Rural and Proud
Green River, Utah, is a quiet town of a thousand people and a passionate mayor. The town is trying its best to balance tourism while keeping its secrets and mysteries.
Words and photo by Mattias Lundblad
Green River is in the center of all that’s good and holy.” According to Travis Bacon there is no better place on Earth than this little town of about a thousand people in eastern Utah. His eyes spark with excitement and love when he talks about his town where he was born and raised in, and is now the mayor of. As a teenager, it was a different story: he wanted to get out. So after highschool, he moved to California to study and became a Border Patrol agent. New on the job, he didn’t get a lot of chances to go on vacation, and was away for four years.
“But it wasn’t too long after I moved out that I just got so homesick. It was incredible. I started collecting Green River memorabilia on eBay. Postcards, 1950:s key fobs to hotel rooms, matchbook covers. Just anything I could get my hands on.”
Sixteen years after he left, he had to retire from the Border Patrol after developing multiple sclerosis. He returned to his beloved home town.
“I had this epiphany and realized what an amazing place this truly is. I’ve tried to explain why I love Green River so much. The people are amazing. This is my stomping ground. But there is something else to it that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. There is a spirit here that’s just good. It’s calming, it’s reassuring, it’s amazing.”
Green River has had its ups and downs. The economy has been one of boom and bust. Industries and government contracts have come and gone. In the park there is a replica of a missile, a constant reminder of the Cold War, when Athena missiles were fired from the desert a few miles from town, as part of research on nuclear missiles. The site has been decommissioned since 1979, but some concrete foundations still remain.
Melons, missiles and Main Street
Along Main Street, melons are sold in stands at street corners and gas stations. Many have an honor system where you pick your melon and drop cash or a check in a box. There are also several abandoned hotels and boarded up businesses, telling the story of a once thriving town. “We had the missile base, and uranium mining was really big. But the missile base pulled out and uranium went bust. That hit us really hard. Our primary focus now is to diversify our economy. Right now it’s agriculture and tourism,” says Travis Bacon.
Among people in town, there is a spirit of optimism. The area is often talked about in terms of up and coming, with a new turn for the better just around the corner. Travis Bacon energetically tells about more or less wild plans to turn the small airport into an inland port of entry, meaning that it would have to accommodate Jumbo jets. There are some plans of a solar farm, connecting to a gas pipeline a few miles down the road, and even a nuclear power plant. There is already an Amtrak station, where the California Zephyr stops once daily in each direction between San Francisco and Chicago.
One of the thriving small businesses is run by Obdulia Lujan. Her taco truck is semi-permanently parked along Main Street, with indoor seating in what used to be a gas station. Originally from Los Angeles, she came with her husband who is a truck driver, and decided to relocate to Green River.
“My husband asked me if I wanted to move, and I said yes. I was tired of California. We have a better life here. We worked for Taco Bell for seventeen years, now we have our own business, and I think we do better. I like this town, it’s really quiet and the people are nice.”
Several family members work with her, including her 18 year-old son Manuel. Obdulia keeps joining her husband on the road from time to time, to places like Denver, Las Vegas and California, but Manuel prefers staying home.
“He doesn’t like it, he’s so boring,” Obdulia teases. Manuel says that there’s not a whole lot to do in Green River, “but it’s a nice place. It’s calm. No violence. You can go around without being supervised.”
River Rat Mecca
Across the street, Ray’s Tavern is one of few places in the county where you can have a beer, but not without having a meal. Utah, heavily influenced by the Mormon church, has strict liquor laws. It’s a rustic place with a friendly atmosphere, a pool table and much of the interior intact since it first opened up its doors in 1943. Virg Mendoza runs the tavern with his brother. It’s the end of the season.
“It’s slow but we get local people. In the summer we get river rafters, right now it’s dirt bike and mountain bike riders.” Ray’s Tavern has been called a “river rat mecca,” for the many visitors who do whitewater rafting on the Green River and stop in for a burger and a local ale.
Further up Main Street, River Terrace Inn and Tamarisk restaurant, founded by a pair of siblings, have been next to each other since 1979. Five years ago, married couple Joshua Rowley and Nick Derrick bought Tamarisk together with another couple. Joshua has a background interior design, and they changed the interior and added three guestrooms with a view of the river. The interiors are artistic interpretations of local natural sites. The Crystal Geyser room is named for a cold water geyser near the former missile base. The Book cliffs room is named for the nearby series of mountains that look like a shelf of books. The Goblin Valley room got its name from the surreal landscape a few miles west, popular among canyoneerers and landscape photographers.
“We wanted to celebrate local areas, but not Arches National Park. It’s an easy go-to, to just put a photo of Arches. We want to be more local,” says Joshua Rowley.
He grew up in Green River, spent a decade in Salt Lake City, and now Nick and he are sharing their time between the two places – a balance between urban and rural life that suits them.
“I’d say Green River is the most rural place you can possibly think of. When people say ‘rural’ they mean something much bigger. This is a whole new level. It’s a very small, tight-knit community. Very friendly.”
