“Was it really that bad?” my friend Amy just asked this week, and I am still ruminating over that, days later.
I hasten to start with the fact that for most of my five years there, my life was in no way awful. I even remember the trip for the interview: It was bitterly cold when I left Montana, so I was wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, a long-sleeved button-up shirt, a turtleneck sweater and a heavy overcoat. When I landed in Grand Junction it was in the 50s and while peeling off layer after layer I, being the warm-weather fan that I am, said to myself: “They could offer me a job shoveling shit here, and I will take it.”
They did. Luckily, it wasn’t shoveling shit; instead, it was my first full-time-with-medical-and-dental job on the copy desk of the newspaper, which published an afternoon edition on weekdays and a morning edition on weekends. That meant depending on the day of the week, I’d work either 4 p.m. to midnight or 4 a.m. to noon.
Every other week we’d get off work at midnight Saturday, then have to be return at 4 a.m. Monday — the 28-hour weekend. My friend P.J. always was repeating: “That’s got to be screwing up your circadian rhythms.” I never really noticed a problem with sleep, but it did screw up my social life.
I was 23 back then. So was P.J., who had moved with her husband from San Diego for her job as a reporter, and Sharyn, who showed up shortly after, from Washington, D.C. I think they had a stronger culture shock than I did, given their urban roots, but even I had some trouble adjusting. Granted, Grand Junction had a bigger population than Missoula, but my hometown was definitely more metropolitan.
Missoula has the University of Montana (my alma mater), once named the most scenic campus in America by Rolling Stone, and fifth among U.S. public universities in the nation for Rhodes scholars. Grand Junction has Mesa State College: Its Wikipedia page talks mostly about the residence hall association. (“RHA has many objectives and goals, focusing a large portion of their effort toward being the residents’ voice and advocating residents’ issues to the Housing department, the campus and the Grand Junction community.”)
The way GJ residents describe it to people from out of state usually goes like this: “It’s the largest city between Denver and Salt Lake City.” Definition through triangulation. (And if you take the quickest route, you don’t even go through GJ.)
I lived between 32 Road and 32-1/8 Road, because the north-south roads are named after how far they are from the Utah state line. (The east-west roads added the fractions to letters, so it was possible to live on B 3/4 Road.)
We lived there when the first Red Lobster opened. People waited in line for three and a half hours. For Red Lobster.
Despite this — or perhaps because of it — P.J., Sharyn and I were inseparable. We were the only 20somethings in a newsroom otherwise filled with married 40-year-olds with kids. (Dress code mandated shirt and tie, and included the memorable phrase, “If trousers have belt loops, belts must be worn.”) When we had time off, we’d take pictures up on the Colorado National Monument. We joined the gym where P.J.’s husband, who had once worked on the volleyball coaching staff at UCSD, now whiled away his hours at the front desk.
Meanwhile, I spent my Friday nights putting out a newspaper, then sitting at my desk working on advance pages and watching “American Gladiators” (Laser played football at my college!) with Phil, one of the sports guys.
During the holiday season the town — I keep referring to it as a “town,” even though I was there when it qualified as a Metropolitan Statistical Area — hosted the Parade of Lights. Sharyn and I went down to watch the electric-lit floats trundle through the seven blocks of downtown Main Street.
“That was cute,” I said. “When we’re here next year at this time, we’ll have to do this again.”
“Yes,” she replied. “Then we can go home and you can put a bullet in my head.”
It wasn’t funny next year, when we were still there.
To get away, we made the four-hour drive to visit my brother in Denver and crash in his extra room for the weekend. (One Friday he came home from work to find us sprawled out on his living room floor, all his collected copies of Playboy scattered around us. “We wanted to see if we could find the rabbit head on every one,” we said with a shrug.) In exchange for the free room, we’d take him to the clubs, restaurants and brewpubs, and Sundays we’d climb back in the car for the return to the Western Slope.
Those trips made our lives better, yes, but they made our Grand Junction life seem even worse. Now we were aware that we weren’t really living there, we were just subsisting: Get up, go to work. Every Sunday, Sharyn and I would go to the Econ-o-Wash (actual name) laundromat in the Teller Arms shopping center, wandering over to Hastings Records and Books to read magazines (her) and look at CDs (me) during the dryer stage.
There were notes of small-town wonderfulness, like the elderly couple who ran said Econ-o-Wash. The Man and The Lady, as we referred to them, eventually loved us so much that if we stayed at Hastings too long, we would come back to clothing that had been neatly folded and stacked. “I didn’t want it to get wrinkled,” The Lady would confess.
And there was Amy. God bless Amy, who owned a hair salon on the aforementioned Main Street. She was our age, she was married (and totally controlled her husband) and she owned her own business. We were somewhere between marvel and awe. We went in her salon a lot — usually just to hang out, although both Sharyn and I ended up blond at one point or another as well.
Amy and her then-husband, Jeff, took me on my first skiing trip, where I accidentally jumped off the lift onto a hard run and ended up alternately snowballing or seething my way down to the bottom. Even after she had two kids, Amy invited us up to a dinner of emu in cherry sauce. The problem was: There were too few Amys in Grand Junction. (In fact, there was just the one.)
By the time Sharyn and I were in our mid-20s, we had realized: Young people shouldn’t stay in Grand Junction unless they planned to stay there forever. And we didn’t. But because our situations weren’t awful, we weren’t motivated to say, “I have to get out of here.” On one hand, I didn’t have a life. “On the other, you’re only paying $425 to rent a two-bedroom townhouse.” So we continued down the same path, week after week. Our cool little groove had become a rut.
When we realized we were about to be awarded five-year service pins, something rumbled, and when things finally got bad at work, my need to get out kicked into high gear. Ready for a bigger city, I applied at newspapers in Denver and Seattle. My old boss Steve, who had left awhile back, called me about a job on an entertainment publication in the Phoenix area, and I flew out to interview over my birthday.
“Why, yes,” she replied, in her British accent. “But I’m a little taken aback. I’m not the sort of person who usually gets recognized in elevators.”
“You appeared in the ‘Love Shack‘ video,” I said. (She first shows up around the 1:15 mark.) She was in town playing with the Indigo Girls that weekend — “Do you know of any Pride events this weekend?” she asked — and offered to put me on the list, which I gladly accepted. I also accepted the job when they offered it to me, two days later.
By the time I left Grand Junction, I had five years of work experience under my belt — trouser loops or not — but I also had the distinct feeling I had five years of missed life to make up for.
I took Steve’s wife, Lauri, to the concert that night, before the interview process was over, and although I didn’t know many Indigo Girls songs that night, I knew I loved this place. On just my first weekend in town, I had run into a famous person, I had eaten on Mill Avenue (back when it was funky and cool) and an authentic Chinese restaurant, I’d interviewed with a guy wearing a T-shirt, sweat shorts and Birkenstock-style sandals about a job involving music, movies, dining and theater … and now here I was in an open-air amphitheatre for a free concert.
“Now that the sun has set, this doesn’t feel bad at all,” I said, arms stretched out at the Mesa Amphitheatre. “How hot do you think this is?”
“Probably around 100,” Lauri replied.
“I love this,” I said.
I still do.