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Torrey welcomes folks, not firms

Local legend has it Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid used to come to this central Utah community to dance into the night. Afterward, they'd shoot the breeze with the local sheriff.

This early relationship between law enforcers and lawbreakers is one of many ironies to settle on this central Utah community four hours south of Salt Lake City on the border of Capitol Reef National Park.There are others: that a quirky, artsy place like this would be nestled up against staunch and traditional sibling settlements in conservative Wayne County. And that in a town where everyone seems willing to lend a stranger a word and smile, townspeople have a playful protectiveness of legends that are part of Torrey's heart and soul.

Most notably, there is a quiet irony in the way Torrey is handling its share of the rapid-fire growth that had spread through the Beehive State. Many small, rural communities welcome business as a boon to the tax base but cast away newcomers they say will bring big-city problems to their small-town standard of values.

Torrey seems to do the opposite. It welcomes the people, not the big business. Not the Super 8 Motel going up outside of town, not the fast-food restaurant that will be the only one for miles.

Steve Howe was disgusted with "tasteless, franchise strip-mall culture" when he moved south to Torrey nearly four years ago.

"I didn't come for the restaurants or the cute architecture or the espresso stands," said Howe, the southwest editor for Backpacker Magazine. He wanted to stay out of the "snowbird belt" but wanted a real winter, wilderness and a place to run trails. He found that in Torrey.

But developers are tugging at the city's water system. Someone else has talked about building a golf course. You can't move to a remote location for the remoteness, then demand all the conveniences, he said.

Howe hopes Torrey doesn't fall victim to the "shark feed" that is overtaking other parts of the state. He doesn't think that will happen. It's still a nice place, he says. And besides, Torrey is different.

A state of mind

Torrey overlays a hearty history of storytelling and legend with the spellbinding high-desert beauty of the Aquarius Plateau. Here, there is an ease of spirit and openness of mind that residents have a hard time putting their finger on.

"Torrey is more of a state of mind, rather than a boundary," said Adus Dorsey, a member of the five-person Torrey Town Council and a 10-year resident of the area.

"We're a little more laid back, not so stringent," Dorsey said. "We really are open-minded."

And therein lies the essence of what makes Torrey different - and appealing to an increasing number of people.

Different from neighboring Bicknell.

Different from Moab.

Different from the big sister community of Loa, dominated by conservative thought and Leavitt family ranch and properties.

Sometimes county leaders chuckle publicly at the contrast.

During a recent centennial-year celebration, a Wayne County official lauded Loa for its beautiful LDS church. Lyman too, got kudos for its church renovation; nearby Teasdale collected accolades for its new cultural hall. In Torrey, the official continued, "they sure do love to dance."

Townspeople keep some of Torrey's legends close to the vest, but not those about Butch and Sundance and a place called the Big Apple.

Some stories are hoarded like town secrets - many people swear the famous outlaws from the late 1800s and their Wild Bunch had a hideout not far from this one-mile strip of town bordered by protective red cliffs. There are rumors of secret shelters, of hidden treasures.

When asked, modern-day Torrey townsfolk smile and guard these legendary details. Some say they know where the hideout is, but they won't tell.

But aaaah, the dances Butch and Sundance used to attend at the Big Apple, they say. The Big Apple. That's the dance hall in the middle of town that for decades has beckoned people from all over Wayne County to its open-air venue.

These stories are part of Torrey's heart and soul. And in some ways, the Big Apple defines Torrey - through the town's affinity for dance and the associated qualities its residents are proud to have cultivated.

These characteristics are part of Torrey's charm. They are part of what makes this tiny town, which bumps up against 300 residents in the peak summer season and drops to 150 during the angry winter months, a unique and magical oasis in rural Utah.

Where else - in a state where rural areas are dominated by LDS Church culture - would you find a community with a Baptist church and a Catholic church as well as an LDS church?

Where else - in a state where rural areas are begging for development dollars - would you find a community where some people have labeled the site of a new hotel and fast-food restaurant "Malfunction Junction"?

Where else - in a county where nearly everyone in seven voting districts is Republican - would the majority of residents vote for the Democratic candidate in the state's major races?

