You Could Be Bowling
Words and photos by Spencer Dillon
The trip from Salt Lake to Moab isn’t particularly onerous. Just a few hours rolling through coal country, a glimpse of Green River, and the amiable descent into canyon country. But sandstone seems a stronger attractant than US 191 can handle.
On a Thursday afternoon, two lanes of brake-tapping traffic crawl south on 191 for miles towards Arches, well beyond even the boundary of Moab proper. 191 connects Moab with I-70, and, despite its designation as a state route, boasts better pavement than much of Salt Lake. It is the sort of perfect road that only tourists can create, widening out into two lanes just as the going gets scenic so that gawkers may slow down to adequately gawp. It is new and immaculate because the tourist dollars it transports pay those maintenance costs and more. On most days, it is 31 miles of bottleneck – the carotid artery for family minivans, overlanders and $7000-mountain-bike-on-the-roof people coming from all points north, east and west. Everyone wants to go see Delicate Arch and ride the Whole Enchilada.
The center stripe is, to its credit, vigorously painted and quite visible. A+ material for a highway. Those tourist dollars have created a peach of a center stripe. Its iridescence demands a wide berth, lest your plebian rubber tires bestowit a blemish. Sadly though, those tourist dollars have not made Moab a town capable of handling the deluge of minivans, diesel trucks and Subarus that descend upon Canyon Country.® Moab, population 5,242, exists on a small scale, which is more than part of the appeal. Unsurprisingly, a town of 5,242 people doesn’t possess the infrastructure to satiate the 1,585,718 people who visited Arches in 2016. US 191 is a nice byway, but more than a little too efficient. I am not sure if the center stripe facilities traffic, but it certainly sets some lofty expectations for the town and its environs. US 191 is decidedly not the bottleneck in the influx of tourist dollars south of I-70.
Not much land north of Moab is protected by state or federal authorities, so traffic-bound motorists can take in Moab Giants (Stand Face to Face with Dinosaurs, Family Fun, 5-D Prehistoric Aquarium) and Moab Airport (destinations Denver and Salt Lake only, via Boutique Air), as they inch towards Moab, Gateway for Discovery. Moab Giants is housed in an aggressively festooned double-wide trailer, so this time-traveling fish tank must be rather cramped for Carcharocles megalodon. Maybe they have the tea-cup version.
As the burning, pulsating, roaring mass of nature and outdoor lovers draws closer to the town and the sandstone cliffs begin to draw themselves out of their slump up to full height, roads and tracks splinter off US 191 with increasingly regularity. They snake off into the formations and along the highway, terminating in clearings and barbed wire. On this particular Thursday, lot after lot is filled with pop-up shades and vehicles. Some of the larger clearings are formally organized into a grid, pop-up after pop-up. These dusty gatherings bustle with the detritus of locomotion, tradeshows for I know not what.
The traffic has slowed enough to release myself from my compressor-fueled atmospheric cocoon, and I crack the windows. I take in the silence of the desert. Even in the stomach of the rumbling traffic land-worm, the canyons and washes exert their presence, and it is unwavering.
The tradeshow itself to be a Mel Gibson convention. Filled with large, sandy, squinty men and huge, unmuffled junk-yard 4x4s, these lots are a chaotic murk of dust and Bud Light. Roaring dirtbikes and Mad Max scrap heaps tear through all of the optimistically drivable terrain in sight, leaving nothing but smoke, dust, tire marks, beer cans and a few hoots. As the Great Auto Slug of 191 slithers by these encampments, the drone of traffic and the silence of the desert are drowned out by the carnivorous roar of those machines. The engines are hooked up to what must be a very expensive sound system; the reverberations fill a miles-long canyon. I begin to choke on the engine noise, resealing myself in my own fresh, oil-fueled bubble.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a town that is a cosmic locus for turquoise, ‘Indian Art’, turquoise ‘Indian Art’, Ed Abbey, Slickrock Trail, Arches, Canyonlands, the Colorado River, Indian Creek and a Hunter-Thompson themed motel, Moab attracts a diverse and handsome weekend crowd. Around me, all manner of four-wheeled vehicle slowly creep. Big, boosted, military-surplus-turned-mobile-compounds carrying bikes, stickers and trucker hats roll behind KIA crossovers carrying Gary Fischer bikes older than me. The occasional unadorned family minivan is interspersed among the huge diesels, at full compliment of harried parents and harrying kids. Many of the trucker cap set cannot afford to buy and refurbish $30,000 trucks, instead filling out the road with the usual type of ski town transport, requisitely overused and distinctly under-equipped for snow travel.
