The Wild New West

Daredevils, coots, and cowboy poets love Moab, Utah -- and so does at least one all-American family

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 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 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.

Thereafter we slept in our by-the-week rental apartment, located just down the street from a small ostrich farm. (Ostriches make quiet neighbors.) At last I understood why the second-story gutters of our apartment contained a thick layer of red sand. To prove that we could learn from experience, we canceled a planned whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado when April snow flurries were forecast.

Instead our next excursion was under the wing of lanky Lin Ottinger, who with his gapped teeth, wispy white hair, and "International Tesla Society" cap looks like exactly what he is: a septuagenarian uranium prospector, rock hound, and desert coot. We spent a full day with him as he showed the kids how to crack open rocks to find fossils and how to crawl to the edge of vertigo-inducing cliffs. He also -- repeatedly -- showed us how he could take both hands off the wheel when he wanted to emphasize what he was saying as he sped along a dirt road next to a 500-foot drop. He had celebrated his most recent birthday, he told me, by buying a kind of ultralight aircraft that he calls a "powered parachute" and learning to fly it without taking any lessons but, rather, just circling 2,000 feet above Moab.

Driving back to town after a day of wandering the desert canyons, I'd tune into KZMU-FM, one of the most erratic radio stations I've ever encountered. The children didn't badger me to switch to another station, because we couldn't find any others. After one hike we heard an "Ode to Che Guevara." Another time Paul Robeson's struggle against racism and imperialism was discussed -- and then came an equally heartfelt tribute to the country singer Merle Haggard on his birthday. Most of the time KZMU is an oldies station for aging hippies, playing Van Morrison, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones -- fine music to hear at day's end as one limps back to Moab for a microbrew.

THE restaurants in Moab were surprisingly spotty, given the deep pockets of many extreme-sports fans. Apparently, when those bikers, hikers, climbers, jeepers, and jumpers come in from the desert at night, most are looking for a cold drink and hot carbohydrates, not a memorable meal. With two exceptions, the best thing in town was the beer at the brew pubs. The exceptions were the Center Cafe and Buck's Grill House. At the Center Cafe, Mary Kay and I were particularly impressed by the ravioli stuffed with sweet potato and goat cheese and the grilled beef tenderloin with garlic mashed potatoes. (The children had been happy to stay back at the apartment and watch television.) Our waiter, Howard Newmark, turned out to be an accomplished desert photographer -- it was his work that I had been admiring on the restaurant's walls. He told us that the boom in Moab had made him consider moving to Escalante, on the west side of the Colorado River canyon. I thought of Huck Finn lighting out for the territories, wary of Aunt Sally's intentions to "sivilize" him.

Buck's Grill House was more unusual and also more interesting, serving a cuisine I had never come upon before: gourmet western. Kids in tow, we enjoyed a quesadilla with buffalo chorizo; the thickest and sweetest pork chop I've ever tasted; and a buffalo-meatloaf sandwich garnished with tomato and a creamy onion sauce and served on biscuit-style bread.

Probably for the same reason that it doesn't have many good restaurants, Moab so far has managed to avoid the Ralph Laurenization that has taken over the downtowns of other western tourist spots such as Jackson, Wyoming, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are no shopping outlets and few art galleries. Visitors are likely to devote their evenings to recovering from sunburn and abrasions, repairing their bikes and jeeps, and quaffing microbrews. In the days before Easter, when the town's population doubles for "Jeep Safari," long lines build up every afternoon at the auto-parts store.

TO my surprise, the children were particularly taken with a brief excursion to Dalton Wells, a somber spot fourteen miles north of Moab. In 1943 the federal government shipped here forty-four Japanese-American internees who had been designated troublemakers at wartime relocation camps in California and Arizona. Not much but a few trees now remains of "DG-32," their isolation camp. In a cold spring wind, under cloudy skies, the place seemed terribly lonesome. At the base of a sickly-green uranium-bearing cliff we looked out on striking views -- notably of the LaSal Mountains, twenty-five miles to the south, and of Book Cliffs, one of the world's longest escarpments, about twenty-five miles to the north. The place gave me the creeps.

The next day dawned sunny and bright, and was spent on what turned out to be our favorite activity of the week: a hike (by now my daughter no longer needed the word "stroll" to cajole her) up a spectacular slot canyon to a Native American cliff dwelling. We had hired as our guide Rory Tyler, who seems to reconcile within himself some of Moab's conflicts. He is at home with the heavily caffeinated mountain-biker crowd, yet he is also a cowboy poet, a vocation he takes quite seriously. Tying in another of the town's strands, he hosts a current-events talk show on KZMU. Indeed, he was the person who first explained Moab to me as an uneasy collection of tribes.

The entire hike up the pretty, waterfall-laden canyon was on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, whose maps depict the area as nothing special, as if it were simply a few more acres of pastureland. Tyler introduced us to the natural history of the place, pointing out the yucca, the purple vetch flower, and the four-wing saltbush. The kids hung on his words as he told us about the local tribes who depended on Indian rice grass. Then, heading up the canyon, he zigged to a corner to show us a string of thousand-year-old petroglyphs. Finally, as we sat on the lip of an ancient Native American cave, high above the canyon, eating our lunch and watching a brief hailstorm, Tyler recited one of his works about a chili-struck wrangler's indigestion-driven nightmare of riding dinosaurs. "Jurassic Rodeo,'' he calls it. Tyler's vigorous, varied, and illuminating hike, with its beauty, its surprising turns through natural and human history, and that heartfelt cowboy poem at the end, struck us as a compendium of Moab.

Thomas E. Ricks is The Wall Street Journal's Pentagon reporter and the author of (1997).

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; The Wild New West - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 50-54.