By Eli Beck
“Yeah, I wanted to get out the whole time I was there, and since I left all I want to do is go back.”
I say this sentence all the time. If I’m just meeting you, you’ll ask “where are you from?” I’ll say “Bluff, a dinky town of 200 sump’m people,” you’ll say some version of “wow,” and I’ll find myself saying it again: “Yeah, I wanted to get out…blah blah blah.” Nearly everyone I talk to seems to know the feeling. It’s so familiar, so ordinary, that it isn’t fun to try to relate over it anymore. Even just saying it matter-of-factly would be an insult to your intelligence. Better to assume you know exactly what I’m talking about and say it quickly, with a roll of the eyes, a flip of the hand, a slur of the words and some knowing eye contact before you have a chance to roll your eyes yourself. I’m telling you the truth but we don’t need to get bogged down in my coming-of-age drama, what should we talk about now?
I am no longer proud of this, but I really did want to leave the day my family moved to Bluff. This was back when I knew everything, at 7 years old. “There’s no one here,” I must’ve thought. “There are lizards, that’s nice, but there are no people here. Just weirdos and adults.” This is what 7-year-olds say when they’re scared and they don’t know anyone yet. Now that I actually know everything 15 years later, I can look back and say that what 7-year-old me meant was that Bluff was just not Extraordinary enough. This is a dusty, dead place, I thought, without the clarity of those words. And dusty, dead places breed dusty and all-but-dead people. By that point I had decided that I was going to be special, so this was unacceptable. How am I gonna shake up the world from here?! I don’t want to be dusty! I don’t have time for your roots, I’m looking for my wings!
That first summer in 2004, before I started second grade at Bluff Elementary, I saw a lot of rock art. My parents had made the acquaintance of some of the locals, I don’t remember who, and they took us to explore the natural and archaeological wonders of the area. I saw some petroglyphs, yes, but the significance of history is far away and inaccessible when you’re 7; I said “cool” to placate the adults and moved on. I felt the awe that I was supposed to feel for the petroglyphs when I saw the graffiti on the rocks by Swinging Bridge. This panel was bigger than the ancient ones I’d been shown, and it was loud, illegible, colorful, crude, rude, and rebellious. I heard the disgust from the adults around me, and a little of the same from within my awakening self. Part of me despised the people who would leave their tags on the rocks. “This isn’t your home! All of us have to look at this now!” The other part of me wanted to be them. Fast, loud, and unconcerned with the sensibilities of slow, quiet people, in the middle of a Quest to the Great City of Extraordinary. Their marks on the rocks were ugly, but at least they were making marks.
On the first day of school every year up to 5th grade, the teacher would ask everyone to describe their summer. Everyone understood that this was the time to brag. I listened to every effusive story: “And I did this, and this, and this, and, and, and….” When it came to my turn, I wanted to let the other kids know that, yes, I live in Bluff, but don’t worry, I don’t like it. I’m a big fish in a little pond. To convey this, I said simply, “I had a boring summer. Nothing happened.” I said this for years, and it was especially important when my brother and I started going to school in Blanding. Even though I was getting to know the other Bluff kids, growing less afraid around the adults, and having more fun playing in the dirt by this time, I found a way to make it sound like I was being somehow kept from my full potential.
I didn’t really want to be bored. I just wanted to sound bored. I was carving out an identity for myself. If I had worn the essence of my identity on a t-shirt in those days, as so many of us try to do, the shirt would’ve said this in a goofy font on the back: I’m Moving As Soon As I Can Convince My Parents, But Do You Wanna Chase Lizards With Me After School?
I was not above play, even if I was above Bluff.
That urge to play in the dust, combined with legitimate boredom, sparked creativity in all of us Bluff kids. When we discovered that lizards were all pretty similar we moved on to bigger and more dangerous things. The Great Rock Wars come to mind as one time-filler, where we simply found a cliff face where we could take cover and threw rocks at each other until something happened to end the game (I wonder what). After throwing rocks at each other, we moved on to throwing rocks at other rocks, guessing which ones would break, trying to make sparks, and ducking the shrapnel. We climbed everything. We discovered which cracks in the bluffs we could squeeze through, and which ones led to the top of the cliffs. We built and found bike jumps all over the place. It didn’t matter if they were on your property either. As a teenager, I held the camera as my brother kayaked down a memorable flash flood running through town; he put in, immediately flipped, swam, then got out and sprinted down the road to tackle his kayak and pull it out of the water. He was barely able to stop himself from going a few hundred feet further downstream, where the torrent went through the first of many culverts under the road. We laughed afterwards: “Haha did you hear that dude yelling haha he was so pissed he thought you were gonna die haha!”
