Friday, August 30, 2019

Brother John

My nephew Adam and I rose early Thursday morning to get a jump on the day. We were heading out to the Rez to meet "Brother John." It had been rumored that John was in possession of some top-grade turquoise, and he had agreed to meet us half way from Santa Fe to tempt us with his bounty. Unable to resist the offer, Steve and I had drawn straws to determine who would benefit from the experience. I drew the long straw and looked forward to the meeting because John has excellent taste in turquoise and is a wealth of information regarding its history and legend. Combine that with John's special, eccentric way of presenting his collections and you have the recipe for a true learning experience.

Adam was my designated driver. My family seems to be losing confidence in my ability to focus on our majestic highways and byways, so any time there may be poor lighting conditions, I am assigned a chauffeur. It is unanimously agreed that the world is a safer place with me in the passenger seat. I told Adam that he was only along to benefit from my long-standing experience in the art of wheeling and dealing and that he should not take his role too seriously. With my dignity firmly re-established, we set out on our journey.

As we drove in a southeasterly direction across the vast, rugged openness of the reservation, we witnessed a mystically potent sunrise over the head of Sleeping Ute Mountain. There were quirky, dark linear formations across the face of the fire ball, and the early morning light had an ominous blood-red glow. I half expected the old Ute to prove legend correct by rising up, shaking off the centuries of accumulated dust and debris, then proceed to introduce the modern age to the power and might of the Weeminuche band of Southern Utes.

As the sun climbed higher, the threat of monstrous mayhem faded from my mind. Adam had found his groove, and we were rocketing across Red Mesa. Canyons, mesa tops, and open plains flew by at an alarming rate. I had just put in a Celine Dion CD and cranked up the volume. I am of the opinion that this is the only way to listen to this amazing vocalist; her music must be felt as well as heard. My young driver was fearlessly putting the Toyota pickup's three-hundred horsepower, "i force," V8 power source through its paces. 

He was pushing his limits on these notoriously narrow, roller-coaster roads, and it was beginning to wear down my molars. The music was moving my emotions in one direction, Adam's driving in another. I was beginning to wonder whether my fate was to become permanently ingrained in the landscape of Red Mesa. I calmly reached over, gave my nephew a solid thump on the arm, just to get his attention, and told him that I was responsible for all reckless driving in this rig and to "ease up." We continued on our journey at a slightly reduced rate of speed.

The land of the Navajo really is a place of beauty; the subtle and contrasting landscape constantly evokes wonder and strong emotional reactions in me. Having been a student of Navajo legend for some time, I find myself recreating the stories as I travel through the reservation. I visualize Johonaaei emerging from the eastern horizon with the sun shield on his back, his daily sojourn bringing him to an evening rendezvous with his mate, Changing Woman, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. I see Talking God within a flock of small birds, and Monster Slayer repelling the backlit, knife-like flanks of Shiprock on one of his many adventures.

We arrived at our New Mexico destination and instantly spotted John. John wears strands of neon-green Damale turquoise beads, which glow as if they have been irradiated. Today, he had added vivid blue strands from the Tyrone mine to his attire. The contrast was eye catching to say the least. I nudged Adam and said, "There stands a master salesman; watch, listen, and learn, my young Jedi." John was not interested in unveiling his cache at the convenience store, so he led us up a gravel road which turned to dirt a few miles from town, and pulled his truck under a stand of juniper and pine trees. It was all very covert, which is an essential element in the disclosure. John jumped out of the pickup and scoped out the situation. Finding the set-up to his liking, he proceeded to display his treasure. I was flabbergasted by the color and variety of the stones, and knew for a fact that I was soon to be in big financial trouble here.

Before starting on this adventure, Steve and I had discussed spending restraint, and just plain common sense. We both know each other's weakness for high-grade turquoise and had agreed to go easy on buying this time. Well, when John began to open up those cases, all common sense left me. The next few hours were a blur, and I was in a state of turquoise-induced bliss. Brother John began to share his knowledge and experiences about the who, what, where, when, why, and how he had come to have such a stash. He was working his magic, and I was spellbound.

