—Laurelin Kruse – 2015 Frontier Fellow
On my third day in Green River I woke up in the early, still dark morning to what sounded to my half-dreaming mind like a church organ—enormous, projecting a single minor chord across town and into my bedroom. The sound was so even and warm, and I imagined what kind of musical instrument it could be coming from: a giant harmonica, the size of a basketball court, played from the high school gymnasium, or an enormous church organ, the pipes reaching half a mile into the sky. It took several minutes of cycling through images like this for me to finally recognize it as a train announcing itself as it pulled into town.
I’ve heard this sound two or three times a day since I’ve been in Green River, and at first, each time I could slip back into imagining it as a giant harmonica, but the more I heard it, the more it sounded like a whistle, and now, four weeks into my stay in Green River, I only hear it for what it is—a train routinely passing through town.
Getting to know a place is like this. At first every detail is like a strange dream or something from a movie—a wide and quiet Main Street, the loose dogs roaming around the town, the pale Book Cliffs, the longness of Long Street, the taco truck that permanently operates out of an old gas station. When I first got to town to begin my Frontier Fellowship, these details were odd and cute, dare I say Instagrammable. But as my days in Green River accumulated relationships replaced romanticism. I learned many of the loose dogs were simply waiting around for treats. I started going to the taco truck nearly every morning for a bacon and egg breakfast burrito and after a while felt less like an intruder as I ate my breakfast inside next to the woman who made it as she watched her telenovelas.
I’ve spent the past year traveling from place to place, sacrificing a solid sense of home for an ongoing, nomadic project, the Mobile Museum of American Artifacts. I’ve dipped into towns for a day, or lived places for a few months. By the time I reached Green River for my Frontier Fellowship, everything in me said PAUSE! REFLECT! So I’ve spent a month in Green River reflecting on what it means to be a visitor in a place, or an artist in a place, to pass through, to make something, to leave something behind or take something with you. What’s the difference between romanticism and relationship? At what point does one transform to another? How do romanticism and relationship influence the stories we tell about ourselves, the places we live, or other people and other places?
I’ve thought about this as I’ve taught storytelling workshops to high school and elementary students, as I’ve spent a few days exploring the Green River archives, as I’ve talked with my roommates and new friends over dinner or on day trips to Goblin Valley or Canyonlands, and in my tri-weekly coffee-fueled writing marathons at West Winds Restaurant.
On my first day in Green River I pulled into town with my mobile museum and immediately headed to the Pirates Den Teen Center to set it up for their “Lights On” lantern lighting event. A few of the kids took a great interest in the mobile museum and took over as my docents and security guards.
I spent the first week of my Frontier Fellowship at Green River High School working with Mr. Gowans’s 11th and 12th grade Language Arts classes to explore creative writing and storytelling techniques and ideas. The workshop concluded with students writing fictional stories about objects in the Mobile Museum of Artifacts collection (all of which have come from real people somewhere around the country). On the final day, we read their fictional stories aloud alongside the real story, and the entire class voted upon which of the batch they believed to be true. Two-thirds of the time, students voted for one of their classmate’s stories as the most convincing, believable, well-told story. Students imagined people’s lives in other times and places, writing stories about the Cold War, about families in Illinois or New Orleans, stories taking place in the 1960s, the 18th century, or the present day. We talked about what makes the stories we tell convincing and what we expect in a story, or in a museum collection (something old, something special, something from a faraway place).
I also did a workshop with younger kids at Pyramid Youth Programs. They checked out the Mobile Museum of American Artifacts exhibit, and the next day created their own museum out of objects they brought from home and found around the classroom.
I spent my last week in the Green River Archives. Jo Anne, the archivist who has single-handedly built the town archive from the ground up, gave me a tour of the town and its entire history through the documents and objects she’s collected in the basement of the John Wesley Powell River History Museum. I ended up spending a day reading a transcription of an oral history recorded with Betty Smith, one of Green River’s greatest poets and rockhounds. Here, too, any small-town romanticism was squashed by the realization that everything in the Green River Archives is connected to a very real, very alive person in town. “Betty Smith’s son is coming in a few minutes to fix my computer! He’s our IT guy,” Jo Anne told me, excited that I may meet the man whose mother’s history I was reading. Later, I saw Jo Anne when I was getting lunch at West Winds: “the waitress is Betty Smith’s niece!” she told me on her way out. Here, history is not safely removed, mediated by a textbook or even an archive. History lives as a personal memory.