CEGU

Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 6 | Winter 2024

The Former and Latter Days of Green River, Utah

Story & Photographs by Eli Wizevich

Some days feel like boundaries. It was late 2003, and Amy Wilmarth was working behind the desk at the Holiday Inn Express in Green River, Utah. “That probably would have been the First Choice Inn when you were here, it’s changed,” she tells me over the phone in the last days of 2022. All things, especially cheap motels, are subject to change in Green River. I’m inclined to speculate about how dust caked into the generic carpet patterns. The cigarette breaks standing in the shadow of the snow clouds and the green “H” sign. Highway travelers leaning on the front desk, the drink and smoke and exhaustion on their breath. But I’ve never worked at any Green River motel, and she’s loath to elaborate on her time there. Still, one thing is clear: that day at the end of 2003 was one such boundary for Amy Wilmarth. Whatever she was leaving behind at the Holiday Inn Express—whatever better things were to come—would always be understood in reference to that day.

Better things came in the form of a gentleman by the name of Doug. Charismatic by all accounts, Doug was a hotel manager and developer based out of Grand Junction, Colorado, just an hour or so east on Interstate 70. His wife was “a Green River girl,” which goes some way in explaining his firm’s first construction project—the Green River Holiday Inn Express. He had money, capital, connections throughout the Colorado Plateau, and a scrap of a soul patch on his chin—all the requisite elements to build and manage a small business, or to accelerate a life. On that day in late 2003, he must have had both tasks on his mind. The wind could have been howling across the parking lot, Amy’s day could have been going slowly, and Doug could have come rolling up in a luxury pickup truck and parked illegally in the luggage unloading zone. (As I say, I’m inclined to speculate). He came in out of the blue, Amy remembers, through the sliding -glass doors and into the lobby. “Hey, I’ve got a proposition for you.”

 

Doug took Amy down Main Street, east across the Green River—the river—and into the heart of Green River—the city. There was a small, unused building across a side street from Ray’s Tavern. The two looked at the building for some time. Doug spoke.

“I want to start a coffee shop. You willing to do that for me?”

“And I said, y’know, I was up for the challenge, and I said ‘Hell yeah.’” Her vocal inflections reveal a fondness for the excitement she felt nearly twenty years ago. They hired her neighbor, a carpenter, to build a barista stand. Doug knew a gentleman named Bob who ran a café in Salt Lake City, and Bob, “one of those pay-it-forward kinda guys,” happily lent the nascent Green River Coffee Company an espresso machine and a bean grinder.

“Have at,” Doug told Amy.

If you’re crossing Utah, there isn’t a better place to pull off the highway and stop than Green River— population 865, with a lingering designation of “city” from the days when it still had over a thousand residents. Actually, there isn’t another place to pull off the highway and stop—not for 110 miles—the longest stretch without services on the interstate system. Once you pass through Green River on your way west: nothing. Nothing ahead but sandstone, sand, and clouds. Nothing growing but Mormon tea, budsage, juniper, pinyon pine. Nothing but lizards, buzzards, rattlers, coyotes, crickets. Nothing but the San Rafael Swell, a 75 by 40 mile, uninhabited, flat-topped dome of sandstone, shale, and limestone that the civil engineers gave the order to blast a highway through. Nothing? Well, you certainly won’t find any other coffee shops for a while.

You can blame the desert for that. You can also blame the Mormons. Cafés are rare in Utah. They’re incompatible with the scripture—“again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” Amy’s sign of political affirmations dangling on the front door— In my America we believe in… “equality, all that kinda stuff”— doesn’t help her cause. In conservative Green River it makes Amy the “oddball out, the black sheep sorta thing.”

Aside from close, like-minded friends, locals rarely visit Amy’s shop. An employee of Melon Vine, a grocery store down the block, barely realized what I meant when I brought up the coffee shop. “Café—huh? Oh, I might’ve went there once. Wasn’t my type of place.”

“95% of my customers are travelers and tourists,” Amy tells me, passing through Green River or coming to the Utah desert for recreation and vacation. 45 minutes south

 

of town is Arches National Park— or “where it was,” if you believe the late Edward Abbey, the region’s resident anti- development curmudgeon and writer. In Moab, the nearest city to the national park, there are upscale hotels on every inch of land, queues of cars waiting for hours at Arches’ gates, cabals of mountain bikers from across the world, wine bars, gelato parlors— all sprouting out of the sandstone in what was once among the most formidable corners of American wilderness and Mormon morality.