I am sure Adam learned much from this experience; probably not what I had set out to teach him, but it was a well-structured lesson none the less. As for me, I didn't recover until we wheeled up to the trading post a few hours later. We had made good time. I suspect Adam had taken advantage of my distraction and let those horses run on the way back.

Steve was standing behind the counter as I walked into the store. His first question was, "How much did you spend?" Instead of answering, I set the briefcase on the glass counter, popped the lock, and slowly opened the lid, exposing the contents. My brother-partner groaned in amazement, and his eyes began to glaze over as he admired the contents. "That's what we have been looking for," was all he said.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

You have to go through a few SpongeBobs to get to the Yeis

Several years ago, I came back from a little time off to find Barry extremely excited about something that had arrived at the trading post during my absence. As he led me into his office in anticipation of disclosing this latest development, he was visibly affected. As I entered the room, I noticed him reaching up to retrieve this most recent artistic creation from the back of his high shelf.

Approximately 30 years ago, I returned to the trading post business "for just two or three years." Back then, I questioned whether I could actually survive in Bluff. After I overcame my initial jitters, I found small town life agreed with me and that I was immensely interested in how the art that found its way into Twin Rocks evolved. Navajo basketry was just beginning to flower, so it was a fascinating time. I even thought about writing a book called The Evolution of the . . . . Since I couldn't find the right word to rhyme with Species, however, my project never got off the ground.

Barry read a great deal of Navajo mythology at that time and had developed a few concepts he wanted to implement. He and I have limited artistic capacity, so initially he sketched his circular designs using a compass and ruler. Although I felt the designs were a bit static, they began to catch on and with a little imagination from the weavers, some interesting basketry began to evolve.

Once we realized this design experiment might actually work, Barry hired Damian Jim, who at that time was a young man with big ideas that fit nicely with what we needed. Damian hitchhiked 30 miles to work each morning because he had no reliable transportation, and he had a good graphic sense and computer experience that far exceeded anything Barry and I had, or have ever been able to develop.

Back then, the latest installment of Greg Schaff's American Indian series had just emerged. The book showcased Native American basketry and had a large section on Navajo weaving; I was pleased to see several of Barry and Damian's early designs represented. Many of the baskets featuring their motifs were submitted by other collectors and traders---which told me the designs had gone mainstream.

Damian spent several years with us designing and encouraging us to embrace the Internet. I can still see the frustration on Damian's face when we asked him a silly question about the Web or requested a design he thought was ridiculous. At times, the substantial investment in time and money seemed unmerited, even foolish. I clearly remember one of our best trading buddies, Jacque Foutz, relating a story about how her father-in-law traded in ceremonial baskets. Jacque became interested in writing a book about Navajo basketry and began her research by talking with Russell Foutz. When asked about his experience with baskets, Russell, one of the true old-time traders, said, "Jacque, I bought them, I sold them; they were like cans of beans to me." Needless to say, she was deflated by her father-in-law's lack of passion.

Since Russell had been a successful trader, I often questioned whether Barry and I were on the right track. But then somebody would bring in a truly great work that was like nothing we had ever seen, and I would become convinced anew that we were doing something worthwhile. A few months later, however, when we noticed other people carrying similar items, our enthusiasm would ebb. This caused me to remember a flock of crows hopping around behind Twin Rocks Cafe. One of them had found a crouton and was carrying it around in his mouth. Once the other birds realized what he had, they all converged, trying to get a piece of his treasure. Barry and I have often felt like that crow with the crouton, trying to protect the gems we discovered, but knowing all along we had to let them go so things would be better for the flock. Letting go, however, can be difficult.

