From harrowing to humorous, performers at Grand Circle Storytelling Festival enthrall the audience

Bil Lepp performs at the Grand Circle Storytelling Festival in page on Sept. 17.

Those who attended the inaugural Grand Circle Storytelling Festival last Friday were treated to tales that ranged from heartbreaking to humorous. The wide variety of gripping stories and poetry kept the audience entranced throughout the evening. 

Four storytellers took the stage during the two-and-a-half-hour event, held at the Cultural Arts Building in Page: Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, Steven Law, Laura Tohe and Bil Lepp.

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer has published 12 collections of poetry and has served as poet laureate of Colorado’s Western Slope. She has also written one poem a day, every day, for the past 16 years. 

Trommer spoke to the audience about embracing their “inner narrator.” 

“That gift of being the narrator, the stories that we tell ourselves, define who we are and change everything about how we meet the world,” she said. “I think that’s maybe one of the most important things I had to learn about storytelling, is the thrill of letting the narrator tell it just like it is, to meet the moment with absolute authenticity.”

She said that such an approach was a “gorgeous invitation” to pay more attention, and when we do that, there’s an ability to “lean more deeply into the moment that’s right here.”

Trommer recited a humorous poem about an imaginary interlude with Mr. Clean, but later shared a poem about walking dark rural streets in Georgia with her teenage son, watching the lightning, smelling unseen flowers and talking about everything from cars to cockroaches.

With tears in her yes, she then revealed that her son died two days after she penned that poem, the writing of which she saw as a precious gift to herself.

“To be able to show up and be very present with the people we love is one of the biggest gifts we give to ourselves and to each other,” Trommer said.

She was followed onstage by Steven Law, author of the poetry collection “Polished” about exploring the Colorado Plateau by foot and by raft. He is also cohost of “Poetry Snaps,” a weekly radio show on KNAU in Flagstaff, and an award-winning contributor to Lake Powell Chronicle, “Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel” and other publications. 

Law’s true story, titled “Into Abaddon,” recounted his poorly planned and poorly executed 1991 trip with two friends to explore an abandoned silver mine in Utah. They eventually found themselves 600 feet underground with no water and dying flashlights, unable to find their way back out the way they had come.

The misadventure led to moments during which the hapless explorers were convinced they would die inside the mine.

Teetering on death’s door, Law began contemplating the life he had wanted to lead. He thought about how he wanted to “have a big, amazing life” in which he would be a river guide, go sea kayaking in British Colombia, see the northern lights, become a journalist and poet and write the great American novel, find a beautiful woman to marry and have “amazing kids” to take camping.

“Now, just in my rush to start that big, adventurous life, I think I might have rushed into it too fast. And now it was all about to be over,” he said.

However, Law’s presence on stage at the storytelling festival served as evidence of his survival and his eventual emergence from the silver mine, as well as his ability to realize many of the goals he had set for himself as a young man.

Laura Tohe is a Dine’ author, poet and storyteller, and professor at Arizona State University’s English Department. She is also the Navajo Poet Laureate.

Tohe grew up in New Mexico in a two-bedroom duplex with four older brothers, two younger brothers and a sister. Her mom was a single mother. 

“I grew up there listening to stories being told all around me without realizing that that’s what they were,” she said. “When I was maybe 12 years old or so, I was fortunate because I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: I wanted to be a writer.”

The problem was that she had never read anything written by Navajo people or even Native people.

“All the stories that I had ever read or listened to were all written by white people. So, I got this idea in my mind that only white people could be writers,” she said.

Once in college, however, she met writer Rudolfo Anaya, who is considered the father of Chicano literature. She approached Anaya about what she should write about for an assignment he had given her. 

“He said, ‘Write about stories from your community. I’ll bet you have a lot of stories from that.’ And it just went, ‘Bing, yeah, that’s right, there are a lot of stories that I grew up with,’” Tohe said, adding, “To be a good writer, to be a good poet, you have to listen, you have to be able to listen and observe.”  

At the festival, Tohe told several stories about her older brother David, who had a personality where he was always “pushing the limits” but was also fun to be with. She shared how he made red and blue pancakes using food coloring, and once took her to a dance. 

David later served in Vietnam as a Green Beret but “brought the war home with him” and suffered from nightmares. He bought a Dodge Charger with money left over from the military, which he drove on rural roads on the Rez at 100 mph. 

“Perhaps he tried to outrace his monsters of war, but the monsters always knew where to find him, and eventually they released him a month after he turned 40 years old,” Tohe said.

She concluded with a mesmerizing story that her mother once told her called “Snake Lover,” about “a young girl who fell in love with a non-human.”

 The last performer of the evening was Bil Lepp, an award-winning storyteller from West Virginia and host of History Channel’s “Man vs. History” series, who specializes in humorous, tall-tale-type stories.

Lepp utilized his folksy style to turn the act of hiking the 3.5-mile Yosemite Falls Trail into a hilarious epic adventure. He described some of the hikers who shared the trail with him as being dressed in what he called “national park casual, which means they never intended to get out of the car. They’re just like, ‘What am I doing on a trail? How did this happen?’”

On his personal habit of not carrying water on hikes, Lepp said, “[My wife] goes, ‘Here’s this doctor, he’s 35 years old, he died out taking a hike. That could happen to you.’ I’m like, no it couldn’t because I’m not 35 and I’m not a doctor.”

After finally returning to his car from the long, arduous hike, Lepp was reminded of the famous John Muir quote, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

“I was thinking about that, and I thought to myself, ‘You know what? Yeah, the mountains are calling. But for a while, I’m gonna block that number,” he said.

He finished with a “bedtime story” about the King of Little Things, a tale whose message was that “it’s the little things that matter the most.”

Lepp ended the evening by talking about storytelling festivals across the United States and describing how the Grand Circle Storytelling Festival can develop into a “lucrative thing” for Page.

“I hope that you guys pass on the word, and I hope that you enjoyed what you heard tonight,” he told the audience. “I hope you … encourage people to go see the sponsors that helped make this possible. … I want this festival to succeed for you to have more stories and poetry and great spoken word to listen to.”

The sponsors of this year’s Grand Circle Storytelling Festival included Glen Canyon Conservancy, Page Public Library, Page Unified School District, Torgenson Law, Dixie’s Lower Antelope Canyon Tours, Adventure Partners, Roger Ekis’ Antelope Canyon Tours and Courtyard by Marriott.

Festival founder and producer Steven Law said he plans to make it an annual event.

“I think it’s going to be big,” he said. “It has the potential to be bigger than the Balloon Regatta. Now, that’s not going to happen this year, and it won’t be next year, but if we do it right, we can grow it every year. I hope to make the Grand Circle Storytelling Festival a fall tradition in Page.”

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