Backcountry Bisons: Quinn Grover, Wilderness of Hope

With our new Virtually Bison Books tours, you can explore Western Literature from your home or on the road. Backcountry Bisons is the newest tour featuring an array of memoirs that bring the reader into the Western environments that the authors explored, hiked, or connected with in an inspiring way.

Below author Quinn Grover discusses implications of COVID-19 for Western towns he loves. He teaches English at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His work has been published in national fly-fishing magazines such as the Flyfish Journal, the Drake, and American Angler as well as literary outlets such as Newfound, Cirque, and Juxtaprose. His book, Wilderness of Hope, is one of the titles featured in the Backcountry Bisons virtual tour.

Western Trout Towns in the Age of COVID-19

In 2019, a year that seems to be an eternity in the past, I finished my PhD and I published Wilderness of Hope (Bison Books, 2019). It was the culmination of years of hard work and some good luck. It was also the end of things. There was a rush of joy and accomplishment, but there was also a kind of hole that was ready to be filled.

Selfishly, I was planning to fill that hole with lots and lots fly fishing. One thing I had chosen to sacrifice, even while working on a book about fly fishing, was the act of fishing itself. I hadn’t stopped fishing but I had dialed back my fishing trips so that I could accomplish my goals and still spend time with my family. This year was the year I would make up for lost time. I planned to chase trout in Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and across my home state of Idaho. I was looking forward to seeing rivers that I had missed and stopping in small towns that I had fond memories of, places with as many fly shops as there were gas stations. I love these little Western trout towns. Places were everyone knows when the salmonflies are hatching and what that means for both the fish and the anglers.

Then came COVID-19 and I began to worry about these places. Rural mountain towns are often isolated from major health care facilities, creating what researchers call “medical deserts.” At the same time, many of the local economies of these trout towns rely on the fishing industry. Places like Ennis, Montana, and Ketchum, Idaho. Places like Dutch John, Utah.

Green River.

Dutch John is located in northeastern Utah and to call it a town is perhaps a bit generous. It has two fly shops that also sell gasoline and food along with a host of cabins and homes. It sits in the midst of a sprawling high desert, miles from any freeway, the landscape punctuated by stands of cedar trees and pairs of antelope. The town is near Flaming Gorge dam, which—when it was completed in 1964—flooded the otherworldly red rock canyon that had been named “Flaming Gorge” by John Wesley Powell nearly a hundred years earlier. In the canyon below the dam, the Green River is a cold and clear trout fishery that sits in stark and beautiful contrast to the desert that houses it. Thanks to the gift of public lands and a father who likes to wander, I have been fishing that river since my teenage years and I spent the winter tying flies in preparation for a trip back.  

My trip to Dutch John was planned for April. I was meeting a friend I have been fishing with for decades. In the weeks leading up to the trip, we didn’t know what to do. Dutch John is located in Daggett county, which (as of this writing) still hasn’t had a confirmed case of COVID-19, but it is ill equipped to handle any kind of outbreak as the closest hospital is more than forty miles away. Yet Dutch John’s economy is utterly dependent on people like us coming to fish the Green River.

In the end, we postponed the trip for a month and went in May. We wore masks and avoided indoor gathering as best we could. We mostly avoided people while still spending money at local businesses. And we caught a lot of fish. But I came home uneasy, unsure if we had made the right choice even as Daggett county remained virus free. Tightropes like this one are being walked across the West in trout towns and other mountain gateways that rely on visitors from out of town and out of state coming to recreate and bringing their wallets.  

It’s an old trope in American literature that a person can escape to the West and leave the complications of city life behind. Think of Huck Finn’s promise to “light out for the territory” to avoid being “sivilized” by Aunt Sally. Such a trope suggests that a kind of pastoral simplicity characterizes the rural West. But I have been struck this year by how wrong that thinking can be. Separated by the wide-open spaces that the region has become synonymous with and the West’s own urban centers, rural Western towns are not simpler than other places. Instead, these towns are complicated in their own specific ways. They have unique challenges related to health care, resource extraction, recreation, water, schools, climate change, and public lands. These challenges and the towns that face them can easily be caricatured or misunderstood by a public that increasingly lives in urban areas.

Many of us visit these towns because they provide access to public lands. We go to wilderness areas and national parks for many reasons, including that same sense of escape that Huck Finn was looking for. But as we do, we would do well to remember that the cultural and bioregional networks of the West are complex entities, operating in a landscape that has long enchanted humanity while resisting human efforts to remake it into a paradise of simplicity.

Green River.

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