WEST JORDAN — Tumbleweeds are a nuisance, an eyesore or even a curse to many residents in the West. And there are those who find them to be comically absurd.
To a West Jordan man, though, tumbleweeds are big business.
Mike Rigby may not love the rolling, prickly weeds that most people try to avoid. But he's found that they're good for his bottom-line: He can sell them for up to $40 apiece.
"It started as a joke," said Rigby, whose company Curious Country Creations specializes in selling dried plants for decorative purposes. "I didn't expect to be in this business at all."
Rigby's oddball enterprise is only one of many interesting things about a strange and misunderstood symbol of the Old West.
There aren't many plants that just pick themselves up and head for the hills. But it's all in a day's work for a tumbleweed. To motorists, it sometimes seems that the highly mobile weeds have minds of their own — and they apparently love playing in traffic.
On a windy day almost anywhere in the West you can see motorists swerving to avoid the living things leaping out in front of them.
With a whimsical resemblance to the aliens called Tribbles in one of the most beloved episodes of the original "Star Trek" TV series, they strike many people as having a comic personality.
In home videos posted on YouTube, images of traveling tumbleweeds are often accompanied by hysterical laughter as motorists thread their way through onslaughts of unattached bushes that seem determined to cross the road.
Even when the wind stops blowing, the dried bushes are a familiar sight as they clutter ditches and fences. When a wildfire gets going, tumbleweeds can add to the excitement — and the danger — fueling "firenadoes" that can spread the flames far and wide.
More than once tumbleweeds have been reimagined by filmmakers as monsters, as in a mock trailer on YouTube called "Attack of the Killer Tumbleweeds!"
And yet there are many willing buyers, and at least one willing seller.
Rigby put his first tumbleweed up for sale as part of a school assignment to start a business on the Internet. It took six months to sell the first one. But somehow, tumbleweeds began to catch on.
Sometimes we have, like, Ralph Lauren or Saks Fifth Avenue come in and buy a tumbleweed, like, three or four for each one of their storefronts. We had a tumbleweed on 'Arrested Development.'
Curious Country Creations now has four employees who ship out 500 kinds of dried plant decorations. Tumbleweeds are still a mainstay of the business, even at prices as high as $40 each. They are purchased largely as decorations by people and companies looking to give their displays that Old West look.
"Sometimes we have, like, Ralph Lauren or Saks Fifth Avenue come in and buy a tumbleweed, like, three or four for each one of their storefronts," Rigby said. "We had a tumbleweed on 'Arrested Development.'"
It's a historical irony that tumbleweeds are now a symbol of the Old West. People have seen tumbleweeds in so many Western movies, they often assume the rolling bushes have been around since the days of wagon trains and pioneers.
In fact, they are an alien species that invaded from Russia late in the 19th century. By then, gunslingers and muleskinners were already dying out. Properly called Russian thistle, the spherical bushes earned their bit part in movies by spreading everywhere in the West by the early 20th century when Hollywood was getting started.
Even fake Western nostalgia helps Rigby stay in business, supplying store decorators, party planners and movie directors.
"And now every Hollywood cowboy has to have a tumbleweed," he said, "and it has to roll across when people shoot a gun at each other."
Why do tumbleweeds have the wanderlust?
It's all about reproduction. As they bounce across the desert, they scatter their seeds hither and yon — 250,000 seeds per plant — guaranteeing that the Russian thistle invasion will just keep rolling along.
Rigby can't recall ever selling a tumbleweed to someone who lives in Utah.
Utahns no doubt feel they have all they need already, thank you, and the supply seems inexhaustible.