Last week, a letter to the editor raised the question of whether a town which sustains itself on tourism can feel the strain of too many tourists. When the line into Arches spills out onto the highway, and Main Street looks like southern Californian gridlock? Yes, that just might be too many. But who am I to say? I arrived here a tourist myself, and while in the decade and a half that I have been coming to Moab I have lost the sensation of being a tourist, or even a visitor, I remain by definition within that category.
Still, the question is a valid one. I have written before about the change that this town has seen over the years — most of which has been spurred by burgeoning tourism. I could write on it again, but as I will not likely shed any new light on the subject nor bring it to a close, I’ve decided instead to tell you about the time machine.
My father first told me of the time machine when I was about 12 or 13. We were driving from Boulder to Moab for the weekend, and had stopped at a little burger place along the way.
“Just you wait,” he mused. “It’s like a time machine. All of this will be gone in the blink of an eye, and soon enough I’ll be sleeping in the passenger seat while you drive us out to Moab.” My pre-teen sense of time being what it was, I had a hard time imagining my return to school on Monday morning, and so shook off his prophesying.
Suddenly, my sixteen-year old self was being handed the keys as we cleared away the last of our french fries.
“Told you!” My dad grinned. “Time machine!”
Just as he predicted, milestones in my life whipped by. I watched them from within my time machine: high school graduation, my first apartment, my first job. For years, I felt almost resentful of the time machine, as it threw into sharp relief changes in places, people and situations that I felt I had no control over. Moab, too, fell victim: store-fronts, trail routes and traffic changed as I muttered the mantra: “It’s the time machine!” Last week, though, I received a message from my father which shook my sense of chronology.
“Remember that sunset ride, when we went out looking for the missing Boy Scouts?” The text read. “Thought of that tonight with the mourning doves cooing. Beautiful night.” The memory surged like a wave: the end of a hot day, the heat settling on the rocks. Search and Rescue had begun looking for two young Boy Scouts separated from their group, and had asked us if we’d seen them. On our dirtbikes, we were able to cover more ground in less time that the S&R gator, so we did a few laps around Sand Flats in search of them. As we rode through Slickrock, Fins N’ Things and towards Porcupine Rim, the sun set and the moon rose over the La Sals. Repeatedly the mourning doves cooed to one another across the rocks. In the fading purple light, the bright disc of the moon climbed over the mountain. Unworldly as I was at 13 years old, I still felt witness to a sight both ancient and ageless.
Cell phone in hand, I came to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk. My dog turned and eyed me, curious about our sudden pause. He tugged at his leash, anxious to examine the next patch of grass just beyond his reach, but I remained where I was. Here, on this city street some 300 miles and 13 years from that scene, it had come back for me.
I have spent much of my young life in nostalgia. I have focused intently on what I have lost: a view, a moment, a younger self. But this memory of a ride at dusk with my father is not lost. In a way, it still is: it exists as we remember it, and it will exists again when we return to Sand Flats some summer evening. When we ride over the sandstone and hear the mourning doves and see the moon rise, we’ll find it again. Perhaps this is another sort of time machine: not one that shows us how quickly time passes and leaves things behind, but one that reminds us how little of this desert will change, so long as we come back to it.
Suzanne Walker is from Boulder, Colorado, and has been exploring the Moab desert for more than a decade.