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Life in a small Utah town surprises big city immigrants who don’t fit in.



Four years ago, Norman Elizondo told friends in Chicago that he was moving to a tiny rural town in Southern Utah’s Wayne County. This area is so rugged and remote that even most Utahns haven’t heard of it, let alone the rest of the country. His urbanite friends were horrified.

“They all thought I was completely insane.” He laughs at the memory. “Why would you want to move out to Utah, where it’s all Mormon—and rural Southern Utah, a small town? Are you crazy?” they asked him. They also worried about how a gay man would live in a place where there are “no gay people.” He waved off their concerns and went anyway. But when he arrived in the isolated town he had chosen, he recalls thinking, “Huh. Maybe this is a little crazy.”

Perhaps. Why, indeed, move to a small, rural, Mormon community that is barely on the map, where there are more cattle than people—especially if you are not Mormon, have never before seen a cow up close and grew up amidst fast-food chains, 8 a.m. freeway parking lots and stores that stay open 24 hours a day?

The population of Wayne County, according to the U.S Census Bureau, consists of approximately 2,500 people. When compared to the almost 2,500 square miles that comprise the county (97 percent of which is public land), that means that there is about one person per square mile here. Dotted with sagebrush as far as the eye can see across the Awapa Plateau and the Parker Range, riddled with twisting red rock canyons where the county descends to the desert, this is a spectacular yet unforgiving land. Mormon farmers and ranchers have lived here for generations, terrorized by the infamous Robbers Roost gang up until the late 1890s. Loa, the county seat, is the largest town with 500 people. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the biggest fixture in most of the county’s nine towns. Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park, also boasts a Catholic church as well as a Baptist one. One newcomer calls Torrey “a little Shangri-La—definitely the alternative spot in Wayne County,” while newcomers often regard Loa as being more conservative.

The grocery stores (a grand total of two) are hardly 24-hour marts. In fact, they shut down on Sundays. Tough, slightly beat-up ranch trucks sputter along the roads, never once crossing a traffic light as they are overtaken by sleek, newer models that roar along in clouds of diesel fumes, hauling horses and cattle and cowboys. Tourists in middling numbers find the area during the inviting summer months. But during the frigid remainder of the year, the county primarily belongs to those who call it home—and those who call it home are no longer made up entirely of Mormon families determinedly eking out a living from the land. Outsiders have arrived, and many of them are here to stay.

“At first, locals would give me a pretty weird look,” says Elizondo, who lives in Torrey. He chalks up the skeptical glances to two reasons: one, they did not know him, and two, he is not white. Elizondo, who characterizes his genetic makeup as being predominantly Filipino, with some Chinese and Spanish thrown in, says he knows of only a handful of other people of color in the county. The U.S. Census Bureau backs up this claim by reporting that in 2000, Wayne County’s population consisted of 96 percent white persons not of Hispanic or Latino origin. “I think it was mostly that they didn’t know my face, and my kind of face,” Elizondo says. “The color.” He hastens to add that no one was rude to him—he believes they were mostly curious about perceived differences.

Another difference about Elizondo is his being gay, which is “a subject matter I don’t engage in with locals.” When asked why, he responds, “I know most of them are church-attending LDS folks, and I know that [the church has] come up with something called reformative therapy—specifically, how to make people un-gay.” He referred to the organization Evergreen International and its controversial method of “reparative therapy.” The group is not officially affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although it does espouse LDS religious beliefs. “It’s something they look on as a defect…I want them to get to know me as a person first before I bring up [being gay].”

Perhaps the main dissimilarity that glaringly sets apart most of the newcomers to Wayne County is that they are not LDS. Elizondo, who describes himself as a “Catholo-Buddhist,” created his own spiritual sanctuary with friends, getting together on Sundays to meditate. “We’re very open [about meditating] and don’t feel like we have to keep it under wraps.”

Overall, he says, his rural home beats Chicago hands down. “There is really a strong outsider community [here]. And I can’t believe where I live—it’s so beautiful. I just need more gay folks to come down here so we can throw a proper parade here next year!” he adds, grinning.

Erin Fleck originally fled her “huge social life” in Michigan for this wind-blown county to work with at-risk youth in a wilderness therapy program. Now an English teacher, she says, “My mom tells me I’m in voluntary exile in the desert. But I call it my desert retreat.”

When Fleck first arrived here, she was literally crying. “Because there was snow and it was ugly. There’s no snow in the desert!” she adds indignantly. Friends theatrically warned her, “There are Mormons there.” Her anxious father told her, “Loa is not on the map. Do you know where you’re moving?” Fleck admits jokingly, “I don’t even think I knew where Utah was on a map.”

