My Present Is Not Your Tombstone: Love and Loss in Utah’s Canyon Country
By Lauren McCrady
Most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Those of us who live here know the heartbreak of loss. — Terry Tempest Williams, Red
A playground for the hip and idle, Moab seems like a town designed by Outside magazine, shamelessly advocating the outdoors as a playground and portraying nature as a commodity. — Greg Gordon, Landscape of Desire
In his introduction to Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey warns readers that his book is an elegy for the canyon country, not a guide, a tombstone, not a birth certificate. Nine months after I was born, Abbey died. Academics and activists have written entire books eulogizing Ed, reminiscing about encounters with the man and his words and debating the importance of his legacy. When a lover first took me to the small tourist town of Moab (population 5,000) and adjacent Arches National Park in Southern Utah, I hadn’t read any of these books, Abbey’s or anyone else’s, and I wasn’t aware that I was traveling to a landscape that had already been marked as dead by the man who claimed to love it most. Hiking the Delicate Arch with dozens of other tourists, I didn’t know that I was walking through Ed’s nightmare, that I should be irritated by the crowds and horrified by the “development” in the park. I never have and never will know the desert wilderness of Arches that Abbey writes about in Desert Solitaire.
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Regardless, I managed to fall in love with the diminished, overdeveloped, and over-visited landscape that is Arches. After that first trip I returned again and again to spend time in the Fiery Furnace and Devil’s Garden. I joined the multitudes countless times on the pilgrimage to Delicate Arch, eventually branching out of the park into other areas along the river and south of town. I wandered through Hidden Valley, Moonflower Canyon, Mary Jane Canyon, and Negro Bill Canyon. (This latter canyon used to have a more blatantly racist name until it was renamed in the 1960s. Its current appellation still makes me cringe, so I privately refer to it as Granstaff Canyon after William Granstaff, the African American cowboy who ran cattle there in the 1870s.) I roamed the areas surrounding Ken’s Lake and Fisher Towers, kissed my lover under Bowtie Arch, traipsed up the Moab Rim and Porcupine Rim, and stumbled drunk and joyful through sand and cacti to poke at a fire and sing to the rocks in the dark way back beyond a friend’s house. I swam in the Colorado along Potash Road and waved to gaggles of grinning, middle-aged tourists on jet boat tours, counted shooting stars while reclining on a picnic table at Big Bend Campground, shook fire ants out of my Keen sandals at Left Hand, and exchanged amused glances with horses when I went running on sunny mornings in Spanish Valley. As time passed, I learned both to feed off the energy of the summer crowds and to welcome the quiet solitude of winter.
Love letter, Winter 2010: Disheartened by hours spent with this blank page, I’ve given up on writing a poem for you. Just like the desert, you’ve left me speechless and grasping to find the words I normally use to describe beauty. I suppose it’s fitting. Even though you’re not here now, you did grow up visiting this small town he made famous, nursing a horizon of red rock, white mountains, and blue sky, with the scent of juniper in your hair and the grit of red dirt between your teeth. Instead of writing, I’ve been warming my feet on sandstone and waiting for the tourists to leave for the winter. It is only then that the raven’s call will regain its resonance, and it is only then that I will spend short days skirting canyon rims, looking for patches of sun to sit in, and read your letters. I’ve been searching for something out in the desert, and I don’t know what it is, but I hope I never find it so I can keep looking. Two days ago I realized that the first time I ever saw clearly was through an arch out in Devil’s Garden. Yesterday I peered into a pothole in Hidden Valley, and a coyote stared back. I’ll admit that I haven’t been writing, but I’ve begun to grow a cactus in the bend of my left knee, and I’m certain that the day you break my heart it will bloom yellow…
Despite his injunction against attempting to visit the version of Arches he invokes in Desert Solitaire, I found that I was one of many scraggly young people filing into Moab clutching careworn copies of the book, vainly searching for Abbey’s country. Along with this observation came a growing puzzlement and irritation. I couldn’t ignore what I interpreted as Abbey’s insinuation that the desert “wilderness” I was growing to adore was a cheap and inauthentic copy of the vibrant, living place he loved. I was haunted and saddened by the knowledge of loss. I was also angry and frustrated that so many authors who write about Southern Utah adamantly and repeatedly inform younger readers like myself that the good old days were theirs and not ours. I longed to point out that Native Americans could conceivably make claims similar to Abbey’s about the time before Euro-Americans showed up. More centrally, the rebellious and self-absorbed voice of my youth ached to demand that my elders validate and acknowledge my own experiences of the desert and Moab.