In Torrey, residents say. That's where.

Not in Utah anymore

"This can't be Utah, it just can't be," says 24-year-old Amber Graves, whose fall visit to Torrey was her first. "You can just tell, there are cool people here. Cool shops. Cool restaurants. Cool things to do."

Liberal, she means.

She's been to the local bookstore, she's been to the Torrey art gallery, and now she's looking at a group of guys in front of Cafe Diablo, a hip, Southwest-style gourmet restaurant on Torrey's main street. The guys are tall and lean. They have long hair and wear faded jeans, soft shirts in muted earth-tone colors and Simple brand shoes.

These aren't slackers or the permanently hiking types of men who sometimes hang out in Moab, Graves explains.

People here seem arty and intellectual, she says.

"Everything here says, `This place is different.' It's unique and it attracts unique people," she muses.

She is a Utah transplant from San Bernardino, Calif.; she came to Salt Lake City to attend school and ended up staying in Utah. She knows that, rightly or wrongly, she has adopted some perceptions about rural Utah communities; that they are "churchy" and closed-minded and full of residents who don't like outsiders or the philosophies they bring along.

But that's not how Torreyites are, she said. She likes the idea that Randy Austin, who owns the Chuck Wagon General Store and motel in town, seems to remember her face, if not her name, as she comes and goes during her visit.

She can get a decent cup of coffee here and an alcoholic drink if she wants one. "No one seems to be passing any judgment, and that's not always the case in a town as small as this one."

Growth of a different color

Randy Austin cruised through this area 25 years ago on the way to Lake Powell. While in Torrey, he bumped into a man who was trying to unload a store and property on the town's main street.

What an adventure. Austin, who now runs a Torrey-size conglomerate that includes the general store, bakery, laundermat, R.V. park and motel, decided to buy the property and make Torrey his home. He's also the Wayne County fire marshal.

Back in 1973, 60,000 people a year were making their way to nearby Capitol Reef National Park. Now the park gets 800,000 a year. Torrey is coming into its own.

"I see Wayne County becoming a major destination point rather than a pass through," Austin said.

He understands, and so do his children. All four grew up in Torrey, moved away, had their own children and moved back. His son runs the general store. His daughter-in-law runs the bakery.

Why not? It's a beautiful place with "perfectly wonderful people," he said.

This vague but cozy feel that emanates from Torrey is beckoning newcomers to the spot and to the like-minded communities of Teasdale and Bicknell located nearby.

This area isn't experiencing a Salt Lake-style growth surge, but it is growing. Real estate prices are up and so are census and population figures.

Tourist business hasn't increased a ton in town, but it seems to match the cost of inflation. Gary Pankow, who owns a local restaurant, said business was up 3 percent, but so was the cost of goods and labor.

"It's kind of being discovered," Brad Barber of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget said of the central Utah community.

Wayne County's population has grown from 2,177 in 1990 to an estimated 2,350 now, according to the county clerk's office.

And people are moving in from out of town. Recent census data show Wayne County saw a net influx of 61 people during the past year. "Going back in history, that's pretty unusual for them."

Up until recently, Howe said, there has been a "laissez-faire" attitude toward regulation. "But that's changed. Torrey and many other rural communities realize they won't be there if they don't start looking ahead."

Leaders here know they must be careful with the precious commodity they have in Torrey. Town Councilman Dorsey said he and his colleagues are trying to develop a master plan for the area. Torrey is trying to decide what to annex into the relatively narrow town boundaries.

There are already signs of growth-related trouble.

Crime. "My interpretation is probably different than that of someone in Salt Lake, but it used to be the only crime we had was someone breaking into a barn and stealing a saddle," Austin said. "We've got a whole lot of new people here."

The lack of emergency services also has him worried. The volunteer fire department makes two or three runs a day, Austin said. And a couple of Saturdays ago, both the city ambulance and the back-up ambulance were out on calls.

What if something else had happened, he asked.

Much of the growth is happening within the county and close to Torrey but technically outside of Torrey's city boundaries, Dorsey said.

