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.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Tied to the Post

Recently one of our loyal readers asked Rick how “Tied to the Post” got its name. Rick had never actually considered the question, so he did not have an adequate response. As Napoleon Bonaparte suggested, “History is the version of past events that people decide to agree upon.” At Twin Rocks Trading Post, there is rarely agreement on anything, let alone our history. In hopes of addressing the issue with a sense of credibility, I went back into the trading post archives to find the answer. The story set out below was first published in 2003. So, true or not, it has obtained the patina of age, which lends it some credence. This is what I found:

Barry and I have often mentioned in our weekly mailings what an interesting and enjoyable childhood we had growing up in Bluff. The other day we were discussing (maybe debating is a better term) how certain things occurred. As you might guess, we do not always remember our history exactly the same. 

One particular conversation centered on our long-time friends, Perry and Ray Johnson. These brothers also grew up in Bluff, and despite our many childhood scuffles, we have remained friendly over the years.
During our youth, Momma Rose, our mother, typically referred to us as “hellions.” Rose understood that without a change of course we were destined for eternal damnation. Notwithstanding Rose’s forecast at the time, our offenses were typically of the misdemeanor variety. Half-naked, we circumnavigated Bluff, scaled sandstone cliffs, and terrorized our neighbors. Since we never wore shoes, our feet developed large callouses that were impervious to the gravel streets and goat-head stickers prevalent in town. We were as dark skinned as most Native children, partly because of our tans, partly because of our Portuguese heritage, and mostly because baths occurred only once a week in the Simpson household. We were frequently mislabeled Navajo, and that pleased us greatly.

On the particular occasion in question, we were engaged in a running battle with Perry and Ray. They are older and had better throwing arms, so they had the upper hand. Notwithstanding their age advantage, we held our own. Since none of us had any future in the Major Leagues, there were not many direct hits and no serious injuries. When Perry and Ray had had quite enough, they simply rounded us up, tied us to a fence post, and walked away. A while later Rose wandered by, noticed our predicament, and, after an obviously difficult internal struggle over the advisability of setting us free, released us back onto the streets.

The discussion about Perry and Ray led Barry and me to conclude that our time at Twin Rocks was like being “tied to the post.” Because there was a historical connection, we decided “Tied to The Post” would be a fine name for our weekly stories. And so, it became.

Barry and I readily agree that the things keeping us tied to this location are many and varied; the people are great; the geology is starkly beautiful; the history is extremely interesting; and the business is, well, adequate. The primary element that stands out in my mind, however, is the light. Sunlight on the cliffs does magical things to this river valley, and to me personally.

After several years back in Bluff, I decided fall is my favorite season. In September and October, the light is so pure things absolutely shimmer. The trees sparkle in the breeze, and you can almost feel their movement. Later in the year, they lose their leaves and, when the sun goes down, they look like those paintings we all did in primary school, the ones where you put a blob of ink on a page and blow it with a straw to make the ink run.

In October the trees have that barren feel and when the sun has just sunk below the horizon, are backlit with residual light. It is a strange and beautiful sight, almost Halloweenish. In the mornings and early evenings, the cliffs glow as though someone built a fire under them. The pink and red hues of the sandstone beam. I often think Bluff must now be as Santa Fe and Taos were in the early days.

During my first months at the trading post, I used to close the store and sit on the porch watching the sunset. Frequently, people would stop to talk. On many occasions, the conversation halted after a while, and I would notice the visitors looking around as though they were searching for something. They would then ask, “What is it?” At first, the question baffled me, but after a while I decided they were actually feeling what someone later described as the “magic of Bluff.” It's hard to put your finger on it, but I finally decided it is a combination of the smart and creative people who live in and around our community, the stunning scenery, the peaceful solitude, the bone-dry climate, the clear and starry nights, and the crystalline illumination. Maybe it is also Bluff's history, which at times is almost palpable. And that is what keeps us tied to this post and how our stories got their name.

Friday, June 12, 2020

A Good Trade

There are times when I confuse my wife, my kids, my coworkers, and even myself. It is, however, relatively rare that I confound all of us at the same time. That, however, was the case several years ago when I bought a 1936 Chevy Sedan Delivery. Having come of age during the muscle car era of the 1970s, I had always wanted, craved, hungered for, a hot rod. American Graffiti, Gone in 60 Seconds, and even Smokey and the Bandit left an indelible mark on me. I needed to go fast, and my Ford F-150 pickup truck was never going to scratch that itch.