As Barry reached for the gems hidden on his top shelf, he said, "You gotta see these carvings." My mind immediately flashed back to a SpongeBob figure Ray Lansing, an artist who was being mentored by Marvin Jim, had carved a while back. Ray is a talented carver, but SpongeBob was an enormous emotional stretch for me. Barry on the other hand felt a kinship with SpongeBob and believed we needed to purchase the carving to “keep things going." I thought it was Barry's affinity to the cartoon character more than his love of the art, but I was compelled to give in. "Besides," Barry said, "how can you dislike a guy who lives in a Bikini Bottom?" I had to admit he had a valid point.

Much to my surprise, SpongeBob Rez Pants was a hit, and I was reminded that setting the artists free to create on their own terms and believing in them, even when SpongeBobs are the result, is an important part of our business. When Barry revealed the four Yei rattles Marvin had newly carved, I realized how far Marvin had come with just a little encouragement and thought, "Well, I guess you have to go through a few SpongeBobs to get to the Yeis."

Friday, August 16, 2019

Forty-Four Miles on a BMX

“Get out,” she yelled, “and never come back!” So, he did, on the only transportation available--a heavily used and rarely repaired BMX bicycle. That’s what the 200 lb., 20-something-year-old kid told me as we sped north toward Blanding. I first met “Begay” as I walked across the red concrete porches from the cafe to the trading post. It was 5:30 in the evening on a Saturday and still over 90 degrees outside. I was going to check in with Susie and Rick before they closed the store for the night. The young man was resting outside the Kokopelli doors in the shade of the wide, wooden porch. He stood there shakily holding up his rickety ride and empty water bottles, literally panting with exhaustion. 

He was dressed in a baggy grey t-shirt, oversized knee-length polyester shorts, and a pair of off-brand, high-top basketball shoes. On his head he wore a black, heavy woolen, Rastafarian-looking beanie thingy that must have caused his body temperature to skyrocket in direct sunlight. “Hey man, it’s all about style, not comfort.” On his wrists and forearms were several self-imposed tattoos done in heavy, dark ink. Laying his small bike on its side, he followed me into the trading post. “Can I use your phone?” he asked politely. “I need to call my mother to have her come get me. She works in Moab.” Not wanting to risk subsidizing an international call, I asked for and received, his mother’s number, dialed it into my cell, and handed it over.

Luckily the mother of our overheated cyclist was available and answered immediately. She wasn’t happy about it but agreed to come to Bluff and bring him to Moab. I was surprised that “Mom” didn’t even ask the obvious questions. “Give me two hours,” was all she said. The young man passed back my phone and asked if he could wait in the shade of the porch and replenish his water supply from the faucet there. Just then I saw our general manager, Miss Frances, drive up in her tiny, white Ford pickup, and I hustled back to the cafe to report in and pass over the reins for the evening. It took me another 20 minutes to finish up.

As I prepared for departure, I thought about the cyclist and his mother having to come one hundred miles south to rescue him. Because I listen to recorded books when I travel back and forth to Blanding, I am a little selfish with my time on the road. The fact that the kid's mother had been so kind and generous about coming for him finally won me over. If the BMX would fit in my trunk, I would haul him to Blanding and save the gentle woman 50 miles of travel. After moving my Scout stuff from my boot to the back seat of my Camry, I called the young man over and made the offer. He was pleased and respectful, shook my hand, and offered up his family history. It was not long before I knew who he and his people were.

As we drove up Hwy. 191 through Cow Canyon, “Begay” began to share his adventure. He told me that around 11:00 o’clock that morning, he and his wife began to bicker. Soon thereafter, the disagreement became heated and she asked him to leave, metaphorically throwing his saddle from the hogan. As Begay mounted his mechanical steed to hit the road, he grabbed their credit card from the kitchen table thinking at least now he would have money enough to buy food and drink on his way home to mother. Begay was living with his wife’s family in the middle of one of the wonders of the world, Monument Valley, and one of the monument’s greatest tourist attractions---Forest Gump Point. From there, he began to ride.