So the Town Council is working hard to coordinate with Wayne County officials and the Utah League of Cities and Towns to "steer us in a direction that everyone would like," Dorsey said.

It's worth it.

"I love it here," Dorsey said. "There's not a day that goes by that I'm just not really happy that I'm here."

An artsy place

This community doesn't call itself a liberal oasis in conservative rural Utah. It doesn't call itself a mecca for environmentalists.

Rather, residents talk about the town's "unofficial focus as an arts colony."

Indeed. A number of Utah artists have homes or hangouts here, including Doug Snow, whose murals are displayed in the Salt Lake International Airport. There is the new art gallery on the main street and a brass foundry a couple streets back.

Art shows and restaurants regularly display local artwork. Two women who have opened Skyridge Bed & Breakfast used to be museum curators. Another local woman gives art and photography workshops in Teasdale.

The town has a bluegrass festival every year, and nearby Bicknell is host to the BIF, the Bicknell International Film Festival, which had a "Big Bugs" theme one year and a UFO theme the next.

Torrey is the kind of town that should have an art gallery, said Cathy Bagley, who rented a "downtown" building and opened the Torrey Gallery on the main street in late August.

She'd met many artists through her real estate business and thought it would be nice to display all the work produced in the community.

Such a setting really demands it, she said. It's a place where there are "beautiful things inside and out" of buildings, she muses.

Putting into the community

This community has attracted artists and gourmet chefs, attorneys, doctors and retirees who say they want to be part of the solution, not contribute to an inmigration problem.

The Bagley family has been in Torrey since the early 1970s when they paid $12,000 for a stone pioneer house under the sturdy stand of trees that lines Highway 24.

It's only about 900 square feet, but there's an upstairs, too, and it's formidable despite the size - the walls are 2 feet thick. Cathy Bagley's real estate office is a block away.

Her two boys grew up. They went to the University of Utah and both became engineers, one in Salt Lake City, the other in Golden, Colo. Both come home a lot.

Growing up, she used to ask the boys if they wanted to move. "Only if we can take the rock house with us," they'd say.

Her family has enjoyed a quiet, uncomplicated life. Cathy is a broker with a local real estate company; her husband, Larry, is a farmer who buys and sells livestock for a living.

"You have fewer decisions to make here," she said. "Life is a little slower." It is an eclectic community with "something for everybody," she said. "People get along pretty well and it works."

She sees a lot from her roost on the real estate market. Only 3 percent of land is private, most is Forest Service or other federal land. And residents from the Wasatch Front and from the East Coast, Chicago and Philadelphia are paying up to $20,000 an acre for land and lots.

"There are still some pretty little places out there, but they're getting harder to find," she said.

Torrey is still fairly remote, although paving nearby Highway 12 has increased tourism and accessibility to the area. Like many residents, Bagley speaks of Torrey with the reverence and respect of someone who does not take her community for granted.

Crowds chased Jane and Gary Pankow and their recreational pursuits from Moab 10 years ago.

So the couple took their outdoor activities - their bike rides and hikes, camping outings and floats down the river - to the southernmost end of the Aquarius Plateau where Gary Pankow says they fell in love with the beauty of the area.

Three years ago, the Pankows bought a dilapidated building, renovated the space, added on and opened Cafe Diablo. It's been open three seasons.

It's an upscale, but still affordable, Southwest-style gourmet restaurant that "felt like the area," Gary Pankow said. It's on the edge of town, and waiters and waitresses serve up delicious fare and a healthy dose of humor.

What are those odd-textured opaque balls on top of the rattlesnake cake appetizer? Snake eyes, the waitress says. Imported from Texas.

Not really, another waiter whispers later. "Tapioca. It's part of our gimmick. Pretty cool, huh?"

The restaurant isn't breaking even yet, but Pankow is hopeful about next season. The business closed Oct. 15 for the year and will open again May 1.

Meanwhile, Pankow will spend the winter working for Ruby's Catering from the couple's Salt Lake home. Someday he hopes to work six months in Torrey and take off the rest of the year.

"People are still discovering Torrey," he said. "That's why we sank our whole life savings into this. There's only one place for it to go."