however, he has become more serene and rarely even raises his head to cast an acknowledging bark my way. What is it they say, “Familiarity breeds complacency?” I fear our relationship has gone south.

Approaching the crest of White Mesa Hill, I have a clear view of the Chuska Mountains and the Navajo Nation badlands extending up to their slopes. Broken, slanted, crooked, and barren, this expanse is so starkly, stunningly beautiful that it always causes me to catch my breath. When the winter gods have been generous, there is a carpet of purple and white flowers that bloom and quickly fade, leaving the soil to return to its native color, red.

Then I cascade down the hill and struggle past giant rocks my grandmother Fern Simpson always called the “Pinchers.” These large stones resemble an enormous lobster claw. At that time of day, the sun is beginning to sink close to the horizon and Comb Ridge ignites with late evening hues: orange, yellow, deep purple, and eventually black. Technically, Comb Ridge is a linear north-to-south trending monocline, proceeding almost 80 miles through Utah and Arizona. To Navajo people, however, it is sacred. In their language, it is referred to as, “Rock Extends in the Form of a Narrow Edge.” The formation erupted nearly 65 million years ago when tectonic plates deep in the earth slipped, leaving the jagged ridge protruding above the surface. Traditional Navajos refer to it as the backbone of the Great Snake. Hidden within its recesses are evidence of the Ancient Pueblo culture: prehistoric homes, ceremonial chambers, and extraordinary rock art.

At the 24-mile point, Comb Ridge recedes and I begin the quick descent through Cow Canyon and into Bluff, the payoff. To my left are white sandstone cliffs etched with the wagon wheel marks of early travelers entering and leaving the community. The dark pavement winds down into the green alfalfa fields of the Jones Hay Farm and on to the final destination, the Twin Rocks. These standing monuments are known as the Hero Twins, Monsterslayer and Born-for-Water, redeemers of the Navajo people. Like the Great Ute Warrior, the Hero Twins slew the monsters terrorizing their tribe. And there, at the foot of this formation, where Barry and I have carved out our lives, the journey ends. At least for that evening.