The wine bars haven’t made it up to Green River yet. As Moab grew, Green River became “this little spare bedroom,” as Amy puts it. If you couldn’t find a room in Moab, you could surely drive a little ways north and rent one in Green River. There are plenty of cheap places to spend a night. From East to West: Super 8, America’s Best Value Inn, Comfort Inn, Motel 6, First Choice Inn, River Terrace, Travelodge, Budget Inn, Sleepy Hollow—and, finally, the relocated Holiday Inn Express, now on the opposite side of town. The constant stream of guests gives Green River an air of transience—few tourists stick around to find out about town. Scarf down a Styrofoam bowl full of Froot Loops at the complimentary continental breakfast, dash out to the rental car, and speed off to a national park. “Waypoint to Wild” is the city’s motto, plastered on billboards along I-70. Or, as Edward Geary, a historian of the region puts it, “Green River remains essentially a service area.”

You’re confronted with these contradictions—between the wild and the mundane, between staying in town and moving on— at every turn. It hits you in the parking lot of the Super 8 motel: You watch the thunderheads swell in the north, across the Book Cliffs. Storms blow in for a long time, the country is open.

The air is warm, the night is young, turning a dyspeptic shade of purple. Sunset struggles through the clouds, but you’re more illuminated by the sickly lampposts and the yellow and red “Super 8” sign buzzing, burning out above the parked cars. Lightning plays across the way. The wind is gentle where you’re standing. Thunder rolls, you realize. It doesn’t clap. It rolls like a suitcase across some cheap vinyl flooring. That’s how it sounds. A rumble and a roll, like the California Zephyr pulling out of the Amtrak station en route to San Francisco. Zephyr—they named those trains after the winds of yore. They just blow on through town, winds and trains alike.

Not everyone blows through town. Some explore and prospect, colonize and settle the land. They make their lives here, find their refuge here, in the wild, washed- out heart of Utah. The ones who tether the place to the ground. The ones who make Green River a city, not a service area. The ones who stick around. But, to tell you about that, I should tell you about how Green River came to be in the first place.

 

John Wesley Powell came back from the Civil War with one arm fewer than he entered with. A bullet from a Confederate rifle shredded most of it at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, and amputations took off the rest. He fought on through to the end of the war, left the Union Army, and took a professorship of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. But a hushed academic’s life appealed very little to him. He turned down a permanent post in favor of exploring the American West— back when that was still a selection on the menu of life decisions. In 1869 he and nine men set off from Green River, Wyoming, with the goal of converging with the Colorado and being the first expedition to float through the Grand Canyon.

As Powell and his men reported, the Green River winds along inaccessible rock formations for most of its course. But for a short stretch, the river passes through a long swale, a narrow flatlands to the north and a maze of

canyonlands to the south. This is where generations of Tumpanawach from the Utah Valley and Utes from the Colorado plateau came to trade. This is where travelers on the Old Spanish Trail between New Mexico and California forded the river as early as the 16th century. Powell and his crew finally passed through the future site of Utah’s Green River in the summer of 1869. Despite these flirtations, however, no settlement would be established until a decade after Powell’s voyage through the land he described as “of little use to anyone.”

Mormons began half-heartedly trying to settle this “untouched” eastern corner of Utah almost immediately upon arrival in Salt Lake City in 1847, sending out small expeditions and bands of pioneers. Naturally, “the Indians did not approve of such encroachments upon their domains,” as a local history from 1898 puts it. There is no record of how—only implications of skirmish, slaughter, and intimidation—but it is known that eventually a treaty for the land was drafted and signed out
of Indigenous hands and into Mormon control. skirmish, slaughter, and intimidation—but it is known that eventually a treaty for the land was drafted and signed out of Indigenous hands and into Mormon control.

 

And so, Sanpete County—a grand expanse of land that stretched from the southern tip of the Wasatch Front to the border with Colorado. Yet the harsh desert climate and the worthless soil kept the Mormons—usually evangelically eager to expand the range of their gospel—from settling the easternmost tract of Sanpete County for decades.

