Saturday, September 26, 2020


“This is the desert after all,” I thought to myself as Grange and I sped along Highway 191 North towards Salt Lake City. He and I were heading back after his stint at home during the COVID-19 shutdown, and to get there we were traversing Utah south to north. My in-class period has long since expired, but Grange’s is just blossoming, so these days I am cheerleader, driver, financial backer, and emotional supporter; in other words, dad.

Central Utah’s undulating, split, broken, up and down, rust-colored landscape was spectacular in the early evening. Asymmetrical rock castles, fortresses, and temples emerged at every turn. Sandstone barricades pushed hundreds of feet into the air. Clouds raced across the skies, casting billowing shadows that cascaded across the land and painted an ever-changing, spectacularly visual, panorama. It was easy to see why landscape artists find this geography inspiring. This is enchanted, sacred ground.

It has been dry in this part of the country, painfully dry. Parched is a term that comes to mind. Vegetation, always in short supply along this route, is almost unknown. Winter is, however, coming. Snow will blanket the middle band of Utah before long. At that point, however, the road was smooth, dry and well-maintained, so we sailed through deep canyons and broad valleys with ease. “Like a bobsled on ice,” I thought to myself.

As we crested the summit of a large, undulating hill, off in the distance I could see a swatch of shimmering gold. “Ah ha, a cottonwood,” I advised myself. In fact, it was a grove of cottonwoods, an entire family of settlers that had found a seep or underground aquifer. Somehow, they or their ancestors had discovered the scarce resources necessary to thrive in this barren land and there they stood, majestic.

All this made me think of the Navajo, the early pioneers who settled in Bluff and of the community’s modern-day inhabitants, too. Here, in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, where cactus, yucca, and low scrubby plants predominate, these individuals also found the nutrients needed to form roots, leaf out, and raise saplings. How or why is not easy to determine. In some cases, it may have been as simple as fate, seeds deposited, a foothold gained, sunlight collected, and limbs projected. For others, the explanation is more complex, spiritual maybe, at times irrational. Whatever the reason, Bluff has grown its own grove in the center of this red-rock desert.

Glancing over at Grange resting peacefully in the passenger seat next to me, I felt pleased my own seedlings had sprouted and nourished themselves in this trying climate. They have now transplanted themselves into different environments, extending their feelers, and engrafting themselves onto another world. Their roots will, however, be forever grounded in the stark, natural beauty of the desert Southwest.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

Listen to What “The Man” Said

Not long ago, a woman from one of the nearby communities stopped by Twin Rocks Trading Post to peruse our inventory of turquoise jewelry, baskets, folk art, and Navajo rugs. As she browsed, we talked and after a time, I realized I knew her son and daughter-in-law. During our conversation she mentioned that, after several years in corporate America, her boy had decided working for "The Man” was not his idea of fun. At that point, he quit his job, returned to southern San Juan County, bought a semi-trailer truck, and begin driving for a living. Apparently, he is much happier now. 

Her comments brought back memories of my earliest encounter with “The Man.” My experience was not, however, associated with a big corporation. Instead, it was a matter of working for William W. “Duke” Simpson, my father and first boss.

During my ninth year on this planet, at the end of a 24-month stint in the Bay Area, Duke decided he’d had enough of Northern California and moved his young family back to southern Utah. Not long after the relocation, he borrowed $200.00 and leased a filling station on the southern end of Blanding. Although the business was within the city limits, it seemed a long way from town, logistically and sociologically, rather than geographically.

Parking what we at that time referred to as a trailer, now known as a mobile home, behind the gas station, we established ourselves on the premises. That way there was always someone available in an emergency. It was at this point Duke informed Craig, Barry, and me that we had been drafted into the family business.

Every school day, the three of us, along with our two sisters, Susan and Cindy, walked the mile or so (uphill both ways, generally in the midst of a blizzard, and always without shoes) to Blanding Elementary. After school Craig, Barry or I took over the petroleum operation, filling gas tanks, washing windows, checking oil levels, and inflating or changing tires while Duke searched for additional sources of income. At nine, ten, and eleven, we were not experienced in the ways of business, so Duke began to tutor us.

Looking out into the parking lot, Duke would say, “See that piece of trash? Go pick it up. We have to keep this place clean. What kind of message do you think it sends to our customers when we don’t take proper care of things?” We never understood how he could spot the smallest bits of paper at 200 paces when piles of cans, bottles, and other discarded items were invisible to us, or why it mattered when the garbage would soon blow onto someone else's property and become their problem, not ours. Duke was, however, firm, so out we trudged, even if it was raining, sleeting, or snowing, which was most of the time, even during summer months.