An old, white, beat up Outback is being driven by a beat up old white guy behind me. This man has just finished his 40 years of wandering in the desert: shirtless, leathery skin, an unkempt beard and hair that confuses the basic vertical orientation of mens’ heads and a wild, anxious look in his eyes. He exudes his itchiness and earnest dedication to the mission. His eyes are decidedly open. He is the sort of very thin that rarely occurs to someone who owns a refrigerator.
Even the rough and tumble types in the land-snake stay safely inside their vehicles. They do not trifle with dust. A snap-back and branded t-shirt are nothing against the oppressive grit. Our man in the white Subaru, however, trifles. He swerves and cranes his head, surveying the extent of the snarl, and I am immediately worried that, given the extraordinary proportion of his head to his pipe-cleaner body, he will topple out of his vehicle as he peers farther down the line.
His car is full of Wood. It doesn’t beat around the bush; his trunk, rear and passenger seats are full of uprooted trunks and huge logs, probing their branches and twigs in and around everything. I notice that the car is riding very low, the way salvage trucks loaded with the refuse of suburbia’s consumerist dreams roll bottomed out. His suspension system strives to answer the startlingly existential question the limbo bar asks disinclined party-goers everywhere: ‘how low can you go?’ This man is not just carrying some Wood, he is hauling it. As we draw nearer to the ridiculous genesis of this traffic – a stop light – the condition of his skin seems to actively deteriorate. He is, I believe, attempting the transformation of the rhino in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories – his slim-fit skin filled with cake crumbs, he scratches and scratches until he stretches his threads to the modern, parachute and cuff styling we see today in family Rhinocerotidae. The ‘Indian Art’ store must be in for a big delivery of authentic fake petrified Wood today. At my timescale, all wood is petrified, but I suppose there’s a reason I don’t work in marketing.
The US Department of Energy’s Nuclear Research Compound for the Betterment of Scientific Understanding of Fission and Dispersed Mismanagement sits alongside the road, hidden in plain sight and the furthest extension of Moab’s nascent sprawl. It is easy to lose track of how big Moab is, what with all the millions of visitors and raft guides and Indian Creek and All That Indian Art. This 5,000 soul cow (uranium) town has a visitor’s center, umpteen hotels, multiple climbing shops, a brewery, car dealerships plural and a traffic problem. The sophisticated holidaymaker machine funnels people through this place, streamlining Main Street into a tourist-friendly picturesque of Ed Abbey’s Moab. Motels, hotels, burrito rollers, more Indian Art stores, and what is I think a crystal shop scream to the hills, ‘We can take your money as well as anybody’. The chorus is deafening. So is the quaintness. This is Tom. Waits’ kind of town, full of carnival barkers and buffaloed strangers, dark, dusty and chaotic. Guaranteed fun and free A/C.
The rather less vivacious southern end of town is a different story. Downtown’s chic exteriors and sidewalk displays yield to shipping containers and not much else. The zoning laws sigh in relief as they pass the southern boundary for tourist exploration. The southern Canyonlands district – the Needles – doesn’t have much accessibility for tour buses and minivans. And why drive 90 minutes through nothing to see something that isn’t Arches? Isn’t that where Abbey spent his time anyway? Almost no one without plans for a trailhead or a desire to climb in soon-to-be-desecrated national monuments ventures beyond the Maverick Adventure’s First Stop at US 191 and 4th st. (free water).
This part of town is cheap and populated by aggressively anti-aesthetic housing, a rodeo coliseum, dirt lots and weeds. It is not a hip place full of dirty, progressive people. This side of town is junk in the yard and auto parts billboards. Set deep in the canyon, irrigation dyes the valley emerald green as dusty trucks roll in from the southern hinterlands, dulling the trees’ luster. Rock looms above. This happy valley is a chimera. From top to bottom, it is green, verdant and bustling in a world of dust and rock and roaring silence. Canyonlands’ allure is precisely its bizarre inhospitability to human habitation, and yet, here we are. Southern Moab is unfashionable poverty, the juxtaposition laid bare.
Out beyond the town is Utah proper: open, flat, dusty, abandoned. Everything falls away as 191 rolls onward. Barbwire fences and an abandoned gas station are major landmarks over dozens of miles. Roads split off from the highway with ambiguous destination and even more ambiguous public access. These roads do not lead to somewhere. Grass and shrubs demarcate stretches of land featureless enough to be invisible.
