MOAB, UTAH -- This is where Winchester rifle fire pings dream-white on the moonscapes of memory. John Ford made "Rio Grande" here. Henry Fonda starred in "Warlock" here. Rock Hudson put on war paint in "Taza, Son of Cochise" here. Oh how could you forget "Taza, Son of Cochise"? It was in 3-D, which meant the funny little glasses, not to mention that screechy brave new stereophonic sound of 1954. Jeff Chandler, dying, raises his arm and cries to his son in stilted Apache, "This is your domain."
Where have all the '50s oaters gone? Why, to '90s cop pictures, every one. No more saddle-sore Saturday afternoons at the Bijou. But in our sophistication and disbelief, something has been lost.
The red-rimmed canyons and oceanic azure skies of tiny Moab, Utah, will bring it right back. This little clot of far-off desert civilization, a kind of embryonic Santa Fe but without the glitz, can still call up an American celluloid past that never was nor could have been, but that we somehow wished for all the same. Simpler times, or at least the illusion of them, where good had a white hat and a Colt "Peacemaker," and the dastardly rode sooner or later into the Canyon of No Return.
After he came here to make "The Comancheros," the big tough guy on the side of right (better known as John Wayne) said, "We made 'The Alamo' in Texas ... to do justice to the story we had to. We made 'The Comancheros' at Moab for the same reason. TV you can make on the back lot, but for the big screen, for the real big-scale outdoor dramas, you have to do it where God put the West."
The Duke galloped into Moab several times in his fabulous purple-sage career. William Holden, Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr., Richard Boone, Brian Keith, Ben Johnson, Anthony Quinn, Richard Widmark, Yakima Canutt, Victor McLaglen, Alfonso Bedoya, Van Johnson, Richard Basehart, Clint Walker: They were all here in Moab's day, which you could say ran from 1949, when "Wagonmaster" was made, to 1964, when "Cheyenne Autumn" came out. Those were both John Ford pictures. That's what a horse opera should be called: a "picture." Not a film. Not a movie. But a picture.
These days, though Hollywood still comes once in a while, the place where God put the American West is more of a destination for high-tech and upwardly mobile mountain bicycle riders. The town gets star billing in all the outdoor/earth magazines. Intrepid new-age riders flock to Moab from Denver and Salt Lake with their perfect spandex bodies, bearing their rolled copies of Velo News. They walk the charming, dusty streets in their sawed-off, skintight touring pants and then they head out east of town in cycle gangs to take on the Slickrock Trail. In the evening, glazed with sweat and satisfaction, they dine on veggie cuisine at Honest Ozzie's Cafe and Desert Oasis. The Slickrock Trail, by the way, is thousands of years of petrified Utah sand dune, God's savage artwork, with Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains burning in the background like Kodachrome postcards.
The old unpretentious Western movie lot of Moab even has plans for a public radio outlet. There's a fine-arts center now. The town has a bookstore called Back of Beyond, full of Edward Abbey's work. Abbey, who as much as anyone helped inspire the environmental movement in America, set his profanely lofty meditation, "Desert Solitaire," in Moab. He said he'd take the place over a houseboat in Kashmir. He thought it the most beautiful place on earth. "I don't mean the town itself, of course," he wrote, "but the country which surrounds it -- the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky -- all that which lies beyond the end of the roads."
John Wayne's cowboys are here yet, you just have to look for them a little harder.
"The major's dead, sir."
"Pack up the wagons!"
"I said the major's dead, sir."
"Pack up the wagons, I told you!"
First of all, the way to pronounce it is "moe-abb," not "mobe." It's after a remote biblical region and people -- the city fathers got that part right. Amtrak has a depot 36 miles to the north. Grand Junction, Colo., is two hours away. (Moabites speak of it as "Junction," as if it's only around the next gulch.) Salt Lake is 235 miles away. Las Vegas is 480 miles away. On a western odometer, these numbers are mere potash, which is what they used to make a lot of in these parts till the potash industry, like uranium, like agriculture, like cowboy movies, went down.
And to think, probably no one chewing Necco Wafers in the dark of a '50s picture show ever even heard the name "Moab." They don't put locations up on the marquee, no matter how great they are. What got put up, then as now, were the magic words: "Gary Cooper." "Audie Murphy." "Chill Wills."
Including cats, the town's current population is somewhere around 5,000. It's the county seat of Grand County, which has 3,692 square miles and uncounted jack rabbits. This may be a little hard for Easterners to believe, but Moab is the only town in Grand County, period.
