In Utah's west desert, you treasure what you have
PARTOUN -- Jaren Wadsworth teaches English at West Desert High School. And computer science. And physical education. And he coaches volleyball and basketball. And drives the team bus on road trips.
Out in the vast, isolated expanse of western Juab County, he says, "I'm not just a teacher. I'm whatever I need to be to get by."
So it goes for virtually everybody who calls the tiny ranching communities of Partoun, Trout Creek and Callao home.
Located at least 90 miles from the nearest city and 50 miles from the closest paved road, the 100 or so people who reside out here live in a challenging environment and face daily hurdles that most other Utahns cannot possibly grasp.
They wouldn't have it any other way.
"I've been bitten by rattlesnakes. I've been thrown off of horses. This place has its challenges," says Callao rancher Cecil Garland. "But I've lived overseas. I've lived in Montana. I've lived in Las Vegas. And nothing compares to this. I live in a land of indescribable beauty and solitude. The conditions are harsh at times, but the wide open spaces out here are something to be most treasured."
Dependable independence: How isolated are the denizens of the west desert? Consider that full-fledged electricity and phone service didn't arrive here until the 1970s. Before that, residents used generators for light, wood stoves for heat and had to travel to Ibapah, on the other side of the towering Deep Creek Mountains, to use a satellite telephone. Slipping messages to the school bus driver was the quickest way to communicate with neighbors.
"The governor [Scott Matheson] visited us once," remembers Annette Garland, Cecil's wife and the lone teacher at Callao School. "He came by helicopter."
Today, of course, Callao, Partoun and Trout Creek are fully plugged in. Satellite television dishes sprout from most homes, and many, if not all residents are wired to the Internet. UPS and Fed Ex deliveries are a phone call, or a click, away.
Yet, even now, the mail arrives only three days a week. And with no services to speak of, the locals must drive long distances - fueled largely by their own gas storage tanks - for daily staples that have long been taken for granted elsewhere. Nephi, the economic and political hub of Juab County, is so far away that most west desert residents find it easier to go to Delta in neighboring Millard County instead. Or Salt Lake City, if lower prices and selection are the priority. The Utah capital is a four-hour trip.
So, those weekly shopping excursions that most urbanites and even small town Utahns undertake are more akin to expeditions out here, with families typically loading up two weeks worth of groceries, or more, when they go to town.
If you're smart, says Callao resident Beth Anderson, you also grow your own. Anderson and her husband, Don, who own the historic Bagley Ranch along the Pony Express Route, provide their own beef and produce. Their shopping trips typically center around dry goods and equipment-related purchases for the ranch - though they keep those to a minimum by recycling and rebuilding as much as possible.
"We live in a disposable society, but here, you keep and reuse," says Don Anderson. "I once ordered a part and had it delivered. The part was $10. The delivery was $90. After that, you tend to weigh those decisions a little more carefully."
Challenging social life: While the west desert instills a rugged self-reliance, it can play havoc on a person's social life. Getting a date can be tough.
West Desert High School has just 22 students this year, covering Grades 7-12 and making it the smallest secondary school in the state. (The adjoining elementary school has 19 students.) Such a tiny group makes for an unusually close-knit student community - it's really more like a big family to hear the kids tell it. Unfortunately, it won't provide enough students this year to hold a dance, or field a volleyball team.
When those situations occur, West Desert typically couples with Eskdale High School, 50 miles away in Millard County. It's not perfect, but the students deal with it. They're well aware that life is a little different here.
"I know we're pretty far out there. You've got to go so far to get anywhere - and I don't like to travel," says West Desert junior Kayla Timm, who makes a 100-mile round trip to practice with her Eskdale volleyball teammates on top of the 50-mile daily commute between her family's Callao ranch and the school, in Partoun. "But we ride horses and run cattle, and it's quiet and peaceful. I love it."
Timm has lived in Callao all her life. Newcomers have had a more difficult transition. Fellow junior J.J. Alder likes the west desert just fine now. But it wasn't always that way. He struggled to adjust after moving here at age 10 from Tooele. Even today, he relishes the chance to go to the city and do what other teenagers do - hang out at the mall and go to movies.