What 191 does boast south of town is Hole N” the Rock. Next to what the State Highway Authority munificently calls an arch and below a sheer sandstone face, a small wash bursts with buildings and trees and billboards and shanties. Looming, outdoor-gauge pop up ads promise deliverance and pleasure in the desert. Camel rides. 12 minute tours. Petting zoo with exotic zebras. $0.50 ice cream cones. The largest (unqualified) collection of Lyle Nichols art. Find Big Foot. Adult tours only $6 (children 5-10 $3.50). Naturally, the parking lot boasts a healthy bustle. Everyone wants to pet a camel.
Albert and Gladys Christiansen decided to build a home for their boys by carving it into sandstone. All they had to do was excavate 20,000 cubic feet of material over 20 years by hand. Tired of the hassle of buying a regular home? Just save that used excavation equipment from your last dig, find an empty, unprotected sandstone buttress and start digging! Three quick cuts later and you’ve got a bona fide family compound, tourist attraction and petting zoo.
I manage to persevere through Hole N” the Rock – not for the first time – and am rewarded for my travails with Indian Creek and Canyonlands National Park, neither as aggressively advertised as Mr. Christiansen’s magnum opus. Of course Indian Creek is stunning. Setting politics aside for a moment, Bears Ears is a sensory onslaught without fail, the fuel of dreams yet undreamt. Valley after valley of crumbling sandstone towers and oddly, perfectly rectilinear panoramas. And it is so red. Picking that political lodestone back up, it is also the locus of generation after generation of Native American memories and history. Stark and stunning, it has absorbed centuries of history. A critically important cultural and ecological nexus, it goes without saying that this place shouldn’t be ripped up for gold and uranium. It is too valuable in almost any conceivable valuation. I frankly don’t much care that it was created ‘illegally’. If that is your only objection, Mr. Hatch, we can revisit that as soon as the Senate decides to accomplish anything. Again, attempting to rein in the preaching, we took this land from sovereign peoples, breaking the treaties we authored and signed until we exterminated almost a whole continent of human beings. It really is too bad, Mr. Hatch, that your constitutional right to despoil the earth is being infringed upon by such peoples as these.
A sun rises across the Needles in Canyonlands, slowly lapping and igniting the protuberances and towers on its way into the sky. Prominences ignite in burning reds and oranges. Silently, the desert unfolds before me, and as I struggle to capture in my brain the unique and grandiose spectacle before me, the fiery dawn yields to boring old morning. I am back on my way through a soon-to-be-realized forest of oil derricks and hard rock mines to Jug Handle Arch and a weekend of rolling on unwieldly mountain bikes with some strangers. On my traverse across the south of town I see a billboard with some clip art of bowling pins, the name of a local alley and a slogan. “You could be bowling.” The billboard is framed by huge sandstone ramparts in the birthplace of Desert Solitaire. I could be bowling.
Zhesen and Jim, both Salt Lakers, materialize at the sandy trailhead, and, after brief introductions but before I really felt sure I was truly ready, we are moving. I meander along with a 27-year-old grad student and a 61-year-old telephone operator, weaving between potash ponds hidden in the less scenic western periphery of Moab, slowly climbing towards something I’m told is appealing to look at. Our dirt road, the Shafer Trail, slowly and methodically wraps around barbed wire and increasingly photogenic sandstone formations until the sandstone wins out and the unmanned potash ponds fade into memory.
We are riding mountain bikes laden with kit for the night. Frame bags, saddle bags, handlebar bags, gas tanks, fork bags, handelbar bags, backpacks and god knows what else slow our steeds on their journey through the red rock. Who knew you needed all these containers to explore the canyons for one night? I feel like a classically disordered bag lady. Maybe I left my stove with my knitting in my other framebag. It is easy to begin imagining oneself an intrepid explorer with so many bags attached to a mountain bike. I carry days of food and water with me. I will make it to the yarn store, if this weather holds. We make incremental progress, encumbered by the systems meant to grant us our freedom. Most of the get-to-know-you conversation revolves around all the bags that we’ve bought. We seem to have an inexhaustible enthusiasm for our own bags and a slightly more exhaustible enthusiasm for each other’s bags. A predictable bag lady move, but there’s a lot of airtime to fill when you move as slowly as we do.
