Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Center of the Universe

A couple of weeks ago, Steve’s column examined whether Bluff is actually in the middle of nowhere (or in the middle of everywhere). He quoted eminent authors like Wallace Stegner and Frank Waters who described our region as one of the most barren and isolated untamed lands in the world. This is a legitimate fact, since Bluff is three hours away from the nearest interstate highways or railway service. When visitors come into Twin Rocks Trading Post, we commonly ask what destinations they are between, because we recognize most of our 258 Bluffoon neighbors.

Well, now the question of Bluff’s standing in the Cosmo sphere has been resolved by the world’s leading authority on travel. BLUFF, AND THE NEIGHBORING BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT, ARE OFFICIALLY THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE. This designation comes from no one less than Fodor’s Travel Guides, the world’s most respected tour guide publication since its inception in 1936. Each year, Fodor chooses their “To Go” list of 52 exotic locations around the globe that travelers need to seek out and experience. Number One on the 2019 Fodor’s To Go list is . . . Bears Ears National Monument and the only town in the area, the hamlet of Bluff.

Fodor’s designation posits “Why It’s Wonderful” and points out the stunning sacred landscape harboring thousands of years of Native American history; the inky night skies in the Valley of the Gods; and the tens of thousands of prehistoric sites in the Monument area. It also has kind words for “[T]he handsome resort the Desert Rose Inn.” These are things Bluffoons take for granted and the world is beginning to discover.

The folks at Bluff Fort keep accurate counts of the number and origin of the visitors to their skillful reproduction of pioneer life in the Bears Ears region. In 2018, they welcomed 46,430 visitors of which 42% were foreigners. In July and August, foreign visitors outnumbered American, with the greatest number coming from France, Germany, Canada, and Italy. Those numbers can be expected to grow dramatically in the very near future.

The recent November 2018 edition of National Geographic Magazine is also bound to fan the flames of our newly found international reputation. They featured a 25-page cover story on “The Battle for the American West” focused on the Bears Ears controversy and displayed glorious images by photographer Aaron Huey. A fold-out night photo of the nearby Procession Panel petroglyphs, with a billion stars in the background, will certainly attract hordes of visitors in the next few seasons. Some of my old friends at National Geographic say that the magazine is retained in homes and offices for an average of five years. There are some people who actually believe it is against the law to throw out an old National Geographic issue.

About two and a half years ago, Susie and I were determined to move back to the Four Corners region we learned to love during our 10 years in Cortez, Colorado. After a fifteen-year interval back home in Louisville, Kentucky, to take care of aging parents, we were determined to return. Susie had worked at Twin Rocks, alongside Steve and Priscilla, more than twenty-five years ago designing weavings. After a brief discussion with Steve and Barry, we quit our jobs, sold our house, and packed up our estate and headed back to the Orange World of southern San Juan County, Utah. 

. . . and little did we suspect we were actually moving to the Center of the Universe.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Bolo Tie on the Fly

Every so often, when Laurie is away supporting Grandma Washburn or visiting family overnight, I leave for Bluff before dawn. I enjoy the early morning drive down the hill from Blanding and can get some research or writing done before the cafe and trading post open for the day. On a recent morning, I decided to look in on websites similar to our own and compare notes. I also enjoy checking auction sites to see if anything unusual pops up. So it was that I found myself viewing historical Navajo jewelry hammered out of old Spanish and American coins. There were several great design ideas from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, lots of Fred Harvey jewelry, and some fabulous creations from contemporary jewelers. Before long I wandered into a section focusing on medals and medallions and stumbled upon a reference to a 1972 Franklin Mint book and coin set featuring Navajo people. Beginning a search, I soon found the set on one of the auction sites. I had an idea brewing, so I placed a bid. 

Our parents, aka Papa Duke and Momma Rosa, brought us up in the small town of Bluff. As I have often proclaimed, my brothers, sisters, and I were raised among the Mormons, Indians, and Outlaws of southern San Juan County. Most often we were identified with the latter group, and rightfully so. As we ran barefoot through the graveled streets and Goathead stickers, we frequently came into contact with Native people dressed in satin and velveteen. The jewelry they adorned themselves with consisted of sky stone, silver and coin buttons. Silver dollars could often be seen set in massive bracelets, broaches, and necklaces, with the coins surrounded by turquoise in numerous shades of blue and green. Silver dimes adorned collar tips, ran down the fronts of brightly colored blouses, and encircled big, black, high-domed felt hats.

