My 1,500 cycling journey across the Colorado Plateau began in the backseat of a Ford pick-up. To avoid the endless suburbs of the Wasatch Front, my grandparents drove me and my friend Kailey Kornhauser to our starting point in Price. Eight miles north of Price near the exit for the small town of Helper, we passed a giant billboard advertising the world’s largest coal miner. I imagined replacing the tall, black statue with the world’s largest environmentalist, painting it green, crowning it with flowers, and placing a Keep it in the Ground sign in one hand and seeds in the other. I didn’t come to Carbon County to engage in direct action, though. I came to listen.
After kissing my grandparents’ tear soaked cheeks goodbye, Kailey and I pedaled through the neighborhood streets of Price, past green parks and a main street with store fronts that evoke the Wild West and the more familiar chains that dominate struggling western towns. I realized I had never been beyond the gas station right off the highway exit. During my many trips to southeastern Utah from Salt Lake, Price was merely a half-way marker.
As we pulled up to our first meeting, a man with white facial hair donning a long, brown workers apron and a black lab puppy greeted us with a jovial hello. Dennis Willis is a retired BLM rangeland manager and recreation specialist. He now heads the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and works tirelessly to protect the public lands he once managed. In his living room surrounded by wildlife paintings, he shared a bit of his life story. Most of his responses began with a reference to a geologic period as he joked about his age: “Well back in the Pleistocene there were mammoths.”
When asked what inspired him to pursue a career in public lands, Dennis responded, “I just looove it.”
He grew up exploring the Sierra Nevadas with his parents and from a young age admired park rangers and forest service employees. He said, “I thought that guy that drove around in the green pick-up truck and mopped out the out houses had the coolest job in the world.”
A career with the BLM left Dennis with various accomplishments. He especially finds pride in the large amount of grazing permits he retired and running 5,000 miles of river on the government’s dime.
His career with the BLM landed him in Price in 1979, right in the middle of the town’s coal boom. “Money was flowing like water,” he said.
When talking about the boom years, Dennis described a town where Labor Day was the biggest holiday of the year and Main Street buildings housed the American Socialist Party and Industrial Workers of the World. That seemed like a foreign place compared to the Price I thought I knew.
“The blue collar union feel to this town was just incredible,” Dennis said. “Everybody had a union sticker of some sort on their car or pick-up truck. When you’d go to the grocery store you would see union jackets all the time.”
The unions are now gone and the Labor Day parties have decreased in scale, but a trace of the union is found in the egalitarian culture that remains. For the most part the town lacks good and bad neighborhoods, but rather on any given street wealthy houses are found alongside more modest homes. The cemetery isn’t divided up into sections, but rather everyone is buried together.
Randy Mabbutt, a mining safety educator at the Utah State University extension in Price, spoke to the role of the unions further. We met with Randy in his classroom that unfortunately that day was experiencing an outage in air conditioning. Before the building was acquired by the university it was the hospital where Randy was born. He said, “I was actually born in this very building, so I haven’t gone very far. And if it doesn’t get any cooler in this building I might be able to say I died here.”
Amid the jokes, Randy shared stories from his 30-year career as a miner in Carbon County. Randy didn’t work for a union mine, but he said, “We benefitted by having the union, and if anybody tells you they didn’t they’re crazy.”
When the union mines would raise their pay, the non-union mines were forced to raise their pay as well to remain competitive. If Randy were to do it all over again, he would work for a union mine because of the health care benefits. Rather than teaching at the university, he’d be out on the golf course.
Randy also talked about the famous Labor Day celebrations, from coal shoveling competitions to the array of food. He said, “It was something that brought out the entire community. People really remember it fondly.”
When I asked Randy about his connection to Price and the regional environment, it became clear that his love for the place wasn’t so different from the love Dennis described. The stereotype that coal miners don’t care about the environment upsets Randy. He said, “Coal miners are outdoorsy people. They don’t want to see the environment destroyed, they really don’t because they enjoy it. They enjoy being outdoors and they love the beauty of it.”
Randy particularly loves the desert. Not far from his home is the San Rafael Swell, which he says is “like a lot of the national parks except you don’t have all of the people.”
He doesn’t have a lot of use for big cities and lives on the edge of town for more open space. With the dying coal industry, he feels for the younger generation who share his same love of the outdoors and detest for big cities but are forced to find jobs elsewhere.
Randy has hope that coal jobs will return to Price, and amid my own skepticism and the climate sirens going off in my head, I can’t help but feel empathy for Randy and his community. It’s a sad irony that the only way young people can stay in Price is to mine the very earth they care for deeply. We create antagonisms and dichotomies between the coal miner and the environmentalist, but yet again I’m reminded that the real enemy is a system that bases a community’s survival on bottom lines.
