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At 10:00 a.m. it was already hot. Summer had finally arrived in Bluff, and that combined with the effects of global warming had pushed temperatures into the extreme range. Even the lizards were scared. As I ambled across the porch to Twin Rocks Cafe in search of my second iced tea of the young morning he sat stoically at a metal table situated just outside the entry door. Looking southeast towards the old Jones hay farm, he didn’t say anything as I approached, did not even acknowledge my advance. “Hey, Bud”, I said, startling him, “how 'bout a soda to cool you off? I’m buyin'.” “Iced tea would be fine,” he replied with a barely perceptible smile. He seemed surprised I had spoken to him at all, let alone offered a free drink. He was obviously expecting a less congenial reception. His response made me think of all the stories I have read and been told about Native people being treated badly in border towns. Bluff is not like that and Twin Rocks is definitely not.

Going inside to retrieve our drinks, I encountered the cashier and manager who advised me, “We think he’s drunk.” “Any problem”, I asked. “No”, they responded, “He’s just waiting for a ride." As I put the to-go cup, straw and sugar caddy in front of him, he said, “Sit down.” “Got a lot to do”, I countered, beginning to turn away. “Sit down”, he reiterated, gently, but firmly. “Allrighty then,” I acquiesced and pulled up a chair, curious what this encounter might bring. If Twin Rocks is anything, it is interesting, and one never knows what to expect. “Another adventure”, I counseled myself.

He was a past middle age Navajo man, tall, maybe 6’2”, strongly built, still somewhat handsome, although a difficult life had clearly exacted its toll. He wore a black three-button golf shirt and blue denim jeans. Functional cowboy boots covered his feet and a worn, sweat-stained cowboy hat sporting a woven horsetail band sat nearby. His eyes were weary, and, as the staff had speculated, a tad bleary. I guessed he might have seen things most of us studiously avoid. “I’m a veteran, Marines”, he said. “Vietnam?” I probed, noting his age. “Yea.” “How many tours?” “One. Sometimes it makes me sad”, he said, tears welling up. Quickly controlling his emotions, he continued, “My name is Lee.” No last name, just Lee. “Where you from Lee?” “Monument Valley. I know those basket weavers, the Blacks. They’re my cousin sisters."

Having known my share of Vietnam veterans, I felt a special affinity for this world-worn stranger. Politics aside, those who served in that conflict deserve special consideration from the rest of us who were spared the trauma. Because I fear they may not grasp the significance of the 1960s, I often speak with Kira and Grange about the events of that era, including the war. For most young people their age, the 1960s are insignificant, too far gone to be meaningful, ancient history. Like the old men of my youth who wanted to ensure I understood WWII, I worry Kira and Grange may not grasp the enormity of those years and how they continue to impact our lives.

After a time he said, “I know you, I read those stories you write.” Surprised, embarrassed and flattered all at the same time, I gave him a startled look. “Yeah, they make me feel like home”, he continued, “You have a lot of Navajo brothers and sisters, don’t you?” “Yeah, guess I do”, I acknowledged, looking around at the Navajo staff I consider my extended family. At that point he began regaling me with stories of the Bluff he knew from his early years. “That place was an ice cream shop”, he said pointing to a small shack across the street. Indicating the Historic Loop, he said, “That was the old highway, before the new one was built. I rode my horse from Montrose, Colorado to Monument Valley one time. Deputy Dufur threatened to shoot me when I got here. I didn’t pay any attention to him, so he turned on his lights and escorted me out of town. Kept me safe. Looked after me.”

“My grandfather taught me that you talk with your eyes”, he said, looking directly at me. “That’s how you get lots of girlfriends” he joked. “Be kind with your eyes,” he advised. I couldn’t help thinking that if someone had taught me that lesson 40 years earlier I might have been awash in adolescent dates. "Too late for girlfriends now, but maybe I can try it on my wife”, I said, "test your theory, pass it on to my teenage son if it works." Kindness did seem like an exceptionally good idea. “Maybe if we were all nice to each other we wouldn’t need wars”, he said. “It makes me sad”, he said, repeating his earlier comment, his tired eyes watering once again.

