On a reporting trip over the weekend, I found myself riding in an old Ford pick-up draped with watermelon banners, wearing a sparkly top hat and holding a microphone out the window. As the truck crawled down Main Street in Green River, Utah, children scrambled like spiders to pick up thrown candy as retirees in sidewalk lawn chairs looked on. In a teal pick-up truck ahead of us, Granny Smith, the oldest woman in Green River, sat dressed in purple beside her oxygen tank. Behind us, a marching band played as the winner of this year’s Melon Queen pageant practiced her princess wave.
This is Melon Days, Green River’s annual late summer carnival celebrating the sweetest melons in the West. The parade, pageant and free watermelon all day in the park attract bikers, families and passers-by from around the region. You can play in a 24-hour softball tournament, jump in the bouncy castle or take part in a seed-spitting contest. For many of Green River’s children who grew up here and left home as soon as they could, the festival is a homecoming.
Green River, population 953, is a hard place to be a young person. The town is isolated—at 52 miles away, Moab is the closest town—and there is little to do. The area lost its two major industries in the 1970s, when local uranium mines and a missile launch site both shut down. Now the town mostly serves as a pit stop to travelers on I-70. The senior class of Green River High School routinely has less than 20 students, and many of them leave after graduation. Those that stay work two or three service jobs cleaning the town’s 600+ hotel rooms, as a gas station attendant or in a restaurant. Once, a sixth-grade teacher surveyed his students and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. “And it was like, I want to be a clerk, or a maid, or a gas station attendant,” recalled city recorder Conae Black, the town’s de-facto manager and clerk. “That’s pretty sad.”
Given the lack of opportunity for young people, it’s interesting that one of the mainstays of Melon Days—the Melon Queen pageant—is a celebration of the town’s youth. Parents, giggling girls and bored-looking boys filled the high school auditorium on Friday night for the annual event, which pits high school girls against each other for the title of Melon Queen. The girls danced to Michael Jackson and show tunes, sang off-key to country songs and strutted across the stage in shimmering ball gowns (Destiney Holbrook, in the black and white dress, took the crown). In the question and answer period, most girls said they hoped to graduate from high school and go to college, and a few indicated they wanted to come back to Green River afterwards.
Walt Maldonado, who I met at the town’s ice cream parlor, watched many of his friends leave town nearly 40 years ago, when the uranium industry collapsed. He had started working in the mines right out of high school, and lost his job too, when they closed. But he was lucky to land new work with the Utah Department of Transportation. Still, when his kids grew up, they left.
Jobs are the reason most people in town, including Walt, support Blue Castle Holding’s proposed nuclear power plant, which could be built a few miles out of town. The construction phase would employ 4,000 people—temporarily quadrupling the town’s population—with 750 to 850 full-time positions once it began operating.
“The city is in favor of it,” Black said. “There are a few citizens who are not. But that’s their fear and lack of knowledge of what a nuclear power plant does.”
Back at Melon Days, which was co-sponsored by Blue Castle, talk of the nuclear plant appeared to be far from people’s minds. Instead, people like Lori Hamblin, who grew up in Green River and moved away, were eating ice cream and reminiscing with old friends. Her family owned one of the gas stations in town and she remembers running to the bank on the corner (now a shuttered T-shirt shop) to deposit checks. Many of the other businesses she remembers are also closed, and parade-viewers lined up in front of their crumbling facades all along Main Street. But Lori didn’t seem nostalgic. Instead, she just seemed happy to be back at home.
Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.
Photos courtesy Andrew Cullen, associate designer at High Country News.