Friday, July 31, 2020

Through the Kokopelli Doors

It was the summer of 1989, Twin Rocks Trading Post was set to open soon, and the time had come to carve the front doors. Several months earlier I had grown tired of trying to convince the Salt Lake City law firms I would be a good addition to their team and decided to come to Bluff for some honest construction work. I had traded an air-conditioned office in Sacramento for the heat of midsummer Bluff, and the transition had gone smoother than expected. The manual labor was more enjoyable than anticipated, and I liked feeling it was helping build something substantial, long-lasting.

A difficult marriage caused me to end my California legal career and return to Utah. I felt the marital union deserved at least one more try, so I gave my notice to the partners, packed my things, and headed east. Because I did not possess an Ivy League degree, however, the top Salt Lake City firms were not kind to me. As a result, I turned to Bluff as a sanctuary from the disappointment of numerous unproductive interviews. I felt a little time away from the law might clear my head and help me decide what I really wanted to do with my life. Little did I know how profound the change would turn out to be. Pounding nails, mixing concrete, and sanding wood turned out therapeutic, just what I needed.

As I stood in the midst of sawdust piles and cast-off bits of lumber, Jim Foy, the building contractor and close family friend, explained how important it was to select the correct image for the front doors. I had been away from southern Utah so long I had lost touch with its culture, and I was at a loss what to suggest. After waiting a few days without any constructive input from me, Jim produced a rough pencil sketch of a figure that looked like a combination of insect and vegetable. The body resembled an oval horizontally perched on top of a gourd. Hands and feet protruded from the lower portion of the bulbous anthropomorphic figure, a mosquito proboscis projected from its face, and a curved horn jutted backwards from the top of its head.

"What the heck is that?" I asked. "Kokopelli," Jim proudly proclaimed. I scratched my head, wondering what a Kokopelli might be. Jim did not know exactly how to explain the drawing, but said it had something to do with ancient rock art and good fortune, maybe fertility. At that point I needed a little luck, and fertility seemed interesting, so I agreed to the design. Jim hoisted one of the big laminated doors up onto saw horses, rolled out his set of wood chisels, and went to work. Under his large, skilled hands the insect-vegetable man began to emerge.

At the time, I viewed Kokopelli as nothing more than an artistic feature. After a while, however, I began to notice people caressing his image as they walked into the store. Then, one day I received a call from a Canadian woman who had been in the shop on her recent vacation. She had returned home only to decide she needed a piece of jewelry with the image of Kokopelli engraved, carved, or inlayed into it. Conception had been a problem she explained, and something was needed to break the log jam. She believed Kokopelli was the man for the job, so I packaged a set of earrings with his image, including all the appropriate anatomical equipment, into a box and shipped it to her.

Imagine my surprise when a few months later the woman telephoned to excitedly inform me that, after several years of trying to conceive a child, she was indeed pregnant. Kokopelli had worked his magic, she said. At that point, I realized there was more to learn about the character who caused people to caress his carved image and request his intervention in matters of fertilization.

What I discovered was a rich, entertaining, multifaceted, and sometimes conflicting series of legends about this often well-endowed, humped-back flute player that was difficult to categorize. His image is prominently posted on rock art panels throughout the Southwest and, depending on which story you believe, he is thought to have been a storyteller, teacher, healer, traveler, trader, or god of the harvest. Most people, however, focus on his status as a fertility symbol. Some archaeologists with whom I have spoken indicated the Ancient Puebloans welcomed Kokopelli's visits to their small farming villages and believed his presence ensured a good crop. According to Navajo legend, Kokopelli is the bringer of abundant rain and successful plantings, of many types. Legends involving his seduction of young women are numerous and varied. In spite of that, Kokopelli seems to have maintained positive, productive relations with everybody he encountered.

Many years ago, I was up early looking out over this small river valley from the house beneath the twins when I saw a figure walking east along the Historic Loop. The person was hunched over against the early morning chill, and I was reminded of Kokopelli, who wandered this part of the country thousands of years before. As it turned out, the individual was Jamie Olson, one of the many artists who bring beautiful work to Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Several years before, Jamie had come into the store on a late fall afternoon and pointedly demanded, "Do you buy from white guys?" After explaining I did not care whether he was purple, pink, or aquamarine, I asked to see his work. At the post we focus on the quality of stones and caliber of work, not the color of the individual’s skin. Among the pieces Jamie spread on the counter was a flute player brooch, featuring a bird perched on the musician's shoulder, Kokopelli. Jamie’s work was striking, and after a little negotiation, I purchased every piece he had that day. That was the start of a long-term business association and friendship.

I have no idea whether it is true, but I like to think the image Jim placed on the doors during the summer of 1989 have cultivated a stream of friends, acquaintances, and customers. It is amazing how seemingly inconsequential events can influence your life. Imagine what might have happened had Jim suggested Coyote, the Trickster, for our doors.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Valley of the Gods

We routinely tell visitors to Twin Rocks Trading Post about the abundance of fascinating locations within 50 miles of Bluff. One of our most highly recommended places is located just 22 miles south and west on Highway 163. That place is the Valley of the Gods, and few locations on earth are more appropriately titled.

Found midway between Bluff and the Monument Valley Navajo Park, Valley of the Gods is far more pristine and less commercial than the legendary tribal landscape and movie mecca that straddles the Utah and Arizona border. Since early March and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, all Navajo parks have been closed to visitors. Most people who wander into the Valley of the Gods as an alternative to the tribal park agree the scenery equals or exceeds the grandeur of its more famous neighbor to the west.