As far as the local LDS culture is concerned, Fleck says, “I’m not going to be going to any ward parties anytime soon. I think if I wanted to, I would be welcome. But I don’t want to. It’s just my choice not to get involved.” Like many of the newcomers, she finds her spiritual practices fueled by the stunning natural settings around her. “If I want religion, I’ll go down to the waterfall,” she says.

The local residents fascinate Fleck and give her a feeling of stability and comfort. The Country Café, a diner in Loa that serves hearty fare, is her favorite hangout. She leans forward, brown eyes sparkling. “I love living in Loa. I seriously love the people. And I love sitting there bullshitting at the Country Café with the truckers, the contractors, the farmers—those men are the reason I get up when I’m having a shitty morning. They’re so great—talking about the girls in volleyball, and who’s gonna sell what cattle and did you get out there and mend that fence. And so-and-so just got a new truck! It’s like I have 15 fathers. They all like to harass me and heckle me. And that kind of feels good.”

Fleck does not plan to spend the rest of her life in her desert retreat, however. “Right now, what’s healing about this place is the openness. I feel clarity here.”

The wide-open spaces and endless expanse of sage were also the first things that struck Kay Peterson when she arrived in the county a few years ago. “I was moved by the power and energy of the land—its subtle, unique beauty,” she says.

Tall, slender, and often dressed in outfits consisting of long wraparound skirts covered with eclectic prints, Chaco sandals and a bandanna wound around her head, Peterson, like the dreadlocked Scott Trieshmann—another outsider-resident lured by Southern Utah’s beauty—feels as if she were highly visible in the community. “Driving my [VW] bus, wearing what I wore, I didn’t feel at all taken seriously by the local folks.” Peterson thinks that over time, there was a “guarded acceptance” of the outsiders by the local community. However, it felt more like they “moved around us rather than embraced us.” She acknowledges that there might have been more things she herself could have done to get in tune with the local culture, but she didn’t know how to access the local folks. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was somehow detached from a large element that ‘is’ Wayne County.”

She notes that it seems as if the only local gatherings in the county revolve around the LDS Church. Not being Mormon, she did not feel welcomed by that faith when she moved here.

However, she says, “I thought the desert of Southern Utah seemed like a good place to take the next steps on my personal [sacred] journey.” Once here, she managed to find other like-minded people and created a spiritual niche that suited her.

Peterson has left Wayne County, saying she “took to the road” to find a more diverse community as well as to please her travel bug. But she still feels “a connection to the land and friends who continue to bless me with their grace and beauty.”

Laura Tarbell, who lived and worked in the county for a year and a half and has also moved away, agrees, saying that whatever the county lacked in social opportunities was filled by “the character and quiet way of living.” When she arrived here, what first struck her was the emptiness. “So quiet I could move slowly and think,” she recalls. In particular, “the serene atmosphere and bright beauty” made a lasting impression on her.

Tarbell is Jewish, although she says, “My spiritual feeling came from being out in the wilderness for so long” while working for one of the youth therapy programs. “The red cliffs stay in my mind,” she admits from her current home back East. She sometimes sought reconnection with her own religious heritage by reading books on Judaism. But she also enjoyed exposing herself to diverse religious beliefs by attending the Sunday meditation groups.

Also lesbian, Tarbell asked a co-worker who had lived here several years for the scoop on any workplace homophobia. She recalls a sinking feeling as she was told, “Most of the [work] community is accepting—and there are those who choose not to be out.” But she discovered small yet important signs of support in her new home: “I saw a human rights campaign sticker on the back of someone’s car—it turned out to be Norman’s [Elizondo].”

She does note that she blended in mostly “because no one could tell I am a Jewish lesbian by looking at me.” Ultimately, she concludes, “I never felt threatened or unloved because I am gay. And it wasn’t a big deal—it is only a tiny piece of who I am.”

Lyman Kinney, who has lived in Torrey for almost a decade, originally came to Wayne County to die. “I have AIDS.” His voice is clear and healthy, and it is neither sad nor apologetic. “Nine years ago, this was a totally different community,” he says reflectively. He thinks that if he had been more open and outgoing back then, he would have been ostracized. But he also knew, after he found himself getting better due to the miracles of modern drugs, that he would always stay here.

Born into a Mormon family, Kinney did not participate much in church-related activities while growing up. “The people who go to church are spiritual only on Sunday,” he says. “I’m spiritual every day because I have to be.”

