Saturday, August 24, 2019

You have to go through a few Sponge Bobs 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 Sponge Bob figure Ray Lansing, an artist who was being mentored by Marvin Jim, had carved a while back. Ray is a talented carver, but Sponge Bob was an enormous emotional stretch for me. Barry on the other hand felt a kinship with Sponge Bob 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, Sponge Bob 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 Sponge Bobs 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 Sponge Bobs 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?” 

Friday, August 9, 2019


As I peddled south the sun dipped below Comb Ridge and I began thinking about the trading post, finding myself laughing out loud. Realizing how ridiculous I must look, I quickly checked the road to ensure nobody had seen my fit of laughter. I worried that anyone witnessing the episode would assume I had ridden myself insane.

The chain of events leading to my crackup began when Lorraine Black slumped into Twin Rocks earlier that week with a basket featuring Coyote surrounded by a circle of people holding hands. I complimented her on the weaving and began measuring the size and counting the coils as a prelude to negotiation. She immediately halted my evaluation and informed me the work was incomplete; it needed a horned toad fetish sown onto Coyote's belly to finish it.

In the past, Lorraine and her sister-in-law Peggy Black have used the coyote motif in conjunction with horned toads to illustrate how Coyote attempted to relieve the toad of his clean hogan and well-kept farm. In the children's story relating to the incident, despite Coyote's persistence, Horned Toad refused to voluntarily surrender the land. After becoming frustrated with the circumstances, Coyote devoured the toad and went inside the hogan to inspect his newly acquired property. Having been swallowed whole, Horned Toad decided to pull the trickster's vital organs until he killed the thief and reclaimed his farm.

Lorraine and I unsuccessfully searched the cases for a suitable fetish. After a while, she said, "Hey wait, what's that?" I told her it was a badger fetish and wouldn't work for what she wanted. As she inspected the carving, I could see the wheels begin to turn. She was about to give birth to a new tradition.

Navajo culture tends to be somewhat fluid and this was going to be one of those times when adaptation carried the day. So, as Lorraine began sewing the carving onto the basket, she also fabricated a story to convince me Badger was an appropriate individual for the design. In the end, we had a good laugh and the tradition of Coyote eating Horned Toad became the story of Badger and the trickster.

A few days later, I was engaged in cleaning up a mess in the showroom while Barry talked to a young couple about Navajo baskets. I noticed him reach for the Badger/Horned Toad basket and begin telling the story of Horned Toad's clean hogan and nice farm. Apparently, he had not realized how tradition had migrated or how Horned Toad had become Badger. Not wanting to embarrass him in the middle of his sales pitch, I waited until later to note the change.

As I continued down the road thinking about the basket, Barry's sales pitch, and the migratory nature of Navajo culture, I was reminded of an experience I once had with mercury. I was probably 16 years old and had acquired a small amount of this fascinating liquid metal. I was enchanted by it, and after a day of sloshing it around in my hand, watching it move in beautifully fluid motion, seeing it separate into small balls, and rejoin into one large pool, I wound up on the silversmith bench at Bluff City Trading. It struck me that I needed to know what happened if I put the mercury under a flame. Since it was already liquid, I wondered what would happen when it was heated. Had I not slept through high school science, I would have already known the answer to this mystery.

Barry distracted me before I was able to fire up the torch, so I never completed my experiment. Sometime later I mentioned my project to one of our silversmiths who said I had been fortunate not to have finished the job. He informed me the mercury would have vaporized and probably found its way into my lungs, killing me almost instantly. That memory caused me to consider Navajo culture and how it moves like the mercury in shimmering, constant motion. The beauty of the liquid metal is the beauty of the Navajo culture; they are both forever moving, changing, and evolving to fit the circumstances. Fortunately, however, when properly managed, neither element is fatal.

As I descended into Cow Canyon, a basket woven several years ago by Kee Bitsinnie and a story from Navajo religion by Gladys Reichard came to mind. The weaving and the story are based on a Navajo legend about the fourth world. The story is of a time when Navajo people had not been on the surface long when the they saw the sky bend down and the earth rise up until they touched. At that moment, Coyote and Badger sprang forth from the point of contact. After their creation, Coyote went to live among the earth surface people and Badger descended into the lower world. At that moment, I realized Lorraine may not have been fabricating her story, she was simply putting her own spin on a traditional tale. I could visualize Navajo culture, which like the flow of liquid metal, was perpetually dancing, changing, evolving, growing, moving forward and receding, ever-changing, shining, shimmering, and enchanting observers like me.