The Talking Beaver Trading Post
Isolated deep in the New Mexico mountains near the town of Abiquiu is an old trading post that dates back to the frontier days of the state. This is the obscure Talking Beaver Trading Post that I stumbled upon a few years ago while briefly disoriented in the Jemez Mountains. This trading post is truly one of the more unique places ever to garner a trivial spot in New Mexico history.
Today, the only access to the Talking Beaver Trading Post is along a deeply rutted wagon trail through the arid mountains and rocky valleys which are all too familiar to the local residents. The trail is a grueling twenty miles of torture to any but the most persevering. Just when you've almost given up hope, you'll round a bend along a steep slope and there, down in the bottom of a shallow canyon, is an old eroded adobe structure. Even from this distance you cannot help but notice the most striking thing about the place: a bright blue glaring neon sign, proclaiming "Talki Beaver Trading Pst".
The sign is in blatant dichotomy with the Native American and Hispanic cultures of the region. It's more in tune with the glory days of old Route 66, far to the south. Why such a thing would be out here in the backwoods I did not realize until years later. One corner of the sign has long ago broken loose from an anchor and now hangs at a perilous angle, swaying, ready to topple with the slightest pretext. But it still operates, except for the occasional flicker of a few of the letters.
When approaching the trading post from the trail, I first passed a dilapidated corral from which the owner's goats have long since escaped. But they hadn't gone far. Indeed, they were all over the path, impeding any further progress of my vehicle. As I got out, they swiftly surrounded me, wondering what goodies I had to offer them. I could hardly push past, trying to seek refuge through the barely functional wooden gate, and into a rock strewn yard filled with chickens and cats. At least they left me alone, except for one huge tabby perched upon an overhanging cottonwood branch. This cat had positioned itself strategically to observe all happenings within the yard.
As I approached the door to the trading post, the tabby jumped down from its throne and followed closely at my heels. On either side of the entrance were long strands of chili ristras.
On the door was a well weathered hand painted leather "Welcome" sign. Not knowing whether to knock or not, I hesitated for a few moments. I seemed to remember from the Tony Hillerman books that you never knock on the doors to Navajo hogans. The polite thing to do is to just wait outside for the occupants to open the door. They will invite you in when they are ready to receive guests. My quandary was not knowing if the proprietor was Navajo or not.
My predicament was resolved when the door opened. There, before me, stood an aged man with wizened features and a broad three-toothed smile. As he motioned me inside, he greeted me with a low rasping voice announcing, "Ya-Te-Hey". So I walked in, with Tabby too. The inside of the trading post was sparsely lit only by the open door, two small windows, and a small fire in a center hearth. It took a few moments for my eyes to get accustomed to the dim light. In those brief seconds, whether real or not I do not know, but I sensed a power of ancient supernatural forces; not foreboding or evil or even good, but more like the pure essence of life.
"Yet-Ta-Hey", I eventually replied after remembering my manners. Looking around I noticed the ceiling was covered by drying herbs. Dozens and dozens of different varieties. The aroma created by these herbs was quite pleasant, offering my olfactory senses a smorgasbord of fragrances. There was another familiar scent there, too. A pleasing scent that I knew from long association. I followed my nose and arrived at a coffee pot brewing away over the open flames. The owner saw my gaze, quickly hobbled over and offered me a cup. I think everyone will agree that the aroma of freshly brewed coffee is irresistible. I eagerly accepted the liquid and thanked my provider. The first sip, however, was utterly bitter! It must have been brewing for eons.
I didn't know what to do with the rest of the cup, so I just wandered around with it, looking at all his wares. I found Tabby perched again on a high shelf, with a commanding view of the whole room. Along another wall was a blanket hanging from ceiling to floor. As I approached I perceived a movement behind the blanket. I knew it wasn't Tabby, so I waited a bit to see if it would move again. After a few moments the blanket parted slightly to reveal four small curious faces. When they saw me watching them, they disappeared again. They must have been the old man's children, peeking out to see who the stranger was.
The rest of the trading post was filled with wondrous items, if you're a collector of antique Native American artifacts. This was a real treasure trove with none of the cheap trinkets offered for sale now-a-days at the tourist traps. I found beautifully painted pots, exquisitely crafted leather goods, and of course, lots more fine blankets. Unfortunately, age has taken its toll on these crafts. Much of the leather had long ago cracked and the once brilliant paints have faded. That didn't stop me from examining every item I could find.
After selecting a fine, broad-brimmed hat with a solitary feather in the back, I asked the old man how much he wanted for it. His face beamed with pleasure as he took the hat and placed it upon my head. Then he mumbled some phrase I couldn't understand. At my puzzled look, he smiled even more and held out three fingers. It was in this way that we negotiated for several other articles, including one exquisitely beaded deerskin pouch that I purchased for eighteen dollars. I could see a perplexed expression on his face as he realized that he didn't have enough fingers. After a moment, however, he took both my hands and extended all ten fingers. Then he placed eight more of his fingers next to mine for the total price. Clear enough.
For several years I had wondered why the Talking Beaver Trading Post was built in such a remote location. The answer came when I was fortuitously looking over a set of old maps of Northern New Mexico. It looks as if a major trail from Pojoaque to Tierra Amarilla passed right by that spot. With high expectations to capitalize upon the tourist trade, some enterprising soul must have bought that bright neon sign, much in the vein of old Route 66.