2nd Place Winner: 2006 Curios Nonfiction Contest
It looked a little like a crude, lopsided, rock pagoda built up a hillside by drunks; it also looked a little like several small rock buildings of different shapes haphazardly joined somehow to make one big building of a very strange shape.
Three or four stair-stepped roofs (running in different directions) made it seem three or four stories tall, but inside, it was just one story; the floors stair-stepped up the slope. The lowest roof was almost flat; the higher ones were steeper. Each roof looked like a quilt, patched with leftover pieces of roofing.
The front of the building and two massive rock walls formed the U that made the small dirt parking lot, like a courtyard. A fort-like double gate in the back wall opened into a small yard with a lawn and a giant cottonwood. Three more giants were in the parking lot—one at each inner corner and the third at the outer end of the side wall.The upslope behind the building was only three or four feet below the eaves of the second roof, and halfway up the slope— maybe fifty feet from the back walls—were the remains of three kivas. Two were full of debris and dirt. One had been dug out in the 1930s, changed into a deep, leaking swimming pool by Bill and Sally Lippincott, anthropology graduates from the University of Chicago who owned the place for several years.
At the front, under the eaves of the second roof, on a whitepainted wall, were black letters three or four feet high— KINTEEL.
Though Kinteel means something like “Building-wide,” this place was called Wide Ruin or Wide Ruins.
But there was no ruin. There had not been a ruin since sometime in the 1890s, when Sam Day II, whose father was an Anglo Civil War veteran and whose mother was a Navajo woman, tore down the Anasazi walls and used the rocks (selected, shaped, and smoothed hundreds of years before) for the small, rectangular building in which he lived and traded before he sold out in about 1900 to John Lynch, another Anglo.
Lynch had a bar at Chambers near the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad; he also had two Navajo wives. There are still two different groups of Lynches in the area. Lynch used more of the rocks for the first of what would be ten to fifteen major additions, each of a different style, completed by a succession of traders until the 1940s—after which there were only repairs and remodeling.
Day’s part was the front of the complex – what was called the store. The additions – almost in sequence and interconnecting through doorways of odd sizes with one or two or three steps between – were the big storeroom (where freight wagons and, later, trucks were unloaded); the back storeroom; the vault-like pawn room; the rug room (where rugs and paintings were displayed for tourists with money); the kitchen (with a sink big enough for a cafeteria); the laundry room (with an extra bathroom for guests); the hallway (with stairs going uphill to the two guest rooms); the front living room (with a fire place big enough for a ski lodge); the long closet (about 30 feet long and six feet wide with shelves along the sides); the bunk room or the dorm (with the largest bathroom); the library (with built-in bookshelves and desk); the darkroom (for whatever dark rooms were used for); the back living room or parlor; the back bedroom (with its own private bathroom); and lastly, the enclosed back porch opening into the yard.
It was a big, old, crumbling, dark place. It was like the Labyrinth; you could expect to meet the Cretan Minotaur in there. The inside of it was like a foreign country: everything was different—the merchandise, the customers, the language, the Anglo trader . . . . JB was the first trader I saw at Wide Ruins. He had grown up at Crystal Trading Post near Washington Pass and could tell jokes and stories in Navajo.
Most of the regular customers were almost as old and crumbling as the Post itself; younger people with money and pickups went to Chambers or to Sanders or all the way to Gallup. The older people came on foot or in wagons; they rode horses or hitchhiked.
They came to the Post for credit, for basic supplies, for someone to read or write a letter or to make telephone calls. They came to meet their relatives, to trade rugs or pinyon seeds or lambs, and to listen to JB’s jokes and stories. It was the only game in town, because there was no town.
Some of them were characters left over from Alberta Hannum’s books about Wide Ruins Trading Post in the 1930s and 1940s, Spin a Silver Dollar and Paint the Wind, characters like Ben Navajo, a local witch, though he had retired and was not hexing anybody or anything anymore. There was Crip Chee, who dressed like a pirate, drove a twohorse chariot, and scared the hell out of the tourists who wanted his picture. I saw him only once before he died.
Austin Lee had three wives. That in itself was not remarkable: Busy Boy had at least six. But Austin’s oldest wife was the mother of the other two: he had married a mother and her two teenage daughters. He was doing okay for a homely, little guy.
Jimmy Toddy was famous. When sober, he was a great artist.
Bent Knee was an ancient monument, so the US Geological Survey mapping team named a wash after him.
And there were hundreds of others. The Post had about 250 credit accounts, most for big families. Sometimes I think about Wide Ruins Trading Post and wish that I could go back there. I miss JB and his joking around. I miss the over-the-counter trading that took forever. Nobody was in a rush. I miss the old people who talked so slowly that even I could learn Navajo from them. Maggie Yellowhair was the slowest and best; I could hear each and every syllable.
I miss the little kids who came in with their grandmothers, sat down on the dirty floor, took off their shoes, and shook coins out of their socks (because their pockets had holes) to buy Jolly Rancher hard candy. The plate-glass front of the candy counter was always smeared with their hand prints and nose prints. I miss Jennifer Lee—the first and last blonde-haired, blueeyed Navajo I ever saw.
I miss a lot of people and a lot of things. But I cannot go back; nobody can. There is nothing there now but a big mound of rubble pushed up by tribal bulldozers. Wide Ruins Trading Post burned down in 1981, missing its 100th anniversary by just a few years.