For some, this level of ruralness is still not enough. Robin Nelson grew up on a nearby farm, left for college studies, and then returned. Sometimes, she goes horseback riding for days to completely disconnect, with no cellphone or other means of communication. The area is full of possibilities for hiking, mountainbiking and canoeing. Green River has many hotels, and wildcamping is easy, as most of the land is public, meaning you are allowed to camp for up to 14 days within a 28 day period.
A conflict between the desire to attract tourism to the Green River area and keeping a low profile is always present. While more tourists would give a welcome and necessary boost to the cash flow, there is a desire to keep Green River a secret. Robin Nelson tells me how she was questioned when she made trail maps public.
“People said ‘why would you do that? Now people will come here!’”
We donít want to become Moab
The words “we don’t want to become Moab” are often heard. Many fear repeating what happened to the nearby town that attracts huge amounts of tourists, making it expensive to live there and overwhelming roads and sewage pipes.
“My great grandparents were from Moab, and I spent a lot of time there when I was younger. It’s a completely different, almost unrecognizable place,” says Travis Bacon. “It’s been very rapid. 35 years ago there were no traffic problems, no congestion, not a whole lot going on. Then all of a sudden, the tourism boom hit, and everyone discovered Arches National Park, Canyon Lands and Dead Horse. Their permanent population year round is probably six or seven thousand, but in the busy season – man, you probably get a hundred thousand people in town.”
This hesitation may be part of the reason for the very limited signage for Fossil Point, a badlands area where dinosaur bones are visibly embedded in the rocks. The Bureau of Land Management keeps a low profile, allegedly so visitors won’t “love the dinosaur bones to death.”
“You definitely want high clearance here, and the sand is pretty scary,” Adriana Chimaras says, while driving Emery County’s Dodge Caravan with a heavy foot on the gas pedal. She is the travel, tourism and museum director for the county, with a mission to develop tourism, but only to a sustainable level. “Oh, we got a sign up,” says retired geologist Michael Leschin from the back seat. A few years ago, while working for the Bureau of Land Management, he made efforts to make the area more accessible for visitors, and started the paperwork, but to no avail.
“When I come out here, about half the time, if I see someone here, they know there are dinosaur bones around, but they don’t know what they look like. There’s something like 120-150 boulders that have dinosaur bones,”says Leschin. “After I retired, somebody killed my environmental assessment, and my idea of moving forward with a parking lot and picnic tables died.”
He points out the different layers of rocks in minute detail, and how erosion and volcanic activity have changed the landscape over millions of years.
“That’s a marine deposit, there used to be salt water. See that gray layer, the really light gray ledge? That’s probably a tuff bed – volcanic ash.” He points out some boulders as we ascend the hill, and there they are: entire bones fossilized, embedded in the rocks, clearly visible, and tinted red from iron oxide.
“I’m gonna say it’s a sauropod,”, says Leschin, taking a closer look at one of them. “In a general sense you can divide dinosaurs into three groups. Theropod means beast foot. You can see individual toes, and they are pointed, so you figure claws. Also the theropod tends to be a bit longer than it’s wide. Then there’s ornithopods – bird foot, like a stegosaur. You see individual toes, but they are rounded, it’s more of a one to one proportion. Then sauropods have long necks, long tailed ones. It means lizard foot,” he says, and adds: “I didn’t pick the names.”
Slowly, Fossil Point is becoming known, and has finally made it into Emery County’s guide book.
The Wild Bunch
Perhaps the desire to keep a low profile goes back to the days of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. The famous, gentlemanly outlaws came to Robbers Roost, not far from Green River, after a Colorado bank robbery in 1889, and used it for years as a base for stealing cattle and hide, until Cassidy left for South America and his companion Matt Warner switched sides and became a sheriff. It’s almost a mythological place that had a reputation of being impossible to enter. There were stories about a system of tunnels and land mines, as well as a huge supply of ammunition. The history is very much alive, even the signatures of Butch Cassidy and Matt Warner can still be seen, written on the sandstone with charcoal or coal tar. “Last time I saw it, it was a bit faint,” says Michael Leschin about Cassidy’s signature. But Matt Warner’s signature from 1920 is well preserved. The outlaws were however neither first nor last, to decorate the rock walls. The area has many collections of petroglyphs and pictographs. The Rochester rock art wall near Emery has almost every inch covered in petroglyphs, pictures carved into the rock. Humanoids, gods, animals, monsters. Several eras of rock art are represented, probably going back more than 4000 to 6000 years, to the Barrier Canyon rock art style, via the Fremont people to European settlers. Also modern day tourists have left their marks. Close to where Matt Warner wrote his name is the Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel, painted by the Barrier Canyon people. Red pigment was made from powdered hematite, possibly mixed with animal fat or eggs. The sandstone absorbed the pigment and preserves it for thousands of years. Not far away is a dinosaur footprint, another poorly kept secret. It’s not marked, but everybody in the area knows where it is. Sometimes people cover it with rocks to hide it from tourists, sometimes its outlines are filled in with chalk or charcoal to make it more visible.
A Green River motto is Rural and Proud. “We don’t want to be big. We live here for a reason, says mayor Travis Bacon. We are going to do everything in our power to not lose our sense of self. I don’t mean this literally, but if we lost all the things that make Green River what it is, I’d almost rather see it turn into a ghost town.”