Moab, Thou Art My Washpot
London, Tokyo, Paris, Moab...
Moab is the center of the Earth.
I heard that somewhere, I think. Or maybe I saw it on a bumper sticker. Anyway, it's apt.
I mean, ya, it can get hot in Moab, but that's not what I meant by 'center of the Earth.' What did I mean? Well, read along.
Slung out along the Spanish Valley, hemmed in by 12,000-foot mountains and 1,000-foot-high red cliffs, watered both by mountain snowmelt and by the West's greatest river, the Colorado, and situated along the Old Spanish Trail, a trail which for centuries had guided traders and travelers through the area, Moab is a true oasis in the desert. The valley itself formed over millions of years as faults caused cliffs to rise and the valley bottom to drop. For thousands of years, perhaps, travelers have come to this valley to cross the Colorado, where the river momentarily breaks free of is chasm.
This was amongst the last areas of Utah to be settled. Mormons did not arrive here until the 1870s, a time when treaties with the Indians made life safer for the whites. When the post office was built here in 1881, the name 'Moab' - the name of the Biblical town which was at the edge of Zion - was attached. Gold from the La Sals brought men and women here towards the end of the 19th century, and uranium from the surrounding cliffs brought more in the 1920s. During this time, Moab served as a collection center for sheep reared on the Navajo Nation to the south, though the town quieted down substantially during the Depression and the world wars. Moab briefly perked up in the 1950s when Charlie Steen made a million dollar uranium discovery south of town, and prospectors descended on the town with Geiger counters, four wheel drives and an appetite for sweat and hard work.
For most of its history Moab has been a workingman's town. Men looking to make money came here briefly, then left. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that began to change.
The change that took place then was as profound as any during those earlier booms, though this most recent one was much different. It was tourism.
Solitaire No More
There was a time when the red rock cliffs and sagebrush that surrounded town were seen as worthless. Today, they have spiritual qualities for many of the millions that come here. In the early 1990s a beautiful invention called the mountain bike began to enjoy widespread popularity. The bikes became light and fast and easily maneuverable. Mountain bike stores began to open across the country, students wheeled them around campus, and eventually they worked their way down to the family level. Meanwhile, publications for the mountain bikes emerged. Eventually, some bike editor and some photographers made their way to Moab, rode a few trails, put a picture or two on the cover or the table of contents page, and within a few years Moab had become a mecca for the new sport. The slickrock wilderness that surrounds town became the bike's primary proving ground.
Then in 1993 Edward Abbey died. For years, Americans looked to places like the beach or the mountains as examples of what was beautiful. No one looked to a place like Moab or a region liked southeastern Utah. In the mid-1960s Abbey went to work as a seasonal park ranger at nearby Arches National Monument (now National Park). It was still a quiet time there, and Abbey did as much wandering around and writing as he did rangering. In 1968 a book of his called Desert Solitaire was published. A few years later came The Monkey Wrench Gang. Others of his followed, most of them set in this colorful corner of Utah. His books grew in popularity through the 1980s and really took off after his death. Through Abbey, people had a context to see the beauty of this desert. The door was opened. The rush was on.
The sun nudges behind cliffs. Heat radiates from the sidewalk. Tourists with ice cream cones wait for the light at the corner of Main and Center. Late arrivals pull into town, shaky from hours on the road. There is a line out the door at Eddie McStiffs. Teens cruise by. Someone is speaking French.
Moab walks a fine line between cute and exploited. Since its boom didn't come until recently the area does not yet suffer the effects of decades of too many t-shirt shops or too many expensive restaurants. Indeed, though you can buy your share of t-shirts here - actually, what has surpassed t-shirts are iron sculptures of Kokopelli (more on that later) - the town doesn't feel like it has lost track of itself, if you know what I mean.
I showed up with my river sandals and my mountain bike Friday morning. That is the way most people come. Moab today seems to serve two purposes. One, people come to feel like they are back in the Old West. That's what brings all the Germans. Two, people come from the adrenaline rush.
Moab, with its cliffs and mountains, is probably the adrenaline capital of North America. BASE jumping is not a crime, says the bumper sticker on one local LandCruiser. $2,500 mountain bikes are handing nonchalantly over in the Poison Spider bike shop. People are lining up to take the seven-day Cataract Canyon river trips. Cliffs along the River Road are full of rock climbers. Mountaineers are taking off from Mt. Peale. Canyoneers drop into forbidden canyons. And the mountain bikers are disappearing into the slickrock.
But like I said, Moab isn't too bad. I mean, I can walk down Main Street and not get sick to my stomach, which means it can't be too bad since I have a low tolerance for kitsch. I had been on the river all morning, then hiking in the afternoon and was sunburned and nicely fatigued. I ate in Banditos Grill, where all they really have are burritos, but they are very good burritos. Then I went in and spent about $30 in the best bookstore in the state, Back of Beyond. (Where else can you buy books like Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, third edition, Run, River, Run by Ann Zwinger, Confessions of an Eco-Redneck, Or How I Learned to Gut-shoot a Trout and Save the Wilderness at the Same Time, and Charles Bowden's amazing work, Desierto: Memories of the Future?)
Center of the Earth?
I went into Native Sisters Boutique and got a bumper sticker for my sister-in-law in Dallas: New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, Moab. I skipped Kokopelli's Gallery, but I'll tell you who Kokopelli is: Kokopelli is this Anasazi rock carving of a cute boy or girl with dreadlocks playing a flute. Sinuous, you'd call it. Well, Kokopelli, thanks to consumerism, is now doing all sorts of things like surfing and snowboarding. More of that can be seen over at Moabilia. I went into Restoration Creamery, an ice cream shop dedicated both to ice cream and to gathering support for the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam. This is a little beside the point, but I'll tell you anyway. In the 1950s, when the Colorado River was still relatively unexplored, the Bureau of Reclamation built the Glen Canyon Dam along the Colorado River at the Utah-Arizona line. The dam backed up about 60 miles of river and created Lake Powell, named in honor of probably the first person to navigate the river. Anyway, today Lake Powell is a major recreation spot and the dam produces power for cities across Utah and Arizona. But there is, however, a growing number of people who want the 700-foot tall dam removed so that Glen Canyon, what was arguably one of the most beautiful spots in Utah, can be restored. Restoration Creamery has about 12 flavors, and I was ready to get Brower's Bear Claw, a dark chocolate concoction - I had money in hand - when the woman working there ignored me and served the Germans in line behind me. I left and got coffee instead.
So is Moab the center of the Earth? After my coffee I walked into a bike shop to get a spare tube. Tomorrow I am headed for the Slickrock Trail - world famous. Two men in the bike shop are speaking Italian. They say they are headed for the trail tomorrow, too. One of the main reasons they came to America, in fact, was to ride the Slickrock Trail. Center of the earth?
A special thanks to Gonzo Inn.
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