The owners of an improbably successful restaurant at the gate of a vast wilderness are fighting to keep it unspoiled.
In south-central Utah, where the topography is spectacular, desolate, and extreme, the pessimistic tradition in place-names runs strong. Head south from Poverty Flat and you’ll end up in Death Hollow. Head east from Dead Mare Wash and you’ll end up on Deadman Ridge, looking out toward Last Chance Creek and down into Carcass Canyon. During the Great Depression, when the whole state turned into a kind of Poverty Flat, the Civilian Conservation Corps sent a group of men to the region to carve a byway out of a virtually impassable landscape of cliffs and chasms. The men nicknamed the project Poison Road: so steep that a single drop would kill them. Midway up, the ridge they were following gaped open and plunged fifteen hundred feet to the canyon floor. They laid a span across it, and called it Hell’s Backbone Bridge.
Today, the entire route built by those men is known as Hell’s Backbone Road. Still largely unpaved, still treacherous in bad weather, it connects the town of Escalante to the tiny hamlet of Boulder, long reputed to be one of the most remote settlements in the continental United States. As late as 1940, the mail there was delivered via an eight-hour trek by mule team; the first lights did not flicker on until Christmas Eve, 1947. Until the nineteen-seventies, locals had to spend up to forty-eight hours in transit to obtain any number of essential goods and services: a new pair of socks, medical care, anything beyond an eighth-grade education.
Eventually, the county paved a different road into town, the two-lane Highway 12; as a result, assuming that you are already in Utah, getting to Boulder is no longer particularly difficult. Yet by contemporary standards the town remains strikingly out of the way. Its population hovers around two hundred and fifty people, many of whom bear the same last names as the earliest Westerners to settle the area: to the extent that Boulder is full at all, it is full of Kings and Roundys, Lymans and Ormonds and LeFevres. Most of those families came to Utah because they were Mormon and came to Boulder to pasture their cattle, and the twin influences of the Latter-day Saints and ranching still dominate today. Boulder is the kind of place where those who aren’t related by blood are related by marriage, and those who aren’t related by either are effectively kin by proximity—the kind of place, in short, where everyone knows everyone else’s children, parents, politics, struggles, scandals, and cattle brands.
Despite its small population, Boulder is geographically large—twenty-one square miles, about the size of Manhattan. Most of that space is occupied by farms and ranches; there is no bank in town, no A.T.M., no grocery store, no fast food, no medical clinic, no pharmacy. For that matter, there is no town in town—no business district, no Main Street, not even a traffic light. Instead, scattered along or just off Highway 12, there is a post office, an elementary school, a town hall, and a state park. There is a ten-room motel, a three-room motel, a convenience store, a church, and a gift shop. And down at the end of town, just before the road starts climbing steeply back into the wilderness, there is a hotel called the Boulder Mountain Lodge, and, on its grounds, a restaurant called Hell’s Backbone Grill.
Actually, the restaurant is the second Hell’s Backbone Grill. The first one opened in 1996, closed in 1999, and sat empty until it was acquired, for three thousand borrowed dollars, by two women who had never attended culinary school or started a restaurant or lived in Utah. Nonetheless, in 2000 they moved to Boulder, reopened Hell’s Backbone Grill, and, in short order, changed everything about it except the name. In the years since then, it has gained a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the Southwest, and also the most improbable. It is an all-organic, sourcing-obsessed, vegetarian-friendly venture in the middle of a traditional ranching community; a part-hippie, part-hipster, Buddhist-influenced culinary retreat in conservative Mormon country; a farm-to-table operation in a landscape not exactly known for its agricultural bounty; and a high-end, foodie-magnet restaurant that is four hours on a good day from the nearest major metropolitan area.
Yet somehow, despite its unlikely vision and inhospitable location, Hell’s Backbone Grill has managed to flourish. Last year, though, the restaurant faced an existential threat—to itself and to Boulder, but also to a place, and an idea, much larger than both. Which is why, in addition to serving apple-poblano pork chops and garlic-scape pesto and elk posole with cotija cheese seven days a week, the owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill have become entangled in an epic battle with the President of the United States.