“Gotta go get my son at White Mesa”, I said, "wanna ride?" “Sure”, he nodded, so I walked over to my old red pickup truck, fired it up, drove to the cafe steps and shouted, “Saddle up cowboy.” He climbed into the cab and fell silent. As we crested Cow Canyon heading north he asked, “You want poetry, Navajo poetry?” “Sure”, I said. “I’ll bring it to you”, he assured me, “bring it to you at Twin Rocks." At that point it struck me that I could have easily passed up my encounter with this exceptional man. All too often, we move past, circumnavigate, avoid those who seem different, those we don’t immediately comprehend and those who look like a problem waiting to consume our time. In the right light, however, these unusual individuals are opportunities rather than difficulties. As it turned out, that was the case with Lee. “Sit down”, he said, so I had and was all the better for having done so. Strange how you never know.

Looking back as he climbed out of the truck, he said, “Maybe you’ll write a story about me.” “Yeah” I said, “maybe.”

With warm regards Steve Simpson and the team.
Barry, Priscilla, and Danny.

Twin Rocks Museum

Twin Rocks Museum

Visitors to Twin Rocks Trading Post often comment that the shop looks like a museum. Although our primary mission is to sell turquoise jewelry, Navajo baskets and rugs, the statement is still flattering. A few days ago, a woman walked through the Kokopelli doors, took a quick look around and declared, “This place is just like a museum, and I could live here." After I got over my fear of the store becoming a flophouse and stopped wondering what Barry would look like as a fossil, I gave considerable thought to what we do at Twin Rocks.

Many people view museums as a place to view extraordinary objects and, if you are fortunate, have informative conversations with the attendants. I can certainly appreciate that sentiment, since some of my best museum experiences involve looking at displays while talking with staff members. I have even been invited into a few curation rooms and have seen many unusual artifacts. In most cases, the explanations of curators and docents added more to the relic than I could have imagined.

One thing I have realized is that art is primarily about the artist, and the artist is molded by his or her work. When I look at a rug by Eleanor Yazzie, I see her woven into the fibers, I can hear her voice and remember her children and the family’s yellow pickup truck. In a Tommy Jackson bracelet, I envision him pulling into the gravel parking lot on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, eyes shaded by narrow sunglasses. To me it is those memories that make Eleanor's weavings and Tommy's jewelry extraordinary. People are clearly the most important part of our operation, and depending on who is in the store at any particular moment the exhibition can be quite captivating.
Navajo Cross Roads Twin Rocks Collection Weaving - Eleanor Yazzie (#123)

Each visitor to the trading post has his or her own story to tell and distinct attributes to reveal. They have all experienced life on their own terms and are like mobile museums. Their demonstrations include culture from around the world, adventure in countless environments and knowledge about an endless variety of topics.

Yesterday our friend Skip strolled into the trading post after hiking in Cottonwood Wash. That afternoon his focus was on trees. After many years as an architect, Skip decided he was destined to be a fruit grower. As a result, he purchased acreage with a grove of apple trees and begun life anew. As he talked about the land and how it changed his life, a smile spread across his face. Skip described his grandfather, a man who allowed his young grandson to work in the elderly man’s extensive garden. That experience sparked a hunger that had lain dormant over 40 years. Unexpectedly, those seeds recently sprouted and Skip's passion blossomed.

Skip told me how he had once come upon a sandstone drain where several juniper saplings had taken root many decades before. He said the trees were huge, twisted and strikingly beautiful. Then he whispered, "I just went over and gave them a hug." I understood his emotion, since that is how I feel about many of the people who visit our trading post. Being a bit shy, I have most often refrained from embracing our patrons. As I grow older, however, I feel less inhibited.

