Having grown up in Utah, there are an assortment of local customs, practices, and beliefs that have the feel of familiarity, yet when held up to the light of analysis come off as… strange. For example, try to watch with objective eyes the next time a chain restaurant new to the state opens. People will invariably flock to it like stink on a monkey. When I was in high school, Utah’s first Krispy Kreme doughnut shop opened in Orem and the line literally stretched three city blocks. A similar phenomena occurred again last year with the proliferation of In-And-Out Burgers across the commercial landscape (stretching their deep fried, fleshy arm across the valley from Bountiful to Provo). This type of zealotry outside of a religious context defies traditionally understood methods of logic. Similarly, the magnetic draw of Moab (and slavish devotion paid to it by the outdoor recreation community) is genetically similar to the bizarre siren song heard rumbling like a distant thunderstorm from Salt Lake’s Cheesecake Factory and IKEA superstore.
My first visit to Moab came at the tender age of 17. My high school friends, Tom and Eric, decided to take advantage of the new car Eric’s parents had unwisely given to him, and I tagged along having seen little of the iconic parts of my home state before. We camped on the Colorado River, across from Negro Bill Canyon (not-so-progressively changed from an even worse moniker during the Civil Rights era), and made some memories exploring the red rock desert of Utah’s Colorado Plateau. Over the years, subsequent journeys have brought me back to Moab. In the space of the last 14 years, the city itself has remained remarkably the same. Stores and restaurants along Moab’s main strip might change names, but the city itself remains locked in an intentionally constructed zeitgeist. It has always reminded me of a beach town without an ocean.
Moab is an intriguing case study of human activity in the region. Its roots lay in the uranium boom that mushroomed in eastern Utah in the era immediately after World War II (when the excavation of radioactive yellow dirt was serious business). This history is reflected in many of the city’s street names and buildings. It is also reflected in the uncomfortable number of open uranium mines that still dot eastern Utah, open cankerous sores scattered among a mouthful of of jagged razor, rock teeth. After the uranium boom went bust, Moab entered a moment where it could have easily gone the way of any number of other ghost towns of the West. Livestock became the principle local business and few visited the place, aside from using it as a pit stop on the way to somewhere else. But before the town could shrivel up and desiccate in the punishing desert sun, another boom took place. This was the great industrial recreation boom that has thoroughly reshaped life in many dying western towns. Bikers discovered the slick rock desert and National Parks became big business. Today Moab is a hive of activity thanks to its centralized location near a collection of tourist attractions. They have learned the lesson of “mining the miners.” Gather all of the gasoline and alcohol in one place and tourists (with compulsive spending habits) will inevitably arrive.
As both a full-time professional state government cog and overworked graduate student, my opportunities for adventure have evaporated rapidly over the last year. Sarah and I still get out and travel, but those moments have to come with all of the planning and execution usually afforded to brain surgeons or rocket scientists. With school’s fall break falling over the week containing Columbus Day (yes, Utah state government still sanctions imperialism) it seemed the perfect time to pull stakes and go somewhere, but the target destination decided to get elusive on us. At first it looked like the wild waters of Cataract Canyon would be our destination as a group of my friends secured a rafting permit for the week, but a lack of adequate leave time quickly dashed those hopes against the shore. A second plan emerged that would take us to the remote confines of Great Basin National Park for multiple days, enjoying the quiet of basin and range while dreaming underneath a canopy of stars. However, the weather gods stepped in and threw a veto to this idea too. A series of winter storms in the days before our trip left highways and hiking trails throughout the park closed and inaccessible. So, with a series of staggering defeats behind us, Moab became our new destination. Sarah and I are hoping to visit all national parks in the contiguous United States together (over our lifetime) and with two in Moab (that we’ve each visited, but not together), it seemed like a perfect place to fall back on. After all, there are far worse places you can spend an autumn weekend than in the heart of the Colorado Plateau.
