Vance Nielson owns the only gas station in Bluff, Utah. His storage capacity maxes out around 10,000 gallons of fuel, enough to fill about 500 cars. Typically, this is more than enough to service the rural town, whose population is less than 300.
But when Ann Leppanen, the mayor of Bluff, announced that she was anticipating up to 20,000 tourists to visit town for last Saturday’s solar eclipse, Nielson was worried about more than just running out of gas.
“If my staff don’t come to work, we’ll have to close,” he said in the days leading up to the eclipse.
Almost all of his employees at the gas station and convenience store, the K & C Trading Post, are Diné, or Navajo. In Diné culture, eclipses mark the death of the sun and are observed by staying indoors and avoiding any sight of the spectacle, including sunlight, for the nearly three hours it takes for the moon to fully cross over the sun.
In Bluff, which borders the Navajo Nation just north of the San Juan River, many Diné either took the morning off during the eclipse or modified their work so as to avoid the sun during the transition.
These absences and adjustments highlighted just how much the town relies on its Diné employees, who make up about 80% of the workforce, said Jennifer Davila, president of the Business Owners of Bluff and owner of La Posada Pintada.
“A lot of businesses left it up to their employees whether they wanted to come in,” she said.
Some chose to close for a few hours or operate at a limited capacity that morning. The Canyon Smokehouse, a restaurant owned by Erin Nelson, who is also the city manager of Bluff, was closed for one hour on Saturday during the eclipse, which reached complete overlap at about 10:30 a.m.
Aside from her husband, who is the cook, all of her employees are Diné. Two of them requested the morning off — the full eclipse transition is longer than the one hour Nelson had closed. Her other employee, a high schooler from nearby Blanding, said he wanted the extra hours and volunteered to work the morning shift.
But even still, she needed extra hands to operate the restaurant that morning. In lieu of her typical staff, Nelson put her parents, who were visiting for the weekend, to work. “We had them running food,” she said. “We needed someone to cover.”
Steve Simpson, owner of the Twin Rocks Cafe, modified his sit-down diner to instead serve to-go meals during the morning to give his employees the time off, he said. “It’ll just be the white folks working here in the morning,” he said the day before the eclipse.
But the gas station, which Nelson said was “a major point of concern” for the town in the weeks leading up to the anticipated flood of tourists, was fully staffed that morning, plus some. Nelson said the town had been in contact with Nielson prior to the eclipse to make sure he was prepared for the event.
“We’re the only store in town,” Nielson said. “We’re not going to close.” Not only is the K & C the only stop for gas; the convenience store is the only place to buy food and water other than the few restaurants in town.
As such, Nielson’s Diné employees were in full attendance during the eclipse, including Tawna Redhorse, who said she would have preferred to stay home that morning. “I’m not supposed to work Saturdays anyway,” she said.
But her sister, Charlotte Grey, who is the supervisor at the K & C, thought the store was going to be swamped. “She kind of panicked,” Tawna said. “It was required that I have to come in.”
“They had to show up to work,” said Daylene Redhorse about her sisters, Tawna and Charlotte. “We just told them not to look outside, not to be outside.”
Daylene, who is a housekeeper at La Posada Pintada, was given the option to stay home. But she and her Diné co-worker had decided to come in for the morning shift anyway. “I wanted to be done by noon so I could go home and spend time with my family,” Daylene said.
Despite coming to work, both women still respected tradition and avoided being, or even looking, outside during the eclipse. Daylene said she “stayed in the rooms, closed the curtains, and deep cleaned.” Her co-worker was inside doing laundry during the hours of the transition. As is customary, Daylene said she neither ate nor used the bathroom for the duration of the transition.
“We had to text [Davila] to find out when it was finally over,” Daylene said. It’s not uncommon for Diné to avoid looking at photos of the eclipse, which deterred Daylene from searching on her phone for the exact time that the eclipse ended.
As it turned out, Bluff only received about a thousand tourists for the eclipse. “It definitely didn’t meet my expectations,” said Nelson, who rented a trailer-sized freezer to store the extra food she purchased for the eclipse. “We didn’t even touch it,” she said.
“We thought this weekend was going to make our October,” she said. “It was more like a regular weekend.”
For some businesses, such as Nelson’s, the eclipse was a disappointing but simple example of supply overshooting demand. The not-so-obvious economic takeaway of the eclipse, though, is harder to quantify — the value of Diné laborers in Bluff, whose residents are predominantly white and over the age of 60, according to the most recent census.
“The workforce still hasn’t recovered after Covid was so bad on the Navajo Nation,” Nelson said. “It’s been unsteady.”
This winter will be her first off-season since opening the restaurant last spring. A big question for her is whether she’ll get her staff back after laying them off for the winter.
“I try to offer competitive wages,” she said. “With tips, some weeks my employees make as much as I do working for the city.”
Two of her employees drive nearly an hour and a half to get to and from work, which is not uncommon for many Diné workers who commute from the Navajo Nation.
Tawna said that by the time she pays all her bills each month, the rest of her paycheck goes right back to the gas station. “Any money I save each month, I spend on gas to get to work,” she said. “I barely save any money.”
Tawna said she makes $15 an hour. “I’ve been there for five years,” she said. “We finally got vacation time, but we don’t have health insurance or anything like that.”
“My sisters, they didn’t go to school,” said Daylene, who works for the Rural Utah Project in addition to seasonal work as a housekeeper. “Working at the gas station, it’s convenient for them.”
“A lot of the people in Bluff are retirees,” Nelson said. And many of them are second home-owners who leave in the colder months. “We wouldn’t have a workforce without the Diné.”
Emily Arntsen is a reporter at KZMU, the community radio station in Moab, Utah. She has been covering rural issues across the Colorado Plateau for over three years.