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Visiting Moab 1 March 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Travel.
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You can go to Moab from April through October. Or you can go in February, when snow still falls in the high desert and the crowds have booked flights for the beach. Not bad deal if you ask me.

It was about this time last year that I headed out for my first visit to Utah, and I returned with a new tag for my travel posts: “the heartbreak of rural America.” A year later, Moab is still heartbreaking in all the same ways, but it’s best for the traveler to avoid dwelling on that sort of thing. The surrounding landscape of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks simply doesn’t allow for it—and that’s the part I missed in last February’s reflections. So this time around I’m giving a proper review, and a thumbs up, if only because it could send more visitors and more dollars to this sunburnt city.

In the Bible, Moab stretched east from the Jordan river, a nearly treeless plateau bounded by Beth-jeshimoth to the north, Baal-meon to the east and Kiriathaim to the south. The resident Moabites and the neighboring tribes of Israel enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship in which both sides got their Old Testament jollies by comparing family trees or killing one another. When postmaster William Pierce first showed up in this part of southeastern Utah, it’s possible he saw that grand narrative laid before him on the landscape. Or else he just saw a lot of desert, which is pretty much what the Jordanian Moab is, too. Whatever the case, settlers arrived in 1878, and by 1890 were already petitioning to change the town’s name because of the association it created with the biblical Moabites’ affinity for idolatry and incest.

But the name stuck, and the people did, too, at first eking out an agrarian existence near of the Colorado River’s few crossings. As happened in so many Western towns, though, it was mineral wealth that put the city on the map. Potash and manganese contributed to the bloom, then came oil and gas, but it was the harsh landscape’s radioactive ores that made Moab the “Uranium Capital of the World” in the 1950s as prospectors laid claim to vast tracts of desert waste in the hopes their finds would supply the next world-obliterating bomb. Edward Abbey gives a good account of the mad, and largely unsuccessful, uranium dash in his book Desert Solitaire. And, come to think of it, he gives a good account of most everything else in the region, too. Today, the prospectors have returned, and pending all the right approvals, America will see its first new uranium mill since the Cold War Era rise on the Colorado side of the border.

Chances are, though, you won’t be thinking about any of that when you make the turn off I-70 and head south into slick rock country. If you’re native to the southwest, maybe you won’t think much of the highway scenery, a denuded landscape of rock and dust that stretches to horizon. But if you hail from more verdant climes, your jaw will drop. This is an America everyone east of the Rockies has only seen in movies, and even then, the slightly fantastical quality those films all share makes the reality of the landscape seem a little suspect too. When was the last time you saw a movie set against the upper midwest that wasn’t Fargo? We associate the West with a fiction, though, making the reality all the more surreal.

I won’t talk much about what you’ll see when you arrive because that’s essentially impossible. Try to imagine a wall of flaming red rock, miles long, taller than the tallest building in your city by half. Imagine a chasm dropping almost a vertical mile into a river you’ll never see. This is what moving water does to a landscape which sees so little rain. The Green and Colorado rivers scour the earth and the rock and, seemingly, the sky, while the flash floods turn creekbeds into canyons. To look at all of it is to travel through time. Much of the visible rock dates to the Jurassic and the Triassic, when dinosaurs lumbered where you now stand with a camera to your eye. And behind all this lie the La Sals, dozens of miles of distant but encroaching as if they run right up to the canyon walls. Visit in February and you’ll be treated to snowcapped peaks set against red rocks.

You can hike into it, too. In Canyonlands, the Upheaval Dome trail makes an 8.3-mile loop around a formation that only makes sense when view from the air. In Arches, the Devil’s Garden trail offers a five-mile ramble through the area’s signature fins and arches, topping out of a ridge which offers views over the whole park. If you have the time, try both of these in favor of hitting all the recommended photo locations. You’ll appreciate the slower pace and the interaction with the landscape you won’t get when you’re stopping and starting like a pizza delivery boy. And I’ve always hated recommended photo locations anyway. Experience the parks for yourself. Find something.

A word of caution, though: traveling in the desert isn’t like wandering around in the Appalachians. 1) Carry sufficient water. Carry more than enough water, even in your car. The average person traveling in a place this dry needs a gallon of water per day, and in this case at least, it’s best to consider yourself just average. In February you can probably find running streams in a canyon or two, but don’t rely on it. 2) Don’t bust the crust. Even in a place that only sees a few inches of precipitation a year, life thrives, and the crust, visible as hard black formations on the soil, holds it all together. Walking off trail destroys this complex web of cyanobacteria, lichens and other life that keeps the soil from disappearing with the wind. And when you bust the crust, it can take decades to return to its original state.