What I Learned After Six Years in Rural Utah

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Image by Tim Glenn

I never imagined myself here. An advocate and champion for a tiny speck of a town sitting between two exits of a highway in southeastern Utah. A place that many described as the armpit of the state when my family and I moved from Salt Lake City. That was six years ago. At the time, I couldn’t have expected a place so small to have such a big impact. The plan was to get in, do some work, and get out. But living in a town of 950 people, separated by at least an hour’s drive from any other community, only minutes away from some of the best kept secrets our public lands have to offer, and working in a field that relies on public trust has a way of working on you.

I’m set to leave now, having earned a job in the city–a place I called home for most of my life, but a place that feels remote now. Foreign. Full of life but disconnected from the version of humanity I’ve been living for half a decade. Rural life has changed me. Forged me into a different stone through the heat and pressure of small town politics, the freedom of space, and the impact of opportunity. I’m excited to leave, but mourning what might be lost when I do.

The thing is, truth isn’t always evident. Even after it’s been revealed. We forget. We move on. Our surroundings shape us in ways we can’t expect or measure. The varying truths that rural and urban communities live by have helped shape the physical and mental boundaries of the modern west. For six years I feel like I’ve occupied some kind of middle ground between the two. It’s a place I like–a place I hope will play a larger role in shaping the West someday. But as I prepare to leave it, or at least prepare for my access to change, I hope the truths I’ve come to know about rural Utah don’t fade into the haze of dirty air and city lights.

I moved to Green River to become the director of a small museum that relied heavily on the traffic of urban tourists. It was an amazing job, one of the best I’ll ever have, and the tourists were our lifeblood. Folks looking for a little culture to go along with their off-road adventuring. Also directions. A lot of directions.

Too often, in between pointing to places on a map and trying not to reveal all our local secrets, an urban tourist would ask why I live here. It’s an odd question. One they would ask not because they were interested, but because they were confused by the notion that someone would leave the city to live among crumbling buildings and broken down cars. It was a question of class bias. Asked with an air of judgement–in the way you might say, “oh my god, why do you have this uncaged boa constrictor in the living room?”

Why would you want to live among the poor?

Tourists come from all over the world to be in Southeastern Utah, but it seems most of them don’t want to be around the people who live here. Maybe that’s a hard truth, but it’s the pattern I’ve seen after six years. Tourists are more than happy to ask locals to ring up an order of cheese fries, or to serve them a taco. But breaking bread would be a different story.

No doubt, rural Utah is an uncomfortable place to be an outsider. Locals aren’t exactly laying out red carpet to welcome strangers. So it’s no wonder that when a tourist thinks they’ve found an ally, they would let their guard down and reveal what they actually think of the place. Great scenery, but Green River isn’t a place they’d ever want to move to.

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Image by Tim Glenn

Judgment is a skill we pass on to each coming generation. It’s intuitive, like language. Rural folks have their own opinions of the city and the people who live there. It’s too crowded. Bad air. Too many cars. We all tend to judge in generalities and that’s the problem. We do it endlessly–race, class, neighborhoods, sports. We sort others into groups and judge them for belonging. But you can’t understand a community unless you spend time in it, and spending time in a community is not akin to being served by it.

For the record, there are plenty of reasons to live here. Many of them are the same as anywhere else–work, family, a connection to place. But there’s also magic here. The kind you have to be steeped in to understand. Sunsets on the river–orange, pink, purples and blues reflecting off the water and dancing with silhouettes of cottonwoods and sparrows. Front porch sitting, fighting off mosquitos and making conversation with anyone who walks by. The constant reminder that we’re all in the same boat, each working to keep the other person afloat. Waving at every car on the road and hearing about it if you miss one. Silence and stars. Blue herons and geese. Living with affinity and relying on strangers. If some abandoned buildings or broken sidewalks are enough to pass judgement on a community, then you’re not looking for real life–you’re looking for Disneyland.

“If some abandoned buildings or broken sidewalks are enough to pass judgement on a community, then you’re not looking for real life–you’re looking for Disneyland.”

The misunderstanding between rural and urban communities doesn’t seem to have a great solution outside of time. Trust has been broken, and neither party understands the other. For this town, and I suspect many others across the country, mistrust stems from judgement passed down by folks who use simple transactions as their primary method of interacting with fellow human beings. I give you money, you provide a service. The end. When the tourists come to Green River, that’s what they expect. But that’s not how it works in a small town. We relate to each other. We listen to each other. We make dumb jokes and ask each other about the weather.

