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.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Tagged and Bagged

Our father William Woodrow "Duke" Simpson tells everyone who will listen that when his boys were just pups, he encased them in a burlap bag and tossed them into the Bluff Swimming Hole. He apparently figured that any kid worth his salt would escape the gunny sack. If they made it back to shore, he had taught them two invaluable lessons: how to survive and how to swim! If they didn't, well he was young enough to make a few more.

When we question our mother Roseline Marie "Rose" Simpson ("The Rose Among Thorns") about being bagged and tagged, she will neither verify nor deny the account. She simply shakes her head at our father and "tsks." After having sixty years to contemplate the meaning behind the metaphor, I believe dear old Dad was simply trying to tell us that he recognized the responsibility that went along with having children and took seriously his obligation to adequately prepare us for the big, mean world. At this point, I realize that both our parents did, and still do, everything in their power to teach us to overcome hardship and live a compassionate and caring life.

Reflecting back on our childhood in this high desert oasis brings back fond memories of super-heated days on the rocks and cool refreshing evenings with family and friends at the Bluff Pond. In an attempt to provide for his young family, Dad helped build and worked a filling station in the early 1950s. The building, which still stands at the base of Cow Canyon, was of solid, substantial native sandstone. He often traded arts and crafts for gas and oil with the Navajo and Ute people, and then sold the goods to the slow trickle of tourists that found themselves high-centered in this cultural backwater.

After struggling to survive and feed his growing brood in the petroleum business, Dad found better luck driving a truck for McFarland Hullinger. He hauled uranium ore from Fry Canyon off of the crazy, dangerous switchbacks of the Moki Dugway to a mill in Mexican Hat. Mom is of Portuguese decent from San Leandro, California. Dad stole her away from the bright lights of the big city and brought her to Bluff, Utah, where there are only starlight skies over a tiny town. At the time, this was about as far from civilization as one could get. Dad says Mom cried for two years straight before settling in. Five kids in six years may have played a significant role in grounding her to this red rock valley.

Dad would arrive home after a treacherous day's work on the road only to face a house full of rambunctious renegades and a frazzled, frustrated Portagee lady. There were no fast food joints, movie theaters, arcades, or even a city park to ease our stress. There was, however, the old swimming hole. Dad knew that he could mitigate the heat, dissipate the tension, and calm raw nerves by taking us to the pond. Often, there were several family groups of all local cultures frolicking in the healing waters in the shadow of the bluffs.

Although it has long since turned to marshland, the old swimming hole was located on the east side of Cottonwood wash, facing south, as it opens into the town of Bluff at the back of cemetery hill. The pond sat in a catch basin within an indent of the towering slick rock cliffs. There is a huge locomotive-like rock facing away to the southeast. The talus slope of jumbled, rocky debris at the foot of the cliffs fell right up to the water's edge. The pond was fed by an artesian well that could not be easily found upon the cold, clammy, heavily mudded bottom. There was a check dam holding back the tide on the western border. From the top of the cliffs to a nearby electrical substation, directly over the water, ran several strands of high-tension power lines carrying 69,000 volts of raw electricity. The pond was surely heaven on earth on a hot summer day.

What some might perceive to be an oversized mud puddle was precious to us. That old, dirty swimming hole was as much a part of our family as it was of Bluff. More of that red-stained, silty, arsenic-laced water passed through our sinuses and intestines than I believed was healthy, but we survived. Our memories of the pond are of a happy, carefree time. I recall Dad resting on a truck inner tube, grasping the belt loops of our cut-off Levis' as two of us tugged him around the pond in high style. Mom and the girls rested on the hard-packed beach, tossing stones and making cat calls. There were days we felt so hot we released steam as we settled into those cool, refreshing waters. Times were good and bonds grew strong. The old swimming hole will always remind me of family, laughter, joy, and love. Oh yeah, throw in an object lesson or two for good measure. Dad would appreciate that we actually figured it out.