“Don’t eat all the inventory, we have to have something to sell,” Duke would advise when he noticed our bellies distended from drinking Pepsi with salted peanuts or consuming too many twin packs of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. “Always be honest, nobody likes a liar,” he counseled when we were less than forthcoming about just how much Pepsi we had drunk or how many Peanut Butter Cups we had eaten.

“Always be on time, people are counting on you,” he admonished when we showed up late for work, missed an appointment, or caused our patrons to wait.

It was a long while before we realized Duke was teaching us the fundamentals of business and the skills we needed to succeed in life. Although we did not pay close attention to Duke’s advice at the time, decades later Craig, Barry, and I find ourselves directing our families and employees to pick up the trash, keep the property clean, not eat the inventory, be prompt, and always, always be honest. Maybe Paul McCartney was right when he sang, “Listen to what the man said,” and maybe “The Man” knew more than we ever thought possible.

Saturday, September 12, 2020


It was the summer of 1971, and the Simpson family was living in a mobile home behind the Plateau filling station south of Blanding. Woody, our paternal grandfather, was working in Cisco, Colorado, clearing brush for the Nielson brothers, Connie and Skinny.

Craig, Barry, and I ran the service station, pumping gas, checking oil, repairing punctured tires, washing windows, and drinking Pepsi Cola. At eleven, twelve, and thirteen years of age, we were fully in charge. When one of us had a baseball game or other important event, the others would sub in. If for some reason we were all gone at once, Rose and Duke took over.

Woody, whose name was actually Woodrow Wilson Simpson, was a handyman's handyman. When it came to welding, “skinning" a Caterpillar tractor, or repairing a pick-up truck, there was none better. At times, it seemed he could design, build, and repair anything. As for Cat-skinning, it was said Woody could level land so well water would run in either direction. Many testified they had personally witnessed this hydrological miracle.

After a week’s work in Cisco, Woody would often stop by the filling station to say hello and have a soda. On one particular occasion, he came home a few days early. Upon pulling his old Ford into one of the fueling bays, he reached into the bed of his truck and pulled out a gunny sack full of squirming, chattering critters. “What’s that?” we shouted. “Coons,” he proudly proclaimed.

Apparently Woody had found a nest of kits. Their mother had either abandoned them or been run over during the clearing campaign, so Woody, being a lover of all animals great and small, decided to adopt the whole batch. As it turned out, they were more than Woody could handle at his camp trailer, so he was intent on farming them out to friends and family members. We were intended recipients. After considerable discussion, Rose and Duke consented, and we became the proud owners of a baby raccoon. Never known for our creativity, we named him “Bandit.”

Since our home had only two bedrooms, every night Craig, Barry, and I rolled out sleeping bags and slept on the living room floor. While he was small, Bandit crawled inside the bags and sleep at our feet. As Bandit progressed into full grown maturity, we realized our sleeping arrangements would have to change.

While building a run to confine Bandit, we put a dog house out in the yard and staked him to a chain, which was in line with the custom of the time. Every morning Bandit would exit his temporary abode and pace back and forth on his chain, eventually wearing a semicircular path in front of his new dwelling.

During his tenure in the makeshift house, Bandit developed a fondness for the yellow tabby cat we called Tigger. That’s right, T-I double Ga-Er. Tigger, on the other hand, realizing there was no future in the relationship, had no love for Bandit. Consequently, she avoided him at all cost.

Noting Bandit’s mobility had been circumscribed, Tigger began sitting just outside the perimeter of the raccoon’s walking path, licking her paws, and tempting him with her considerable charm. That drove Bandit nuts, and he tried every conceivable trick to reach the feline. It was, however, no use, the cat always stayed just beyond Bandit’s reach.

One morning we looked out the kitchen window to see how Bandit was getting on and noticed he no longer paced at the end of his chain. Instead, he had withdrawn a few feet and was pacing a short path back and forth. It was clear the cat was about to make a grave miscalculation.

Assuming Bandit was, as always, at the end of his rope, Tigger strolled out and sat down, just inside the worn semicircle. Bandit continued to pace until the cat began preening. Sensing she was not paying attention to her surroundings, Bandit streaked out, scooped up the cat, and held it like one lover holds another. Tigger, startled, howled, spat, and scratched, eventually slumping in Bandit’s arms.

Unfortunately Bandit was also shocked by his success, and after momentarily holding the cat firmly to his breast, decided he did not know how to properly care for his captive. All those months of anticipation had given way to an uneasy climax. With no other alternative and knowing he would never again hold his beloved, Bandit gently released his prisoner. Surely his heart was heavy as the cat scampered to safety.