It's on the eastern edge of the state. One way to find it is to drive in from Colorado, in which case you'll probably notice a road sign soon after you cross the Utah border, just before you leave the security of the interstate and head into canyonland: "Eagles on Highway." That seems a fair enough intro.
You blow past a place named Cisco. Ain't no people in Cisco. Lizards, yes. Well, maybe three or four humans. They seem to be living in a bus. The main thing passing through Cisco is tumbleweed, and it isn't stopping. On a filling station wall: a mural of a screaming spread-winged eagle. The thing looks like a giant tattoo in a bad dream. Cisco's lone gas emporium is a shell, a building held up by air, with the word "Closed" scrawled helpfully on a two-by-eight.
So you keep on, headed downward, past these mesas and buttes and stunning switchbacks. Will you ever get back to the glow of a shopping center? Over there is Castle Rock, a 2,000-foot-high pinnacle of solid stone, on top of which the folks at Chevy once dropped an Impala convertible and a sexy woman. That was in 1964. They hoisted up both the car and the lounging lady by helicopter. Maybe you remember the commercial on "Route 66" or "Bonanza." It was so popular that Chevy repeated it in the '70s and again in the '80s, and the idea was that while the Detroit designers can bend the tin in a different direction every year, the American desert just goes on and on, unchanged forever.
It must be 95 in the shade. The sun is so brilliant today it seems without shadow. High Noon. You keep wondering if Tex Ritter is going to lope out of nowhere singing, "Do not forsake me oh my darling ..."
On your right, the Colorado River is glinting like some swollen, olive-gray boa.
"Well, howdee," says the 84-year-old man in the shivery voice and big western grin. He's waving you in through a glass door. Come sit a spell, rest your dogs. His name is George White, and he lives just out of town. There might not have ever been movies in Moab without him. George White is the founder and first president of the Moab Film Commission, said to be the oldest film commission anywhere. A generation ago, White and his wife made many trips to Hollywood to try to lure the big production companies. They succeeded too. Right now the Oldest Living Cowboy is propped at a bar stool, only this isn't the Long Branch Saloon, it's the dinette off his kitchen. He has on a handsome bola tie, and lots of turquoise and coral, and a fancy shirt with pearl-snap buttons, and a huge silver watch that weighs a pound if it weighs an ounce.
"I had a prettier one than that," he says, handing you the watch for examination. "But I lost it in the lake." He doesn't elaborate. Cowboys don't. It's the art of the laconic.
George White's mind's still pungent as a smoking .45, it's just the legs that are shaky now. Before him is an album of yellowed clips and photographs.
He's remembering John Ford. "He came into town and came out to the ranch and asked me to pick the locations," he says. "You might say he was a little abrupt. His people walked the line." Pappy Ford and other directors shot many a scene out at White's ranch. They used to give him bit roles and stand-in jobs.
His cattle ranch, at a bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow, is still referred to by everyone in the county as the White Ranch, even though White long ago sold it and moved to town. It's a spread you've seen in a dozen movies.
"Still have my guild card," he says.
"Might not be good now, George," his wife, Mary Esther, says gingerly. She's in from the next room.
"Mebbe so. Mebbe so."
His hand flutters toward an ancient clip. This is its lead: "Will Joel McCrea come to Castle Valley? That's the big question in Moab right now."
"I doubled for Richard Basehart," he says, apropos of almost nothing.
"That Jay Silverheels sure was a nice guy," he says.
"I liked Ben Johnson real good," he says. "He went hunting with me one day. Deer season. Across the river. We got a shot off."
It wasn't difficult finding his house. It's on George White Road. That's one index of his prominence in Utah. "I got a letter here somewhere from the governor for starting this movie commission deal," he says.
Another news clip, folded in fours. It's an AP wire out of Salt Lake. The headline: "White Ranch Sets Again Being Used."
Reflecting: "Actually, I don't think they have any directors who know how to make them anymore. Did you see that 'Lonesome Dove' on TV? Crappiest thing you ever saw. They were supposed to be driving a herd from Texas way up north. Ha. Maybe you saw eight or 10 scrubby head for a minute or so. Most of the time they were in saloons. Oh, I guess some people liked it."
White's wife, remembering Pappy Ford: "He had a long white handkerchief he chewed on all the time."
"Silk, Mary Esther," says her husband. "And then the next time he came up here for a movie, he had that patch over his eye. He stayed in town. I used to visit him in his room and we'd talk about a location. He put a cavalry fort around our ranch and it stayed up for years."