"We go to Salt Lake whenever we can," he says. "There's just more of everything there."
Making things work: Yet, it is clear that most, if not all of those who live in the west desert, are there by choice. And they are fiercely protective of their home.
Callao rancher Garland led the community's fight against the MX missile in the late 1970s, hitting the college lecture circuit, appearing on television news programs and lobbying the LDS Church to weigh in against the proposal - which it eventually did, scuttling the MX in the process. More recently, Callao, Partoun and Trout Creek teamed up to halt low-level Air Force jets swooping through on the way to the nearby test and training range. Now, they have banded together once again with their neighbors over the state line to stop a proposal by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to tap wells in the Nevada portion of the Snake Valley to quench the ever-growing thirst of Las Vegas.
"There's nothing I'd rather do than live in Callao with the good Mormon people here and mind my own business," says the 80-year-old Garland, who was born in North Carolina and calls himself an "unreconstructed Southerner." However, he adds, "Democracy doesn't work if there's atrophy. Sometimes, to make things work, you've got to give something of yourself."
Taking root: Non-native settlement of the west desert dates back to the 1860s and the establishment of the Pony Express route. But at least some who live here today can trace their roots to a post-World War II homestead program in which the federal government offered up 10 acres of free land to those who wanted to take a crack at it. Many left, but a few stayed and built a life.
"There was an unparalleled opportunity to create something here, whether it was a fence line or a high school," says West Desert principal Ed Alder, whose father was a homesteader, and who helped spearhead the creation of the school in 1981. "The good news is, you can do what you want here; you can do it on your own terms. The bad news is, if the plumbing goes out at your house, you become a plumber. There's nobody nearby to call."
EUREKA - Trucks and backhoes are rumbling about. Hard-hat workers seem to be everywhere. This old historic mining town isn't just getting a face-lift - it may be receiving a new lease on life.
Once home to cafes, saloons, bowling alleys and even a bordello in its post-World War II heyday, Eureka hit low ebb in 2002 when it was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency. As many as 450 homes were contaminated by lead and arsenic from the defunct gold, silver and lead mines that encircle the town.
But that EPA designation, and a $60 million lawsuit settlement earlier this year between the agency and Chief Consolidated, which owns the old mines, has helped pave the way for a large-scale remediation project funded by federal, state and company dollars. Yards are being peeled away and replaced. Streets are being upgraded. Vacant lots are being paved over. And local entrepreneurs are once again dreaming big dreams about Eureka's charming, but mostly vacant Main Street.
Resident and businessman Billy Baum might be the most ambitious. The owner of 10 structures in the business district, he is nearly finished renovating a building that will house a cafe. In two buildings he owns next door, Baum envisions an art gallery and an open-air brewpub. Further up the street, at the old post office, he plans to build a bed-and-breakfast inn.
"We get lots of people coming through here, but they don't stop and I don't blame them. There's nothing here," says Baum, eyeballing the weekend recreationalists headed for the Little Sahara sand dunes and tourists simply passing through to see the old mines and buildings. "But if we can hang on here for another four or five years and get clean bill of health from the EPA, people will be able to see things are changing. We'll give them a reason to stop."
Many of Eureka's 788 residents initially detested the Superfund project when it was declared in 2002, fearing it would stigmatize the town and bulldoze what was left of Eureka's history.
"We didn't want them. Everything they did we hated. We were afraid they would take away our heritage," recalls Lyman Davis, who owns an antique shop, one of the business district's few survivors. "But four years later, I like what they're doing. You take a look up Church Street [above Main Street], and it's quite evident that good things are happening."
Eureka resident and historian Marian Seamons, whose family has deep mining roots in town, still isn't sure what all the fuss is about. But even she has come around to what may now be possible.
"I still think it's a terrible waste of money. We've never had any problems with lead," she says. "But this has provided a lot of employment, which is good. And if we can preserve our history, it's got some potential."
Seamons, too, has jumped on the entrepreneurial bandwagon, with plans to turn the St. Patrick's Church convent into a B&B.
"We can't go back to what was," says Baum. "But we can hang on to what we've got and try to make something of it."