When the trading post is slow or work difficult, and I begin yearning for something different, I think of Bandit and wonder what I would do if I actually got what I desired.

Friday, September 4, 2020

My Monument Valley

Back in the 1950s, when I was a kid growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, just about my favorite thing was to spend Saturdays at the West End Theater double-feature matinee. For 40 cents, I could see two westerns and enjoy a small box of popcorn and a soft drink. I caught a free ride on any city bus, since my Dad was a driver and everyone knew me.

For me, the very best movies were when John Wayne and the U.S. Calvary raced around chasing Apaches in a wondrous place. I learned was called Monument Valley. I didn’t know where this place was, or even if it was real, not a movie set, but I dreamed of going to this mystical landscape. As later movies were released, I discovered the fantasyland actually existed in living color and not just on black and white film. This was the place in the world I most wanted to see. It turns out that a great many people feel same about Monument Valley.

Today, Monument Valley is a Navajo Nation Tribal Park, one of their public attractions shut down since March due to the Covid-19 virus. Stradling the Utah and Arizona border, the park lies just 45 miles south of our home at Twin Rocks. This location is one of the major attractions for tourists, both foreign and domestic, traveling through the Four Corners region. It has not always been so. The area was virtually unknown until an intrepid couple, Harry and Mike (Leona) Gouldings, set up their original trading post in a tent during the 1920s.

At the depth of the Great Depression, the Gouldings realized they and their Navajo neighbors were destined to a life of poverty unless they did something to secure their collective futures. Harry Goulding had a set of beautiful photos taken of the area and decided, like so many of his generation, to follow his dreams. He headed for Hollywood, determined to get his foot in the door of the movie business.

The Gouldings took what little money they had, packed food and bed rolls and drove to Los Angeles, where they camped out in the office of the great American film director John Ford. It was 1939, Ford was considered the top director in the film industry and he loved making Westerns, which at that time were largely shot on sound stages or in undeveloped areas around southern California. For three days, the determined Gouldings sat in Ford’s outer office and waited for a chance to talk to the director, an ambition Ford’s staff rebuffed each day.

Finally, John Ford stormed out of his office and asked what these two characters, who were eating their sandwiches in his lobby, wanted. Harry Goulding told him he wanted to show him some photos of a location for his next movie. At that moment, John Ford found his stunning signature visual backdrop, and developed friends for life with the Gouldings and the Navajo people of Monument Valley. Three months later, production started on a film called Stagecoach, and the rest is cinematic history. It marked the beginning of a new era of American films shot on location, and brought much needed prosperity for southern San Juan County, Utah. One of the most stunning and visited sites in the valley is named John Ford Point.

Stagecoach was only the first of the great Westerns John Ford made in Monument Valley. He would conclude nine more films there, and the location became the most iconic landscape in America. In addition to serving as locations for hundreds of movies, it has also provided the backdrop for everything from Japanese whisky to German motor cars ads (and remember the Marlboro Man?) The economic impact of film-making in San Juan County has been tremendous. Harry and Mike Goulding built a substantial two-story trading post that appears in many Ford movies. As the film makers continued to come, they added cabins, rooms, and food services.

The movies also brought much needed employment for a great many local Navajo people. In a succession of movies, Navajo actors appeared as Cheyennes, Comanches, Apaches, and occasionally, Navajo scouts. They also got a great deal of work building sets, hauling freight in their wagons, and assisting in feeding and caring for the large groups of Hollywood professionals, livestock, and movie stars.

Goulding’s Lodge is now an extensive hospitality site serving the traveling public through their large motel complex, cabins, restaurant, swimming pool, arts and crafts gallery, and museum. It is the destination of choice for people worldwide. Last summer, when we were still getting foreign visitors at Twin Rocks, I talked to a mature man with a decidedly Down-Under accent. He told me he had just spent three days in Monument Valley and that it had always been the dream of his life to visit this special place. When I asked how long it took to come from his home in New Zealand to Monument Valley, he told me that he had logged 27 hours on an airplane and it was worth every minute. 

Today, I live just forty minutes north of Monument Valley, and I confess I don’t get there often enough. Before Susie and I moved to Cortez in 1990, we had already spent all our vacations, and most of our disposable cash, exploring the Southwest. We loved the Four Corners region and spent many hours waiting for the sun to either rise or set for the right photo. Since visitation to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has been closed these last five months, I have missed my occasional drive down the road to see the place after a rare rainfall, when the fog has settled, or when friends come to visit.

I guess one of the few positive things about these last terrible months of doubt and confusion, is that it has made a lot of us resolve to stop taking things for granted. As soon as it reopens, I plan to be one of the first visitors back in Monument Valley.