Pedaling up a big dirt hill slows me down. Though the bicycle is the most efficient form of human-powered transportation, we in the cycling community try not to let good get in the way of better. Yanking our bikes around stair caliber rocks and ruts with frantic pedal strokes, we nibble at the vertical feet. Minivans full of wide-open, unselfconscious eyes punctuate our tranquil paradise but the further we move from those potash ponds, the less I mind. The slow-motion crunch of our tires in the dirt and sandstone chips is omnipresent. It tells us when we have crested our little hill and are rolling free again. Our free hubs click like baseball cards in our spokes. It is perhaps not surprising that a crisp, clean ticking is valued in free hubs – they are after all designed by the boys and girls who consumed a suspicious number of baseball cards as children. A valley stretches before us; a pair of narrow, defined lines snake across the topography. Our free hubs make the appropriate noise. This is the ecstasy of freedom, if it can be found. The slow churn of dirt beneath us has metamorphosed into a frenetic slurry, pebbles tinkling on frames and baseball cards humming along as we float through turns and across undulations.
The rocky demarcation of the valley edge grows increasingly haggard and imposing as we ghost along it. Washes emerge left and right, slowly growing from nooks behind towers to mazes and cliffs worthy of navigational note. As we ride, the valley begins to list hard to port. The southern walls of the valley slowly vanish, yielding to increasingly yawning gaps and downward possibilities. Our parallel lines in the dirt are no less flat and predictable than they were, but things are more precarious. Even 100 feet from the decided absence of terra firma, I feel suspended in air. Conceivably I am really just on the sort of comically long and obscenely unsupported cliff edge that Wile E. Coyote seemed to favor. That possibility is quickly nixed, as the Mel Gibson convention appears to be sending reconnaissance vehicles all across Grand County in preparation for lord knows what. The northern margin of what is definitively no longer a valley reaches far above us, leveling off on some other plane of dirt we heretofore did not know existed. The southern edge has dropped off into an abyss hundreds of feet below us.
We continue our less than elegant glide above the dirt. Our twin tracks, which up to now reliably took us along the path of least resistance, point us off of the tallest edge in view, so onwards we pedaled. Your average near-sighted rider would be deeply blasé about the flat, scrubby shoulder we crunched over towards the end of the road. It angled up ever so slightly, pushing away from the sandstone wall to the north and extending into yawning, empty space. And then it is over. Our twin tracks have led us here, to a point, hanging far enough in the air that I cannot gauge just how critically and emphatically dead I will be after falling, over the Colorado River. Slowly inching towards the precipice, we learn that neither are we on a precipice nor that scrambling on sandstone is particularly easy in our comically semi-functional bike shoes. Several knobbly, bulbous pillars stand subdued just below our ridgeline and we elegantly crab-walk down to them. Safely sitting on what appears to be a 400-foot-tall tower of dried modelling clay, the deep, dried-blood red of the sandstone becomes just another layer. Below us are tans and whites and greys and reds and oranges, and the brightest emerald. The banks of the Colorado burst with cottonwoods and green and shimmering grass. The river sparkles from our veranda. It is almost too verdant in this land of dust. The plants glow almost as much. Some of the loudest plants I’ve ever seen.
Our daydreamed projection over the Colorado is diminished by the footsteps and car doors of Camrys and 4×4’s behind us. It is hard to float into the vastness before you with a small crowd of Sketchers and Levi’s scuffing for attention behind. Rafts float along the twinkling river, slowly drifting through the lush, green strip painted in the red rock. They are toys in the Colorado.
Within the continuous upthrust of rock around us, the sun slowly pulls itself into the nicks and slots between the tallest towers. The bright, dry light of the day is slowly contaminated by the saturation and vibrancy of the rock in the evening. ‘Computer, enhance. Enhance. Enhance.’ Our view is rapidly becoming a case study in the dangers of oversaturation on Instagram. It’s awful. I wouldn’t recommend the filter to anyone, but seeing the real thing is definitely a step up. It is time to leave these Camry’s and find a place to sleep before we are trapped in some off-brand Vin Diesel Pitch Black nightmare, except perhaps the creatures that come out at night are powered by combustion engines rather than a vicious, apex-carnivore need for fresh flesh.
Our shoulder, as we traverse it, narrows into the ridge above us and the cliff below us until we are rolling along a road snuggled up between a rock and a hard place. Vehicle traffic has thinned as we approach the gate to Canyonlands National Park. The entrance to one of our nation’s greatest and least despoiled national parks is a cow gate. The barbed wire has been rusted and bent into its own private labyrinth. Beyond it, our shoulder turns into a huge, splay-footed canyon. The shadows advance up the red walls, lonely towers grow brighter as their dominion below goes dark.
