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Shaun Stahle
A covered wagon outside the Bluff Fort assembly hall, a replica of the original hall built by the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers.

The coolest small town in America? If just might be Bluff, Utah — if enough people vote for it on an online poll sponsored by Budget Travel Magazine.

For the past five years, the magazine has used an annual poll to "discover travel beyond the big cities" by looking for "up-and-coming American towns that stand out from the mainstream" and are "equal parts hip and humble."

Bluff currently ranks at 13th place on the list, behind such places as Lewisburg, W. Va.; LaPointe, Wis.; Cedar Key, Fla.; Astoria, Ore.; and Eureka Springs, Ark. Voting at BudgetTravel.com continues through Feb. 11.

Ask anyone who lives in Bluff, however, and they'll tell you it's no contest. Well, actually, says Barry Simpson, owner of the Twin Rocks Trading Post, "I don't know about humble, but we're certainly hip."

Bluff, with a population of 320, sits in the San Juan River Valley, where it is bordered by the sandstone bluffs that give it its name and rolling ranchland that sustain cattle and sheep. It is close to ancient Anasazi ruins and rock art at places such as Hovenweep and Canyon de Chelly. Restored pioneer homes and the historic re-built Bluff Fort speak of Utah's "colonial period," when settlers were sent by Brigham Young and John Taylor to all corners of the territory. In recent years, white-water rafters have discovered the possibilities of the San Juan.

Bluff's major economic focus is tourism, says Simpson. What visitors find, in addition to the scenic and recreational opportunities, "is a town that really tries," says Simpson. "There's huge support for the local arts community. They are cutting-edge and innovative when it comes to service. We're brim-full of customer service. We still appreciate tourists and have time to accommodate them. There are lots of good eateries, lots of creative cuisine."

You can find everything from organic fruits and veggies to Navajo pizza and Sheepherder's sandwiches. "And you can still get a cowboy steak hot off the grill. The Europeans love that, especially," he says.

And the Europeans come in big numbers.

"About 80 percent of our business is international," says Cindy Tomeh, who owns the Desert Rose Inn, and is also a lifelong resident of Bluff. "Lots of people come back year after year."

They come, she says, "to re-connect with whatever is personally important to them." They come to see the ruins; the come to hike and camp in the wilderness. "We even get some crystal-gazers who come because they think this is the center of the universe."

It's great to be in the running as America's coolest small town, says Tomeh. But it's not like it's the first time Bluff has garnered national attention.

"CheapFlights.com chose our Balloon Festival (which takes place Jan. 13-16 this year) as one of the top five winter festivals in the world." It ranked on the list behind Mardi Gras, La.; the Sundance Film Festival in Park City; Buenos Aires' Tango Festival and Winterlude in Ontario, Can. "You see some of the names on that list, and we're in good company," says Tomeh.

Bluff has also been rated as one of the top 100 artist communities, says Simpson.

Although small, it is a well-educated community, he adds. "And it's a place where all cultures blend really well — even the 'outlaw culture.' They don't call us 'Bluffoons' for nothing," he jokes.

Like other small towns, it's a place where everyone knows everyone's business, and they will bicker and squabble, says Simpson. "But when the need arises, they will all draw together. When my son was injured in an accident, I couldn't believe the outpouring of support. This is one of the lowest economic areas in the state, but people will give what they can, monetarily, emotionally, physically."

There is also a very real respect for the outdoors. "To live here, you have to love it, to embrace it. It's not everywhere that people will go out for a day's drive and come back with a truckload of junk they've picked up. People here love, honor and respect the land. They are part of it."

Like other small towns, there is also a feeling "that we want it to remain secret," says Simpson. "But we need the income that visitors bring. We just need to keep the balance. The good news is that change, that politics move slowly and are well-thought-out. We give things the time and space they need."

Current vote tallies for "Coolest Small Towns in America"

1. Lewisburg, W.Va.

2. La Pointe, Wis.

3. Astoria, Ore.

4. Clayton, N.Y.

5. Cedar Key, Fla.

6. Ripon, Wisc.

7. Newtown Borough, Pa.

8. Phoenicia, N.Y.

9. Alpine, Tex.

10. Eureka Springs, Ark.

11. Port Townsend, Wash.

12. Wicasset, Maine

13. Bluff, Utah

14. Greensburg, Kan.

15. Talkeetna, Alaska

16. Salida, Colo.

17. Bolinas, Calif.

18. Haleiwa, Hawaii

19. Cooke City, Mont.

20. Victor, Idaho

e-mail: carma@desnews.com