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Visiting Moab 1 March 2011

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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.

Thoughts on Ski Bumming 1 February 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Self, Skiing.
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Twenty days before I left for Colorado, my father died. The cancer the oncologists had identified in April consumed him faster than anyone, including those same doctors, had imagined it might, leaving him a shell of a 66 year-old man on an October hospital bed. Room 547.

In the weeks leading up to that day, he and I argued about my choice to spend the next several months playing in the mountains, he in favor and I against—against myself. I’d worked too hard up to this point, I said. Ski bumming would throw away an education, my opportunities, any remaining chance that I might enter the Peace Corps. After a summer spent waiting to leave for Togo, only to have my departure postponed indefinitely, I’d chosen this: to ski bum and to kill what had up to that point existed as a resume of polish and pretentiousness.

Dad disagreed.  A sixth month stint in the mountains could not “kill” a future. The Peace Corps required more waiting anyway. Either they would take me afterwards, or they wouldn’t. Or I would no longer care. Our last, worst arguments turned on these contentions, and ignoring my father’s decline, I spent time worrying about my own future. The doctors had given him years. They’d fix the chemo regime, and he’d improve. In six months, we’d see who had better predicted my future.

And then he died, I left, and the Peace Corps helpfully called to say that my “family trauma” would bar travel for at least a year.

So I arrived in the mountains, still trying to figure out exactly why I’d come. I’d ski, certainly, but to what end? The Midwestern child grows up without interest in mountain towns. Creeks and baseball and bikes dominate the playscape.   The basement fills with old copies of Field and Stream, not Powder or SKI. Until I settled into my too-cramped apartment in Keystone, the idea that a ski-bum narrative existed—that people wrote about such things—had never occurred to me. Who was Warren Miller? That was a little over a year ago.

The realization swept in: drugs, booze, and irresponsibility were easy to come by if you wanted them. Women weren’t. The conversation never left the snow. It was the prospect of snow, the current snow, the snow that fell last night and last year and in years past. The snow on your car. The snow tires you’d need. The snow that gusted into drifts behind the boulders on the river, as it swirled, gelid, until finally on a December morning it froze solid and the snow covered that, too. Snow became a determinate of being. There was snow. Or there wasn’t. We lived for that. More than anything else we lived for new snow.

And I thought about my father, and life, and why I’d come to Colorado. About why I was still in Colorado. On a Thursday night, I walked home from The Goat in Keystone with a free t-shirt hanging over my shoulder, holding back tears. Back in October, I’d cried for the first time in I didn’t know how long. It wouldn’t happen again. Life in the mountains was taking its toll. The lack of aim. It was drifting, this time  here. My arguments with my father came back and hung in my breath. Why?

I grew as a skier in the mountains, from the kid who’d skied ten days and didn’t know how to carve, to the kid who dropped cliffs. I bought three pairs of skis in a year. We traveled to Wolf Creek (and I wrote about it), and we traveled to Solitude and Brighton (and I wrote about those, too), and I, on the weekend after my roommate left for an adult job in Washington, D.C., drove alone to Moab because I could think of nothing else to do. It was something and everything. I sat on a cliff overlooking Canyonlands, the La Sals and the Abajos fading into lavender. The cars made their circuits on the road to the overlook. Shutters clicked; the sunset; the sun set. This had nothing to do with skiing and everything to do with why I’d come to Colorado.

Skiing Utah: Brighton and Solitude 8 March 2010

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It's everything you'd ever wanted in a mountain.

For the last month or so, we’d intended to swing into Taos for a bit of southwestern skiing and gawking. I’d recalled visiting there, what, more half my life ago, now, and had looked forward to catching whatever it is that makes Taos a known place on the map. Back in 1997 I recall that my dad bought a hat there, and I think a belt. We ate at a restaurant with a poster of the Scoville Scale and the corresponding peppers, then wandered around some kitschy art galleries before retiring to a Comfort Inn and Suites. This is what I remember.

But evidently the skiing at Taos also attracts the winter sports types who enjoy steeps and bumps and hiking and all of that. Until Friday morning, we were in. Taos had gone for days without snow, though, and a peek at the highest points on Breck, which had received similarly little snow, indicated that the conditions in NM would prove downright upsetting. Even the best art galleries and the quaintest cafes wouldn’t offset atrocious snow.

We’d realized this earlier in the week, of course, and had wrung our hands. We thought of Aspen and Telluride, Crested Butte and even Silverton, and then on Friday morning, we saw that the Salt Lake City mountains had received nearly two feet of snow. Done. I cancelled my reservation at the Best Western Kachina Lodge and Meeting Center (Thanks, front-desk Kelly. Sorry, Taos.) and booked a highway hotel in Midvale, UT. We would ski “The Greatest Snow on Earth” if only because the state of Utah has trademarked that phrase.

The name leaves nothing to the imagination.

As it stands, I have skied a vanishingly small portion of the Earth’s snow, and so cannot say whether Utah’s deserves the superlative. I can, however, tell you that it rates as very, very good, based on quantity alone. Coloradans who worship Wolf Creek’s 400+ inches forget that even the lesser-known resorts in Utah receive a scant 500 inches annually. This is A Lot of Snow. Check out Big Cottonwood Canyon’s two gems, Solitude and Brighton: 2550 acres of fresh, light, and untracked powder.

Moab: Weird and Wonderful 27 February 2010

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I apologize for the delay. Life intervened. Now, on to Moab.

The sun has finally dipped below the horizon on the high desert, washing violet over the white sheet and I lament that I won’t see much of the drive into Moab. Nighttime highways tend to look the same more or less anywhere. An Escalade passes me. The road bends. And there below, I see the lights of Moab stretching down the valley, bringing one of the strangest sensations common to the west: that feeling of looking down from a plane while still on the ground. In the distance, tiny street lamps glow and and brake lights wink in and out of existence. To see them from above is always a bit disconcerting.

