Saturday, July 11, 2020

One Piece at a Time

Lately, I know I am feeling my age, because all I talk about is how the world has changed, and how I am unprepared for the "new normal.” Every day I find myself humming 1970s songs from Linda Ronstadt, Poco, and the Eagles. When I speak with my siblings, they are struggling with the same issues. Many years ago, I saw a Navajo medicine man use a large quartz crystal to rewind time and reset a bad situation. If that healer had not gone on to the great unknown, I would get him on the phone. I am ready for a change.

In any case, I have been thinking back on the past several years and realizing my life is defined by a series of mileposts, both mental and physical. As I traveled the freeway of life, I have constantly marked my journey by certain monuments and occurrences. As the years passed, certain things have stuck in my consciousness as indicators of a specific time or event. Those mile markers stretch out in a six-decades-long chain of events that reminds me where I have been and what I have done.

As a young man in my teens, I remember sitting at a silversmith bench in the backroom of Blue Mountain Trading Post, repairing bent or broken turquoise and coral jewelry, and listening to radio commentator Paul Harvey on the local station, KUTA, AM 790, Voice of the Canyonlands. KUTA, like many things from that era, is long gone. At the time, however, it was one of the only ties I had to the outside world.

Each afternoon, in addition to the daily news, Paul brought us the names of people married 50 years or more. During that phase of my life, I could barely conceive of two people spending that much time together without something going desperately wrong. Whether it be bad tempers, bad health, or just bad luck, there were far too many things that might get in the way of a couple staying together five decades. While I can’t imagine any woman being able to survive 50 years with me, 2020 marked the halfway point, so who knows.

Another touchstone that delineates that phase of my life, and also impacts my present reality, is a song by the immortal Johnny Cash entitled “One Piece at a Time,” which also came to me courtesy of KUTA. In Blanding, Utah, country music was king, and, as we all agreed, Johnny was the king of country. Cash's song is about a laborer who works many years in a Cadillac factory, and, over the course of his career, carries off enough parts to cobble together his own unique Caddy.

The construction of our trading post family is like the building of Johnny's car; we are a collage of parts and pieces collected over the past 30 years. There have been many times a component had to be jettisoned or re-engineered, because it was not adequately aerodynamic, or simply did not fit. Overall, however, we have been able to fashion a functioning, although admittedly oddball, piece of machinery.

When I think of that car Cash sang about, I see a Cadillac with a sporty tail fin on one side and smooth lines on the other, different colored seats front and back, windows that leak, a combination of white- and black-wall tires of various sizes, a mosaic of exterior colors, and an engine that chugs out clouds of black smoke. Beautiful in its own way.

The car of my imagination is much like our extended trading post family, which has many disparate parts: artists, collectors, buyers, and sellers. This vehicle sometimes fails to fire on all cylinders, doesn’t move very fast, and has more than its share of loose screws. Although we rarely ride around in style the way Johnny did in his patchwork Cadillac, our machinery does drive everybody wild with the unusual way things are done.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Covid Kindness

High temperatures typically don’t affect me, but last week it was hot, and I mean hot, even for this small desert community.  Heat stroke has never been one of my ambitions, so I knew I had to be careful. As a result, I waited until almost 7:00 p.m. to get on the bicycle. By that time the sun was sinking lower on the western horizon and would all too soon slide behind Comb Ridge, a formation Navajo people refer to as the spine of Mother Earth. A few stringy clouds had rolled in to provide minimal cover, the wind had quieted to a whisper, and the thermometer had dipped into semi-tolerable territory. At that point, I had to get a little exercise or the new normal of Twin Rocks Trading Post specifically, and the world in general, would surely bring me down.

Since the early days of my re-tenure in Bluff, running and cycling have been my alternative to Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, and other medications intended to alleviate anxiety and dampen depression. Lacing on my running shoes or saddling up the bicycle has allowed me to avoid prescriptive remedies and kept me reasonably well-balanced. When I feel myself becoming overwhelmed by circumstances beyond my control, or if blackness clouds my cranium, a turn on the pavement resets my attitude and helps me cope with the pressures of operating a small business in rural Utah.

So, there I was, grinding up Cow Canyon, the long, steep hill just north of Twin Rocks, when it dawned on me; something has changed. While I don’t know how it happened, what I do know is that hill has grown longer and steeper over the years. I think this situation must be similar to Duke’s story of having to walk to school when he was young. According to that legend, the weather was snowy every day, year round, and it was uphill both ways, three miles. While Duke’s tale defies physics, geology, geography, meteorology, and logic, he always maintained it was 100% accurate. To explain the situation, Duke once paraphrased Yogi Berra, stating, “As Yogi says, in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” In my case, I think that means in theory Cow Canyon is precisely the same length and angle it has always been, but in practice it isn’t.

As I got close to the top of the canyon, I spotted them, a family of marooned travelers standing on the side of the road; mom, dad, and an approximately 10-year-old boy. Since the beginning of May, I have noticed an ever-increasing number of recreational vehicles on Highway 191. Boats, campers, side-by-sides, motorcycles, and expensive motorhomes are plentiful. People seem anxious to escape the restrictions mandated by the Covid-19 pandemic and have hit the road at the earliest opportunity. In this case, the small family had apparently escaped lockdown without adequate preparation. As I peddled closer, I could see the youngish father unsuccessfully attempting to remove the spare tire mounted on the back of their pop-up trailer. It quickly became clear the problem was he did not have the proper tool, and, as everyone knows, trying to do a job without the right equipment is a fool’s errand.

