Brooke Williams

“Travel has long had an intersection with religious practice.”

So begins the book, “Spiritual Tourism: Travel and Religious Practice in Western Society” by Alex Norman. I was thinking about that book, sitting in the sand soaking my feet in the Colorado River my first afternoon back from a job in the east. I’d missed that river.

Moab had changed some since I left.

A new blue jet boat raced along side of me as I drove the river road the day before. It’s size and speed suggested that its purpose was to entertain tourists, in contrast to the other Jet boats we see in the river functioning mainly as a means—to shuttle hikers and river runners back to their vehicles.

I’d heard about the zip line.

“Ride the Sky. 5 exhilarating zip lines, 4 miles of off-road adventure, 2 hours of the ultimate Moab experience.”

My first thought was that since Moab considers itself an “adventure” town, a zip-line was inevitable, based on the trends. Lately, a zip line “adventure” seems to be part of the menu for squeezing a little more money out of the tourists attracted to places with natural wonder—beauty and solitude and wildlife being difficult to monetize.

Add five zip lines and a jet boat to all the jeep and mountain bike tours, the guided canyoneering and climbing, the helicopter over flights, the commercial river trips, and suddenly the solitude many of us came here for is an endangered concept.

Alex Norman’s intersection between travel and religion seems to be dissolving in Moab.

Just one boat, a single yellow raft with ten customers passed quietly during the hour I sat there. I’ve watched hundreds of rafts pass in the years of coming to that beach. Many pass silently, the oars moving in and out of the water, the only sounds. Others are floating parties with boisterous passengers dumping bucketfuls of water on each other, their guide egging them on.

Were these tourists encouraged to watch the light change the cliff color, the great blue heron at the last bend, or the swarming dragonflies—or were they damsels, clearing gnats out of the air?

One raft stands out. It passed by a few years ago. It was blue and small with an older couple sitting together in the bow while a young woman rowed. As they moved by I felt the solitude and grace of that sacred moment whisk by me as they absorbed it into themselves.

In his tourism book, Norman points to five possible experiences based on a tourist’s relationship with their own personal center and level of meaning. Watching that yellow raft full of people float by, I wondered if each of the five experiences was occurring.

A few of the ten on that raft were undoubtedly “recreational” tourists, seeking entertainment, for the same reason they go to a movie or a game—not ‘self-realization’ or ‘self-expansion’. Recreation allows the tourist to return refreshed to the wear and tear of his/her center.

The “diversional” tourist isn’t looking for meaning, but to escape the boredom and routine of their lives. There might have been one on that raft.

Those seeking meaning through the lives of those around them are “experiential” tourists. Did anyone on that yellow raft wonder if being a Colorado River boatman would be a better life than the one he currently had writing computer code for a pharmaceutical company?

“Experimental “tourists no longer acknowledge their “center” as being part of their society but are engaged in a search for an alternative.

Pilgrims, or “existential” tourists are fully committed to an alternative spiritual center external to that of his culture and society. To pilgrims traveling is a spiritual practice to access places of higher meaning. Pilgrims are dedicated to the well-being of others and the planet. I hope that yellow raft had at least one pilgrim.

What needs to be added to any Moab “adventure” to help move tourists through the different layers of experience? Could a guide help a “recreational” or “diversionary” tourist become a pilgrim?

What if this became the goal of everyone involved in Moab tourism? Then, properly prepared, even zip line participants might come away ready to contribute to changes we need to have a livable planet.

To pilgrims traveling is a spiritual practice to access places of higher meaning. Pilgrims are dedicated to the well-being of others and the planet.”