My ghost town

A vanishing personal history

  • HAPPINESS: Jenny Attiyeh eating watermelon inGrafton

    courtesy Jenny Attiyeh

GRAFTON, Utah - My grandfather liked to dare me to walk to the cemetery at night, up the mud road from our house, past the orchards, the looming cows, past the tumbledown barn into the open, empty fields. From there I could almost see the mounds rising against the bluff. Grampa urged me on. Early settlers were buried here in unmarked graves, and nearby lay the headstone of a young boy, killed by Indians. As I turned and headed rapidly for home, I could hear Grampa chuckling in the dark.

It was Grampa who had brought us to Grafton, this ghost town on the edge of Zion National Park. He was born and raised in Utah, and wanted us to take part, to learn to love it as he did. So we camped out in an old adobe brick house, without running water or electricity, on a few acres of land my parents had bought. I was a little girl in diapers when we first came here for long holidays, driving from Los Angeles in a tattered VW Bug. The town - a handful of abandoned buildings, apple trees, lizards and the Virgin River, carving too close to the bank - became mine.

Happiness for me was waking up from a nap to eat watermelon by the irrigation ditch that ran in front of our house. At least that's how it seems when I look at the photograph - my eyes are still sleepy, my white shirt a makeshift napkin, fingerprinted with a mixture of juice and red Utah dust. At night we slept on cots, with an applewood fire spitting out cinders onto our canvas sleeping bags. In the mornings, frost lined the windows, and it was so cold I was afraid to get out of bed.

But that was 30 years ago. Today, Grafton as I knew it is dying. There are no windows left in the old brick house, and the walls are scarred with graffiti. On the mantelpiece it reads, "Albert Loves Rhonda for Eternity and Mike." Deep cracks in the walls have encouraged passers-by to help themselves to the fired bricks. And down by the river, another empty house gapes, its front porch torn off by vandals. With its supports removed, the second story wall collapsed soon after, exposing adobe bricks to the melting rain.

We'd heard the rumors, of course. Grafton was falling apart, but we were far away. Now, we've finally come back to see what's left of our land.

I had no idea it was so beautiful. As a child, I had taken the place for granted - the still warmth of the afternoons, the slow brown river, the red sandstone cliffs poking into the sky. Down the road, I looked for the Indian chief my grandfather had drawn on the blackboard of the schoolhouse, but he was long gone.

As I stood and watched, a dozen teenagers climbed into the open face of a deserted house nearby, up the broken staircase to the second floor. They were laughing and shoving each other - giggling at the poetry sprayed on the plaster walls. I felt like a tight-faced schoolmarm, injured and entitled, and I told them to get down. "Can't you guys read the sign?" They did not answer, and moved off.

It became clear to me that I really didn't want to share this town with anyone - I just wanted to be left alone, to piece together the past. But my claims on Grafton were as nothing compared to those who came before me. Built by Mormons in 1859, the settlement was doomed from the start. Frequent flooding of the Virgin River washed away the crops and destroyed irrigation ditches, making life close to impossible. At one point, the entire town was relocated upstream, but to no avail. By the 1930s, Grafton had turned into a ghost town, gathering beer bottles and tumbleweeds.

I realize now that I, too, have abandoned Grafton - to the trash, the vandals, the deterioration. Perhaps I can make amends. Sheepishly, I begin to clean up. My father and I pick up loose boards from a collapsed shed and put them in a pile. A rusty nail grazes my palm. We make slow progress, but as the debris grows higher, I feel vaguely comforted.

Soon, the town will be busy with the sounds of restoration. In the past few years, a group of local townspeople and grassroots environmentalists has banded together to preserve what's left of Grafton. They plan to stabilize the old buildings and keep a close watch on the place to cut down on vandalism. There's already a shiny red gate blocking access to the adobe church, and a spanking-new sign explaining what is to come.

Grafton is soon to become a place of public purpose. But when I consider the pamphlets to be distributed at the information booth, I am sick at the thought - for Grafton is no longer mine. It has been appropriated.

For my part, I like Grafton best the way it used to be, but it is too late for that now. Already, too many tourists, drawn by the guidebooks, come to gawk at the town, leaving behind their lunch wrappers. I want the Grafton of my childhood, serene and apart. A place where I could commune with cows and watch the stinging red ants build their hills in the dirt. I would have liked my own daughter to play here someday, lost in daydreams.

It is almost dusk now, and the crickets buzz softly in the grass. As I stretch out on the front porch, I hear my parents' voices inside, low and reassuring. The red mountains fade to brown in the dying light. Gawkers pass by, making tracks in the dirt road. They call out, "No Trespassing!" and drive on by.

"We own the place," I tell them. But they probably don't believe me. And, in some way, it really isn't true. Slowly the dust resettles, and the crickets start up again. Slightly panicked, I look around at my old haunts. I'd like the sun to set quietly on Grafton, and its ghosts. At the cemetery up the road, there is no more room.

Jenny Attiyeh writes from Boston, Massachusetts.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jenny Attiyeh

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