Skip and I talked about a tree Jana recently purchased from a nursery in Moab. After we completed our transaction, the greenhouse attendant helped me put it in the back of our truck and bid us farewell. Before we drove off, I asked whether the unprotected tree would be all right during the 100-mile journey to Bluff. The assistant responded, "No problem, we have pretty strong winds here in Moab." Watching in the rear view mirror as we drove home, I agonized over every leaf that went skittering down the highway. When we finally pulled over, I saw the damage that had been done.

After I finished relating my story to Skip, he said, "You know Steve, it's going to take a long time, buckets of water and lots fertilizer to make that tree feel good again. It will need love to survive." That is the beauty of the human exhibits on display almost every day at Twin Rocks Museum, you just never know what treasures will be unveiled.

With warm regards Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

A Lesson Learned

A Lesson Learned

Many years ago, when I was extremely naive about Navajo culture, I did something terrible . . . I twirled Navajo baskets. That's right, and after years of cultural therapy I am free to admit my indiscretion. In hope of cleansing my conscience and putting this matter behind me, I am ready to openly confess. I need to unchain my psyche and allow myself to heal. I know many of you must be thinking, "What the heck does that have to do with anything?" Some may even ask, "Is he crazy? What's wrong with spinning baskets?"

There may also be those of you who are so surprised and saddened by my disclosure that you turn away in shame. Many may be genuinely disturbed by what has happened. I assure you, however, at the time I was ignorant of the magnitude of distress I was causing, distress to those who had woven the baskets and distress to those who knew there was so much emotion and meaning stitched into those sacred objects.

As hard as it may be to believe, at the time, I viewed those beautiful baskets as nothing more than "things". Some of my earliest memories are of my parents, Duke and Rose, using Navajo baskets to decorate our home. For years, they were nothing more than “baskets” to me. It wasn't until I accepted the mantle of "Indian trader" that I learned the truth about their proper care.

Here's the scenario, I am stationed in the trading post, sitting behind the counter and trying to maintain an important air. Remember, I am young and trying to establish my reputation. I have access to dollars, and believe that he who controls the cash is king. Thus, I feel all-powerful. In walks an unsuspecting weaver, who with great ceremony unveils her latest accomplishment. Laying the basket on the counter for my viewing pleasure, the artist begins to explain its meaning. My inexperienced mind is not focused on what she is trying to communicate. Instead, it is focused on trying to get the weaving at the lowest possible price, and wondering whether I might get a date with the fiery girl I have just met.

As I ponder these important issues, I place my index finger upon the center coils of the basket and give it a spin. Beginning negotiations, I am unaware the artist’s focus has shifted from what I am saying to the circular motion of her basket. Her head begins to move in the same fashion, she becomes dizzy with the movement and her stress level increases significantly. Finally she can take the sacrilege no longer and reaches out to grasp the basket with both hands, stopping its rotation. I simply continue with my objective of relieving her of the work and adding it to our inventory, not realizing I was causing so much chaos.
Navajo Double Ceremonial Basket - Kee Bitsinnie (#02)

As time went on, my "spinning" continued until it became an obsession. For me, it seemed a habit, not an addiction. A certain someone from up the road was consuming a great deal of my time, interest and imagination and I needed something to help me focus. I am sure there was a bit of psychology involved, but even now I cannot explain it. I was gradually becoming aware the basket weavers were reacting strangely to my routine and began to test them. When they would reach out and stop the basket mid-spin, I would hesitate for a moment then begin again. I noticed this resulted in a higher level of agitation, which at times pleased me.

