Rural Utah Residents Warm Up To Gnarly Newcomers

Oct 21, 2019, 5:19 PM | Updated: 5:38 pm

CASTLE DALE, Utah – Twenty years ago, Steven Jeffery was a kid from Sandy making regular visits to nearby Little Cottonwood Canyon to learn the freehand rock-climbing sport known as bouldering.

“It may look easy, but it’s not,” he said, scrambling a dozen feet up the vertical face of a boulder.

The practice varies from climbing, which uses a secured rope and harness for safety. “Bouldering” is a type of climbing that does not use ropes or any other kind of climbing gear.

At the time Jeffrey was getting started, the young city kid from what some have called a “punk-rock” culture never imagined he’d wind up fitting in to a conservative, rural Utah county.

Then someone discovered the remarkable “Joe’s Valley” in Emery County, and he made the move. So did many others.

The story of how two very different cultures from the climbing community and rural Utah came together is told in a new short film called “United States of Joe’s.” It premiered this week in the Reel Rock 14 Film Tour at the Rose Wagner Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

The new documentary may give hope to those who despair over people’s inability to get along, especially in politics. It’s about Utah “Good Ol’ Boys,” and girls, learning to cross cultural barriers and “just get along” with some pretty gnarly dudes.

It all started when climbers discovered the enormous expanse of huge boulders strewn across the landscape in Joe’s Valley.

“There’s literally tens of thousands of boulders,” said climber Boone Speed in a clip from the new film. “This has everything we ever looked for in a bouldering area. Like, this is sick.”

That slang terminology is a dead giveaway. The conservative rural climate of Emery County was distinctly different from the culture of the climbers.

“The culture of it was young punk-rock,” said climber Mike Call in the film.

“I think we were definitely outsiders moving in,” echoed Jason Kehl.

The clothing and haircuts of the climbers were outlandish by rural standards, reflecting the apocalyptic look of “Mad Max” movies.

“It would almost make me anxious sometimes,” Jeffrey said in the film. “I was this naive kid from the city, and here was a whole different world. It was a different culture.”

When the climbers first started showing up a few years ago, locals were not enthusiastic.

“My first thought? Uh, they’re crazy,” said Emery County resident Danny Van Wagner.

The climbers often stopped in to buy supplies at a local store called Food Ranch. They distinctly did not fit in.

“At Food Ranch, I’d be hanging out with my friends,” said Emery County high school student Cambry Bennett. “These people would walk in and they’d look like vagabonds.”

Food Ranch manager Lisa Scovill was equally skeptical.

“They dressed a little different. They had the dreads (dreadlocks), the man-buns. You know, we knew they were showering in our bathrooms,” she said.

The skepticism of locals grew even worse after magazine articles were written about Joe’s Valley. Climbers worldwide were also discovering Emery County, and started coming by the hundreds, sometimes by the thousands.

“Honestly, we thought we were being invaded by a bunch of potheads,” said Emery County Sheriff Greg Funk.

“There was definitely tension building,” said an unidentified climber in the film.

At that point, the film shows a man in a pickup truck sounding off to the climbers.

“Get a job!” he shouted at them.

“There was this moment of, ‘We need to connect, before it explodes,’” said Jeffery, whose personal story was at the heart of the film.

Things were looking bleak. It seemed as though the two cultures would never mix, or even just get along.

About 6 years ago, Jeffery and some friends decided to join a city cleanup and approached some of the locals who organized it.

“We were so excited,” said resident Carol Stilson. “We said, are you serious? You’re here to help us?”

That hint of good will opened up possibilities in a rural area that had fallen on hard times. The local coal industry had been undergoing dramatic shrinkage, leaving the area with an uncertain economic future.

“There’s a lot of concern that Emery County will become a ghost town someday,” said Cambry Bennett.

The boulderers, as they called themselves, sensed an opportunity to convince residents that visitors to Joe’s Valley could be a good economic force for the county.

Climbers began making multi-media presentations to locals. Locals started selling to climbers. Food Ranch crossed the divide by stocking things like climbing chalk, climbing gear and even beverages preferred by the boulderers.

Then someone proposed a festival, giving locals a chance to try their hand at bouldering.

At one point in the film, a young woman climbs a boulder and exclaims, “My name is Brooklyn Potter. I’m Miss Emery County. This is so much fun! Having a ball!”

Climbers learned to rope steers and ride wild animals in a local rodeo.

“So they can kind of understand our way of life and why we love it so much here,” said Sheriff Funk.

The locals went so far as to teach the climbers how to make a local favorite, jerky.

“Even though I’m a vegetarian, ha, ha,” said one of the climbers in the film.

In time, climbers learned they could get along with locals by treating them and their culture with respect, despite their differences. Locals learned that climbers were good for the economy. One family even started a coffee shop catering to the outsiders’ tastes.

At a climactic point in the film, an Emery County man tells a climber, “You guys come from anywhere you want to come. We love bouldering!”

Here’s a spoiler alert – the film’s surprise ending is that the kid from Sandy, Steven Jeffery, has become a resident of Emery County. Yes, he’s now a climber and a local.

“If anyone told me this was the place where I’d be settling down and living, I would definitely think you were crazy,” he told the film-makers. “Honestly, I couldn’t find a better place on earth than Joe’s Valley.”

“The town’s growing on me,” he told a reporter while clinging to the face of a boulder on a return visit to Little Cottonwood Canyon.

He hopes the film will send a message that if people will just talk to each other and treat people with respect, it can blaze a trail across many cultural barriers.

“Two different communities can come together for one overall goal,” he said.

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Rural Utah Residents Warm Up To Gnarly Newcomers