I dropped in for seven days with no food, a rifle and a fishing rod. I intended to live off the land in one of the wildest places in Utah, for just a little while. I didn’t do it to prove anything, or to grow, or to write about it. I did it because I was losing a battle with depression, and I knew that I had to.
I expected to live off cutthroat trout, but recent rains had turned the creeks into muddy slurries. I couldn’t catch anything. On numerous occasions I was run from the stream by cavalier bear and bison.
By day two I was starving, I hadn’t caught any fish and I hadn’t eaten anything. So I took to the hills with my rifle. I expected to see rabbits, but there were none. However, fast moving squirrels chirped and forbade my way. And, it ended up being squirrel that I lived on for the rest of the trip.
Near the end, a dreadful deerfly hatch emerged. They were ruthless, attacking every square inch of my exposed flesh. And, no matter how fast I ran, the swarm followed. I ended up diving into a wet clay deposit near the creek and slathered myself, head-to-toe, in slick gray clay.
As I lay huffing and puffing by the creekside, peering out through mud spectacles, with squirrel meat stuck between my teeth and muddy rifle in hand, I realized that, for that moment, I was happy. The wilderness had cured me.
On the hike out, a 2,000-foot climb in under a mile, I thought about where I lived, Moab. I thought about what it would have meant to see a long line of Lycra-clad mountain bikers, random tourists, and noisy OHVs blasting hip-hop. Would I have been healed? Would I have even come here to begin with?
The people in the counties and communities surrounding Moab and Grand County aren’t stupid. Up until the turn of the millennium, a few of Utah’s rural counties were Democratic strongholds – back when the Democrats championed the blue-collar working class. Millennials seem to have no idea that the Democratic Party was built on support for coal miners, steelworkers and every other union trade in existence. This pro-labor class didn’t defect to the Republicans because they wanted to support the fat-cats, and the boss-man. These folks are labor, through and through. They defected because they had no choice. The Democrats sold them out. And, the Republicans were at least speaking their language.
Moab is becoming the capital of the retired professional, who read some environmental novel or another, and has decided to dedicate their retired lives to “the cause.” Which somehow now entails pimping tourism as the environmentally friendly alternative to the traditional industries that existed before they came. And, despite their adherence to science and objective reality, they completely ignore the fact that tourism has impacted the environment far more than the traditional industries.
And, beyond environmentalism, the fabric of our society is at risk. A singularly tourism-based economy will gut our children’s future. If our kids can’t afford to live here, or decide that there is no future for themselves, then what do we have to look forward to? Future “generations” will be wealthy retirees, who will have no personal interest in economic development, and who will be replaced by more wealthy retirees who will also resist diversification.
However, despite these folks’ being resistant to development we will end up with something. And, that will be a hollowed-out façade of a place. A place where no generation will pass to the next, because the kids can’t afford to buy a house. And, there will be no opportunity, because those same wealthy retired folks (who also happen to be the only ones with the time to attend council meetings) were too selfish to support higher education, affordable housing, manufacturing or any other kind of economic diversification.
To bring this all back around; I’m an ardent supporter of wilderness; it defines the West, and it saves my life on a weekly basis. I have to have my time in the solitude of the desert.
However, promoting tourism as landscape preservation is a complete farce. Tourism impacts the places that are most special. It targets your favorite, and most sacred place with its most severe impact. I won’t deny that it is profitable, far more so than oil, gas and mining. The promoters of monuments are right about that.
But, if you are like me, a blue-collar worker in rural Utah, trying your best to raise a family, you might want to think beyond the hype of either party. Because this has become a war. And, you don’t want a war.
You want to raise a family, provide opportunity for your kids and have the space to save your soul in the backcountry, and on your own terms.
Chris Baird is a member of the Grand County Council, but the views expressed here are his alone, and do not necessarily represent the council’s formal positions.