My mind flashes to the film Pride, which shows the true story of lesbian and gay activists in London who supported the British miners’ strike in 1984. Margaret Thatcher’s administration was oppressing both groups, so they sought unity in the struggle against the neoliberal regime. After hostile interactions and uncomfortable meetings, the two groups eventually built meaningful relationships and showed up for one another in moving ways. The movie Pride left me with the same question as the town of Price, “What would a Climate Justice Activists Support the Miners group look like?”
I can advocate for a just transition, but what about when the solar jobs don’t appear in the dying coal town? Randy has heard lots of talk of renewable industry but seen no follow through. And if you’ve experienced the traffic jams and overcrowded camping in Moab, then you know the recreation economy has serious limits. Climate change may be global, but climate justice begins with community solutions.
I don’t know how to create an alliance between climate activists and coal miners when I could never advocate for the return of coal. Maybe I’m just under an illusion, awe struck by the days when the left aligned with labor rather than giving them no better option than Donald Trump.
As Randy’s concern for the young people of Price rings in one ear, the pragmatic words of Dennis ring in the other. “The sad thing is a bunch of our community leadership see that little sweet spot of 1970-1984 as what normal is supposed to be,” he said. “And it wasn’t normal at all.”
Normal. As we transition into an era of climate chaos, that word seems so trivial.
I am left with more questions than answers, but I find guidance in the words that directed Dennis in his public lands career. During his first agency job with the forest service at Flaming Gorge, Dennis asked his district ranger what it took to be a good ranger. The district ranger responded, “Pretty easy. All you need is two things. You’ve gotta have passion for the place, and compassion for the people that like that place.”
As tears stream down his face, Dennis characterizes the ranger as an absolutely great guy, a dear friend until his death a couple years ago. That’s when it hits me how fortunate I am to spend the summer listening. Receiving wisdom passed down is a rare gift.
My own passion for the Colorado Plateau and compassion for the people who make up its communities drove me to embark on this journey. As I try to describe my project in academic terms, Dennis reminds me I must hold tight to my original motivation.
I biked away from Price with a new perspective on a community to which I previously gave little thought. The next day Kailey and I headed north eight miles to the neighboring coal town of Helper. We passed cattle guards and houses with signs that read “Proud Union Home.” We pulled up to the artist’s river house lent to us by two newcomers to Helper, Roy and Anne Jespersen, and it was clear that Helper is in transition. The small house was beautiful. Mugs of different colors hung above the kitchen sink. Paintings from Anne and other local artists in Helper lined the walls. Large, deep chairs rested on the front and back porches. And the Price River ran within a few feet of the backyard.
Kailey and I met Roy and Anne at the Balance Rock Eatery & Pub on Helper’s historic Main Street. They shared updates on the town. Even though Main Street looked abandoned, Roy told us that every building but one was purchased. Where previous hardware stores and brothels stood, art galleries were opening.
Roy and Anne themselves are renovating a building on Main Street to serve as a combined living space and studio. As Anne walked us through their future home, I felt like I was in a studio in New York, not rural Utah. But then we moved to the back of the building and through the walls of windows I saw the railroad a few feet away and salmon and tan cliffs towering above.
The landscape also creates jobs, as the public land agencies are one of the biggest employers for the town. During lunch, one woman walked in with a sleeping baby strapped to her, passing out flyers for a nature journaling course for the local kids. Her husband works for the BLM.
A town with rising artists and nature journaling attracts my inner creative.
Is Helper an example of a just transition?
It’s a beautiful idea to revive an old coal town with art. But how much does it benefit the long-time residents of the place as opposed to the newcomers? This is a question I didn’t get answered in my short stay in Helper. Roy and Anne revealed to me that the answer is most likely complex. As Anne installed radiant tubing in the sidewalk to heat the floor of her new home, Roy overheard a Helper old-timer ask, “What in the hell is Helper coming to?” But then they also pointed to the paintings lining the walls of the restaurant and told me they were made by a retired miner.
I didn’t get to talk to the miner-turned-painter or the man who shakes his head at the changes to his hometown. But I learned there are more stories for me to listen to, more people to meet. This journey is not just a 1,500 cycling trip. It’s a lifetime of building relationships.
Roy walked me and Kailey up and down Main Street, introducing me to some of the people bringing creativity to Helper. From the artist couple who have lived in Price with their two young kids for the past fifteen years, to Morgan Lund, an actor who left his job as a professor in the theatre department at the University of Utah for the cleaner air in Helper. More than once, people compared the air quality in Salt Lake to that of Price. Do we choose breathing or jobs?
Morgan told me he likes places people don’t appreciate. He pushed me to try to understand Helper, to listen and see what people often ignore.
As I sat sipping wine from the porch of the artist guest house, I watched the sunset over the plateaus surrounding the small town. People walked their dogs in the middle of the street and the river quietly rushed past a yard behind me. Biking through town, it felt manageable and safe, comfortable yet inspiring with the dramatic colors of the surrounding land. But understanding Helper requires more of my time.
Rather than paint the largest coal miner green, I want to shake his hand. I want to listen to his stories.