Why then, you might rightfully ask, didn’t I buy a 1970s car: a Hemi 'Cuda, a Dodge Challenger, a Chevy Chevelle, a Plymouth Roadrunner, or even a Mercury Cougar for Pete’s sake. The answer is . . . well, I just don’t know. At the time, the Sedan Delivery seemed an interesting project. There it sat in the side yard of its owner’s Grand Junction, Colorado, house, sad and run down, a shadow of its former self, its best days behind it, just looking for a sucker to come along and rescue it. Decades ago, it had been an essential business vehicle. I was an aging businessman, also a bit worn, so it seemed there might be a connection, some commonality. We might be kindred spirits. Maybe, I thought, we could both be redeemed. It seemed worth a shot, so I bought in.

At the time, classic car restoration was not listed on my skills inventory. That, however, did not deter me. In fact, I was clearly suffering from the confidence of ignorance. One might even argue I was having a crisis of cognizance, a midlife moment. I just did not know what I did not know, so I salvaged the old Chevy and set out on my journey of discovery.

Sedan deliveries were light-duty commercial transports built on a passenger car chassis. Consequently, they combined the ride and handling, gas mileage, and comfort of a passenger sedan or station wagon, with the carrying capacity of a panel truck or van. They were typically used for suburban services or light products delivery and were especially suitable for transporting smaller packages that could be stowed in the enclosed rear compartment. Their halcyon days began in the 1930s and tailed off during the 1950s. Consequently, my depression-era specimen was from the earlier days of the delivery movement.

My initial investment was modest, only about $5,000. All too soon, however, the enterprise began to consume gobs of greenbacks. The body work, new chassis, souped-up motor, custom wheels and tires, paint, and a variety of other upgrades required mountains of cash. And that is when the tension began to build. All too soon, I became embarrassed by the cost and started concealing the escalating payments from my originally supportive spouse. As everybody knows, that is a slippery slope. I convinced myself, however, that I was in the chute and couldn’t get off that raging bull without finishing the ride, no matter how painful, no matter the cost. Soon the car would be complete and nobody would be the wiser. When she discovered my duplicity, Jana was not amused. To make matters worse, my mechanic unexpectedly expired, leaving me a partially finished job and taking all the associated information with him to the grave.

After bouncing the Chevy from shop to shop for several months, the car was finally ready for the road. It was, however, too late. At times, I felt the car and I had been cursed. So, in order to exorcise the delivery demons and repair the relationship, the car had to go. As it happens, about that time John Huntress, accomplished Southwest lapidarist and noted authority on all things turquoise, arrived at Twin Rocks Trading Post with his cases of turquoise and coral treasure.

As I pawed through Royston, Candelaria, Blue Gem, and Bisbee pendants, buckles, and beads of great beauty, I laid out my tale of woe: hot rod, too much money wasted, angry spouse, gotta go. As anyone who has ever met “Brother John” knows, it is difficult to get a word in edgewise when he starts talking mining, miners, minerals, or making jewelry. Notwithstanding his inherent loquacity, John listened intently to my sad story and when I mentioned the car was a ’36 Chevy he seemed genuinely interested.“1936 Chevy Sedan Delivery?” he asked tentatively. “Yup,” I said, making a sad face. “When can I see it? Wanna trade?” It turns out John is a big fan of sedan deliveries and my automotive storm was about to break. The sun was shining through the clouds.

It took a while, but John and I finally hammered out a deal, baskets and jewelry for the Chevy. In the 1960s, Pete Seeger wrote a song entitled Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, which was recorded by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. I have often thought of that song in the context of historic Navajo baskets, which seem to have disappeared from the market about 20 years ago. While there was never an overabundance, when Twin Rocks Trading Post first opened in 1989, there were always a few circulating through the shop. And then they were gone, evaporated.

As John and I haggled through the details of our deal, I realized he had been one of the people hoarding the good ones, and was, at least in part, responsible for the dearth of early to mid-20th century Navajo baskets. At the end of the day, he had the Chevy, I had his cache of baskets and several pieces of turquoise jewelry, and the marriage was back on track. And that, as they say, was a fair trade.