These recklessly playful activities were meaty morsels in a stew of “What should we do?” For every activity, there was an agonizing amount of inactivity – sitting around on couches and chairs, staring at each other, making stupid jokes, and taking turns asking no one in particular that same question,“What should we do?” During these times, we often found ourselves in wildly creative “what-if” scenarios that escalated so quickly they would leave us laughing hysterically. Anyone eavesdropping on our conversation would be utterly lost. In general, no one could really understand us; we only actually spoke English when we were trying to impress somebody. Mostly we spoke a different dialect where funny-sounding words could be repurposed and scattered in our sentences so that they only made sense to us. The word “squeeze” was one of our most enduring and entertaining twists; it could take the place of any verb at any time, as in, “squeeze me the mustard,” and it sometimes became a proper noun and had different variations depending on where it fell in a sentence, such as “Mr. Squeezer’s class was exceedingly squithery today.” The other kids at school in Blanding didn’t know what to do with us.
As wild and weird as we were, I was always aware that our wildness was born of boredom. Our strange dialect evolved and became more complex when The Pond was drained; without that cool oasis we had one less activity to rely on in the summer, and one more round of asking, “What should we do?” We created because there was nothing happening. Around middle school, I began to take some pride in the wildness and creativity that I associated with being a Bluff kid, though I still had plenty of dissatisfaction and wanderlust. Being bored sucked, but I liked thinking that I was different from the other kids at school, even special, because of where I lived. Maybe, just maybe, Bluff could be my hot, dusty crucible that would turn me into someone Extraordinary. My angsty tween t-shirt would’ve said in white Typewriter font on a dark background: i am creative because i have to be. because nothing ever happens in bluff. and maybe i’ll do something Extraordinary with this creativity when I finally get out of here. A motivated prisoner taking classes and joining clubs would’ve said something similar.
The prison mentality I had is easy to laugh at now. I had plenty of things in Bluff that prisoners don’t have. I think I was reasonable enough to see that back then as well, but the feeling I had of being trapped was deeper than cognitive, and wider than just being young. I couldn’t escape the frustrating, looming threat of being perceived as an innocent child growing up in a town where nothing happens. Small town kids are, as a rule, perceived as innocent. Politicians bring up their small town roots to try to convince the public that they are good people. The idea of the Small Town Kid in the Big Bad City is a laughable and pitiable character in our stories. Sometimes the messages were subtle. When I was away and I told the other kids where I was from: “Oh…dude…what do you do?” Sometimes it was overt, when people simply said that I seemed “just… I don’t know…innocent!” I didn’t know what to make of it at first. Now, my body tenses a little when I hear the word and its relatives (slow, quiet, ignorant, sheltered) used in my general direction, and my face gets hot. It bothers me still even though I know it shouldn’t, and it bothered me a lot as a teenager. Because innocent people don’t make a difference. They are not shakers. To be innocent meant giving up, it meant choosing to accept the small town life just because it was easier, like choosing to stay behind bars, to be given everything. It was easier to believe that I was trapped than to believe that I had given up. Back then, those were the only options I saw.
The label doesn’t follow me around as much anymore, because once I did figure out what I thought of the term, I did everything I could to keep it from sticking. Now I hear, “I can’t believe you’re from such a small town…how did you grow up to be so…normal?”
The part of me that fears innocence is the same part of me that was jealous of those who cover the walls near Swinging Bridge with graffiti. What I really wanted was to be out, and busy making marks. Guilty and free. I wanted to be one of those people who I saw in cities when I visited who were always on the phone, exuding a sense of control, always working hard on issues of dire importance, too busy saving the world to enjoy the world right in front of them, or to notice the wide-eyed kid staring up at them in awe.
I continued to regard Bluff with a mixture of pride and disdain through high school. Around then, the boredom started leading to work more than play. Adults would see us in “What should we do?” mode and they would find chores for us. And we obliged, feigning annoyance, but usually grateful for something to do. I picked a lot of weeds, moved a lot of rocks, shoveled a lot of dirt. I began to make the blurry and slow transition from mild nuisance (sorry everyone) to a helping hand. I took some pride in this too. After all, Extraordinary people work hard, then play hard. I believed more and more that Bluff could get me Somewhere, but I still refused to believe that Bluff could actually be Somewhere.