The last trip I made to Moab came nearly three years ago, with my close friend Reina. Over the course of multiple days we hiked Canyonlands, Arches, and the Fischer Towers. Apparently I was in much better shape in 2008 than I am now. My thought was that a good way for Sarah and I to see Canyonlands in 2011 would be for us to hike the Upheaval Dome trail. The trail itself breaks the mesa of Canyonlands Island in the Sky district and drops down to a geological structure that has so far managed to confound geologists. They don’t know if it is the remnant of a meteor strike or a salt dome that is in the midst of erosion. In any event, my memory is of having a great day hiking the trail in 2008, and with those warm and fuzzy thoughts in mind I convinced Sarah that it would be worth our time to take the hike. Now, remember what I said about 2008 Jim being in slightly better shape than his 2011 counterpart? This reality was brought into painful relief on our hike. An oppressive sun managed to deplete our energy before we even reached the Dome proper (in spite of the fact that we were hiking in October!). Arriving at the Dome we were mildly disappointed to find a broken landscape that is interesting, but not all that inspiring. Unfortunately, inspiration is exactly what we needed at that point. Without it our hike out turned into something akin to a grim tedium march. All told, the hike took us through 11 very steep miles, killing most of the day and wiping us clean out. By the end I was stumbling back to our car and operating on the most basic default software my brain has installed.
After completing our exhausting day hiking, we retured to town to restock our bodies’ caloric supply at the Moab Brewery. However, the insane crowds of Moab proved a bane to our existence as we were told that it would a 45 minute wait for a table. Having nowhere else to go (aside from a quasi-campsite in the back of Professor X, our truck that often serves as our tent) we made the wait. Our patience was rewarded with beer and jalapeno cornbread (which really is amazing as it sounds).
The following morning Sarah and I agreed that for all of his awesomeness, Professor X isn’t able to comfortably accomodate more than two consecutive nights sleeping in his cramped backend (conclude what you will from that statement). With sore backs and cramped legs we decided that it was in our best interest to spend the day in Arches before making the trip back to Salt Lake a day early (where we would be able to spend the rest of my fall break basking in the comfort of our own bed).
Much like the city that has grown up next to it, Arches is something of a conflicted space. On one hand it is perpetually crowded with tourists. The fate envisioned by Ed Abbey in Desert Solitaire has come true as virtually every corner of the park has been made accessible to cars via the long and winding roads that wind and tangle their way across the red rock vistas. On the other hand, it does offer some of the most unique and indelible scenery in Utah (somewhat mitigating the obnoxiousness that tends to go hand in hand with crowds). Our mission for Arches was simple enough: hike Devil’s Garden, hike Delicate Arch, and then go home. The first stage (hiking Devil’s Garden) was executed well, in spite of the residual pain leftover from our trek into Upheaval Dome the day before. I was startled to see that one of the Arches I remember well from other trips (Wall Arch) had fallen in the intervening years. The litter of broken rocks from the deceased arch is a powerful reminder that this is in a place in constant, dynamic process and motion. We hiked, we took in all of the arches in the garden, and I got some great photos of Sarah arching herself in harmony with the contorted landscape.
Similarly, Delicate Arch provides one of the most singularly exhilarating views one can find in this state. The geological architecture upon which Delicate Arch rests provides the perfect setting for such an iconic figure. The Arch is held suspended on a fan of familiar brown sandstone, framing the distant La Sal mountains in a scene epic enough that it still serves as the license plate image for our state. And while we had to share the space with the hordes of tourists that perpetually populate the earthen amphitheater, Delicate Arch didn’t disappoint. Upon finishing the hike Sarah and I agreed that our bodies and spirits were done and we were ready to go home. A final stop was made in Moab for food (jalapeno cornbread, again!) before we set out on the road home.
So, there is a not-so-brief synopsis of an October weekend spent in (and around) Moab. In spite of the fact that my feelings for the place vacillate constantly, I am ultimately glad that Moab exists. After all, any destination that can offer quality used book stores, canyons, arches, and jalapeno cornbread can’t be all bad.