Dad ran a small gas station at the mouth of Cow Canyon, at what is now the intersection of highways 191 and 162. Duke would trade gas and oil for rugs, baskets, and jewelry that the local Navajo and Ute people created. The idea was to sell or make a trade with the meager flow of tourists who stopped in. From Bluff we moved to Livermore, California, for a couple years, then back to Blanding. With the help of a small inheritance Rose received from her parents, our folks leased the Plateau gas station and put in a second-hand store next door. From there we built the Blue Mountain Trading Post south of Blanding, then the Bluff City Trading Post in Bluff, which many years later morphed into Twin Rocks Trading Post and Cafe. All the while, Native American arts and crafts were a common denominator in our lives and businesses. Our family became quite familiar with hand-spun rugs enhanced by a rich earthy, campfire aroma; the woven texture and unique designs of baskets; and the soft, warm glow of sterling silver resplendently set with bright spots of turquoise and coral.

I ordered the Franklin Mint medallion and within the week I had it in my grasp and it was a beauty. It depicted a traditionally dressed Navajo rug weaver sitting at her loom. At her hip are tools of the trade: carding combs, balls of wool yarn, and a cluster of stiff grass stalks used as a hair brush. The weaver is belted by silver conchos and appears to be perched on a sheep skin. Beside her, sitting on his haunches and drinking coffee from a porcelain mug, is a Navajo man wearing a concho belt of his own, moccasins and a bandana headband. The couple both wear their hair tied up in a traditional bun. Yucca and sage are dispersed about the pair, and over their shoulders the Totem Pole rock of Monument Valley can be seen in the distance. Around the border of the coin are letters that spell out "Sovereign Nation of the Navajo Tribe." On the reverse side of the medallion is the Great Seal of the Navajo Nation which consists of a circle of fifty arrowheads and a guardian rainbow. The sun shines down upon the Four Sacred Mountains, a horse, a cow, and a sheep. Two corn stalks underscore the livestock. 

With the threads of my prepossessing past in mind and the medallion in my hand, I worked on developing a bolo tie design. I sorted through our box of turquoise cabochons and rediscovered numerous small dots and tear drops of Kingman turquoise. I recalled a design Leo Harvey of Lucachuki, Arizona, once produced with inlays of turquoise and coral depicting a Blue Jay on one side of white shell and on the other a Cardinal. Leo would create the delicate inset cameo, then wrap it in silver and place it on a spinner within a cluster-style bracelet or necklace. The effect was stunning, effectively allowing the impression of two pieces of jewelry in one. I spoke with Steve and Rick about the idea and we agreed to have Ben Yazzie, Jr., and his wife Katie do the job. Because Ben is such a creative and talented silversmith and Katie does the fine-finish detail, we left the technicalities to them. Steve and I learned long ago that it is best not to dictate specifics to artists; they are much more familiar with their strengths and can better affect a quality outcome. This approach seldom goes wrong. 

Two weeks later Ben and Katie proudly strode into Twin Rocks with the bolo tie. It was better than I imagined! Ben had come up with an open scalloped pattern around the turquoise, added silver bolsters halfway down the leather cord and hand-fashioned, stamped, and carved end caps. Steve and I thanked the couple profusely and gladly paid them for their efforts. For posterity, Rick photographed Ben with the bolo. Because we were so pleased with the outcome of the neckpiece, we sent the couple home with more turquoise and a few ideas for future projects. Rick suggested we send images of the piece to a friend/collector of unique bolo ties. I wanted to hold onto it for a while, if only to admire the beauty of the finished product. Steve and Rick were, however, worried I might decide to keep the bolo for myself, so they talked me into sending off images to the client to tempt his passion. Wouldn’t you know it; within ten minutes Keith called back and said he definitely wanted the piece. Dang it! Oh well, I guess that’s why we’re in business. The bolo is in a good place with many other exceptional works of art. In the future, I will exclude Steve and Rick from the process, so I have a little more time to appreciate whatever comes next.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Where Nowhere is Somewhere and Nothing is Something