One moment in the spring of 2018, the background of disdain fell away. And it wasn’t because I saw a beautiful sunset or a heron flying over the river or a rainbow stretching across the cliffs. It wasn’t in Bluff at all: It was my senior year of college, I was slumped in my bed at 21 years old, 2,000 miles away, with my phone screen six inches from my face. I found myself flipping through a National Geographic news piece on the Bears Ears National Monument, with mentions of Bluff and people I knew and pictures of places I recognized. Bluff was suddenly part of a national spectacle.
That changed everything. Bluff? Somewhere? Maybe even Extraordinary? Hey everyone, I’m from there! The t-shirt of the moment: a Bears Ears National Monument shirt with LOCAL plastered over the top in red, and GRAFFITI SUCKS on the back.
All of a sudden, roots were cool. Wings were so yesterday. And for a while, I was embarrassed. How could I have taken such an extraordinary place for granted for so many years? I realized that I didn’t really know the names of anything. When you grow up somewhere, you’re supposed to know the names of the land features, the plants, the hikes…especially if it’s a small town. I know the globe mallow, sage, tamarisk, russian olive. That’s about it. The San Juan River, Cottonwood Wash, The Cliffs Over There, The Cliffs Over Here, That One Crack in the Wall With the Spiders, The Fun Side Canyon, Goose Poop Island…those names had always been enough, but not anymore.
I found myself going on Google Maps binges, trying to learn some of the given, searchable names of my favorite places and some of the hikes in the area, so that I could have more to say when people asked me what I did for fun as a kid. I wanted to be on the bandwagon of hype around Bears Ears, and I wanted to be the most knowledgeable about it. But that motivation to know names did not last long. I’m curious, but looking up names on my computer, or in a book, or on an app feels like I am distancing myself from my playground rather than getting to know it better. It feels like a performative kind of rootedness that somehow takes the fun out of my childhood. No kid cares to know how to describe the history of the swings, driving directions to the seesaw, or the political significance of the slide in the playground.
Kids know the world through touch, in a way that is intimate, self-centered, and ultimately incommunicable. That’s how I know Bluff. Heavy rains and a running Cottonwood Wash didn’t mean fire danger in a few weeks or months, it meant skimboarding tomorrow. I didn’t pay attention to the water politics, but I honed in on the blurry outline of the giant fish in the pond that you could see from the top of the cliffs (how did such a big fish like you end up in a place like this, somebody should get you out!)
I know the hot wind. I know how the stickers get caught in my socks and shoes. I know the strength of the river, and how the sand disappears from beneath my feet when I stand in the current. I know which rocks will fall when I pull on them. I know the feeling and the utility of rough, dirty calluses on the sides of my fingers from weeding. I know just how fast I can ride down cemetery hill on a bike without sliding out. I know which reeds in the pond make good spears. I know just how steep a slab of sandstone can be before my shoes start slipping as I climb it. I know how many days my back will hurt if I try to pick up that rock. I know which lizards are worth chasing, but I don’t know what they’re called. I know that the rain will only hurt for a few minutes, and my clothes will dry off faster than they got wet. I know and love all these things, and none of them are what put Bluff in the national news. One might even call them ordinary.
My childlike knowledge of the place is deeper than what anybody can read in National Geographic or the New York Times. Bluff is Extraordinary only in the fleeting moments when millions of people pay attention to it and have opinions about it. But Bluff can be Somewhere to me without all of that. It took a brief moment of Bluff being Extraordinary for me to see the difference.
My t-shirt today (now that I know everything): Yeah, I Wanted To Get Out The Whole Time I Was There, and Since I Left All I Want to Do is Go Back.
I say this sentence all the time. If I’m just meeting you, I’ll say it because it is the truth. And I’ll say it fast, not really because I think it would be an insult to your intelligence to simply say it, but because the truth is uncomfortable. That’s why it would be easier to just put it on a t-shirt. The words are an admission that despite looking exclusively for wings, I did put down roots along the way. It was easier for me to believe that I was trapped and held back by my environment than to acknowledge that I was (and am) trapped in the Rat Race, that I will never make it to Extraordinary because it is a mirage; always just ahead. Bluff was never enough because it was never about me. Nothing “happens” because nothing is designed for my entertainment. I used to find that boring, and now I see it as peaceful.
Bluff will be there, maybe physically, definitely in my memories, in those lucid moments when I can remember that Ordinary may be dusty, but it is very much alive.
— Eli Beck is from, you guessed it, Bluff. He lives in Salt Lake City at the moment if for no other reason than he signed a lease there. Read his poem, Happening, in the Canyon Echo.