I had lived here for less than a month when I caught my first glimpse of rural living. I was in the grocery store buying produce. A quick in-and-out sort of trip. As I made my way to the oranges, I walked past a new coworker without seeing her. My brain didn’t even recognize her as anything but an extra, cast in my personal movie about fruit. The same way I would have classified any other stranger in the city. When you live among hundreds of thousands you don’t expect to see someone you know at the grocery store. She stopped me, surprised I hadn’t said hello, and laughed at me for being in such a hurry.

What I didn’t know at the time is that the grocery store is a community space. The gas station, the burger joint, the bank, the post office–they’re all community spaces. Everywhere you go in this town is an opportunity to see another human being and recognize their humanity. That’s the transaction small towns rely on. The money-service-goods part is secondary to seeing someone you know and asking about their day.

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Image by Tim Glenn

After six years in this town, I’m still not a full-fledged local because my grandparents weren’t born here. But I’m pretty close. I know most people who live here. I know the bank tellers, the sheriff’s deputies, and the employees at the hardware store. I know the mayor and the city council. If I go to a restaurant, I’ll know the servers and hosts. If I go to the DMV, Cathy’s sister is going to help me out. When I go pick up oranges, my eyes are on everyone around me, looking for a hello.

People in small towns are really good at connecting to the humanity of their neighbors. On our first day in Green River, strangers stopped on the side of the road at the sight of a moving truck and started carrying boxes into our house. It didn’t matter that we were from the city or what our politics were. We had become neighbors. That’s all it took.

That’s why it’s so insulting when an outsider seems more concerned about the time it takes to get through a line at the store than they are about the human running the register. Or when a tourist complains about blight, but won’t take the time to understand absentee landowners and the limits of a small city budget. Or when an urban environmentalist takes a strong stance on public lands, but refuses to understand the personal and family connections that locals have to those lands. Transactional strangers are insulting to the humanity of strangers that are neighbors.

Most people in small towns want to know each other. They want to care for each other. They want to live with more meaningful connections because a life of isolation is hard. But there is also an unspoken narrative here–a dark underbelly to the small town charm that cannot go unmentioned.

Like most towns in the U.S. West, the demographics of Green River are changing. In truth, the demographics have always been changing. This is Ute land traditionally, and Paiute, and Shoshone. The Fremont culture, a pre-columbian society who left countless recordings in stone, lived on this land for centuries. The Old Spanish Trail meanders through the center of the Gunnison valley, where the town of Green River stands today–a physical reminder of the dark side of conquest and human migration that continues to define the West even now.

Mexican immigrants are the largest foreign born group in the United States, accounting for twenty-five percent of the immigrant population. This community resides mostly in places like Houston, Los Angeles, and other large cities throughout the U.S. West. Since the 1970s, Mexican immigrants have held an increasingly larger share of the population, helping to build and shape the communities of the West with a permanent and growing presence for more than five decades.

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Image by Tim Glenn

Rural Utah is no exception. Yet a very clear and present “us vs. them” mentality permeates the white community. For all of the good that living in a small town affords, the fear of the mob is one of the darkest antipodes. In all things related to personal injustice, the most common response from rural communities is to stay quiet. Don’t rock the boat. We’re all packed in too tightly.

A large percentage of the white population resents the fact that rural Utah isn’t the same color that it was in the 1970s. It’s not shy resentment either. At least, not if you’re white. I sat on the board of a small non-profit with an after school program aimed at helping local students. We heard many complaints from community members that kids weren’t showing up. That the organization was a drain on resources. The truth is we had plenty of kids attending, they just weren’t white kids.

A woman once complained in my office about “wetbacks” living in her apartment building. During a job interview for a position at our museum, another woman told me that the town was going downhill because of the Mexicans and white trash. Spoiler, she didn’t get the job. It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about the percentage of white kids in the school diminishing, or comments on the upkeep of someone’s home followed by the phrase “it’s just their culture.”

I recently discovered that out of all the full-time employees for the city of Green River, only one doesn’t receive full-time benefits. I don’t claim to know any details about why that is. It may have been part of negotiating a full time position or a higher wage. But I do know that the employee’s last name and the color of their skin sets them apart from every other employee at the city.

