The Ford Explorer lurched forward and fell even closer to the edge of the dirt road, a wet, slippery melt of red clay and ice from the first snow of the season. My eyes were fixed on the sheer cliff overlooking the Colorado River thousands of feet below, the looming rim now just inches from the muddy tires. My nails sank deeper into the armrest, but I didn’t say a word. I didn’t have to. Absolute fear was reflected on my ashen face. And, for the first time, I wished we had never bought the four-wheel drive SUV, picturing it, and us inside, sinking end to end and crashing into rocky walls as we tumbled to a watery death.
Home to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Moab is a dichotomy. Beautiful and equally inhospitable, it invites and deters us. From the alpine climate of the flora and fauna teeming La Sal Mountains, at an impressive 12,000 feet above sea level where snow-capped peaks loom over the scorching floor of a red desert, to the cool meandering Colorado River Through parched canyons, it draws us. .
Isolation reigns supreme here.
Deserts don’t hold much appeal to some Americans, unless hot grains of sand meet cold waves at the edge of a beautiful body of water. But millions of Europeans who vacation in the deserts of southern Utah, and in particular the Moab area, say otherwise and we wanted to know what brings them back year after year. So we packed a single suitcase, booked a room at the Virginia motel because it was in the middle of town and within our budget, and set our alarm clock for four in the morning.
We arrived at 10:30 the first night and drove down the main street to our motel, the Virginian where the Hollywood guys were staying when they were shooting movies and commercials a few years ago. But now we weren’t thinking of Hollywood. Our minds were on one thing after driving all day. To sleep.
The first day was spent touring Arches National Park, traveling a mile to take in a picturesque view of Delicate Arch in the fresh morning air and watching a climber ascend the steep face of an impressive monolith that juts out from the flat floor of the desert. We drove the short distance back into town for lunch, deciding on a Mexican restaurant that boasted that they used “No cans” in their Mexi-can food … but halfway through the meal we unanimously agreed that they probably should have. done. I admit it was probably healthier, but I don’t eat Mexican food for my health.
After shoving my fork around the plate and scooping up soft enchiladas, unsalted rice, and black beans (from the pot), we paid the bill to a smiling waiter. Outside the air was cool and we meandered through the streets of the burgeoning resort town browsing through a myriad of interesting shops and finally stopped at a bookstore where we chatted with a saleswoman, the wife of a Ranger. Steve and I like to talk to the locals wherever we travel. We like to get a taste of the often colorful areas, cities, and residents we meet loading gas, ordering food, or working at the cash register of a gift shop. We told her that many of the motels looked new and asked if she was happy that tourism was increasing. Hoping it was, we were more than a little curious when he answered us with a forced smile and “Not really.”
Some of the residents of Moab seem unable to decide whether or not to receive tourists and their dollars. Many are deserters from the late 1960s who settled in the area twenty years ago in an effort to disconnect from society and rediscover its quintessence. Their efforts to save the pristine beauty of the desert for their eyes only, these relatively newcomers proudly, if asked, claim they don’t want the tourist dollar. On the other hand, reality dictates. They depend on him. But I can understand that they want to keep the area for themselves. Too many people disrespect forests, beaches, and deserts, leaving behind their trash, graffiti, and desecration of virgin lands, but most of us don’t. We respect nature and we just want to enjoy it.
Over the years many have come to visit us, and in the end they leave behind lives in the city for the beauty and the unshopitable environment of the red rocks.
Hollywood has also had a love affair with the cast of colorful Red Desert characters for more than 40 years, and even its most imaginative writers would be hard-pressed to find a harsher version of the reality of Moab’s early years. It’s no wonder directors and producers have flocked to capture the perpetual divergence of the area’s red desert backdrop.
In stark contrast to the peaceful Mormon towns established throughout San Juan County by their leader, Brigham Young, Moab became known as the harshest town in the west. It was the meeting place of gunmen and thieves and in 1908 John Riis, one of the first supervisors of the La Sal Forest Reserve, wrote that the veterans referred to it as “Roost Roost”, where “the flash of a pistol divided the darkness … “routinely. The likes of Butch Cassidy and his group Wild and Robber’s Roost Gang were as much a part of the community and the environment as the cattle companies they took advantage of. Salons abounded, and although Kid Curry shot and killed the sheriff to avenge the death of another gang member, the locals painted his demeanor as arrogant. Cowboys will be cowboys after all.
We, of course, finally made it back down the mountain safely. And we were able to experience many other adventures on that trip.
In the late afternoon we drove to Island in the Sky, a plateau overlooking a small canyon on the Green River lookout. We passed two deer languidly grazing on the side of the road and parked fifty feet from them. They hardly noticed us even though deer hunting season was not far off. We turned on the Sogna de Bocelli CD player and sat down, ready to be entertained by the wonders of nature. Once again, Utah did not disappoint us. As cumulus clouds gathered in the western skies and the fiery orange sun peacefully plunged into the mountains, a cavalcade of lightning divided the northern and southern skies in a thunderous roar and I knew I had to return to this formidable and spiritual. land of relentless sun blazing along the banks of the cold water of the Colorado River.
Over the long weekend, there were more breathtaking sights than we delight in, unique hikes through other landscapes of the world, and the omen of unearthing the remains of creatures that lived millions of years ago. Spiritual journeys under the setting sun to cleanse our souls and fill us with awe and deference to a higher power. Edward Abbey was right. This red, angry and serene desert, sublime and deadly at the foot of majestic mountains with contrasting stone towers, endless sky and water, is one of the most beautiful and inspiring places on earth. And that … is why we came.
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