So you want to be a local?
Self-professed nomad explores what it truly means to be local
It was a zero-degree morning, and I was dressed in two down jackets, trying to fill the gas tank of my old yellow Jeep with frozen hands. My credit card kept getting declined. That was a past life, my first winter in the eastern Sierra, and I had not yet learned that credit card readers don’t work when it’s that cold.
A guy stopped to help and teased, “You almost fooled me for being a local. Now that you know to run your card inside when it’s this cold, you just need two dogs in the back of your rig.” Later that morning, I found two dogs nearly frozen to death and took them home. That did not make me feel like a local, but the time immersed with those dogs in the backcountry solidified a sense of place.
Just as I began to sense I was a local in what John Muir once called “the range of light,” it ceased to be hospitable. I hopped in my Jeep and drove to the Four Corners with a busted rearview mirror. For more than five years, I have roamed this region living out of my vehicle, and for three of those years, Durango was my outpost.
Despite not having a permanent abode, I tend to say “I’m going home” just about every time I hit the road. My destination, when I have one, usually has a familiar face or place on the other side. Home spans the Colorado Plateau, from the canyons of southern Utah, the Mogollon Rim in Arizona and as far north as the San Juan Mountains. Time zones and state lines have come to mean almost nothing.
As my sense of place (especially the wild ones) deepens, my allegiance as a “local” feels scattered. Qualifying as a local is a badge of honor, especially in mountain towns. For some it’s the number of years you have lived somewhere, if you know where the secret climbing stash is, how many peaks you’ve bagged or how you pronounce names like Main-kiss. Others fly a Colorado flag, dress up for Snowdown or know the speak-easy password.
I wonder if where I pick up my mail or buy groceries counts toward my local-ness. Even nomads maintain the yearning to belong. Home is a state of mind. It’s a place that holds you in its familiar embrace, that offers you shelter – physical or metaphysical. Home is less four walls than a soul-satisfied state of being.
I see myself between red sandstone walls, orange sand underfoot and cobalt sky overhead. In this habitat, I am grounded. Locals tend to give back to their communities. Be it volunteer efforts, planting community gardens or conservation efforts. I do these things, too. It just happens to be in remote areas, uninhabited by modern perspectives, in southern Utah. Somebody must stand in unison with the cryptobiotic crust, uranium-tainted water and coyotes – the last one I encountered walked me back to my tent in Glen Canyon like a good neighbor.
My bliss in feeling like I belong to the landscape is often punctuated with the thought that following that bliss is alienating me from ever being a local. The guy at the coffee shop probably does not know my name. It can take me months to pick up my mail. I am unwilling to claim local affiliation with bumper stickers. My license plate rarely reflects the state I am actually in. Ironically, a small town in southeastern Utah offers me the locals discount whenever I stay in one of its rental cabins, which sums up my transient local-ness well. Often, I ask myself if I even want to be a local. Becoming a local will not suddenly anchor my curious soul.
No, I don’t spend 364.25 days a year in Durango, but from its periphery, I gain a bird’s view of this bustling town my old-time friend calls “Durangeles.” On any given day, especially during the summer, most people in Durango are not locals. They are families passing through on great American road trips; Texans summering at second homes; Arizonians escaping the heat; or thru-hikers completing the Colorado Trail. They are people like me five years ago, who look at the majestic array of peaks and stay for a while.
If you live in the Four Corners, Southwest Colorado will eventually beckon you. Whether it’s to buy a patch for your tent or booze to drag across the Utah state line.
A few weeks ago, with my bags packed, I was preparing to untether myself from part-time domestic life in Durango and move back to the desert. That same day I got an email from The Durango Telegraph asking me to write for the “La Vida Local” column. I had to laugh.
For a week, I walked around the Navajo Nation backcountry soaking in the irony and contemplating whether to write the column. Here, I will never be a local. These are Indigenous homelands, as all lands are. Acknowledging myself as a visitor is a form of respect, one that feels more meaningful than the label of so-called local.
The life I live may not afford me a home, but it has expanded my understanding of being a local, to include connecting with people whose customs are distinct from my own, and with the non-human world – animal, plant, sky, stone.
Perhaps the term local is just a misnomer for a sense of place and community humans instinctually need. Belonging is not the same as conforming; it’s understanding the unique way we fit somewhere. It’s the way a location and its people make you feel.
Until I moved from Durango, I never felt a place where I fit, nor a reason or a way to belong. This page has finally given me a version of local that I can embrace. My words can live in the Telegraph, but the rest of me belongs in the desert.
– Morgan Sjogren is a freelance writer and author of the forthcoming book, “Path of Light: A Walk Through Colliding Legacies of Glen Canyon.”