Just outside the town of Bluff, a foot bridge spans the San Juan River. The suspension bridge sways and bounces when we cross, sending us lurching south to the Navajo Reservation. On this side of the river the vegetation is thick: cottonwoods, tamarisk, willows. The air is rich with the scent of wood and mud. Through the leaves, in the distance, we can see red cliffs.
We lurch back again towards Bluff. Here, except for an empty highway, the landscape is the same. The same trees guard the flat wide river. Sandstone buttes and mesas blush in the morning light.The rocks will pale at noon, and shine yellow as the sun goes down.
"This is the most beautiful landscape on earth," says artist John De Puy. "But we've found, to survive, we have to leave."
Bluff is a small town - 200 people - and it's isolated. It sits in the southwestern corner of the state, at the crossroads of highways 163 and 191.
The cemetery offers the best view of the town. It's on high ground. From among the graves you can see the main street and every tree and house in Bluff.
Some of the first settlers are buried here. They were among 250 Mormon pioneers who came in 1880, bringing carts and livestock across the worst terrain in Utah. They forged a trail through Hole in the Rock, then drove their wagons - holding them back with chains and ropes - 2,000 feet straight down to the valley below. They came to farm and raise cattle and sheep, to bring their religion to the Indians, to build a community.
Some of their descendants still live here, keeping the graveyard tidy, honoring those who founded Bluff.
De Puy has no relatives buried in the cemetery. He came to Bluff because he is a painter. (De Puy is the best landscape painter now at work in the United States, Edward Abbey wrote in 1981.) His wife, Tina Johnson De Puy, makes jewelry.
She crafts intricate necklaces of fiber and beads. Some of her pieces are fanciful, like her lizards with curved tails. Some are abstract and substantial, as solid as the wall of rock that shelters her studio.
The De Puys rent work space on the grounds of the Episcopal Mission. She sells her work through stores and galleries in Park City and in other states.
When the De Puys came to Bluff six years ago, they were drawn by the peace of the place. Though they might not have realized it at the time, they were also hoping to live near others like themselves - artists and environmentalists.
"It's a wonderful place to work," says Tina De Puy. The isolation has been good in many ways, she believes. You have to be resourceful to live in Bluff, she says, which helped her develop her identity as a designer. "My jewelry was not as intricate before we moved here."
But they are starting to feel too isolated. "People in town are into Norman Rockwell.
"I accept that," she says. "I also want to have people come to visit me in my studio." So the De Puys are building a studio south of Santa Fe, N.M., closer to people who enjoy their art.
When they came, the De Puys hoped other artists would follow. With the river and the canyons so close, they thought Bluff might soon be a center for recreation. "Like Moab," John says.
That hasn't happened. Not yet. The character of the town isn't changing quickly.
Yet there are signs of change: New people are moving in, making their mark on the town. The new owners of the Recapture Lodge are bringing in a herd of llamas for pack trips. The new owners of the Sunbonnet Cafe plan to keep it open all winter.
"I came because I wanted a simpler life," says Brenda Bowles. She left California and found work as a front desk clerk in Bluff. "It's really nice to know everybody here, kind of like a big family." And if she tires of people, she says, she can walk out her back door and hike for 59 miles without seeing anyone.
Bluff's population has doubled in the 19 years since Rosalie Goldman moved here from the East Coast. "Most of the new people are young," she says. "Some are professional." She says the government - school system, law enforcement, highway department - is the town's main employer.
Unemployment is high in San Juan County, yet Bluff doesn't look run-down. The town's historic pioneer homes are in good repair. Ironically, it seems most of the people who bought and are restoring the homes were born somewhere else.
Goldman didn't have to be born in Bluff, either, to appreciate the area. She says she spent all spring weeding the plot of land around the bed and breakfast inn she owns. She got rid of the Russian thistle, a plant native to Asia. As she worked, she says joyfully, she found 50 varieties of native desert plants on her land.
She celebrates the life of native plants and of native people, too. "Last summer they had the first Navajo Fair ever held in Bluff. It was very successful," Goldman says. "The Pow-pow was the greatest spectacle: a gathering of all Native Americans, clans from everywhere, as far away as Northern Canada . . . with fine costumes, wonderful drumming and dancing . . . ."
Goldman likes to take visitors to the suspension bridge. It was built by an oil company 45 years ago, she explains, so Navajo workers could get to work. The bridge made it possible for Navajo children to go to school in Bluff. "From hogans to higher education in one generation," she says.
She also speaks proudly of Mark Maryboy, a local man, the first Native American county commissioner, and of Episcopal Bishop Steven Tsosie Plummer, at St. Christopher's Mission.
The De Puys, too, like living among Native Americans. Navajo families are plentiful in Bluff. "It's interesting being a minority," Tina says. "It's a different point of view." The De Puys think the way their Navajo neighbors do. "Most of the support for wilderness bills comes from the Navajos," John says.
Yet one of the things the De Puys have been most frustrated by is how slowly the local Native Americans are getting political power.
The last time John De Puy went to a public meeting he spoke out. "I said San Juan County was a disgrace to the state and a disgrace to the nation and had the mentality of Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s."
The De Puys are not without hope, however, that Bluff will become the town they want it to. Even as they leave, they talk about coming back. They'll keep paying the rent on their studio.
If they were sometimes lonely here, Tina says, there were compensations. People didn't visit often, but whenever someone did come to see them, they had a pleasant time. The pace of life is slower in Bluff and people stay awhile. There is time to walk in the desert, she says, time for a good long conversation.