I understand the desire that Abbey and some of the other writers I listed above have to grieve for what has been lost in the process of developing Utah’s national parks. I also understand that mass tourism has serious negative consequences for the environment and questionable implications for nearby towns. I do not disavow the possibility that we are loving the desert to death. Furthermore, I cannot deny that some days I wonder what it would be like to see Arches as Abbey saw it. However, I am also frustrated by trite dismissals of the current state of the American West and the way they devalue my own experience of nature. There is no ignoring the fact that I am a child of consumerist tourism. I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, and didn’t see the desert until I was a young adult, living and studying in Salt Lake City. On my first visit to Southern Utah, I slept in a chain motel, ate breakfast at a trendy café, watched a short film on cryptobiotic soil at the visitor’s center, and bought a bright orange Moab sweatshirt. My love for the desert was born on a group hike to Delicate Arch, not on a lone ramble, and while all of these things were largely out of my control, I also do not feel that my experience or affection are somehow diminished by these dubious beginnings. Regardless, like a self-conscious couple that met on an Internet matchmaking site, I find myself creating alternate, more “authentic” versions of my first date with the desert, versions that edit out the sweatshirt and the crowds and replace the chain motel with an open sky and the café with a pot of beans cooked over an open fire.
From my position within the conflicting arenas of environmentalism and consumer tourism, I am both embarrassed and defensive about the manner in which I came to know the desert. I am embarrassed because my experience does not fit within the typical nature-loving narrative of the solitary individual coming to appreciate the wild. I am also embarrassed that I so clearly participate in touristic consumerism. However, I am defensive because I was ignorant of the cultural dynamics and politics at play when I visited, and I don’t know how I could have done things differently. I am also wary of norms that privilege certain nature experiences as more authentic or valuable than others. Abbey might shudder at present-day Arches, and Greg Gordon might dismiss Moab’s current state as artificial and vapid, but they’re mine and I love them possessively and defensively. I can’t deny that there are times when the crowds test my patience and the profusion of eateries, hotels, and shops on Main Street seems obscene, but I also can’t say that a crowd has ever ruined a hike for me, or that I’ve never been grateful for the culinary options available, charmed by a tacky souvenir, or not been entertained watching tourists and locals interact. Like any passionate love affair, my relationship with the area is complicated.
Love letter, Spring 2011: Tonight I stood on the edge of Porcupine Rim and watched the moon rise over Castle Valley. Gazing east reminded me of our hike to Fisher Towers, and the last time we were here together. We fought over how to divide our time between the town and the desert. You’ve never understood why I enjoy being on Main Street almost as much as in the canyons. It’s just that I’m always certain if I spend enough time amid the gift shops and the hotels and the restaurants, I’ll find that rasping but lovable vein of community that gives Moab its heart—and I usually do. Let’s forget our fight, and just remember what came before. We drove in from Salt Lake City, and you rested your head on my shoulder and held my hand for the last 20 miles until we came around the bend and saw Moab light up the desert like all the promises we’ve made to each other and managed to keep…
I have a bumper sticker on the back of my car that says “I Love Moab.” I also have two Moab sweatshirts, one coffee mug, a calendar, several posters, a trucker hat, three souvenir pens, a keychain, and a commemorative medal, shirt, and beer glass from October 2012’s The Other Half—Moab Half Marathon. I’m ashamed and humiliated to admit that I own all of these things. I realize that they make me out to be the type of person many of my favorite desert writers would scorn and dismiss. I am contributing, quite consciously, to what people such as Gordon characterize as the commodification of nature. I purchase excessive amounts of outdoor gear and souvenirs in pursuit of a supposed communion with nature and sense of connection to Moab. The contradiction inherent in advertising my love for a rural town and the surrounding wilderness on the rear end of an oil-consuming machine that contributes to the degradation of the natural environment is not lost on me. When I ran The Other Half with more than one thousand other individuals, I was horrified by the sheer mass of us all, trotting in unison down Highway 128, decked out in our expensive neon running gear, leaving heaps of Dixie cups and wads of tissue in our wake. Some days I am so torn between my desire to preserve what is left of the desert and my guilty consumption and participation in mass tourism, I think that maybe the most responsible thing to do would be to just stay away.
