Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part VII): Bluff, Utah

We spent a few nights in Bluff, in far southeastern Utah, during our journey through the Southwest. Bluff was our jumping off point for seeing many lesser known sights in the area. It is a town of only 320 (smaller even than my hometown!), but it has a range of lodging and dining choices and attracts a lot of tourists. (Top photo, the Cow Canyon Trading Post, home to gourmet dining three nights a week -- believe it or not!)

Founded by Mormons in 1880, the town (aspiring to be a city) now appears to be largely a place for newcomers – some catering to tourists, some in retirement, some who’ve come to raise their families in an outdoor-oriented place with a pleasant climate. Perhaps the current demographic is best expressed in the fact that I saw a number of Obama-Biden signs in Bluff, but nary a McCain-Palin one.

Bluff’s lovely setting along the San Juan River, surrounded on both sides by high terracotta bluffs, makes it easy to see how the town got its name. We stayed in one of Bluff’s oldest homes, built in 1898, and now the Decker House Inn. (Photo above right, historic Jens house). Indeed, the town’s history is fascinating. About 70 Mormon families came here in 1880 to establish a mission in Southeastern Utah, and they got here the hard way – by blasting a hole to widen a crevice in the massive rocks as they came through the Colorado River gorge, overland from Escalante. As a consequence, several places nearby are named “hole-in-the-rock,” including the local monument to those settlers. The town has made a considerable effort to preserve many homes and other artifacts from that era, including at least one of the wagons that made that arduous journey long ago, as well as one of the original log cabins built by those pioneers. This effort to preserve Bluff’s Mormon history is all the more interesting in light of the fact that Bluff is no longer a “Mormon town” to quote one of our innkeepers. While one of the most salubrious buildings in town is the centrally located LDS church, locals told us that it survives only because the LDS organization has families from outside Bluff attend there. Mormons who move to Bluff apparently don’t stay long, preferring to live in Blanding or Monticello to the north, which are more solidly Mormon.

It would be easy to pass through Bluff on Hwy. 191 unaware of its rich history, indeed, barely aware of its existence as a town. One might see only the convenience store, the coin-operated laundry, a few lodges and cafes. It would be easy to miss the elementary school, as well as a Senior Center that not on the main drag. But tourists don’t come to Bluff to the reason that many folks come to this corner of Utah is for what’s near Bluff. The town is within an hour’s drive of Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods, the Goosenecks, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Hovenweep National Monument. You can also start a raft trip on the San Juan River in Bluff. Plus, it’s within two hours of some other great places with far less tourism infrastructure, such as Canyon de Chelly in Navajo Territory to the south.

Although many tourists are here, Bluff has no super market. Indeed, we felt lucky to find the skimmed milk that our son prefers, albeit for $6/gallon! We got it at the tiny K & C market on Hwy 191, which sells many varieties of beer, but no fresh fruit and veg. Our innkeeper informed us that Bluff got cell phone service just this very week. So, the infrastructure in Bluff is a bit of a mixed bag. I guess that’s to be expected in such a small town, in the midst of what is probably Utah’s least densely populated county. San Juan County, the largest of Utah’s 30 counties with just under 8,000 square miles, has just 14,413 residents. Now that’s sparsity of population!

Some scholars have associated population turnover in rural places with lack of civic commitment, but there is clearly a sense of community among Bluff’s residents. On our last evening, we dined at the relatively new San Juan River Kitchen. We’d wanted to eat there on the prior evening, but had unexpectedly found it closed. A local resident informed us that the owner had left town for a wedding and so the restaurant would be closed for the week-end. When we drove past the next night, however, it was open. Since our innkeeper had given it good reviews and said they use local produce, we decided to give it a try. The food was tasty, indeed. The woman who served us explained that she actually runs the adventure/rafting company across the street – but that she was helping out her friend, the restaurant’s owner, while she was out of town.

A brochure we picked up by the Bluff City Historic Preservation Society closes with this information:

“Bluff is a border town. Geography and history have defined it as a place where different groups met sometimes in conflict, sometimes in cooperation. A long history of overlapping cultures and distance from commercial centers still determine how people live here, the structures they build, and their interactions with neighbors and the ‘outside world.’”

* * *

“The success of the border town still depends on the ingenuity of its residents and cooperation among the diverse rural economies of agriculture, recreation, education the arts, crafts and tourism. It is not uncommon for residents to make a 160-mile round trip for major provisions. That distance also keeps alive traits of resourcefulness and improvisation.”

Resourcefulness, indeed! That 160-mile round trip helps explain where residents get their fresh produce, I suppose. It also explains why it makes so much sense for them to rely on one another, and to invest in their delightful little community.


Taintus said...

Thanks for the wonderful post.

Bluff is one of my favorite towns in the world--I spent a lot time in the area when I was younger.

Have a dream of living there some day. But, for now I'm content where I currently live: Otaki, a small village in the mountains of central Japan.

Still, it was nice to run into your post about one of Utah's loveliest towns.



Sandy said...

My ancestors were part of "Hole-In-The-Rock Expedition" to Bluff. I hope to retire there some day. Thanks for a lovely post about Bluff, Utah.

Unknown said...

Will have to add this to my bucket list!