The Canyonlands

For myself, I'll take Moab, Utah. I don't mean the town itself, of course, 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. -- Edward Abbey in "Desert Solitaire," 1968

Some 20 years have passed since Edward Abbey, now-famous novelist, spent two seasons here as the lone park ranger at Arches National Monument. Now he lives in Oracle, Ariz., writing atop a U.S. Forest Service fire tower. But on a recent weekend, he stopped by Moab in his mud-spattered pickup, a band of beer tabs around his cowboy hat, looking for a poker game.

Word had spread quickly through this dusty little uranium boomtown: Abbey is here. Someone had spied his stopped at a traffic light; someone else at the supermarket. People were talking about it at Poplar Place, the beer joint for longhairs, and at Woody's the beer joint for shorthairs (which Abbey prefers).

For this gray-bearded, twinkly-eyed man is a legend of sorts -- a guru to free spirits who moved here to mellow out, a dangerous crank to upstanding citizens. He put southern Utah on the map, first in 1968 with "Desert Solitaire," a poetic, cantankerous book about his life as a ranger, and then in 1975 with "The Monkey Wrench Gang," a novel in which a character not unlike Edward Abbey helps blow up the giant Glen Canyon dam.

Today in Moab, Pete Parry, the kindly superintendent of Arches, bends the rules of bureaucracy a little to sell a visitor a $6 T-shirt showing the dam exploding to free the pennedup Colorado River. The T-short, drawn by an Arches ranger, is popular around here. Abbey is wearing one, too.

A visit with Abbey begins -- where else? -- an Arches. The park is named for its awesome sandstone formations: improbable contortions that rise suddenly from the flat desert, suggesting cathedrals, fortresses, dinosaurs. It is an American Stonehenge, red, brown, and, in the evening, lavender.

Abbey leads the way, scrambling 200 feet up a pink sandstone cliff, his black boots carefully picking toeholds in the sheer wall. At the top, an entrance through the rock leads to a huge inner chamber open to the sky, a secret cavern which harbors a cottonwood tree in a dry pond.

Crouching in the curve of the chamber wall, Abbey delivers a shrill rendition of the canyon wren's song. It echoes briefly. Abbey points out the squawberry, the wild buckwheat, the cliffrose.

"Gods, goddesses, phallic symbols, mammaries, buttocks all over the place," he says, sweeping his hand across the park's horizon of weird shapes. Abbey likes to be outrageous, in a slow-talking, offhand way.

That week, Sam Taylor, publisher of the weekly Moab Times-Independent, chatted over lunch about the decade-long war between environmentalists and miners over whether Utah's scenic "color country" should be developed. He spoke of uncanny happenings in recent years: a $250,000 drilling rig driven over a cliff, bulldozers started up and left to run dead, construction signs stolen.

"The method of operation was right out of "The Monkey Wrench Gang,'" Taylor said. "That book has been responsible for a million dollars worth of industrial sabotage."

Calvin Black, an outspoken country commissioner who lives south of Moab, is the model for Bishop Love, an unsympathetic character in the novel. Abbey and his environmentalist friends "would sit and watch the construction crews and then go in and sabotage equipment," Black claims.

"They'd put sand in gear boxes. Cut down highway signs. Over $200,000 damage was done to one construction company. Abbey had a lawyer look at that book so it could not be used as evidence."

Hearing this retold, Abbey's craggy face breaks into a broad grin. "Good," he says. "How flattering. I admit I'd be delighted if somebody blew up the Glen Canyon Dam. I'd do it myself if I had the materials."

And what about sand in crankcases and a drilling rig pushed off a mountain -- incidents that figure in his book? "I did a little field research," he confeses.

The news in the Times-Independent is of the new species of dinosaur named "Iguanodon ottingeri" after Lin Ottinger, the local tour guide who found its bones near Hwy. 163. Some headlines: "Black Widow Bites on the Increase;" "Utahans Oppose SALT II, Fluoride and Federal Regulations;" "Pine Nuts Hard to Find, According to BLM;" "Local Rotarian Reported on Trip."

In this town of 10,000, some 200 miles from Salt Lake, there are Mormons, cleancut and conservative, descendants of the first settlers. There are cattlemen who graze stock over millions of acres of desert. During the uranium boom of the 1950s, miners, prospectors and geologists poured in. Many stayed to run their rigs, others to work in the Atlas Corp. Uranium mill. There are federal Bureaucrats: Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management. Men like John Coleman, who prepared environmental impact statements -- which miners and cattlemen could do without. eHe calls this town "Mojab: the mo' you're here, the mo' they jab you."

For years, tensions have built between abstemious Mormons and rough-living miners, between government men and four-wheelers who race in jeep safaris across the parks.

But in the last decade a new element has appeared: the laid-back youths who come to run the river in summer and collect unemployment in winter; to waitress or work construction, or serve as seasonal rangers, but mainly to enjoy the area's 313 days of sunshine a year, to backpack through the mountains, to drink the freedom of the wilderness.

Some have escaped from California, like the houseful of smack freaks who arrived recently, fleeing the fast life. Others are refugees from the East, sick of pollution and hierarchy, longing for the wide open spaces of the West. s

Bruce Hucko, a teacher on the Navajo Reservation, moved to southern Utah last year after taking a raft trip. "I'd spent 10 days on the river," he said. "I was talking to lizards. It was real slowsville. It seemed right to stay."