The calculus changed when Latter-day Saints (LDS) officials perceived that the region was falling under too great an influence from Gentiles, or non-Mormons. In 1877 church Prophet and President Brigham Young sent out a boilerplate request for good, energetic, God fearing young men, whether single or with families, and others who can be spared without interfering with the interests of the settlements in which they now reside, such ones as will be a strength to the new settlement and an aid to its growth in all that we, as Latter-day Saints, desire to see increase upon the earth.

And just like that, the energetic, God-fearing, expendable young men of southeastern Utah were sent out into the dark desert corner of Sanpete County, towards the flatlands, that they might establish a city on the river. For God, for Prophet, for lack of alternatives.

“And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit.”
—Nephi 8:13, Book of Mormon.

“Historical records of the early Green River settlement are sketchy,” admits Edward Geary, who wrote a state-published history of Green River and its environs. A few things are certain. In 1878, heeding the Prophet’s commandment, Thomas Farrer and his five sons and three daughters settled in Blake, Utah. The future site of Green River wasn’t much more than the eponymous Mr. Blake, who ran a ferry crossing the river and oversaw the postal route. Within a year, a Farrer had taken over the postmaster position and the Farrer clan had opened a general store. Nothing more is said of Mr. Blake.

1880 was a boundary year in this part of the country. First the settlers sliced off a hunk of Sanpete County and called it Emery, named for the acting governor of the Utah Territory. They saw the land as malleable and free, so they carved up county boundaries with clean right angles.

But nature is more easily divided than conquered. That winter must have felt like a flogging for the Farrers and the two other families who had by that time joined them in Green River. The entire region was devastated.

Cattle died standing up, frozen to the bone in sparse desert pastures. The modest beginnings of crops were stunted. Perhaps the settlers thought the unremitting darkness, the destruction, the wickedness was presaged by their Book of Mormon, and that Jesus was soon to appear with an offering of mercy and salvation. Perhaps they cursed Brigham Young as a false prophet for sending them out as conquerors and ignoring the warnings of a harsh, untamable land. Perhaps they just hunkered down and waited for the snow to melt.

Eventually spring came and with it representatives of the Rio Grande Western Railroad. They wanted to link up Denver and Salt Lake City and build a bridge over the Green River. And so Green River blossomed from a loose collection of three families in 1880 to a boom town full of the trap- pings of industry, growth, and outside investment—hotels, brothels, churches, haberdasheries, tav- erns, Asian laborers who lived in tents and worked on the bridge and tracks for meager pay.

That was only the start. They finished the bridge. When the river rose and swelled and swept away the bridge, they built another and kept the railroad running. They built the Palmer House, a luxury hotel in town to wine, dine, and house railroad guests. When the Palmer House burned down, they built another right where it stood. Mills opened, and families who once lived

on “chop feed” could now eat “first-class flour and real home-made biscuits.” As the population grew, the Mormons built a temple and organized a ward. The settlers, beaming with some Mormon sense of divine victory, were quick to forget the winters, their persecutors, and the places from which they fled. They had sunk roots into the land, and no rising river could wash them away.

Amy Wilmarth was born in Albuquerque, a city of half a million that feels incomparably larger in that sparse part of the country. She’s the youngest child behind two older brothers. Her father was a teamster, a union man who drove trucks for ABF freight. And that’s the way things were, more or less, for the first 27 years of her life.

By that time her father was two years away from retirement, and he had taken to working at the loading docks and on managerial tasks. He could’ve coasted into his future—a cushy union pension and an RV to drive around the country with his wife. But, out of restlessness or boredom or some incorporeal passion for the freeway, he decided to drive a truck once again. This time, out of Green River, Utah, where the couple could live out their golden days in the quietude of the desert. By that time Amy had married, moved to Mesa, Arizona, and had a son, Joseph. Then her husband became abusive. Their marriage broke down. It was over within six months.

When they got word, her parents drove down to Mesa. They filled Amy’s Volkswagen Bug and “whatever car” her parents had to the gills. Within a few hours Amy, Joseph, and her parents were gone, en route to Green River. “I wasn’t gonna stick around, especially with a brand-new baby… and they were going to be parents—absolutely they were. They weren’t gonna leave me in Arizona.”