“Traveling along the dirt road to the highway was not too bad,” he told me, “but my ex caught up to me on the highway.” She was driving her father’s monster pick-up truck with oversized tires. At first, she pulled up beside the biker and politely asked him to come back home, then tried to cut him off and make him come back home. When Begay stubbornly refused all overtures at reconciliation, the frustrated lady sideswiped him, forcing him off the road, then turned and drove away leaving heated verbal expletives in her wake. Begay was now hell bent on beginning a new life. Hauling his freshly dented toy bike from the ditch, he remounted and began peddling east in the direction of new beginnings.

By the time Begay reached Mexican Hat, he knew this trek would not be an easy one. The temperature was now in the high nineties. Because it was tacky from the heat, the asphalt seemed to be holding him back and he was being cooked from both heaven and earth. He was tired, thirsty, and hungry, so he stopped in at the convenience store where he quickly discovered why it had been so easy to get away with the credit card. “Declined!” His wife had maxed out the card before relinquishing the now worthless plastic plate. No matter, thought Begay, it only made him more determined to make his escape from a bad marriage. “Onward and upward!” he cried into the wind, as he cranked the BMX up the next hill.

At the intersection of highways #163 and #261 near The Goosenecks and the Mokee Dugway, Begay saw a porcupine and a jacked-up pickup truck collide. “That poor little dude didn’t have a chance,” he told me sadly. I think seeing that calamity caused our two-wheeled traveler to become much more aware of oncoming traffic and the consequences of a wandering attitude. When I mentioned that speeding down the seven-mile, ten-percent-grade of Lime Ridge into the lowlands of Comb Wash must have been a bit of a thrill, Begay quickly agreed. He said, “I got going so fast that my handlebars would start shimmying like the bike was possessed. Standing on the brakes quickly burned them up. Before it was over I had to use the bottoms of my shoes as friction brakes to keep me from spinning out of control!” At that point our bicycling maniac lifted his right shoe to show how worn his high tops were. There was not much more than a fraction of an inch between his foot and the outside world.

It took Begay two hours to walk up the steep roadway which ascends Comb Ridge. He was completely out of water and no matter how much he wagged his thumb or empty water bottles at the passing traffic, he could not get anyone to stop and help. On top of the Ridge just past the cut, our now weaving wanderer said he saw a huge rattlesnake. Begay raised his eyebrows in amazement, touched the middle fingers and thumbs of both hands together, and said, “The snake was huge, this big around and half as long as the highway is wide!” Either Begay saw the mother of all rattlers or by then he was hallucinating mightily. Who knows though, he had just hiked to the top of Comb Ridge, the geologic formation the Navajo people call “The Great Snake.” 

From that point on, except for the big dip in the road known as Butler Wash, it was mostly downhill into Bluff proper. Begay told me that the people at Desert Rose Inn let him rehydrate by drinking all the water he could hold. He said, “I drank until I could hardly walk. I was staggering under the weight of all that water.” Feeling refreshed and ready for another round, Begay remounted his BMX and pedaled through Bluff and up Cow Canyon. That is where he hit the wall. He said, “I just couldn’t go a foot further. I turned around and coasted back down the hill into your parking lot and onto the porch of Twin Rocks.” All in all, Begay figured he had covered just over forty-four miles in six and a half hours.

As we drove north, I realized that Begay was worn to a nub by his incredible journey and starving to boot. I rummaged around in my pocket and ash tray coming up with enough cash to get him a decent meal at the A&W while waiting for his mother. After unloading his bicycle, I wished Begay well and thanked him for his story.

Driving home and entering our comfortable kitchen, I was lovingly embraced by my dear wife. I swore my allegiance and told her, “Honey, I love you so much that I would ride forty-four miles on a busted BMX bicycle just to be with you.” “Huh?” she asked. “What the heck are you talking about?”