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Cowboys vs. Kitchen Folk

It Takes a Village to Raise a Restaurant
Last of three parts


In the decade since Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle opened their regional-fare-based Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, other food activists have followed, seeking a place where they can grow their own food, make their own music and create a community of like-minded souls. Call it the back-to-the-land movement of the 21stcentury.

The tight-knit ranching outpost, where horses outnumber people, is becoming a mecca for sustainable-food enthusiasts. But the transformation has not always been easy—or welcome.

Eyed suspiciously at first by many of the long-established families, these newer residents say they’re here for the long haul. They’ve started a farmer’s market and a beekeeping club. One couple is seeking grants to open a communal kitchen for canning and drying food. Like the old-timers, they cobble together a living with multiple part-time jobs and trade produce among themselves

“Having the restaurant here has helped people see this as a really healthy place, where people care deeply about their food,” says Nathanael Spalding, who moved to Boulder five years ago to run an organic farm for his sister’s restaurant. Boulder mayor Bill Muse, who sold Blake Spalding the land for the farm, envisions a future in which more and more of the rolling ranchland will become small, sustainable farms.

But that makes some with deep roots here feel that their way of life—cattle raising, hunting, trapping—is threatened. A few years back, grumbling arose about the influx of yurts and other alternative housing without plumbing. Always lively town meetings grew heated.

Hell’s Backbone Grill took its name from a narrow wooden bridge across a formidable canyon at Boulder’s southern tip, which opened the town to automobiles in 1933. Spalding and Castle see their restaurant as a bridge between the newcomers and the old-timers.

Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah

Hell’s Backbone Grill has turned rural
Boulder, Utah, into a hub of the slow-food
movement. Photo by Nolan Hester

“We wanted to run a restaurant with heart, and to do so organically and with environmental awareness,” they wrote in their 2004 book, “With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant.” “We would follow Buddhist principles of right livelihood offering place-based, regional and seasonal food.”

Their prayer-flag-bedecked restaurant and staff housing would “serve as an example of responsible growth in a town in need of economic stimulus,” they wrote.

“The last thing we wanted,” they also wrote, “was to be outsiders.” Still, in many ways the town is divided into “kitchen people” and “non-kitchen people.”

“What’s going on in Boulder is different from the impression you get in the cookbook,” said Kelly Beck of Fremont, Calif., who has volunteered for two summers in the restaurant’s kitchen and on its organic farm. “It’s not hostile, but there’s a lot of people who have been here for a long time, and you don’t necessarily cross paths with them doing kitchen work. They can be welcoming if you cross paths, but there aren’t many chances to cross paths.”

One such chance is the annual Boulder Heritage Festival. The crowd is largely local, an eclectic mix of area ranchers carrying cell phones in cowboy-style embossed leather sheaths and earnest veggie farmer-fiddlers, septuagenarian Mormon pioneer women and young mothers with toddlers in their heavily tattooed arms. At least on the surface, there seems a willingness to live and let live in the best Western tradition.

But indoors, a panel on the region’s ranching history draws a far more uniform crowd of old-timers.

Rancher Mark Nelson recalled arriving in Boulder 30 years ago, when there were 27 ranchers. Now, he said, there are six. He and his wife Kim were the outsiders then. Drawn by Boulder’s magic, they gave up good-paying jobs and moved from Salt Lake City to buy a ranch, back when land prices were still affordable.

Ranchers Kim and Mark Nelson.

Ranchers Kim and Mark Nelson. “We wanted Boulder to change
us,” says Kim. “We didn’t want to change Boulder.” Photo by
Nolan Hester

The Nelsons moved during winter into an uninsulated ranch house with two young children and a third on the way. When the new baby was six weeks old, Kim Nelson took him with her on horseback for eight-hour days.

The cattle business has always been a struggle. Hay prices and diesel prices go up and beef prices fall. Their ranch pays for itself, but Mark works at the power station and Kim has worked a string of part-time jobs to raise their family. Today they still work on horseback, and their children, who left for college but returned to Boulder to raise their own children, join in cattle drives.

The difference between then and now, as they see it, is that they came because they loved Boulder the way it was: a cattle town, a ranching community. “When we came to Boulder, we wanted Boulder to change us,” says Kim Nelson during a later conversation. “We didn’t want to change Boulder.”

Today’s newcomers, instead of ranching, are starting yoga and even acting classes.

“The minute they get here, they want everything to be like where they came from,” says Mark Nelson.

Where Spalding and Castle see their restaurant as practicing “right livelihood,” the Nelsons see it and the ecotourism lodge where it’s based as luring well-to-do retirees who drive up land prices and drive out ranchers.

“There’s a fine line between accommodating tourism and accommodating a little bit of growth and encouraging it,” Nelson said. Calling Spalding “a master promoter,” he added, “We never needed bridges before she got here. We all got along fine before.”

Now, he said, “There are two towns, side by side.”

Spalding gets a pained look on her face when asked about the Nelsons’ criticisms. “I wish everyone thought we were great,” she says. “My version of positive change and the Nelson’s version are not the same.”

People do visit Boulder to work at the restaurant and at the farm, and Spalding sees no shame in that.

“It’s a movement that’s happening all across the country,” she said. “And if we’ve played any role in causing that to happen here, we feel good about it.”

Part-time mayor Bill Muse has one foot in both the old-timers' and the newcomers' worlds. Photo by Nolan Hester

Part-time mayor Bill Muse has one foot in both the old-timers’ and
the newcomers’ worlds. Photo by Nolan Hester

Mayor Muse—following Boulder’s two-job tradition, he’s also the water boss for the irrigation district—welcomes the changes, even as he tries to manage them.

True, the restaurant has become “a destination,” he says, and there’s more traffic (as much as a town without a single stoplight can have traffic), more tourists, more outfitters and more summer homes these days. Affordable housing, he acknowledges, is a problem, primarily because of the town’s requirement that residential lots be at least five acres, which many people can’t afford.

“I have 15 or 20 people right now who need a place to live,” he said.

But the year-round population remains steady at about 200. And other than ranching, there are few sources of income. The restaurant and lodge provide jobs, and the town gets a slice of sales and bed taxes.

A Utah native and a Mormon, though a non-practicing one, Muse has one foot in both worlds. He’s been coming to the canyons outside of Boulder since the 1970s, but only saved enough money to buy a ranch and move here in 1994. He sold the cattle and uses the ranch land to pasture his 30 beloved horses.

What annoys the old-timers, Muse believes, is that the newcomers arrive thinking they invented sustainability.

“The old-timers have always done it,” Muse says. “A community so remote has always taken care of itself.”

Trust will come, he believes, through interaction over time.

“The migration that’s coming here aren’t necessarily Mormons, but they’re of that heart,” he said. “They want to escape the cities, grow their own food, take care of each other, and we do that here.”

Part 1: Hell’s Backbone Grill is the unlikely hub of a slow-food movement.

Part 2: Five years ago, Hell’s Backbone Grill’s farm was a horse pasture. This season it will produce 10,000 pounds of vegetables as the restaurant sinks its roots into the community.

See Farm to Table Slideshow.