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.

Friday, June 21, 2019

An Expert Witness

I had just opened the trading post. Because the parking lot was empty and there were no people wandering the porches, I made a mad dash to the cafe for a cup of morning refreshment. While in the kitchen, Presheena, our cafe cashier, was standing watch for me. She poked her head into the back of the house warning me that a vehicle had just pulled up in front of the trading post. Because the store door was wide open, I quickly finished making my hot tea and hurried off in that direction. As I rounded the corner, an elderly gentleman of medium build and a greying pate was just entering through the Kokopelli doors.

I could see the thin man, dressed in a brown tee-shirt and khaki pants, through the windows as I advanced along the portico. He had his hands behind his back as he leaned over the displays, looking close at the items within. Passing into the store, I rounded the cases, greeted him pleasantly, and assumed my selling stance on the stool behind the counter. The man looked up, said hello, then asked me a curious question, “Do you have any turquoise?”
When Steve, Craig, and I were much younger, and far better looking, our father Duke placed us under the tutelage of different silversmiths in order to give us a higher understanding of quality, durability, and value. One of those silversmiths, Don Dale, was master to Amos, a black lab with an entertaining trait. When Don would look into his dog’s big brown eyes and ask him a direct question, the animal would cock his head to the right and raise one eye then the other as if contemplating the query. Because the fellow had been looking upon case after case of sky stone and silver, I had to assume his question was rhetorical. On the other hand, he was looking to me for an answer and I was standing there in confusion, doing the Amos thing.

I assured the gentleman that he was surrounded by natural, domestic, and some select imported turquoise from various corners of the globe. Nodding knowingly, he asked, “Do you have Bisbee turquoise from Arizona? I have a necklace of Bisbee and have studied it extensively. I can easily separate it from any other mine.” Because Steve and I have had the opportunity to review and consider numerous specimens from Bisbee, we knew how varied and unique that turquoise can be. In an effort to test him, I vaguely nodded in the direction of cases to the professor’s left and assured him there were several stones from Bisbee there. Even though the cabochons were clearly labeled, the expert witness passed right over them. When I pointed out the obvious, the man shook his head as if to get his marbles in the proper slots, then moved on to obsidian.

He was interested in the hand-knapped blades and deer horn handle knives of Bo Earls because some were mounted with varieties of natural obsidian. “Do you know what obsidian is?” he queried. “Um . . . natural glass.” I replied. “Good guess!” he shot back and went on to tell me he had a pick-up-truck load of obsidian in his Toyota that he purchased from a friend in Idaho. “Want to see what obsidian looks like?” he asked gesturing in the direction of his pick-up. “No thanks,” I replied, placing Bo’s knife back in the case and shaking my head in an attempt to reset the marbles in my own brain pan. “I’ve seen it before.”

“Oh!” the guy almost shouted while reaching for his cell phone.” I have something else to show you.” While pulling up an image, he proceeded to tell me of discovering a 3’ x 5’ Navajo rug at a yard sale for $100. "Just like the ones you have here for nearly $2,000." He thrust the phone in my face exposing what looked like one of those Mexican blanket rugs you might see being sold along the roadside next to a painting of Elvis on black velvet. There was a large impression on the piece that had a striking similarity to an Aztec Warrior. Not wanting to burst his already fragile bubble, I commented, “Yah man, that’s interesting.” “The guy I bought it from told me it is a Yei-be-chei rug from Arizona, and I have seen enough to know that it really is.” 

It was not yet 9:00 a.m. and I was already stressed. This guy was wearing me out and there was still, at least, another nine hours left in my day. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Priscilla pulling into the parking lot. In my mind, along with a dull ache building behind my right eye, I began to devise a plan to pass this guy off on her. Priscilla is much more patient and tolerant than I. Let’s face it, after 30-plus years of working alongside Steve and me she has had plenty of time to build endurance. Luckily for Priscilla though, the good-ole-boy decided to leave before our associate even made it through the Kokopelli doors.

Priscilla walked in through the open doors smiling brightly and asked how my morning was going. “Well,” I told her, “I met my first expert of the day. One that was only qualified for expertly piloting bumper cars or ducky boats.” I recalled what our father Duke used to say: “Never act like, or claim to be, an expert on anything. The reason being the definition of an expert is: An ex is a has-been and a spurt is a drip under pressure.” 

