Is Moab a better place to live now than it was 60 years ago? Or 30? It was certainly a more provincial town back then, less diverse, less cultured. I will always remember a few months in 1980, when its most famous—or perhaps most notorious—resident prepared to sell his home and move south to Arizona.
Ed Abbey called Moab home for a few years in the 70s, when he and his wife bought a ranch-style house on Spanish Valley Drive. But by Spring 1980, Abbey was ready for a move. He’d bought a home in Tucson and in May, a friend told me that Ed was loading up a U-Haul truck. It was my last chance to say goodbye, so I drove out to his place, expecting a cluster of Abbey Groupies to be there helping out. Instead, I found him alone, trying to wrestle a large wood dresser out the door.
I spent the afternoon there as we grappled with the rest of the furniture. Most of it fit, but he pointed to an impressive cache of timber in his garage, 2 x 12 lumber that must have been 20 feet long.
“Damn,” he muttered. “I’ll have to leave the beams behind. They’ll never fit in the truck.”
I asked him what he planned to do with them. Abbey grinned.
“You know…for the houseboat on Lake Powell…the adobe houseboat. That part of the story was true.”
Later he invited me to dinner at the Sundowner (now Buck’s Grill House). He ordered a red wine and a big sirloin steak and we talked about Moab and the future. A year earlier, the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania had cast a dark and ominous cloud over the industry and the price of uranium ore plummeted. Layoffs at the Atlas mill were forthcoming and some thought Moab might just dry up and blow away.
The wine came, but it was immersed in a bucket of ice cubes. Abbey was gracious enough not to embarrass the waitress but when she’d left, Ed grabbed the bottle by the neck and pulled it from the bucket.
“For Christ’s sake,” Abbey moaned. “Typical Moab. Doesn’t anyone in this town know that you DON’T chill a red?”
He dried off the bottle and put it under his jacket, hoping he could at least take the chill off. But we were too thirsty to wait, so we sipped our icy drinks, and Abbey recalled another recent Moab faux pas.
In those days, the Utah Symphony made an annual trip to some of the smaller southern Utah communities, usually in the dead of winter. In 1980, a visit to Moab by the orchestra was an event. It was still a working man’s town. And yet, Moabites turned out each year in record numbers. Wives dragged their cowboy or miner husbands to the high school gymnasium where the symphony performed; they even dressed for the occasion. Still, everyone, even the reluctant prospectors, enjoyed themselves.
But we rural Utahns were all novices to this. Abbey recalled the moment when the symphony came to the end of the first movement and the audience broke into applause…
“How can these people not understand? You do…not…applaud…between… movements!”
But finally, Abbey shrugged and laughed. “I guess it doesn’t really matter if they drink iced red wine and clap between movements. If they’ll just leave our canyons alone, Stiles.”
Barely a year before he died, Abbey spent his last summer in Moab. I took him up to the Sand Flats one day to see the recently re-discovered “Slickrock Bike Trail.” Moab was on the verge of being transformed once again. Soon we would become the “Mountain Bicycle Capital of the World” and the old “Uranium Capital…” sign would be relegated to Woody’s bar.
But Ed had once promoted the idea of replacing cars with bicycles and was annoyed at first by my lack of enthusiasm.
“Hell, Stiles,” he complained. “You’re more negative than I am!”
“Well,” I defended myself. “Have a look first.”
Abbey and I drove up to the Sand Flats and he saw the crowds of pedaling recreationists who had made the pilgrimage to Moab. We watched them fill the parking lot as the bikes fanned out over the vast expanse of sandstone; Abbey noted the out-of-state license plates and flashed back to our conversation of almost a decade earlier.
“One thing’s for certain,” Ed said. “When these people drink a red, they know not to chill it.”
Moab’s not the town that it once was, nor is it the town it will become—New Moabites, bewildered and amused at the sentimentality of people like me, will someday find themselves waxing nostalgic for the things they’ve lost, as the world continues to turn over, again and again. Each generation loses something and gains something. A never ending trade-off.
I finally gave up ‘clinging hopelessly to the past.’ But I can’t help but bask from time to time in the fond memories of days that no longer exist. Someday, I think you’ll understand.