Not only is it in my nature to pester others, I reasoned that by spinning the baskets I would cause the weavers to lose focus, thus allowing a break in their concentration and a better negotiating posture. I am not sure how long this went on, but I am confident the Navajo weaving community had lost patience. They must have been ready to bury me in the nearest anthill. It all came to a head one day when I was dealing with a young weaver, spinning her basket and causing great frustration. At the time there just happened to be an older Navajo woman in the store who was paying a great deal of attention to what was happening. The woman's name was Mary Grisham, and I knew her well. She had a bad attitude and was vocal about anything that ticked her off, a true radical. As I wrapped up the purchase, Mary angrily approached me and said, "Just what do you think you're doing?"

Remember, I was young and at that point I had not learned to deal with angry women, so I could only stammer, "What do you mean?" Mary proceeded to inform me that a Navajo basket represents the world, and by spinning it that way I caused serious disruptions. Mary and the weaver stormed out of the trading post, loudly proclaiming my ignorance. I was flabbergasted; I had no idea. I began to investigate, and found books that better explained the meaning behind Navajo basketry. I found the traditional basket was a sacred object used by medicine men to practice healing ceremonies. The interpretation of the weaving is deep, meaningful, and much reverence goes into its production. This was to say nothing of the pictorial baskets I had carelessly spun; they represented chant ways, morality tales and legendary heroes.

My basket spinning had spun a disturbance because it showed disrespect. In effect, it had caused a chaotic reaction in a deeply spiritual sense. Not good, I assure you. I was then, and am still, embarrassed by my lack of understanding. It was a hard lesson, but one I learned well. I have also gained a great deal of humility, and now work hard to recognize what the weavers are trying to communicate through their art. I have gained a great deal more common sense and work hard to understand others. I am more focused on respect for other people.

Although it took seven long years to break through, I eventually married the girl who had distracted me from my calling. My wife has taught me much indeed, and I am more experienced in the ways of women since settling down with her. I still do not understand them, but I am a bit wiser when it comes to interpreting their ways.

Over the years, my habit of purposefully aggravating others has often gotten me into trouble. As a matter of fact I have been blessed with a son and two beautiful daughters who have elevated some of my bad habits to new heights, but I guess what they say is true, "What goes around comes around." I am now paying back for my indiscretions. Needless to say, I no longer spin baskets, and I only rarely antagonize others just to make a profit.

With warm regards from Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Mother Earth and Me

Mother Earth and Me

For many years the Navajo people we know through Twin Rocks Trading Post have been working to teach Steve and me the ways of Mother Earth. In Navajo culture, Mother Earth, who is also known as Changing Woman, is reborn each spring, ages gradually throughout the year and expires during the winter months in an enduring and eternal cycle. She is considered a compassionate deity who has been watching over her people since they first arrived in this realm.

It is not that we are unfamiliar with this divine being. Indeed, as kids Steve and I were in constant contact with her. Just after school let out each summer, our own mother shaved our heads and set us loose to rampage around Bluff. In order to rebuild the thick calluses on the bottoms of our feet, which had softened while we attended class, we also jettisoned our shoes. In the rough and rocky terrain we inhabited toes were more effective than rubber soles.

Summer was a time to search out and explore all aspects of our surroundings, and few adventures were overlooked. Craig, Steve and I were masters of our small universe. We dug forts deep into the red clay; lay in the cool, moist sand under shaded culverts; and scaled the sheer cliffs which give Bluff its name. It was an idyllic childhood, one that offered great freedom and independence. To this day, as I stroll the dirt streets of Bluff I often come across reminders that open windows onto the past. On those occasions, it is as if for a moment I return to that time long ago and become an unrestrained youth exploding onto the landscape.
Mother Earth

Recently a brief thunderstorm struck Bluff as Steve and I worked at straightening up the trading post. He is Mr. Clean, and gets wound up when the dust gets thick and fingerprints obscure our glass display cases. I, however, am Hasteen Casually Cluttered and not easily offended by a messy desk or disorganized back counter. We do our best to accept each other’s idiosyncrasies and always collaborate to get the work done.