However, once again, I also believe that my self-consciousness regarding the issue of defining responsible tourism and interactions with nature is the result of my understanding and complicity in an elitist vein of environmentalist thought that regulates and polices appropriate relationships with the natural world. I feel ashamed because I am not conforming to a proscribed set of behaviors and frugal consumption patterns that would reveal my love for the desert as true and authentic, clearly superior to the REI-outfitted masses, with their fanny packs and expensive cameras. The terrible truth is that while I feel a deep need to live a more sustainable lifestyle, I am not ready or willing to give up my Keen sandals or my CamelBak hydration system. I love my Moab souvenirs because it makes me happy to be reminded of the town during the long months I spend away. Furthermore, I don’t feel as if my reliance on these items cheapens my passion for the desert or circumvents me from identifying with Abbey’s writings. Every day brings a new navigation of my conflicting behaviors and beliefs. Some days when I encounter large numbers of other spandex-bedecked outdoor enthusiasts on the streets of Moab, I disavow any connection or affinity with those people, who clearly lack poetic love for the landscape and unscrupulously exploit it for the adrenaline rush and photo opportunities. Other days, I look at my reflection in the mirror, trendy and hip in Patagonia fleece and REI running tights, and feel a sense of disgust at my pretentious attitude. Who am I to pass judgment on anyone else’s bond with the great Back of Beyond? As I said before, my relationship with Southern Utah and its inhabitants (both permanent and temporary) is complicated.
These days, I don’t think of myself as a tourist, although it’s a hard label to shake off. I lived in Moab on and off for six months, but that’s hardly a moment in the eyes of many locals. Surrendering to the popular tendency to romanticize rural life, I’ll confess that I’ve never felt as comfortable and at peace anywhere as I do in Moab. Writers such as Abbey, Gordon, Stiles, and Watkins in various ways acknowledge and reflect the popular tendency to gesture at Moab to illustrate the dangers of tourism and to offer a warning to other small Western towns. Admittedly, the influx of second-home buyers has caused housing shortages, rapidly rising property values, and an overall increase in the cost of living that has severe negative consequences for many low-income individuals, and tourism adds a whole slew of other tensions and conflicts regarding resource allocation and the tenuous relationship between tourists and locals. However, I refuse to dismiss the town as a sellout or a has-been.
Yes, Moab has changed dramatically since Abbey’s days, and not necessarily for the better, but Gordon’s quick dismissal of the town is hardly fair and ignores the dynamic and multifaceted nature of the place. Once again, I stubbornly refuse to allow writers such as Abbey and Gordon to dictate and determine when a place has lost its authenticity and value. I adore Moab. I love the people, the smallness, and the pace of life. As soon as I roll into town I feel myself slow down and relax. The fact that I’ve lived there helps me dismiss the notion that I only feel this way because the town is my getaway, my vacation spot. During my last period of residency I worked at a local café and experienced my own share of high-season stress as I catered to seemingly never-ending lines of tourists demanding espresso and ice cream. Realistically, I know that a service-industry job is probably the most Moab could ever offer me. The reality is that the town’s economy is fueled by tourism, and many people struggle to make ends meet in low-paying, seasonal jobs. Regardless, I dream of going back to stay.
