Dirt & Curse: Leaving the valley? Better take some dirt
“We don’t usually practice black magic at Central. That’s not our thing.”
So said Wyatt Hurt in early August, when he was a week out from moving to Boston to attend Harvard University.
He was talking about a trip he had made with a couple of his Central High School friends to fill mason jars with dirt from four spots around the Grand Valley — the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers, Colorado National Monument, Grand Mesa and the base of Mount Garfield — in order to evade a famous curse.
Well, locally famous, at least.
“Literally everyone I know knows about the dirt,” Hurt said.
The requirements of the supposed curse vary, story to story, person to person — how much dirt you need, where you must collect it and what sort of vessel you must put it in — but the consequences are the same.
If you were born here, you better take some Grand Valley earth with you when you leave town, or you’re destined to one day end up right back in the city.
And the Grand Valley is not a place Hurt wants to call home again, so much so that the intellectual young man who is going to Harvard to study politics and environmental sciences took special care to pay heed to a superstition.
Hurt said his mother, a Grand Valley native, tried to skip town for college in Durango when she was younger, but she didn’t take dirt. She quickly ended up back in the valley.
“That validated the curse in my mind. I have to make sure that I don’t fall prey,” Hurt said. “You can never be too sure.”
“It’s definitely, for young people, a place that we all want to get out of,” Hurt said about the Grand Valley and the grander horizons he and others have in mind.
“We always talked about how our ambition is to leave,” said BreLyn Troutwine, one of Hurt’s best friends, who accompanied him on the August dirt-collecting mission.
Troutwine left Grand Junction earlier this month for Fort Collins, where she is attending Colorado State University to study zoology with ambitions of becoming a veterinarian, and she doesn’t want to wind up back on the Western Slope.
She hasn’t enjoyed the “atmosphere” of growing up in Grand Junction, and she isn’t big on the hot, dry weather. She thinks maybe she would like to end up on the lush East Coast.
Troutwine first heard about the dirt curse when she was about 10 years old. She was told that if she wants to leave the valley and not come back, she needs to take some local dirt with her when she goes.
She said her mom, also born and raised in the Grand Valley, heard about the curse when she was younger, but the curse didn’t hold as much sway back then as it does now. Now a kid can’t get through school without knowing all about it.
Troutwine and Hurt even took a Central High School sophomore with them when they went to get their dirt in order to introduce him to the tradition and “pass it along,” Hurt said.
Even Hurt’s little brother, who plans to leave for a distant college next fall, is already planning to fill his own jar.
So where did this curse about the dirt come from? The wild imaginations of childhood or the youthful fear of getting stuck in your hometown forever?
The curse actually has a specific, tangible source, said Erin Schmitz, curator of collections and archives at the Museum of the West.
It first showed up in a poem entered in a Grand Junction High School poetry contest in the 1930s.
The poem tells a story about a supposed curse with ties to the Ute Indians who once lived across the Western Slope before being forced onto reservations in 1881.
According to some versions, the Utes cursed the Grand Valley before leaving, so that those who came to settle here would never be able to leave.
This curse is suspiciously reminiscent of a well-known sister curse from the Front Range ... Boulder, to be exact, Schmitz said.
Boulder’s curse, which is well-enough known to have been featured in the Huffington Post in 2010, was supposedly made by Chief Niwot of that area’s indigenous Southern Arapahoe tribe.
But conversely to the Grand Valley’s curse, Boulder’s version curses residents to never be able to return to the town unless they take some dirt with them from the surrounding mountains.
However, other than tales and related stories, there is no historical evidence the Grand Valley curse ever existed, Schmitz said.
Yet, the curse has taken on a life of its own. Neither Hurt nor Troutwine had heard of an association between the dirt curse and the Utes, and the curse seems to be more about an urge to escape the shackles of small-town life, which isn’t necessarily a youthful urge.
Take Neisha Rogers, for example, who took special care to appease the curse when she left Grand Junction for good in 2002.
Rogers, now approaching 40, grew up in the city and attended Mesa State College. She said that the idea of being irrevocably stuck to the Grand Junction dirt was a bit of a running joke in her family, most of whom were born and bred in town and then, one way or another, ended up staying.
“You were sort of condemned to be a part of the valley,” Rogers said. “The majority of my family who has had the opportunity to leave always came back.”
After graduating from Mesa State in 2001, Rogers joined the Army and relocated to a base in Jacksonville, Florida, leaving her husband and two daughters temporarily in Grand Junction.
She came home that Christmas with plans to move everyone to the military base where she was stationed in Georgia. They left in January of 2002, and on her way out of town, Rogers pulled off the road near the Bookcliffs.
“I had jelly jars that I filled up with dirt,” Rogers said. She was hoping not to return to the Grand Valley again.
She filled three jars in an act she called “symbolic,” one for herself and one for each of her daughters. She didn’t need to collect dirt for her husband, because he’s not originally from the Grand Valley.
“The curse will not touch him,” Rogers said.
With her jar dirt, Rogers thought she was off the hook. Little did she know, when she drove out of town, that she was pregnant with her third daughter. So later that year, in October of 2002, she returned to Grand Junction to be with her extended family and have her favorite local midwife, Janet Grant, deliver her youngest daughter.
But she didn’t want to stay.
“I don’t want to be here. I need to go,” Rogers remembered thinking at the time. The next year, she and her husband decided to move the family east once more, back to Georgia.
Once again, on her way out of town, Rogers stopped at the Bookcliffs to get another jar of dirt, this time for her baby girl.
“I wanted to give my children a broader view of the world than what the valley could provide,” Rogers said about why she minded the dirt superstition for her girls as well as for herself.
“Grand Junction is a beautiful place,” Rogers said, but she wanted more diversity and independence than she felt her hometown could provide.
“For me, leaving was about being something different than what I was in Grand Junction,” she said.
The jars seem to have worked: Rogers still lives in Georgia, where her eldest daughter is now about to graduate from college.
It’s too early to tell whether Hurt and Troutwine truly thwarted the curse by collecting their dirt, but if they followed their plans, their jars of Junction are displayed on their dorm room desks right now.
And whether two come home to roost at some point or not, minding the dirt curse gave the friends a special day together before they embarked on their lives’ greatest journeys.
Both Hurt and Troutwine said the best part about collecting their dirt was taking a goodbye tour through cherished Grand Valley locales with cherished Grand Valley friends.
“It was a great experience to get out and acknowledge the four big places that Junction is known for,” Troutwine said.
“You have a big adventure together, and that’s how you close out your last summer here,” Hurt said.
“What I expect to miss most about the Grand Valley is the people,” he said.