Several years ago, he went to a non-LDS church in the area, where he became friends with the pastor. Feeling safe in relating confidential information about himself, he told the pastor that he was gay and that he had AIDS. The pastor proceeded to tell some people in the community, who in turn spread the news to others and then began to avoid Kinney. “I was crushed,” says Kinney. “I was so furious. I thought I could trust [the pastor]. It was very, very vicious, what they did to me.”

Two young boys mouthed the word “homo” at him one day when he was driving down the road. “These were just little kids, but they made me feel so small, so horrible,” he says quietly while reliving the memory. Although adults have not treated him similarly, “we know what they’re teaching their kids.” The words are said without rancor. There is a new pastor at the church now, Kinney adds. “He tries to be nice to me. I don’t know if he knows.”

Kinney has always felt welcome here, despite the negative incidents. The friends he has made during his nine years in Wayne County are “very dear” to him, and he remarks that the longer he stays, the more friends he makes. He does appreciate the influx of people arriving from the outside, mainly because they tend to be more accepting of diverse viewpoints. But, he adds, “I have one friend who’s lived here all his life—and his father and grandfather—and he’s Mormon. If I call him and say I need help, he’ll help me. And if he calls me and says he needs help, I’ll help him. He’s the kind of friend that you want.”

Kinney claims he is through being in the closet about anything. “It’s a restricting feeling,” he says, his eyes momentarily shadowed. “It’s much nicer to be out and open.” He is silent for a moment, debating whether or not he should use his real name in this article. Finally, he says, “Go ahead and use it. I’m already out, and it’s too hard to do it again.”

Freshly graduated from college two years ago, Kris Nelson was wandering around the country, searching for a place “to just stop traveling for a while.” Drawn by friends who had moved to Wayne County earlier, he found “a pretty solid community set up of people they were close to. But I never, ever thought I’d live in Utah,” says Nelson, who is from the East Coast. He shakes his head. “Ever! But it grew on me so quickly. Just the peace, and the freedom.”

His friend and college classmate, Scott Trieshmann, arrived shortly after Nelson. “The allure of Southern Utah really appealed to me, and the landscape, and the whole nature of the lifestyle here—very calm,” says Trieshmann in his soft voice, while Nelson nods in agreement. Trieshmann cites that the same friends as Nelson’s immediately allowed him to tap into a network of people with similar backgrounds and views.

He admits to being a little intimidated about living in a small, rural Utah community. “The Utah, conservative, Mormon, cowboy kind of thing—I probably had stereotypes in my head that weren’t fulfilled. Not to say that they don’t exist.” Wearing his blond hair in long dreadlocks made Trieshmann stand out well before he arrived in Southern Utah. While he thinks that most people in Wayne County might peg him as “alternative” based solely on his appearance, it is an assumption that no longer fazes him. “I’ve certainly grown desensitized to it,” he says. “But I’ve never felt any super animosity toward me.”

Nelson jumps in with, “I had no idea what Mormon culture was about before I got here. No idea! My mom said, watch out for the Mormons! They’ll try to convert you,” he laughs. He adds, “I definitely don’t feel welcome. Not that I feel unwelcome. I just don’t feel like anybody’s like, We want YOU in the church!” he says in a dramatic voice, pointing a finger in pantomime of the Uncle Sam Wants YOU! Campaign. “I can’t blame them, but that definitely separates [us] a lot.”

Trieshmann chose Thanksgiving last year to venture into a non-LDS church and felt very welcomed. “I would guess that’s a pretty open congregation,” he speculates, unaware of Kinney’s experience with the same church. He notes that religion mainly “wasn’t a consideration” for him when he moved to town. Nelson, however, says, “Anywhere outside here is church, for me.”

While adapting to life in a small town as an outsider clearly has its trials, Nelson says, “I think the community is pretty accepting. Everybody’s so nice here.” Nelson and Trieshmann both worked at a local restaurant for a while, which afforded them the chance to interact more with the entire Wayne County community. “I felt more like a local, which was kind of fun,” says Nelson. He does remember, however, when he first arrived in town and walked into the Country Café. “It was all these old cowboy guys,” he reminisces. “I felt like I was being stared at, being picked apart—but I think it was just me,” he laughs. Now that he has spent time in the diner when the locals are also sitting at the counter, trading stories, he says “You could talk to those guys about anything—they’re a pretty relaxed crew. [The Country Café] is a pretty good mixing place.”

Trieshmann says he loves the area. However, he sees a drawback in the lack of employment opportunities. “I don’t plan on living here forever. But I think this would be a really great place to stay for a long time.”

Nelson, on the other hand, does want to stay in Wayne County forever if he can, taking the opportunity to invest himself in the community in many ways. “My quality of life here,” he says, “is better than anywhere. I love living here.”