Dean M. Chriss
Photography

Times in the High Desert
You Can't Go Home Again
November 3, 2018

Windows through Windows
Windows through Windows, Arches National Park

Once Upon a Time...

Between 1983 and 1994 I did the vast majority of my photography in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Although I traveled throughout the region I concentrated on the area around one particular little town. I was completely taken with the place and went there between one and five times each year. By the mid 1990s I had accumulated well over a year exploring the area both on foot and by vehicle. I came to know the beauty and fragility of the desert, the town, and some of its people. These are my abbreviated thoughts about those times and what has happened since. I have changed the names, but the story is as accurate as my recollection allows.

It was a home away from home. Quite simply, it always felt good to be in Moab. I first ventured into the sleepy little town in 1983, when the whole place seemed to close down at 8 PM every day. Back then one could often count the cars seen during the 110 mile drive between Moab and Grand Junction, Colorado, on the fingers of one hand. Everyone in town knew everyone else. It was Mayberry in the desert.

The magic of the place was a synergy of the town, its people, and above all the surrounding land. The LaSalle Mountains, which loom just east of town seemed almost close enough to touch in the clear air. About three miles north of town on US-191 is the entrance to Arches National Park. To the west lie the three districts of Canyonlands National Park. Federal lands every bit as pristine and beautiful as the national parks, but run by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), engulf it all. I often use the name "Moab" to mean that whole area, and Moab was a paradise.

The Uranium Era – Boom to Bust

In order to understand Moab, you need to know a little about its history. Moab was a uranium boomtown back in the 1950s. During the boom, prospectors scratched long and thin exploration roads into the land. These were roads in the loosest sense of the word, and they meandered into some of America’s most spectacular wilderness.

Congress protected Arches National Park from most of this activity by declaring it a National Monument in 1929, back when Congress actually did good and useful things. All other federal lands in the area were open to exploitation until 1964, when Canyonlands became a national park. The Park Service has since closed a number of the old roads, but some are still open as 4-wheel drive and mountain bike trails. The BLM has kept most of them open, but does not maintain them in any significant way. The old exploration roads are still the sole means of access to some areas, including the Maze district of Canyonlands.

When the uranium boom went bust, so did Moab. The bust was in full swing in the early 1980s. The mines were closed or closing, the mountain bike phenomena had not yet happened, and the term SUV did not yet exist. The old mineral exploration roads were the lonely domain of a very few die-hard Jeepers. If you broke down on one of these it could be days or weeks before you'd see another person. You could die out there, and some did.

Places and People

I always stayed in one small motel on north edge of town, owned and run by Fred and Joan. Fred used to say “They always come back to Moab”. The number of rooms typically occupied by regulars validated his statement. Fred would rise long before the sun did. He would sit in the dark and sip his coffee while looking out the big windows in the lobby, which was also their living room. His day would begin in earnest when the sun hit the top of the red cliffs opposite the motel. Joan was a night owl. That was good because together they could cover a long day of comings and goings at the motel. Dinners with Fred and Joan, cowboy songs sung by an old doctor around the fireplace, eating Green River melons, and conversations that sometimes lasted until the wee hours of morning punctuate my Moab memories. Occasionally these things would obliterate my early morning or evening photography plans, but it was all a part of being there. They were good people who took care of me as if I were family.

Jim and Kate ran a self-service gas station in town. They pumped your gas, washed all of your vehicle's windows including side view mirrors, and checked your oil. I have yet to figure out why their sign said “Self-Service”. Jim was a great mechanic. He knew that being stranded in the backcountry was dangerous, so he always did everything the right way. I had many oil changes, plenty of tinkering, and a suspension modification done on my Jeep there. Their gas station was a sort of town meeting place. Various people would stop by to pass the time of day by telling jokes, tales of adventure, and gossip. Kate always had stories about their children and grandchildren. Bob, a tour guide, always had stories about the misadventures of his latest group of tourists, and Larry would always have something to say about local politics. He usually had something to say about Bob, too. Martha, who worked as a maid at the motel, had stories about anything you could imagine and some things you could not.