Even before he discovered Moab and White, Ford had found the splendor of Monument Valley, south of here in Arizona. He made "Stagecoach" in Monument Valley in 1939, which among other things put John Wayne on the movie map. But it was Moab, from the late '40s on, that Pappy loved best, or so the legend goes. At night in the town's motels, after a hard day's shoot, the Hollywood colossus would induce his personal accordionist to entertain the crew and the locals.
George White grew up in northwestern Kansas. He's not a celluloid cowboy, he's a gen-u-wine article. When he was 16, he went on a month-long trail drive through Kansas. "I rode right point," he says. "Eatin' most of the dirt." Right point is opposite left point but maybe you knew that.
All the memories, all the movies. "This is the fort Fox built out at Locomotive Rock," he says. "That was for 'The Siege at Red River.' Universal also used it in 'Smoke Signal.' Did you see 'Smoke Signal'? Dana Andrews and Piper Laurie. Then right after that some hoodlums came in and burned it down."
He thumbs an old movie still. "I was the Indian chief in this one. We attacked the fort. I was in all that buckskin regalia with a big scar down my face. Had five or six other Indians with me. When my friends saw the picture, they said, 'Kinda funny, George, seeing a blue-eyed Indian.' "
Wistfully: "They still come on. The TV. I think nearly all of John Ford's movies made money. They were the great ones. I don't know about some of the others. I was watching a cowboy movie last night with Ronald Reagan. I can't remember what it was called. Pretty good little show, really."
The Oldest Living Cowboy has a son in town. He runs a mechanic crew at a car garage. This son is not passionate for Westerns. Somehow Tinseltown never bit him. "Good boy," says his dad. "I just don't know why he doesn't like Westerns."
Over at the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame, on a Moab side street, a tourist gazes in wonder at the following: "Clayton Moore. The Lone Ranger. 'Kemo Sabay' 5-15-'82." The masked man scrawled that on a big slab of wet cement. Also on view here is the breakaway chair, made of balsa, used in "They Call Me Bruce," as well as Robert Stack's hairpiece and Duncan Renaldo's footprint. Somehow these have less of the power to stir than the Lone Ranger's very own hand.
(Duncan Renaldo, you forgot Duncan Renaldo? Oh, Pancho, oh, Ceesco. Now you've got it.)
Even in its glory days, Moab was never exclusively a cowboy movie lot. A few others got made here too. In 1963 Max von Sydow came to preach the Sermon on the Mount for "The Greatest Story Ever Told." More than 400 Moabites got jobs as extras in that interminable Jesus pic. Armed with a Moab Area Movie Locations Auto Tour map, you could hop right out to the Green River and gaze down at the exact spot, the exact rock, where von Sydow spoke. Actually, there's a lot of rocks out there, and with due respect to Edward Abbey, one begins to look like another after a bit.
Two years ago Steven Spielberg came to Moab to shoot the opening scenes of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
Also two years ago, Vestron Productions landed in town for "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat." It was conceived as the world's first vampire Western and is rumored to be hitting video stores very soon. Maybe it's still at the drive-in.
Bon Jovi came to Moab earlier this summer and did a video on top of the Priests and Nuns. Uh, that's a rock formation. The video's already been seen on MTV. At the moment, a black comedy entitled "Thelma and Louise" is in full production in Moab. It's about two women careening in a car across America.
"Actually, we're having the biggest year in our history in terms of economic impact," says Bette Stanton, the film commission's current director. Stanton fairly exudes western warmth. "Toyota did a three-package deal. Marlboro came. Acura. Miller beer was here. Some of these commercial budgets are as big as low-budget movies. They tide us over in between. What we're trying to show Hollywood is that we're still here, that they can still make movies in Moab and do fine, even though they're different movies now and we're still considered remote."
So the Western's dead. So Moab reinvents itself with commercials and Bon Jovi and comedies starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. That reinvention is ongoing. Really, it's the parable of the West itself: from boom to bust and back to boom again, or at least boomlet. Once it was extraction, now it's attraction. Pull your lives out of the earth, any way you can.
As with so many other friendly Moabites, you scratch Bette Stanton's past and you'll find klieg lights: She was once a stand-in for Arlene Dahl. The movie was called "The Outriders." A Civil War flick.
"Arlene had an operation and was really late, so I got used for everything but the close-ups and dialogue," she says with a pert little unconscious flip at the back of her hair, as if they might just ring her up again any minute and tell her to get over to the set. "It was so much fun."