For white folks, there’s a temptation and a tendency to look to individual relationships or personal experiences to explain away institutional racism. This seems heightened in the concentrated confines of rural Utah. White folks assume everyone likes and gets along with everyone else, and for the most part, that’s probably true. There are a lot of close relationships that intersect all kinds of cultural backgrounds and skin color in rural Utah. But individual relationships do not negate institutional racism. Having friends at work doesn’t replace a 401k. In rural Utah, and I suspect in other states as well, there is a mountain of work yet to be done to overcome the power dynamics wrought from privilege and institutional oppression.

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Cultural change is a function of the U.S. West. For the last four hundred years, diverse cultures have clashed, hybridized, detached, and lived among each other in a melting pot of conquest and collaboration. Racial, economic, and political lines help create identities in small towns. But like a river on a level plain, over time these lines meander. They shift and twist their way to an easier flow–abandoning schools of thought that once grew lush on the water. In a town of nine-hundred people, a little trust and charisma goes a long way in redrawing those lines. The opportunity to impact change is enormous, and the history of progress is on the side of those who would try.

That’s one of the most intriguing aspects of living in a small town, but also one of the most dangerous. Individuals who have too much power, who can swing the pendulum too far in the wrong direction. We can all imagine movie clips of traveling salesmen in the old west, exalting the benefits of their snake oil serum from the back of a wagon. That same power to influence draws people of all stripes to places like Green River even today. Politicians, non-profits, artists, and entrepreneurs–the myth of the West is still tempting people to come and sell their wares.

And the myth has more than just a crumb of truth to it. There are ample opportunities here. Opportunities for new businesses and new beginnings. Opportunities to create something out of nothing, to paint portraits from the remains of a dusty old canvas. But beyond the dollar, there are opportunities for change. My hope is in the individuals who see an opportunity to build something better. Individuals who see inequalities in art, politics, housing, and power. Individuals who build institutions that right injustice. Homegrown locals who wouldn’t worry about a rocking boat, but would work to tip it over in the hopes of getting more people in it. I’m excited for the emergence of organizations who would invest their efforts in communities like Green River not for their personal benefit, but for the opportunity to affect equality.

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Image by Tim Glenn

Change won’t happen overnight, nor should it. The physical remains of Green River’s boom and bust history are proof enough. Opportunity is ripe in rural Utah, but investment takes time, and so many are afraid to offer theirs to a place like this. But it’s worth it. Time is where the middle ground between urban and rural communities thrives. Time is where the friends of injustice lose, where inequality wilts away. Not time in the sense of patience, but in the sense of individuals willing to give theirs in order to make something better. I have hope for those people, the locals and the transplants, the young and the old, those with privilege and those who deserve it, the ones who will leave their mark on places like this for the sake of taking care of each other.

My wife and I invested six years of our lives in Green River. Now, a month away from going back to the city, it feels like we’re leaving home. As we pack our house and look back on our time here, six years almost feels like twelve. Anyone who has spent any time in a rural community will tell you the pace of life is slower than in the city. In some ways it has to be. We don’t have most things at our fingertips. Outside of a few necessities, rural folks have to wait for just about everything.

So it’s no wonder time moves a little slower here. That’s part of the magic. Each breath comes in a little deeper. The pink and orange clouds last a little longer. The summers feel a little more timeless. In the spring, when the blue herons find their way back to the river, there are few reasons not to take pause and admire them. The same goes for the sandhill cranes, the meadowlarks and swallows. There is time here, just to watch.

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Image by Tim Glenn

A few years ago, my family and I noticed bats flying above our house at sunset. Each night they’d come like clockwork, just as the sun was slowing down over the horizon. They’d fly like drunken pilots, gulping up bugs in frenzied aerial maneuvers, indifferent to our existence. It didn’t take long for the bats to become a part of our nightly ritual. My kids would finish their dinner and pile into the backyard, each of them buzzing with anticipation. They’d play or sit with us, sometimes they’d fight, and we’d enjoy the world around us while we waited for it to change.

We never did figure out where they were coming from. An old house nearby is the most likely haven. It’s been empty for decades-tattered and worn and still standing against all odds. But as much as we’ve tried, we’ve never seen a single bat come out of it. They always just sort of appear, and then disappear again just the same. And after reflecting on six years living in a place I never thought I’d know, I guess that’s what we all do. We show up, seemingly from nowhere. We consume and fly and fall, usually unresponsive to the world around us, and then disappear again. On to something else or nothing else at all.

Not sure what to do with my hands. tim-glenn.com

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