Arches and Canyonlands – A Contrast

It always amazed me that two parcels of land as close together as Arches and Canyonlands National Parks could be so different. Arches, high in the sky and light in both color and atmosphere, contrasts sharply with the dark brown-red depths of Canyonlands.

Going to Arches meant half-day hikes that often lasted all day. In a day on the trails you would meet perhaps three or four people, or groups of people. A trip into Arches could also mean some short and easy hiking in The Windows with photos of dramatic sunrises and sunsets reflected from the orange-red stone. An evening hike to Delicate Arch to witness the sunset was more ambitious but also more spectacular. One would park at Wolf Ranch in a small gravel parking area along the dirt road that led there. From Wolf Ranch the hike to Delicate Arch is only 1.5 uphill miles. I made that hike dozens of times. If you went in the off season you could be alone at the arch. Otherwise there might be a "crowd" of ten or so people. After sunset the sky usually held enough light for the return hike if you hiked quickly. These awesome scenes unfolding in the quiet solitude of the desert made the perfect end to many days.

The names of Canyonlands’ three districts, Island in the Sky, Needles, and the Maze, describe the respective areas perfectly. Trips into these areas were more ambitious. Island in the is the closest district to Moab. Grandview Point is only 25 miles away as the raven flies, but the trip is 45 miles by car. Thirty miles of the drive was on a paved road that contained the narrowest, steepest, and most twisting piece of pavement I have ever seen. The rest of the drive was on a winding, bumpy, and washboard dirt road. The old beaten up house trailer that served as the district’s visitor center and ranger station sat beside the road just a few miles after the pavement ended. The excruciating drive from there to the road’s end high on the canyon rim seemed to take forever. After parking your dust-encrusted vehicle and walking a short trail, you could stand perched on the edge, feeling like the first person to ever see the sight.

Trips into the other districts of Canyonlands often meant backcountry excursions of no less than a day and sometimes several. This was and is a land that takes plenty of time to explore. Reaching the heart of the Maze took nearly two days of difficult and sometimes dangerous driving in a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle, followed by as much time as one could spend on foot. The Maze was so quiet you could hear only the wind, and absent that, the blood pumping through your veins. You could spend as long as you like here without seeing another soul. It was, according to the national park service, the most remote place in the lower 48 states. Maybe it still is.

Tourism and Oil - A New Boom and its Changes

The unrelenting promotion of tourism, soaring popularity of mountain biking, the area’s rugged terrain, and the old mineral exploration roads all combined to create a new boom in Moab. Today it is widely acknowledged as the world’s mountain biking capital and a Mecca for 4-wheel drive and ATV enthusiasts, hikers, rafters, photographers, and nearly everyone else. The effect is obvious. Big motel chains, microbreweries, upscale restaurants with mediocre food and bad service, and up-priced tourist shops replaced the town I once knew.

The park service paved the road to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. A few years later the state straightened, re-graded, and repaved the previously paved section outside the park. A few years after that the same section was again re-graded and widened to accommodate the large oil tank trucks that would service soon to be drilled oil wells on the plateau, right next to the Canyonlands National Park boundary. The huge increase in visitation meant that expanded parking lots, cement walkways and railings had to be installed on the canyon rim where I had stood years before, feeling as if I could be the first one in the world to be there.

In Arches the number of parking spaces were doubled, gravel roads and parking lots were paved, and cement walkways replaced some stone and sand trails in the Windows area. In spite of doubled parking capacity, according to the park service it is still common for there to be more cars in Arches National Park than parking spaces. Cars constantly orbit parking areas looking to snatch a parking space before someone else gets it. Popular trails, like those leading to the nightly melee at Delicate Arch, often resemble a crowded big city sidewalk. In most areas the fragile cryptobiotic soil crust is nowhere to be found, and in the Windows there are always nitwits illegally climbing on the arches. The Arches entrance road was extended and widened to keep the hundreds of waiting cars from backing up onto US-191. The numbers soon overwhelmed that solution and backups onto US-191 are again common. US-191 was changed from a normal two lane road into a four lane divided highway and traffic controls were added to allow cars into and out of Arches. Today the park is a noisy, trampled, and dusty version of Disney World with less parking.