Hucko, 26, helped form the Slickrock County Council, a local Environmental group. "I need a place to get away from the litter," he said. "I have a keen eye for litter. I found it up in the Henry Mountains last week and it made me mad. It's a good thing no one was around. I would have grabbed them by the shoulders and said, 'Is this yours? '"

Mike Pearce is another Moab emigrant, a former resident of Louisville, Ky., who moved here three years ago. Pearce, a former geology major who now leads a jazz band, fears violence between environmentalists and miners.

"You could waste a guy around here, put him under a rock and no one would know the difference," he said.

The letters to the editior in the Times-Independent tell of the clash of values between Moabites, old and new.

One writer complained of taking his family on a hike when, "about 300 yards into the [Negro Bill] canyon, a bearded moron, totally naked and spaced out, jumped on a rock and began to scream obscenities. There were three very young girls with us. Two other wierdos in the back joined in. I haven't been back . . . ."

The writer added that, of 57 people who had signed a petition to designate that a canyon wilderness, most had marked down local post office box numbers, rather than street addresses.

"It would appear that a large percentage of the signers are either transient or indigent . . . Why are the desires of working taxpayers, law-abiding, sober elements of our society ignored by government?" he wrote.

At a recent town meeting, the county commission chairman challenged a citizen protesting the proposed siting of a nuclear waste storage dump not far from town:

"Do you live in a P.O. Box with 80 other people?"

The chairman's P.O. Box insult drew a humorous response in the paper. Protesting "the new theory that P.O. Box holders are somehow less intelligent or less valuable as citizens," a man wrote the editor suggesting that the box may have contained "four hippies from L.A., seven children wearing other people's clothes, two Chicanos, two Filipinos, two ROTC dropouts, one token Calvinist, one token black, six guitar-playing zombies, two river rats and five other assorted and sordid types."

However, he added, Moab's P.O. boxes probably represent 4,500 registered voters. "If you don't listen to us, we will have no choice but to break out those old Woodstock albums, play them at 78 rpms and protest . . ." The letter was signed "Craig Rayle, former miner, Sahara Club member." Sahara Club is the local slur for Sierra Club.

At Mi Vida's, the old and the new meet in uncertain harmony. High on a butte, looking past Main Street motels and gas stations to the red desert beyond, it is the mansion of uranium king Charlie Steen, now converted to a restaurant and bar.

In 1952, Charlie Steen, living in a tarpaper shack without running water or electricity, poked his secondhand drill into the rock of Big Indian Canyon and hit the biggest uranium lode in North America.

Steen and his wife, Minnie Lee, built a big house on the hill with with a swimming pool and marble everywhere. They threw huge parties, bought a fleet of private planes and $250,000 yacht. They invested in a Yugoslav pickle packing plant, a California citrus grove, a cattle ranch and an airplane firm which offered executive propeller planes just as jets became popular.

By 1968, Charlie Steen was broke. He owed $6 million to creditors and the IRS has seized his office building in Reno and placed liens on his Arabian horse ranch. Today, he is reportedly living somewhere in Nevada . . . but he lives on in Moab, too.

The fireplace at Mi Vida's made of uranium rock bricks, displays a coat of arms with the symbol of the atom crowned by a knight in armor. A portrait of Minnie Lee sitting in the desert with an armful tulips greets the visitor. Entrees include "The Claim Jumper" (sirloin steak), "The Prospector" (rib-eye steak), "The Homestake" (hamburger).

Downstairs, where customers can buy only 3.2 beer and setups (reminders of Mormon influence), Jimmie Ibbotson, formerly with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, is playing and singing wildly. "Moab's got a thing of its own," he yells at one point. "It's got that radon high, man."

A muscular man with shoulder-length hair, a Pancho Villa mustache and a "save The Whales" T-Shirt waves a minibottle of Jack Daniels. He calls himself "Bondo" after the fender filler he uses in his autobody shop. He says he was a heroin addict, then worked in a Phoenix rehabilitation program. He moved to Moab four months ago.

Jean Roberts came to Moab seven years ago from Detroit. She runs the "Real People Press" which publishes gestalt therapy books. She likes Moab well enough, she says.

On the dance floor, two women in hiking boots are dancing more or less together. The one with long dark pigtails has in her backpack a 5-month-old baby, sleeping soundly despite the 80-decibel blare of the "Two O'Clock Shuffle."

Late in the evening, a man with a grizzled beard and twinkly eyes emerges from Woody's Bar after a couple of rounds of pool. Driving through the neon signs of Main Street, he muses: "Moab used to be such a beautiful town before the uranium boom. Now it's an industrial slum."

He stares up at the 50-foot neon sign of Friendship Inn -- the largest sign in town. "I'd like to throw arock through that," the man says. "No, it's too big to throw rocks through. I could take a couple of shots at it."

The streets of Moab are deserted, so quiet one can hear crickets. The man wheels his pickup around the corner, walks to the back and takes a shotgun from a case. He strolls up to the giant sign and fires two shots. The sound in the night air is tremendous, but the glass does not shatter. The tiny holes from the pellet spray are barely visible in the huge red-and-golden crown above the word "Friendship."

"There's gunfire in Moab all the time," he says.