That all came to pass in 1997. Amy waited tables, tended bar, and worked at motels in Green River for six years before Doug Wright approached her with the proposition. “I just kinda stepped into it,” Amy reflects. She had no barista training, no mentor in the craft of coffee- making, no YouTube tutorials to teach her. But everything came together. Through a period of experimentation, she figured it out—and “the next thing y’know we’re buying a roaster from a guy in St. Louis.”

For a while, it all seemed to gel. “But, I mean, it didn’t last for very long.”

A few years after she began running the coffee shop, Doug stopped showing up. He was spread thin with hospitality- related interests all across the Four Corners states. A Marriott in Colorado Springs. A La Quinta in Flagstaff. An assisted living facility in Albuquerque. Green River just slipped out of view.

Turns out, Doug only had a verbal agreement with “the lady from Ray’s Tavern” who owned Green River Coffee’s building, and the verbal agreement was flaking apart. First she didn’t want Amy’s customers parking in front of the coffee shop—it was taking away from her business across the street. Then Amy couldn’t stay open past 11 a.m.—it was eating into the Ray’s lunch crowd. Each time, Amy resisted briefly, gave in, and tried to keep an increasingly absent Doug in the loop.

 

Then, one day, the agreement fell apart outright. The folks at Ray’s “came and said, ‘we don’t want you operating this business here anymore, we want you out in three days.’”

Tell it to Doug, Amy retorted. She was just the employee, not the owner. Talk to Doug Wright of Wright Hospitality Group of Grand Junction, Colorado. They tried Doug and came back. “He’s not returning his calls.” Imagine the scoff Amy must have given the Ray’s contingent. “I thought, well this is great. So I just took the initiative.”

Within four days, the building across the side street from Ray’s Tavern was vacated. (Amy took the extra day to repaint the walls and return the property to its original condition). The Green River Coffee Company was moved into storage in an unlet room at a defunct motel around the corner.

As for Doug, “he just walked away,” as casually as he had walked into his Holiday Inn Express with a proposition on his tongue. Amy speaks now with a saint-like forgiveness, but it’s clear that a wound still festers. “I could have been very harsh and negative, even just five years ago.” She pauses. “My mentality has changed a whole lot.”

Green River is stuck in a cycle of gain and loss. As soon as things come together, they fall apart. As soon as people and industries flock to the city, they abandon it. By the time the 1890s came around, the railroad moved most of its operations to Helper, a small city on a short-cut route to the Wasatch Front. Helper boomed, Green River atrophied. The county lost most of its tax revenue and the population shriveled by half.

The century turned, and Green River was again boosted, promoted this time as a fruited plain, an Eden in the harsh desert, a place to start anew with a crop of peaches or melons. The hopeful came to town to plant orchards— these were hopes to make you forget the bad years, the droughts, the atrophy. But they left dejected when the irrigation systems proved too inconsistent to sustain thousands of personal bounties. Businesses built on hope came and went—general stores, men’s and women’s clothiers, theaters, parlors, butcher shops, three hotels, even Green River’s own newspaper, the Dispatch.

About the only things that lasted were the melons— cantaloupes, watermelons. Even when droughts dried out the region, Green River produced bumper crops, selling melons for top dollar on the east coast. In 1908 Green River hosted its first Melon Days—an annual festival devoted to the city’s cash crop. Nowadays, residents and visitors still gorge themselves on melons, still crown a “Miss Melon,” still parade and drive a float shaped like a melon slice down Main Street.

Of course, melons can only take a city so far, and as the twentieth century rolled along,

Green River looked elsewhere to sustain itself. In the postwar years prospectors flocked to the hills around town, staking thousands of uranium mining claims, hoping to make it rich in the dawning atomic age. But a rush was all it was. Prospectors left town when the clicks of their Geiger counters slowed.

In the 60s the army built the Utah Launch Complex south of town and sent test Athena missiles hurtling over the desert into the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. And then the Cold War wrapped up and no one saw any great need for a missile base in Green River any longer.

And now? Now no one cares enough about uranium to traipse about the desert. The missile base lingered under caretaker status for a few decades. Now it’s a rusting shell of concrete bunkers and power lines leading to nowhere, flaked with asbestos, filled with bats, covered with graffiti.