Love letter, Summer 2011: I’ve barely left Moab and already I miss you both like crazy. Maybe someday we’ll stop moving around the country and stay together in the same place and time. I got your letter today, and smiled when I saw “The Desert” bordered by two little hearts in place of your name in the upper left-hand corner of the envelope. I took the sprig of sagebrush you sent and placed it in a glass bowl with the sand I gathered in Hunter Canyon. On days when I’m feeling lost I wrap my hands around that bowl and try to recall the sensation of pressing my entire body against warm sandstone. My tan lines are fading, but every time I look at my arms I remember that time by the river when you said my tattoos might as well be desert varnish, and the memory pulls me closer to you and the land I love…
I’m moving back to Moab in spring 2013. This will not be a permanent relocation, but I simply can’t stay away anymore. I miss the town and the cliffs and the space. I tell myself that if I can see red rocks every day and wander into the desert whenever I desire, I’ll be happy with a service-industry job—for a while. I know that eventually I will return to the city and begin the next phase of my career. Perhaps I’ll leave disillusioned and heartbroken, frustrated by the tourists and pessimistic about the future of the desert. Maybe in a few years I’ll be writing my own version of Abbey’s elegy, lamenting the continued development of the area and warning off future generations. Maybe in a few decades I’ll return to Moab from some far-off metropolis and curse and stomp my feet and declare that this isn’t the desert that I loved. Then again, I don’t think so. I want a definition of wilderness that is nebulous and expansive, an understanding and an ethic of nature that both values preservation for future generations, while also acknowledging the inevitability of change.
Despite my identification with Abbey and my affinity for his writing, I’m not searching for his wilderness. My identity and background dictate that my experience living in Moab will be vastly different from his, and I’m glad of that. I want to find my own vibrant, contemporary form of wilderness to love, and it isn’t going to be anyone else’s tombstone. As a queer, feminist Latina with a working-class background, I have a few bones to pick with ol’ Ed, and if I bump into his ghost out on some mesa, I’ll be quick to give him a piece of my mind. My understandings of ecofeminism, queer studies, environmental justice, disability studies, and postcolonialism demand that I look to wilderness and question the manner in which the concept relates to and supports misogynistic, homophobic, ableist, and racist forms of oppression. All too often, the American wilderness is associated with white, able-bodied, heterosexual, patriarchal masculinity to the exclusion of everyone else. Furthermore, my idea of wilderness questions the usefulness and ambiguity of a term that assigns value and worth to some landscapes while dismissing others as contaminated and unworthy of protection. What is both gained and lost by valorizing wilderness? How do markers such as class, race, gender, age, ability, and other factors dictate who is privileged enough to appreciate and enjoy the supposed benefits of a communion with nature? How can I form an idea of wilderness that is inclusive of a wide array of people with conflicting backgrounds and experiences and understandings of nature and the physical environment? How can I balance my concern for these issues with my growing sense of urgency and fear regarding the global environmental crisis? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m tucking them in my CamelBak and carrying them with me out into the desert, to scatter among the cacti and juniper, where I pray they’ll be picked up and carried far and wide by the lizards and ravens. Maybe they’ll be found and deciphered by some future generation, or perhaps they’ll be returned to me, delivered to my doorstep in the night by a coyote and the wind. Until then, I haven’t got time to wait patiently, so if you need me I’ll be out scouring the desert, searching for answers.
Journal entry, Winter 2012: There is a scar on my lover’s right hip, from a playful encounter with a juniper tree on the trail to Druid Arch. We spent five days roaming Canyonlands National Park, predicting the behavior of lizards and scrutinizing petroglyphs as if they held the secret to keeping us together. I found a rattlesnake flattened perpendicular to the highway’s yellow line, and we took it as a bad omen. Our thoughts collected like raindrops in a sandstone depression. The word they finally formed was “goodbye,” so we divvied up our love and parted ways. That was over a year ago, and the cactus in the bend of my knee has bloomed and withered, but I’m too busy planting seeds to write any elegies.
Lauren McCrady was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. As an undergraduate at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, she cultivated a love for the Colorado Plateau. After finishing graduate work at the University of Nevada, she moved to Moab, Utah, where she teaches high school English.
Header photo of Delicate Arch at Arches National Park by Unsplash, courtesy Pixabay.