Rural by Choice: Maria Sykes

A one-week summer vacation to southeast Utah led to a new home for architect Maria Sykes, who has spent five years and counting in Green River – “a place where the stars shine bold and close.” 

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Name: Maria Sykes
Where I live: Green River, Utah
Why I live here: I visited for a summer rafting trip that turned into five and a half years of living and working here.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself- who you are, how you spend your time.
I graduated in 2008 from Auburn University with dual bachelor of architecture and interior architecture degrees. After school, I sought after a community where my skills and passions could be utilized for good. Following a summer visit to the town of Green River (pop. 952 and 50 miles to the next town) in beautiful southeastern Utah, I moved here to co-found Epicenter with colleagues from architecture school. Epicenter is a non-profit organization focused on community and economic development through the arts and design. During my time at Epicenter, I’ve co-led the renovation of a 100-plus year old building using mostly volunteer labor and an inconceivably tight budget; co-founded the Frontier Fellowship which has hosted over fifty artists/designers in four years; and facilitated countless successful arts workshops, small projects, and community events. I continue to co-direct Epicenter and have a contagious passion for working in the rural. Outside of “work,” I enjoy attending Green River High School basketball games, visiting other isolated/rural places (e.g. East Iceland), cooking spicy food, and enjoying the outdoor wonderland of southern Utah.

Tell us more about Green River, Utah.
Amid John Wayne’s West and Edward Abbey’s desert wilderness, Green River is a place where the stars shine bold and close, the land is plentiful, and the red dust, burnt cliffs, and lonely sky lie just beyond the end of its roads. Green River is the only town of consequence and place to ford Green River’s namesake for over 50 miles, and has been a welcomed sight to pioneers, cattlemen, outlaws, and modern travelers alike for hundreds of years.

Outside of tourism, many of the town’s economic booms, like the uranium mines or the missile base, had short lives. As jobs in the mines and missile base disappeared, and the newly built Interstate 70 traversed beyond downtown’s borders, the number of businesses drastically decreased, buildings fell into disrepair, and the town’s population dwindled to its current size of 953 residents.

However, the Interstate and the nearby attractions have resulted in a strong hospitality economy that’s on its way up. People who live in Green River are rural by choice and proud as “heck” of it. (FYI: Utahans say “heck” a lot.)

How did you come to live in Green River? How long do you plan to stay?
Two of my dearest friends from architecture school tricked me! I came out for a weeklong summer vacation and fell in love with this town, the desert, and the river. When I returned to Atlanta (where I was living at the time), I quit my job and immediately planned my return for a summer-long adventure. That summer turned into a year, which eventually turned into another year and so on. I’ve been here for five and a half years now! I just bought a small (and very old) house, so I don’t think I’ll be leaving anytime soon.

In what ways is Green River similar or different to where you grew up or have lived in the past?
The people here are not dissimilar to the folks I grew up around in the rural South. These folks are (and/or their parents were) pioneers and settlers, cattle ranchers (in the desert!), farmers (again, in the desert!), radical entrepreneurs, and boatmen on the roughest rivers in the country. Green River is full of “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” kind of folks with “give the shirt off of your back” hearts. Don’t double-cross them, though, or you’re looking at a lifetime grudge. It reminds me of the South quite a bit, actually. You’ll find people fighting over water rights one day and supporting a church event together the next day.

Why did you choose to live here? 
I chose to live here because this is a place that needs me, and I need this place. Living in a city, you’re literally 1 in a million (or more). Sure, you can make a difference in a big city as a designer or architect, but in a town of 953, you are literally able to witness your successes (as well as your failures!) Renovating one of ten historic “downtown” buildings in a rural town is a big deal. Renovating one of a thousand historic downtown buildings in a city is great, but not such a big deal.

Another benefit of living here is that the local government is very transparent. If I have a problem with a local policy, I go directly to the mayor or City Council; they listen. It’s empowering to have a voice and be heard (most of the time).

I also choose to live here for the access to pristine wilderness. Not only am I close to the arguably best National Parks in the country, but also I’m adjacent to all the unknown locals-only spots. The things I can see by only driving 15-30 minutes from my house are incredible! You’d be amazed.

Also, even though I’m 50 miles from the next town (pop. ~10,000), my town is well connected. Green River is situated on the Green River, which connects to the Colorado River before entering the Grand Canyon. My town sits on Interstate 70; I can be in Vegas or Denver within 5.5 hours. Plus, there’s an Amtrak stop in Green River that sits on the San Francisco to Chicago line. We’re isolated out here, but surprisingly connected.

The south side of the Epicenter facility, which illustrates the organization's focus on place. 
 

You created your own job at the Epicenter.  How does living in a rural place affect how you make your living?
I moved here to do work and form a non-profit organization (Epicenter), so that very much factors into why I live in Green River.  The non-profit is very much formed by this place; a mix between Epicenter’s strengths and the community’s needs determines our projects and programming.

Living in a rural place definitely affects how I make my living. Most resources (including, but not limited to: private foundations and government funding) in Utah are restricted to the urban areas. It’s hard to compete with organizations that serve thousands of people! So, without proper funding for my organization, I’m limited in what I am able to pay my staff and myself. It can be pretty tough to make a living here. You have to be creative; work a summer here and there at the local coffee shop, for example.

What are the drawbacks of living in a rural place?
There’s no anonymity. Everyone knows your business, good and bad.

People get sick of each other. I’ve witnessed grudges that have supposedly lasted a lifetime.

I, personally, don’t have a peer group in Green River. I probably only know about 10 people within a couple years of my age (30). So, it’s difficult to date anyone and find a partner. Luckily, I have a lot of friends and acquaintances of all ages, but it’s tough sometimes.

To make ends meet, most folks have to work 2-3 service industry jobs. I admire these parents working ungodly hours so that their kids can have options and be safe.

What’s your favorite thing about your town or home?
Melon season. Oh my God. I know everyone endlessly praises his or her hometown’s local agricultural product, but Green River melon is to die for. There are sixteen different varieties, which all grow to perfection thanks to the hot summer days and cold summer nights, sandy desert soil, and the plentiful river water. There’s even an over-100-year annual Melon Days festival the third week every September. See you there!

 

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