Our canyon offers wash after wash to ascend and disappear forever. We settle into the rock for the night, fading into the corners as 4x4s thunder by on a Saturday night. Jim, Zhesen and I explode our bags and set up camp, beginning the arduous process of discussing what exactly was in those bags. I have a tarp. Zhesen has a free-standing tent. Jim brought a little chair. What did we bring for dinner? How do we feel about stoves? Stove design? What’s the protein density and fuel cost of noodles? We all care – but who gives a shit. The answers to these questions let us come here but aren’t the true why that brings us here. The enjoyably interminable conversation runs its course, corroborating all of our various equipment choices, and the sun continues to droop further below the rim of our canyon.
We sit, slightly off the absolute bottom but a long, long way from the top. I have to crane my neck to see the rim. The north-facing features have long since gone dark, but the other side seems to grow richer, more saccharine and saturated at each glance. We sit in a huge, confined space. A dense maze of rock and sand before us, corners, dead ends and peekaboos everywhere.
This place lends itself to the imagination. As scarred or unscathed as this little world might be, it is the perfect vessel to be invested with human meaning. Canyon country asserts it hugeness; it is leviathan, but also human. It is a world that extends forever, stretching beyond my comprehension, but remains deeply intimate. Sitting there, looking over the canyon floor and up to the towers and fins still lit, I can foggily remember thousands of years of history, of the first peoples who lived here, of the white settlers who took it from them and hunted them, of the fringes of American society who have used these canyons as refuge from the regimented and regularized world beyond the red rock. This is a land of hidden washes, impossible navigation and the slowest sunrises I’ve ever seen. It is a place that soaks up its past like a sponge, clutching it long beyond when the memory fades in our minds. It may be a land of sand and rock and scrub, but it is indelibly marked by the lives lived within it.
Anasazi and Apache myth, Cormac McCarthy, John Wayne, Ed Abbey and Westworld tell us at every juncture that the Southwest is a place of myth and magic, a Monument Valley that stretches for thousands of miles and adventures untold. These stories and tellers have permeated our national consciousness and have labored so diligently for decades to bring the mythos of the Southwest to flower. The stories of Geronimo and the silent, deadly raiders of the 19th century, deeply racist, still whisper here. That Indian Art store in Moab doesn’t drum up business on its own. It is the legend of the dangerous Indian, the lurking, scalping brave, that engenders the allure. I don’t think Midwestern tourists give two shits about the culture of the plains peoples, but here, where Native Americans were truly threatening to white settlers, we relish the trophies of a conquest hard-earned. Perhaps it took a tearful and bloody genocide to spark the magic of canyon country for your average modern tourist. A land of secrets, shadows and enchantment with defeated and enslaved boogeymen available for cultural consumption, a la carte.
Sitting there, eating my mac and cheese as 4x4s occasionally trundle by in the deepening night, these thoughts seem terribly important and germane. They are true, I think, as I’ve never seen an Indian Art Shop in South Dakota, but not the whole truth. The shadows are slowly creeping up the walls of our canyon, filling it with darkness. Zhesen has retired and Jim and I rest in our angle of repose, watching the stars blink into an increasingly velveteen sky. The breeze puffs fitfully, but we are enveloped in stillness, a true and complete stasis. We chat, discussing our pasts, presents and futures. The landscape around us fades into blackness, the rim a faint black-on-black outline in the sky. And there we lay, mulling over adventures on a rock, a brilliant mat of stars hung above us. The silence wraps us tight, and the stars draw close.
The Southwest has a capacity for stoic grandiosity unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen. It is enormous and ancient and silent. Within the canyons, the world above the rim drops away. Above, the slots and washes below hold mysteries unknown. Even here, twenty miles from Moab and no miles from 4x4s, we could very well have ventured to the ends of the earth. It is, if you’ll forgive the pun, an immersive landscape, one that does not allow anything else. There are no bypass roads, no farms spread below, no phone lines crosshatching above us. It is just us in this canyon. A dirt road stretches before us, slowly worming its way to the rim, perhaps the only real artifact of elsewhere, but the real magic of the canyon is that we are firmly here and nowhere else. It is a place to feel alone.
I am falling asleep when what is hopefully the last unmuffled motorist rolls by. In the blackness, the Wagnerian world around us has been reduced to the pebbles and sand beneath our feet. The Colorado keeps flowing, out of sight under the stars, but it glitters, I know. My brain runs, unspooling and rewinding memories and thoughts of the day. I could have been bowling, in this land of braves and cowards and rock.
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