As Priscilla and I talked, a small group of motorcyclists rumbled up right in front of the trading post. One guy, who looked to be pushing eighty years of age and 400 pounds in weight, promptly tipped over and found himself trapped under his massive motorcycle. He looked like a leather-clad bug thrashing around under that chrome plated Harley. His friends ran to his rescue and soon had him extracted and recovering comfortably on the front porch steps. “Poor guy,” I mused. “He should not have been on that bike. He is well past his prime and skill set---anyone and everyone he comes into contact with is in danger.”

“Well,” commented Priscilla, “I think we just witnessed your second expert of the day.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Broken Hearts

After Duke’s recent passing, Barry, Priscilla and I are a bit nostalgic and have been reminiscing about some of the more memorable moments we have had together over the past 30 years. I admit that becoming an empty-nester has also caused me to think a lot about Kira and Grange. So, recently, as I sat on the porch after a long day in the trading post, I recalled a time when Grange was suffering from a heart ailment.

At the time, I noticed Grange hunkered down on the Sunbonnet Rock with his back to me. At first, I didn’t notice anything wrong, but when I spoke to him, he did not respond. After a little prompting, he blurted out, “Kira broke my heart!”

Apparently Grange had forgotten to return Kira’s scooter and had accordingly been given the “what for.” Grange, being the sensitive type, had taken it personally and migrated to the safety and isolation of the rock. At three years old, he said many things he didn't fully understand. He knew perfectly well, however, that Kira had pierced his heart with the well-placed barb.

Jana and I have often debated the merits of raising our children in Bluff and around the trading post, generally concluding it was good for them. Because they were brought up in the store, the kids are extremely comfortable meeting and talking with new and diverse people. Early on, I worried about what Barry might have taught them when I wasn't looking. Back then, the most serious offense I was able to identify was Barry's use of candy, mostly Starbursts, to wheedle hugs and kisses out of them. So, other than an extra cavity or two over the years, there seems to have been no significant long-term damage.

Back then, hoping to engage them in a little play time, Kira often crowded next to children visiting the store and said, “Hi, I’m Kira.” Navajo kids at times seemed uneasy with this forward approach, but, after a shy moment or two, generally warmed up to the overture. Grange, who parroted everything Kira did, would ride the scooter up to the door and announce to anyone who happened to be inside, “Hi. I’m Grange.”

In my experience, Navajo people tend to be somewhat introverted, so they were at times shocked by the boldness of Kira and Grange. The ones who had been around us a while, however, seemed genuinely interested in the kids. Kira and Grange were always allowed to participate when photographs were being taken. As a result, we have several nice pictures of Mary Holiday Black and her daughters holding a beautiful basket in one hand and Kira or Grange in the other.

The other day, I was at Twin Rocks Cafe and stopped to help an elderly Navajo gentleman with something. After his request was satisfied, I asked if everything was okay. He responded by saying, “Pretty good all right.” I hadn’t heard that particular Navajo-ism for a long time, so the statement, combined with Duke’s passing and the memory of Grange’s interaction with Kira, started me thinking about several former Bluff residents.

Many of my earliest memories of Bluff relate to the mid-1960s and St. Christopher’s mission. Because I was so young, I don’t recall much about Rev. Liebler, the central figure at the mission. I have often been told, however, that he was a hugely charismatic figure. I do remember him striding around Bluff, wearing his black cassock and long, gray hair tied up with string. He seemed a gentle man, with a heart as big as this land.

When I was older, I stumbled onto his book, Boil My Heart For Me, and was both intrigued and confounded by the title. As I discovered while reading the text, when Liebler arrived in Bluff automobiles were not widely known, and Navajo people were just developing words to describe car parts and processes. As a result, tires were referred to as shoes, and the automobile’s battery was its heart. When the car’s heart was broken (the battery was dead), Liebler and his staff were asked to boil (jump-start) it. Father Liebler had a unique way of patching Bluff’s many broken hearts.

People often stop by Twin Rocks and tell us stories about the priest, Brother Juniper, Brother Joseph, Joan, Helen and the other founders of St. Christopher’s. Recently a couple wandered in and began talking about their 1953 visit to the mission. They smiled widely as they told of several young Navajo boys they met. Once these children became comfortable with their visitors, the Navajo boys laid out a proposition. “Let’s play cowboys and Indians. We’ll be the cowboys and you be the Indians.” The elderly couple chuckled as they remembered the incident.

Many of Bluff’s elders are gone, or going. Those little cowboys are elderly, and Kira and Grange are old enough to be on their own adventures. Wherever they choose to reside, I hope my children will be filled with the wonder and affection I have for Bluff, and trust that Grange’s heart properly mended all those years ago.