No matter how long you live in your small town, you'll never be a native

  • Susan Humphrey - HLAZYJ Photography
 

The woman behind the counter asked where I lived. It turns out she grew up in the very same small town, population 300. She said she had to leave it to find a job, moving to the nearest place with a population nearer 10,000.
"So you must be the new trash that's moving in," she mused.

The woman looked 40 or so, with the dry complexion of winter wheat, as weathered as something wadded up and left in a corner for too long. She did not even attempt to smile.

Something pithy should have come out of my mouth about then. "Yeah, I am. You must be the old trash that moved out."

Instead of saying anything, I looked back at her, mystified. I reached into my pocket, handed her some crumpled dollars for whatever I had just bought.

All the way home I kept thinking of the clever things I could have said. Along the dusty road, up the shoulder of the mountains, turning at a steep, rutted drive, I spoke out loud to her. I sounded, probably, just how she'd expect an uppity newcomer like me to sound, even if I had lived here for 15 years.

In case you're wondering, you will never be a local in towns like these, the scenic but not especially popular ranch towns scattered across the West. It doesn't matter how many decades you spend living here. If you weren't born here, and you carry yourself differently, you might as well have a bull's-eye tattooed on your forehead. You are not a native; you are part of the new trash.

I like to climb in the boulders and cliffs above town. I'm as invisible as a ghost when I come up here. It's my secret hiding place when deadlines, children, wife, dirty bathroom, broken car become too much. I run into the rough hills, scrambling between gut-twisted junipers.

Few people come up here, really. There are some old BLM roads, but I rarely see anyone. Sometimes I walk the roads, brisk pace, eye out for mountain lions in the surrounding woodlands. I even fancy myself a tracker, enjoying the animal pathways I find crisscrossing the landscape.

I was walking down one of these roads when I heard the growl of an ATV behind me. Instinctively, I dove for the snowy woods. I did not want to chitchat -- no questions asked or answered, no awkward conversations, no teenagers with guns. (My father grew up a New Mexico motorhead and literally shot himself in the foot when he was in high school, so I know the type.)

I peered out from behind trees, resting on my haunches so I'd look like a stump or a boulder. The ATV came into view and it was not anyone I was expecting. An older man, likely in his 70s, sat behind the throttle, cowboy hat pulled down over his brow. An even older-looking, graying Labrador retriever lay on the back, its head on its paws. They were traveling about four miles an hour, the man's eyes casually roaming the land ahead. I was far enough back in a tangle of junipers so that he couldn't see me.

As he passed, he glanced my way. He had seen my tracks in the snow, a quick scuff marking my departure. He must have had an eye on my bootprints all the way up here. I was impressed. He had a sharp eye, certainly sharper than my own. But he didn't slow down, and he didn't spot me. He just threw a gesture in my direction: I know you're in there.

When the sound of his engine faded, I came out from hiding and followed him. It was a grand day, my imagination wandering to the slow drift of clouds and the snow-capped peaks above. After a mile, not paying attention, I lost track of the man on the ATV. He must have turned off while I was strolling, hands in pockets, head in the clouds. I skipped the road and took a wooded ridgeline, thinking I might spy down on him from somewhere. What is an old redneck doing alone with his dog on a sunny afternoon, anyway? Perhaps this is where he sneaks away to dance like Madame Butterfly, bootheels clicking, all by himself. Who knows?

That's when I heard a purposeful cough ahead of me. Thinking I was alone, I froze. I peered through the shadowed trees ahead of me, squinting to see. Slowly, I bent halfway down so I could look between the trunks and there he was, turned away from me. He had his hands in his coat pockets and was looking down on a valley below. His old dog stood at his side, snout pointing toward the same valley. They had left the ATV behind, came up the ridge on foot.

Over the years, I have tried to understand this local landscape, but I was not a child here running wild, not a teenager with a bonfire, not a young man hunting mountain lions. I came as an adult. I appreciated this man's presence here, respected his solitude. I had a renewed appreciation for ATVs, which got him up here to enjoy his surroundings in peace and solitude.

The old man never turned in my direction, never even saw me. I backed away slowly, coming down off the side of the ridge, rolling my weight from toe to heel the way you do when you don't want to be heard. Just when I was out of view, a hoarse barking broke out. His dog had picked up my presence. But I was already gone, just about to slip out of earshot, feeling like I had made it through a rite of rural passage. I got through the woods without being spotted by a seasoned local. A little proud of that, too. I had gotten close enough I could have sneaked up and tagged him on the rear the way you'd creep up and slap a bear on the rump. I had counted coup. I was grinning as I made my escape.

The dog continued barking, and I caught the man's low voice. Yanking back the trophy I'd just won, he grumbled, "Ahh, Blue, leave him alone."

Craig Childs writes from near Crawford, Colorado. He is this year's winner of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and he has authored several books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Men's Journal, Orion and The Sun.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: