No Matter How Long You're There, You'll Never Be a Native

On life on the fringes—and finding your own way

The woman behind the counter asked where I lived. It turns out she grew up in the very same small town, population 300. She said she had to leave it to find a job, moving to the nearest place with a population nearer 10,000.

"So you must be the new trash that's moving in," she mused.

The woman looked 40 or so, with the dry complexion of winter wheat, as weathered as something wadded up and left in a corner for too long. She did not even attempt to smile.

Something pithy should have come out of my mouth about then. "Yeah, I am. You must be the old trash that moved out."

Instead of saying anything, I looked back at her, mystified. I reached into my pocket, handed her some crumpled dollars for whatever I had just bought.

All the way home I kept thinking of the clever things I could have said. Along the dusty road, up the shoulder of the mountains, turning at a steep, rutted drive, I spoke out loud to her. I sounded, probably, just how she'd expect an uppity newcomer like me to sound, even if I had lived here for 15 years.

In case you're wondering, you will never be a local in towns like these, the scenic but not especially popular ranch towns scattered across the West. It doesn't matter how many decades you spend living here. If you weren't born here, and you carry yourself differently, you might as well have a bull's-eye tattooed on your forehead. You are not a native; you are part of the new trash.

I like to climb in the boulders and cliffs above town. I'm as invisible as a ghost when I come up here. It's my secret hiding place when deadlines, children, wife, dirty bathroom, broken car become too much. I run into the rough hills, scrambling between gut-twisted junipers.

Few people come up here, really. There are some old BLM roads, but I rarely see anyone. Sometimes I walk the roads, brisk pace, eye out for mountain lions in the surrounding woodlands. I even fancy myself a tracker, enjoying the animal pathways I find crisscrossing the landscape.

I was walking down one of these roads when I heard the growl of an ATV behind me. Instinctively, I dove for the snowy woods. I did not want to chitchat—no questions asked or answered, no awkward conversations, no teenagers with guns. (My father grew up a New Mexico motorhead and literally shot himself in the foot when he was in high school, so I know the type.)

I peered out from behind trees, resting on my haunches so I'd look like a stump or a boulder. The ATV came into view and it was not anyone I was expecting. An older man, likely in his 70s, sat behind the throttle, cowboy hat pulled down over his brow. An even older-looking, graying Labrador retriever lay on the back, its head on its paws. They were traveling about four miles an hour, the man's eyes casually roaming the land ahead. I was far enough back in a tangle of junipers so that he couldn't see me.

As he passed, he glanced my way. He had seen my tracks in the snow, a quick scuff marking my departure. He must have had an eye on my bootprints all the way up here. I was impressed. He had a sharp eye, certainly sharper than my own. But he didn't slow down, and he didn't spot me. He just threw a gesture in my direction: I know you're in there.

When the sound of his engine faded, I came out from hiding and followed him. It was a grand day, my imagination wandering to the slow drift of clouds and the snow-capped peaks above. After a mile, not paying attention, I lost track of the man on the ATV. He must have turned off while I was strolling, hands in pockets, head in the clouds. I skipped the road and took a wooded ridgeline, thinking I might spy down on him from somewhere. What is an old redneck doing alone with his dog on a sunny afternoon, anyway? Perhaps this is where he sneaks away to dance like Madame Butterfly, bootheels clicking, all by himself. Who knows?

That's when I heard a purposeful cough ahead of me. Thinking I was alone, I froze. I peered through the shadowed trees ahead of me, squinting to see. Slowly, I bent halfway down so I could look between the trunks and there he was, turned away from me. He had his hands in his coat pockets and was looking down on a valley below. His old dog stood at his side, snout pointing toward the same valley. They had left the ATV behind, came up the ridge on foot.

Over the years, I have tried to understand this local landscape, but I was not a child here running wild, not a teenager with a bonfire, not a young man hunting mountain lions. I came as an adult. I appreciated this man's presence here, respected his solitude. I had a renewed appreciation for ATVs, which got him up here to enjoy his surroundings in peace and solitude.

The old man never turned in my direction, never even saw me. I backed away slowly, coming down off the side of the ridge, rolling my weight from toe to heel the way you do when you don't want to be heard. Just when I was out of view, a hoarse barking broke out. His dog had picked up my presence. But I was already gone, just about to slip out of earshot, feeling like I had made it through a rite of rural passage. I got through the woods without being spotted by a seasoned local. A little proud of that, too. I had gotten close enough I could have sneaked up and tagged him on the rear the way you'd creep up and slap a bear on the rump. I had counted coup. I was grinning as I made my escape.

The dog continued barking, and I caught the man's low voice. Yanking back the trophy I'd just won, he grumbled, "Ahh, Blue, leave him alone."

This essay first appeared in High Country News.