The Wild New West

Daredevils, coots, and cowboy poets love Moab, Utah -- and so does at least one all-American family
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MOAB, in the isolated high desert of southeastern Utah, is half Old West, half yuppie mecca. The swath of red-rock canyons and snowy mountains that surrounds it, the novelist and radical environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote in 1975, forms "the heart of the heart of the American West." This was among the last parts of the continental United States to be "civilized," with the first permanent white settlements not appearing until well after the Civil War, in the 1870s. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Hole in the Wall Gang, and the Wild Bunch rode to hideouts around here after robbing the silver-laden bank vaults of Colorado mining towns.

Over the past fifteen years Moab has boomed again as an R&R area, but now the crowd is tamer: middle-class Americans inclined toward extreme sports. Mountain biking caught on early here, during the 1980s, and these days people come from all over the country and the world to pedal across the rolling swells of "slickrock" sandstone -- huge petrified sand dunes -- just east of town. Visitors also head out for off-road exploring in four-wheel-drive vehicles, and for rock climbing, hiking in the desert, and kayaking and rafting on the intimidating rapids of the Colorado River. A few brave souls even leap from cliffs wearing parachutes, and occasionally get blown by desert gusts into the cliff faces. This concentration of adrenaline-generating activity has made Moab cutting-edge cool -- the reason its environs have been appearing in so many advertisements for automobiles, designer clothes, and cigarettes. A couple of years ago the software firm Novell confirmed the area's celebrity when it code-named its newest network operating system "Moab."


In the online mountain-biking magazine BikeSite, Geff Hinds questions whether Moab has become

A.) Totally over-hyped
B.) Your favorite place on Earth
C.) Yuppie heaven
D.) Not what it used to be

The correct answer is, of course, All of the above.

Moab, with a population of 5,000 or so, is in some ways a town of contending tribes: cattle ranchers, aging hippies, intense younger bikers and rafters, and a few burnt-out miners from the 1950s uranium boom. The only thing that seems to bind the freewheeling citizenry together is an opposition to Utah's prevailing Mormon ethos. Up in northern Utah, the Mormon heartland, I drove by a restaurant offering "Free meals for departing missionaries"; in Moab the Taco Bell advertises "Free taco with every Jeep rollover."

This might seem to be an unlikely place for my family to fall in love with -- me, a middle-aged Washington reporter; my wife, Mary Kay, who isn't inclined toward roughing it; and our son and daughter, thirteen and eight at the time of our last visit, who have wildly different interests. But Moab's mixed culture provided a lively background for a week-long visit -- our third trip to Moab in four years. People who want to research the town in advance of visiting will find www.moab-utah.com and a competing Web site without a hyphen in the middle of its name good places to start. There are dozens more sites for bikers, boaters, and off-road-vehicle drivers, and even one for fans of dinosaur tracks. You can pay homage at the Edward Abbey shrine at www.utsidan.se/abbey. At the low-tech end, I also found useful the pamphlets handed out at the Moab Visitor Center, at the corner of Center and Main -- call 800-635-6622 to request them from out of town. The pamphlet listing "Moab Area Movie Locations," for example, can direct you to the spot southwest of town where Max von Sydow delivered the Sermon on the Mount in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

WE began, as everyone does in Moab, by heading for the hills. The enduring attraction of the town is the more than two million acres of government-owned land around it, in two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands) and also in huge empty parcels overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Much of the landscape consists of leaping sandstone cliffs and deep canyons. All of it is beautiful -- the boundaries of the national parks are arbitrary distinctions, frequently having been drawn for political rather than aesthetic reasons.

Our first excursion was a "stroll" (our luxury-loving daughter was suspicious of the word "hike") up Hunter Canyon, a few miles southwest of Moab. In any other part of the country this would be a local must-see site, set aside at least as a state park. Here it is just one more beautiful slot canyon among hundreds. We followed a narrow trail up between sheer red-rock walls perhaps 500 feet high, crisscrossing the icy-cold stream that runs through the bottom. We stopped on a broad sandstone shelf to picnic on chicken-and-cashew salad from the surprisingly cosmopolitan City Market grocery store. Canyon wrens flew overhead, warbling their descending song. At the end of the day we made our way back to town, amid hordes of dusty mountain bikers.

Regrettably, not everyone manages that last, unremarkable feat. In 1997 park rangers and the local search-and-rescue team performed 146 rescues around Moab. According to county records, mountain bikers accounted for more than half the search-and-rescue calls, and their problems tended to be less than catastrophic -- mainly dehydration and abrasions. "The sprocketheads take out a two-thousand-dollar bike, but they don't bring water or a fanny pack with survival gear," I was told by Deputy Sheriff Kent Green, a member of the rescue team and an accomplished rock climber, kayaker, motorcyclist, and horseman. Other sports result in fewer calls but more-lethal situations: in 1997 five people drowned on the Colorado River near Moab, and four rock climbers were killed on the cliffs. Some years ago a motorcyclist apparently misjudged his location and raced over the edge of a 400-foot cliff, diving into the Colorado River. Green said his team calls such debacles "doing a Thelma and Louise." In the 1991 movie the two women supposedly drove into the Grand Canyon, but actually the scene was filmed just outside Moab, below Dead Horse Point, one of my favorite spots in the area, where my kids once stood and blew bubbles into the 2,000-foot-deep canyon.

All that mayhem places the recreation here solidly in the American tradition. "Freedom, not safety, is the highest good," Edward Abbey advised in his cult novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. In the 1950s and 1960s Abbey worked intermittently as a ranger in Arches National Park, just north of town, and in some ways he remains the presiding spirit of the area. In Desert Solitaire, a Thoreau-like memoir of the time he spent in that park, he elaborated on the same thought: "Let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches -- that is the right and privilege of any free American.''

Perhaps swayed by Abbey, I took my family on a camping trip. We set out with a rented tent and sleeping bags for Kane Springs Canyon, just south of the Colorado River. Unfortunately, we picked the wrong night. As the sun set and the canyon went dark, the wind began to howl. We managed to pitch our tent only by having the kids stack rocks on its corners to hold it down while we worked. By midnight the winds had picked up to thirty-five miles an hour. When a gust hit, it sounded like someone was whacking the outside of the tent with a Wiffle bat. Throughout the night the wind forced a fine drizzle of sand through the tent's seams, a fact the wakeful children pointed out several times, illuminating the descending plumes in their flashlight beams. At three in the morning I found myself meditating on the sandstorm scene from The English Patient. At seven my wife strongly recommended that we cut our losses and head into town for coffee and hot showers.

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