At first glance, it looks as if the best of times are long past for both Helper and Green River in Utah. But then we stopped, Jerry Oyama and I—for melons and an artful lunch—and the futures of these two towns looked brighter than their run-down exteriors would indicate.
Jerry O makes this drive a lot; he spends his summers in Colorado and winters in the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah. He knows the terrain. Coming south, dropping the last curve out of Price Canyon, Jerry said, “Are you hungry? I could use some fries.” He knew just the place.
I had never found a reason to stop in Helper, other than a gas fill-up. The old business district showed its dilapidated brick backside across the Price River, but I had never before made the turn. This time Jerry steered us down Main Street between Victorian-era storefronts, many of which were boarded up, past the shuttered Strand cinema to the Balance Rock Eatery & Pub. Balance Rock itself teetered atop the blonde cliffs at the north end of town.
I was expecting OK small-town fare, and what I got was a mountain of the best hand-cut fries I’ve ever had, and a mighty generous bacon burger, both ridiculously inexpensive—plus three stories of art on the walls. “This is wild, eh,” Jerry said. “A bunch of Salt Lake City artists have come down to Helper buying up studio and gallery space.”
Jerry is an artist, an accomplished sculptor and a budding painter. He knows some of these people. And he recognized the quality in what we were seeing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the double-entendre, hyper-realistic paintings of Ben Steele. Behind me “Four Alarm Fire” depicted a yellow-clad firefighter hosing down a painting of a very real looking building on fire. Across the room hung another joke, an aerial view of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” as if, like alien crop circles, it had been carved out of a Midwestern cornfield.
The other featured artist, David Dornan, specializes in vibrant, thickly applied oils: huge (some of them six feet on a side) rose blooms, engine parts, a single tube of blood-red lipstick, and, most powerfully, the oversized tools of his trade, spattered brushes and paint cans rendered in a penetrating stare.
The name Helper comes from the helper locomotives needed to push coal trains up the 15-mile grade to Soldier Summit. Coal and the railroad built the town; both industries have seen better days. The population has declined nearly 8 percent since 2000, to slightly more than 1,800. Almost 13 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. Trains still rumble through, but they no longer deliver prosperity.
An hour and a half down the road, Green River (population 973) slumbered in a post-harvest torpor. I-70 rushed by a mile to the south while Highway 6 through the old town was deserted, junkers on the side streets, drive-ins unvisited since the 60s. Green River was a railroad town, too, after starting life as a ferry crossing, but that ended in 1892 when the Denver & Rio Grande Western transferred most of its operations to Helper. Then it was a uranium boom town. Then an Air Force missile launching site. All booms gone bust.
We wanted melons, and Jerry insisted we go to Dunham’s stand on the lazy river’s west bank. He knew the family; he and Kelly Dunham had worked together in Alta. At Dunham’s you don’t need to guess which watermelons or cantaloupes or honeydews or yellow Israelis or Casabas or Canaries are ripe. Nancy Dunham, tall and handsome at 77, came out of the shade and selected them for us.
“When do you want to eat these?...This cantaloupe will be perfect tomorrow…This honeydew you can put in the fridge and it’ll be good for two weeks…A watermelon’s ripe when you tap it and get B-flat.”
By less than a week, Jerry and I had missed Melon Days, with its crowning of the Melon Queen, its parade, its theme this year “Dancing with the Melons.” Never mind. Mother Dunham’s mind was on a future that included building a restaurant on the dusty lot next-door, “a local-food place” with produce supplied by Kelly’s farm. Kelly had come home and with her husband started a 60-acre organic farm just upriver.
The restaurant would have live music organized by some of her old “hippie” friends in Salt Lake. “There is no music between Price and Moab,” she said, stating a fact, like the sandiness of good melon soil. “This town needs a place to draw people in. It’s my dream. You gotta dream!”
Melon perfume filled the car. Rolling east on the freeway toward the Colorado line, it seemed that maybe, just maybe, art and food and music might keep a couple of neglected whistlestops alive.
– Peter Shelton’s blog is peterhshelton.wordpress.com