The towers, pinnacles, and monuments in the Valley of the Gods are free and open to the public year-round. Under the care of the Bureau of Land Management, the area is designated a wilderness location where people are welcome to camp, hike, and explore with no fees attached.

The area was part of the Bears Ears National Monument until the entire 1.35-million-acre designation originally allocated by President Obama was reduced to a small fraction of that size by the Trump administration. There is camping, but visitors must be prepared and self-sufficient; no restrooms, food services, or other amenities are located here. The only development in the area is the charming and world-renowned Valley of the Gods Bed and Breakfast.

 A 17-mile gravel and graded dirt road passes through the monuments and buttes. This road is negotiable in passenger cars during dry weather. There are a few sharp curves and hills, but we routinely see giant RVs that find beautiful locations and set up for weeks. The entrance on the east side is from Hwy. 163 near Mexican Hat, and the western end is on Hwy. 261 at the base of the Moki Dugway. 

From the top of the dugway, views of the Valley of the Gods are breathtaking. Looking down from a height of over 1,800 feet above the valley floor, you see most of the Four Corners from Ute Mountain to Monument Valley. When storms pass through you often see rainbows intersect with sunbeams in a remarkable display of visual delights. Experts claim Valley of the Gods is the darkest night sky in America and on moon-less nights you can practically navigate by starlight.

One of the most colorful and fun events of the year in the valley occurs during the Bluff International Balloon Festival, held over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in January. If the winds and weather cooperate, the BLM allows hot air balloons to launch and land in the Valley of the Gods, a sight that is not soon forgotten. A visit to this remote and beautiful area should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Thought, Speech, and Mother Earth

It is true that I typically cannot distinguish noun from pronoun, verb from adverb, or preposition from proposition, so when Rick suggested I read Language and Art in the Navajo Universe by Gary Witherspoon, I was uninspired. Most often English feels like a second language to me, and Priscilla has many times counseled that Navajo is complex and almost impossible for outsiders to learn. Rick can, however, be persistent, so after his copy of the book sat around the trading post for a month, I took it home. After it had kicked around the house for another three months, I ran out of alternative reading material and gave it a thumbing.

Many years ago, Priscilla and I struck a deal; she would only speak to me in Navajo during our time at Twin Rocks and I would learn her language through osmosis. After teaching me basic numbers and simple greetings, she gave up, and never spoke Navajo to me again. On my own, I had learned to swear extremely well, which was a sore spot for her, so that ended our arrangement. Consequently, after all this time I can greet, count, and curse, but not converse, in Navajo.

After dragging my feet far too long, I realized Rick was not going to relent, so I dived in. Having waded through most of the introduction, which required a great deal of focus, I was still unsure this was the right read for me. Then I came to a paragraph where Witherspoon said, “Navajos taught me that anything you cannot remember without writing down is something you do not know or understand well enough to use effectively. So I have tried to learn about Navajo life and culture by entering it, not by recording or inscribing it.”

Witherspoon’s description accurately illustrates how I have approached Navajo culture at the trading post; I entered it and it entered me, so I took that as a sign Rick was correct and I needed to forge ahead.

In the first chapter, Witherspoon discusses the Navajo belief that, using various elements already in existence, the Holy Ones thought and sang the world into existence. This is an alien concept for those of us steeped in Western philosophy and theology, but it somehow made sense to me. Witherspoon then recites part of the Beautyway ceremony in which First Man speaks to two beings who personify thought and speech. These individuals originated in First Man’s medicine bundle, and it is said that when they emerged their beauty, excellence, and radiance were unequaled.

First Boy and First Girl are understood to be the parents of Mother Earth, who is also known as Changing Woman. To traditional Navajo people, Changing Woman is the female deity responsible for fertility, new growth, regeneration, and a continuing stream of offspring on this planet. I had never considered who Mother Earth’s parents might be, or even if she had any. She seemed timeless to me, eternal. Typically, when I come across a new concept like this, I approach Priscilla to confirm it is not taboo to discuss openly with other individuals. She is my local expert. Once Priscilla green lights the information, I feel comfortable talking with artists about how the idea might inspire their art.

After I received Priscilla’s stamp of approval, the first person to stop by was Elsie Holiday, arguably the best Navajo basket weaver ever, so I showed her the passages in Witherspoon’s book. At the beginning of our working relationship, Elsie and I settled on a principle outlined by Paul Wellstone, “We all do better when we all do better.” As a result, she and I have shared ideas, collaborated on designs, and generally worked in tandem to ensure great art happens. Almost daily Priscilla, Rick, Susie, and I stare at Elsie’s work in amazement, haunted by her talent. Her design sense, variety of subjects, materials preparation, and execution are excellent.

Elsie left that day saying she had an idea and would return once she worked it out. About a week later, she reappeared with a sketch incorporating First Boy, First Girl, and Mother Earth all on the same basket, a truly innovative construct. About two months later, she completed the weaving and came to reveal the results.

At this point, we have seen "Hunger Monster," "Funky Frog," "Navajo Picasso," "Ceremonial Cash," and many others, but we have never seen a basket like "Thought, Speech, and Mother Earth." This weaving blends one of the foundational stories of Navajo culture with Elsie’s distinctive style to make an inspired weaving. Priscilla, Rick, Susie, and I are once again stunned by Elsie’s art, and anxious to see what comes next.

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.