Pulling into the nondescript strip of motels and breakfast spots, I realize that I’ve expected too much and that no city so well known as a travel destination can escape the onslaught of Econo Lodges and authentic gift shops. I bet they sell coffee mugs with that southwestern dude playing the whateveritis. The, um, kokopelli.

My hostel sits behind a long term storage building and I think backs up to a trailer park whose children get free use of the common room’s TV on Saturday mornings. This is the tao of the American hostel, I gather, and is probably unremarkable in a poor southwestern town, even if the town does see hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But it is still so poor, like so many of the placed Michael and I passed in New Mexico. Behind the glitz of the main street Moab lies another a world of rusting Fords and improbably-erect houses. Americans still live with dirt lawns and corrugated roofs, and they do so out back of the Ramada and the Burger King.

I’m once again tripping over the heartbreak of rural America, though, and it strikes me that given the number of times that same theme has popped up, I might well need to retroactively create a “heartbreak of rural America” tag for these entries.

Anyway.

The Lazy Lizard International Hostel appears to cater to two types: visitors like me looking to stay the night in Moab for less than the cost of an entree at Applebee’s, and locals living and working on wages that make $270 a month for a bunk bed an attractive option. Better than vagrancy, I suppose.

My common room companions, the lisping Ken Thorton and a Danish couple spend the evening discussing spirituality, the inevitability of suffering, and Mr. Thorton’s experiences as a budding New Age cinematographer. (You can view “Heyoka Shaman” Thornton’s work here. To see him shake a maraca for a while, skip to 1:15. To see him in a bath tub, skip ahead to 2:30.) After 23 vision quests, a ceremonial dance with the Hopi people and a brief interlude as the companion of a Buddhist aficionado, Mr. Thornton has become a spiritual conduit of sorts, speaking of clairvoyants and his ability to suck the negative energy from strangers.

But his philosophy drives me bonkers. How can he mesh Buddhism with tribal spiritualism? How does his system determine right and wrong? How does it account for the existence of other competing (and contradictory) beliefs? I don’t know, and I suspect Heyoka Shaman Thornton doesn’t either.

The next morning, I leave for Canyonlands. And after another night in the hostel, I head to Arches. Together these comprise all that is weird and wonderful about Moab. The rest… it is there, supported by the rocks which have aged in curious ways, and which, when the light hits them just right, radiate.

Back at the hostel, I slip past the neighbor kids on the way out to my car.

“Dude, come here!” one of the yells at his friend on the couch. “This cat is bleeding out its head!”

“No way!”

“Yeah, come here and check it out. This is pretty bad.”

“Duude! It’s bleeding out its ear. We should tell the guy.”

They go to find the unenthused 19 year-old who occasionally staffs the front desk.

“That cat outside is bleeding out its head. ”

Nothing.

“Hey, the bus is coming! We can go into town!”

“Yeah, let’s go! Bye, dude.”

The Road to Moab 16 February 2010

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Beware, narrative follows.

Friday morning: my room is a disaster, clothes strewn across the floor, wallet still in my pants, my shoes are peering at me from outside the doorway. And Goudey is gone. It had been his last night in town, and we had celebrated… well, let’s be honest, too much. But. Friday. I’ve planned on heading Utah to make the most of my three-day weekend, so naturally, I eat breakfast, consider my headache for a while and then head back to bed for two hours to strengthen my resolve.

At two o’clock, then, I hit the road and pass all the I-70 ski resorts on my way toward the Beehive State for a trip that as it strikes me now put me on roads farther west than I’d ever before been. And just to be clear, flying to California doesn’t count as “going west,” first because California isn’t really the West with a big W and second because flying eliminates one of travel’s best aspects: the landscape that evolves out the window. Destination-minded coastal people (of both Eastern and Western persuasions) toss that idea with the dismissive “flyover states.” Excepting Chicago, which occasionally does something noteworthy enough to reach New York.

So at any rate, I pass Vail and Avon, set my cruise control for 76 and begin passing signs for towns with geologically indicative names: Glenwood Springs, Basalt, El Jebel, Silt… Rifle? It is an interstate drive that defies comparison; nothing I’ve seen in the whole of Eisenhower’s grand highway system matches the raw beauty of I-70 west of Denver. Leaving the High Rockies, its path follows the meandering Colorado River staying true even into the narrow gash of Glenwood Canyon, the roadways winding nearly atop one another as they dart in and out of tunnels and around 1000 ft sandstone walls.  But maybe I shouldn’t be awed. This is the West after all.

The land sprawls into the sunset past Grand Junction, a boom town buoyed by the Western Slope’s mineral and gas riches. Around here, new wells and houses appear at roughly the same rate, spurring concerns that when the trucks and trains cart away all the wealth, Grand Junction’s reason for existence will have disappeared as well . The future may promise oil shale extraction — flammable ooze from rocks, essentially — that would dump millions more into the economy if anyone ever discovers a profitable process, or if gas prices return to their 2008 highs. But for now, what money flowing in seems at least sufficient to support the outward creep of Tyvek home wrap, vinyl siding and casual dining establishments.

Thankfully, the highway continues west, unfurling across a white sheet, that featureless expanse of the high desert. Moab lies out there.

***

Everything I’d written following my return from work just disappeared in the save process meaning this entry will end here at Grand Junction because I feel the need to publish anything at this point, but Moab will follow. For the time being, I hope you can content yourselves with some photos. Arches National Park will follow when I get up the gumption to retype my thoughts.

Canyonlands National Park