“They want to say that the industry is coal mining and that kinda stuff,” Amy grumbles. They want to say that tourism isn’t everything for Green River. That it’s not a transient town, that it’s grounded in the land, dug into the earth—more than a rest area. The nebulous “they” have a point. Lila Canyon, the largest mine in Emery County employs 235 locals and produces nearly a third of the state’s total coal. But a fire deep in the mine has been smoldering since September, threatening to shut it permanently.

“There’s lots of people that are scrambling, trying to find out where they’re gonna go to work now,” Amy sighs. “And they’re transferring them—there’s other mines, like in Illinois and Michigan, I think

there’s one in Texas. But a lot of these guys that are living in Green River that were working at the mine don’t want to move that far away. That would uproot their entire families.”

While every industry in town, even melons and tourism, may go up in smoke eventually, it’s this devotion to family—from the Farrer clan of yore to the Wilmarths of today—that seems to sustain Green River in the hard times. When the first iteration of the Green River Coffee Company was shut down and forced into that peeling motel room for storage, Amy’s father was matter of fact that the café should live on.

“Let’s look at the buildings that are available in Green River and figure out which one is gonna work best.” An orange and brown building on Main Street, the old Moki Trading Post, suited everyone. He helped purchase the property with his teamster pension and a lifetime of sound investments, and within 30 days Amy had the espresso machine up and running.

Now, when that espresso machine breaks down, her middle brother, who moved to town adecade back, takes care of any welding or brazing work for a wage of free coffee and muffins. Now the café is her own. The interior is a crammed and charming patchwork of posters, Willie Nelson bandanas, old burlap coffee bean sacks, maps with pins stuck in where her customers are from, shelves full of red Buddha figurines, Jesus and Mary icons, scented candles with Stars of David. In a room off to the side, she collects and sells rocks and antiques that she inherited from the trading post and accumulated over the years. There’s a lasting scent of coffee beans and an air of comforting overstimulation.

A couple of years after Green River Coffee relocated, on a day when the line was out the door, Doug Wright sauntered back in. Amy had been running the café for years, but he remained the owner. He waited in line and handed Amy an invoice, a proposition that she buy the business outright. She took it home with her and whittled down his offer—subtracting the costs of the storage, the moving—“since he just never came around at all when they asked us to move.” They made a deal, shook on it, and, after years of delay, Amy became the owner, operator, and sole employee of the Green River Coffee Company.

“It’s weird.” She catches herself in a mid-conversation revelation. “I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere, so it’s, so…”

From the day she came from Albuquerque with her parents to the day she bought out Doug, she’s been a fixture in town, reassuring you year after year that Green River hasn’t slid off the edge of the map when you weren’t looking. She stuck around.

That’s what makes it so surreal to be reflecting on the history of the Green River Coffee Company and her time in Green River in the last months of 2022. “I’m in the process of meeting with some folks to discuss the sale and them purchasing the coffee shop. I kinda got this thing handed to me, and now if I can sell it for what I’m asking for, I can retire.”

“Would you stay in Green River?” “Oh yeah.” Amy owns the home where she and Joseph, now 25, cohabitate.

“He pays half the bills, so I’m good,” she says, half joking. But that “oh yeah” is only half the truth; her sights are set elsewhere. She’ll buy a bigger truck and a bigger trailer to take her and Mr. McGee, the sweetheart café dog, around the country. “Eventually go find a beach here or there that I can camp on for a week. Y’know, make my own coffee whenever I want. Live the retired barista life I guess.”

But no matter where she and Mr. McGee roam, she won’t be that far from Green River. Her “sticks and bricks,” the home she shares with Joseph, will always be there to return to. There’s no special philosophy to it—she rebuilt her life here, she lived her life here. She’ll stick around.

You can see Green River as a transient space, where most everyone seems to be passing through. Utes and Tumpanawach making trade; Spaniards and New Mexicans and Californians and their pack mules making trade. John Wesley Powell and his nine- man crew on the Emma Dean. Long haulers, parking their semis by the Sinclair station and leaning over the diner counter growling about their steak and eggs.

But enough folks stick around, and no matter how many times things fall apart, they put the piec – es back together. The espresso ma – chine still runs, melons still taste like they used to, and, wouldn’t you know it, Green River still hasn’t slid off the edge of the map.