Aside from, “Aren’t you afraid those rocks will fall and smash you to death?”, the comment most often heard at Twin Rocks Trading Post is “This place is in the middle of nowhere!” On one level, that squares with several well-known authors who have written about our geography. For example, Wallace Stegner in his landmark work Mormon Country described this corner of the world as “[T]he most barren frontier in the United States.” Additionally, in his book titled A History of San Juan County, Robert McPherson, our friend and neighbor to the north, quotes legendary Colorado-born ethnographer Frank Waters to paint a picture of our sanctuary on the San Juan. McPherson notes that Waters designated this area “[O]ne of the loneliest, wildest regions in America.” 
Several years ago, I worked on a business deal with the luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent, which desired to expand its operations into Moab. During one of our meetings, its senior vice president, who had traveled the globe in search of adventure, said to me, “Grand and San Juan counties are home to much of the most primitive, isolated and untamed land in the world.” So, after years of patiently attempting to address the concerns expressed by our visitors, Barry, Priscilla, and I finally developed a response which goes like this, “Yes, Bluff is in the middle of nowhere. So, that means it’s in the middle of everywhere . . . Right?” This thesis came to us after reviewing the book Earth, the Cosmos and You: Revelations by Archangel Michael, written by Orpheus Phylos, a modern-day prophet who visited Bluff after the Comet Hale-Bopp passed by earth in the late 1990s. The treatise, which Barry got from Orpheus herself while she was in Bluff waiting for the “Mother Ship” to arrive and take her group of devotees to their final reward, definitively concludes Bluff is the center of the universe. Unfortunately, Orpheus misread the signs and the transport did not arrive as expected. Due to her scheduling mishap, we are not 100% confident Orpheus' logic is mathematically, scientifically, or geographically accurate. We are, however, satisfied she has a defensible position, and Waters seems supportive of her rational. McPherson notes, “To Waters, [southeastern Utah] is physically and metaphorically the heartland of America. Squared astronomically to space and time . . . .”

When we lay out our arguments, most people just smile and nod their heads, not knowing how to address the allegations and wondering whether we are inspired or insane. A few, however, want to debate the issue. We advise them it’s like arguing with a drunk; aside from complete capitulation, there’s no way to win. If we get them to concede our initial point, the tourists often want to know how we exist in what they view as a lonely, desolate, and hostile environment. Indeed, just last week, I was cornered by three scientists from the University of the Caribbean who were in Bluff researching indigenous communities. The professors wanted to know: “Where/how do you get supplies? Where do you find food to eat or 2-x-4s to build? How do you survive economically, and why do you choose to live here?” As I often do in similar circumstances, I answered their inquiry by paraphrasing Leonardo da Vinci’s Parable of the Rock, which goes like this: A stone of good size, recently uncovered by rainwater, lay on an elevated spot in a pleasant grove above a stony road. Surrounded by herbs and adorned by various flowers of different hues, the stone longingly surveyed the great number of stones lying in the road that ran below the stand. The stone conceived a desire to roll down and be closer to its compatriots and said to itself, “What am I doing here among these herbs and flowers? I want to live in the company of my fellow stones.” So, letting itself roll down, it finished its tumbling course among the companions it desired. But after a while it began to suffer continual distress under the wagon wheels, the hooves of iron-shod horses, and the feet of travelers. Some of them turned it, and others trampled it. At times it raised itself up a little, all covered with mud or animal dung, and in vain looked back at the place it had left behind, a place of solitary and tranquil peace. The educators just nodded, not admitting or denying the applicability of Da Vinci’s fable to our circumstances.

Years ago when Kira and Grange were young and we lived in the apartment above the trading post, Jana, who is now an art teacher at a local high school, worked in the business with us. When people inquired whether she thought they might enjoy living in Bluff she would ask, “How do you like where you live now?” If they responded with something like, “I hate it. My neighbors are terrible, traffic is horrible, it’s a bad place,” she would say, “I don’t think you’d like it here, maybe you should consider another location.” If, however, they replied, “I love where I live, the people are kind, it’s beautiful and I have lots of friends and many things to do,” she would say, “I think you’d like it here as well.”

After much deliberation, we at Twin Rocks have concluded there are basically two types of people who visit this region: those who say, “I have been traveling hours and haven’t seen a thing,” and those who declare, “I have been driving miles and miles, and around every corner there is something new and exciting. This land is amazing, diverse, and interesting.” I think this is a glass half-full issue. Some people see the world as a journey of discovery and others view it as an ordeal.

Recently, Jana and I made one of our infrequent trips to Durango. The Colorado mountain town is the polar opposite of Bluff; populous by local standards, busy, developed, mountainous. So, being extremists, that is where we go when we have time off from our high-desert hideout. During the trip, we headed to the theater to see the Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper movie A Star is Born. Not to spoil the plot, but in the end, the Cooper character, Jackson “Jack” Maine, who appears to have all the talent, money, and success one could desire, prematurely ends his life. The film reminded me of Da Vinci’s tale and the conversations we have with our trading post guests, leading me to conclude Bluff is one of those places where nowhere is somewhere, and nothing is something worth preserving. Those of us fortunate enough to find ourselves living here feel we are among the lucky ones and realize we would not be content anywhere else. Frances, the Twin Rocks Cafe general manager, has suggested the town adopt Steven Tyler as its patron saint. The Aerosmith front man famously stated, “We’re all here because we’re not all there.” That pretty much sums up why we live in Bluff.