Spinning ever closer to the disabled vehicle, I notice the man attempting to remove the lug nuts with his fingers. That was never going to bear fruit, so in my best faux Southern accent, I shouted out, “Hey, y'all need help?” “No, no,” the woman assured me, “we called Canyonlands Tire. We will just drive up there.” “That will take at least an hour round trip, and it’s late,” I cautioned, stopping behind the caravan. “Let me call my son.” Grange has been home from college since spring semester abruptly ended and was at the trading post studying for his online classes. I knew he would be happy for a break, and also knew he was flat tire certified.

A few weeks earlier Grange and I had gone to the county landfill with a load of trash. Priscilla and I have used the extra time visited upon us by the shutdown to muck out decades of business records, outdated electronic equipment, cast-off restaurant implements, and just about every manner of detritus. It is amazing how that stuff builds up. By this time, Grange and I were on our third truck and trailer load. We dumped the contents only to discover our right-side trailer tire had gone bad. Despite both being Eagle Scouts with countless merit badges between us, we had not adhered to the Scout Motto and were unprepared. Buff Davis, my friend from high school, however, gave us a four-way lug wrench and we switched out wheels. The four-way was still in the back of our old Ford truck, so I said to the distressed dad, “Give me a minute and I will get help. We will have you on the road in no time.” When I called him, Grange confirmed he could be there in minutes, so I remounted the bicycle and continued north. About a half hour later, the happy family flew by on their way to a successful vacation. Honking and waving, they sped past. Grange later confirmed he had re-gifted Buff’s four-way to the vacationers so they would be able to adequately address future flats.

One benefit to the pandemic is that we all have more time for each other. While there is a lot to process and worry about on a daily basis, I have noticed people taking more time to lend a helping hand and share stories. Not long before Coronavirus altered our reality, I attended a gathering sponsored by Zions Bank celebrating the 100th anniversary of Zions National Park. During one of the associated discussions, the speaker noted, “Everything is held together by stories.” I have often thought about the moderator’s comment, realizing just how true it is. At Twin Rocks, we are constantly telling stories, and some are even true. During this dark period, we are accumulating history that will be related over and over in coming years: to each other, to our children, to our friends and acquaintances, and maybe even to our grandchildren. Hopefully these will be tales of courage, kindness, and caring, rather than fear, failure, helplessness, and despair. And surely, they will bind us ever closer together.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Our New Normal

“Normal” is a relative term, especially in a place as independent and contrary as Bluff. Like everyone else, we have been adjusting to the new reality caused by the Covid virus pandemic. Early into the crisis, the town council of Bluff declared that all commercial operations, including restaurants, motels, and trading post were required to close, with only the local gas station allowed to operate.

Gradually, many restrictions have been lifted and we have been allowed to re-open. It really didn’t hit me until Priscilla went out the other day and tacked a mask on our welcoming sign by the front door. That represents the new normal for life around Twin Rocks where, by local ordinance, masks are required in both the cafe and trading post.

During the long shutdown, we have been actively preparing for a new reality mandated by the world’s health crisis. This summer, we have had no tour buses pull up to use our bathrooms, and very few rental RVs in the parking lot. Far more people are traveling in their own self-contained vehicles, where they prepare their own food and park out in wilderness areas to avoid both fees and crowds. 

Our new dining concept at the Crazy Crow Cafe has allowed us to switch from traditional seating arrangements indoors to carry-out meals. Fortunately, our new walk-through cafe plan features a fresh-food bar where customers design their own meal and our staff prepares it for them on the spot. This lets us offer fresh-food choices from our region. We feature a variety of our fry bread dishes, including Navajo tacos, as well as burritos and other local foods. The cafe also serves a more traditional full-service breakfast, which is popular with travelers facing long drives in an area where few good dining options are available.

The long front porches on both the cafe and trading post have been set up to allow social distancing and strict sanitary standards are observed. After every use, our staff clears the tables and sanitizes everything people might come into contact with. 

Between the two buildings and right behind Sunbonnet Rock is a relaxing area that serves as our new beer garden. Along with wine and domestic beers, we are featuring Utah-produced draft beers. 

We have also been busy in the trading post. While we were closed to the public, Luke Sagg, Priscilla’s husband, was busy resurfacing the walls and painting them white to better display our baskets, weavings, and regional art. He stripped away our unique ceiling, which Steve characterizes as “late-1980s cottage cheese with a touch of glitter.”

Susie has been working on a new lighting plan for the gallery which will highlight some of the treasures offered at Twin Rocks. We expect that all the projects will be completed soon and visitors will enjoy a more user-friendly display space. Additionally, our long project of building a new and modern website seems to be reaching conclusion, which will allow us more attractive graphics and better inventory control.

We believe that even the worst of times can stimulate a better future. While the challenges have been great, we are striving to re-imagine ourselves and still retain the personal touch that sets us apart from many other Southwestern art galleries. We are optimistic and believe in the future, and that’s our new normal at Twin Rocks.