As the storm erupted I walked out onto the porch to enjoy the rain. The smell of moist earth and feel of static electricity grabbed my attention. As I absorbed the scene with all my senses, I noticed a car pull up in front of Twin Rocks Cafe. It rolled to a stop and out scampered a woman I had first met over three decades earlier. She flashed a bright smile, waved energetically and disappeared into the restaurant.

Turning my gaze southwest towards the old Bluff City Trading Post location I could distinguish only a small part of the building through the wet leaves of an ancient cottonwood tree, the driving rain and a tangle of swaying branches. In an instant I was transported back almost 35 years to a similarly wet morning. On that particular day in history, when the clouds opened up I had just completed my daily chores of cleaning glass, sweeping concrete floors and arranging displays.

My older sister Susan and I ran Bluff City together, alternating opening in the morning and working together during afternoons and evenings. I clearly remember being imminently proud of myself for doing such a fine job and maintaining the spotless standard Susan demanded. As I admired the results of my domestic skills, I began to worry about setting such a high mark, wondering how that might affect future projects.

Hearing a vehicle come to a halt in the gravel parking lot outside, I walked from behind the counter to the open door and immediately recognized Archie Jones. He was approaching with a small cluster of his numerous children. Archie was a bit of an antique at that point, tall, thin and stooped. On his bony chin sprouted a dozen or so quarter inch long wispy white whiskers. He always smelled of earth and juniper smoke, a somewhat pleasant perfume once you acclimated to it.

Archie was a real character; he had a bright, happy smile and a gleam in his large, sleepy brown eyes. It was rumored he had three wives and a boatload of kids. I knew he was always short of cash. That was why he frequented our establishment. We ran a pawn business, which made modest cash loans, secured by turquoise jewelry, saddles, rifles and various other easily stored items. Archie's word was solid gold, so we never hesitated to provide funds to tide him over until the next check arrived.

His family literally flooded into my newly scrubbed and mopped store. I gave them a frustrated look as they shook the moisture from their clothing and tracked mud throughout the facility. It didn’t take long to figure out what I would be doing for the next several hours. Archie noticed my consternation and shrugged it off with a smile. The fact that precipitation had come to our mostly dry climate was too important to let small matters adversely affect his mood. I guess he thought an explanation was in order, because he walked up to me and began articulating his thoughts.

Archie spoke little English, and my Navajo was mostly unintelligible. No matter, his young daughter, the same one I had just noticed darting into Twin Rocks Cafe, stepped forward. As if on cue, she began deciphering her father's words. His nearness, aromatic scent, sincere look and tone of voice demanded attention. I could tell by his attitude he wanted me to appreciate what he was saying, and that the message meant a great deal to him. Touching his weather worn face, he stated, "My skin is red like the earth. I was born through her, she is my mother." I listened intently, focusing on his animated face, fascinated by what he said. He continued, "All things come from her. Be good to her and she will be good to you." His young daughter scrupulously interpreted, and his message, spoken through a shy child's soft voice, had a definite effect on me. I wanted to know more. Archie, satisfied he had made his point, stepped back and ended the conversation. I finalized Archie’s pawn transaction and the small tribe exited into the waning storm.

My mind switched back to the present, from the scent of Archie to the fragrance of the now falling rain and static energy flashing. Mine has been an interesting journey into the traditions and culture of the Navajo people. I find their message as motivating and thoughtful as any belief system I have encountered. Theirs is a unique perspective, their eyes see through a different lens and their hearts feel deep emotions. I embrace their ancient view, which treats the earth as a living, breathing and giving entity. Respect for the natural world is vital for its survival, and for ours as well. When I am in close contact with the soil I feel more at ease and draw strength from Mother Earth’s natural beauty. So when our customers find a little red sand sifting from their packages, we hope they realize we are just sharing the secret to our quiet, calm, genteel world; the secret of our mother the Earth.

With warm regards from Barry Simpson and the team;
Steve Priscilla and Danny.


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