The character of land run by the BLM has changed most. It is now swarming with gasoline powered UTVs, ATVs, ATCs, and Jeeps in addition to countless mountain bikes tearing up the terrain. In areas dominated by off-road vehicles the slickrock surfaces are actually black with tire rubber. In addition to those scars the search for more and more oil has sent earth moving equipment, seismic “thumper trucks”, helicopters, and drilling rigs into the fragile desert wilderness, where a human footprint in the living cryptobiotic soil can take fifty years to erase. As their work is completed, once trackless reaches of the desert plateaus and canyons become laced with a grid work of roads, and silence is replaced by the noise of oil rigs. Orange beacons of natural gas flares pierce the night, which once brought total darkness from horizon to horizon.

The latest boom has completely changed the character of Moab, the surrounding public lands, and the experiences that are possible for visitors. Moab's once unique character is now that of every other overcrowded tourist town. All it lacks is a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum to compliment the Moab Giants Dinosaur Park. Photographs aside, going to Arches National Park to experience the desert is like going to an amusement park for that purpose. Relative to years past there is no longer an "off season". Visitation in the middle of winter now exceeds fall visitation in the late 1990s. It is nearly impossible to photograph many of Arches' unique features without including 50 strangers in your pictures.

Canyonlands National Park offers the best experience of the public lands around Moab because it is further away from town and much larger. Even so, the most spectacular features at the most spectacular times of day are as bad as those in Arches. For instance it is no longer worth making the long drive to Mesa Arch to share sunrise with a hundred or so photographers whose compositions are determined by where they can find a place to stand. They are like a horde of paparazzi who pursue arches instead of celebrities. The resulting photos might look "natural" but the environment around these mobs and experience of being there is anything but. It is a waste of time no matter what photographs are produced.

As for the BLM lands, don't even bother. They are dominated by all forms of mechanized travel, most of it noisy and gasoline powered, in massive numbers. While most of these trails were always "roads" traveled with motorized vehicles, it is the "massive numbers" that creates the problem. There are actually traffic jams on these roads. In days past these roads would see only a few vehicles in a day or week.

Who's to Blame?

There is lots of blame to go around. I think only a little of it goes to the people who pack themselves into Moab. Exceptions are those who violate park rules because they are too lazy to find out what the rules are, and those who are inconsiderate of other visitors. Primarily I think the blame goes to those in the state of Utah and town of Moab who relentlessly promote area tourism with full knowledge that the area is already saturated and increasing numbers are destroying everything. These same people lobby against changes to park rules that would limit visitation. To some extent the promotion of tourism was fine, but there are limits to everything, except perhaps greed. These promoters do not care about the parks or much of anything except tourist dollars. I've always found it odd that many who live in beautiful rural areas decry the crowds found in big cities as they proceed to make their towns just as crowded. Regardless, advertising works and there are many visitors who would never be in Moab if not for the slick promotions.

There are many newspaper and magazine articles stating that you can still have the same experience you'd have had decades ago in places like Arches National Park. You just have to be willing to hike into the back country, away from the roads, trails, and people. That is certainly true, but a chunk of desert in Arches backcountry is not much different than a chunk of empty desert anyplace else. It is crazy to fight the insane traffic of Arches in order to experience a sunrise or sunset in solitude on a generic patch of desert. Arches is a park of unique and spectacular natural features. Without them it would not be a national park. Experiencing the uniqueness of this park in anything but an overcrowded zoo like atmosphere is what has become impossible. Limiting park visitation could greatly help this situation, and it would be much better for park resources than more pavement. It is also cheaper. Sure, getting a reservation to visit a park is a hassle, but it can't be worse than the hassle visiting Arches National Park has already become.

In 1956 and 1957 Edward Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument (now national park). About ten years later in Desert Solitaire, a book based on that experience, he wrote: "Unless a way is found to stabilize the nation's population, the parks can not be saved. Or anything else worth a damn. Wilderness preservation, like a hundred other good causes, will be forgotten under the overwhelming pressure of a struggle for mere survival and sanity in a completely urbanized, completely industrialized, ever more crowded environment." Truer words were never written. Over sixty years ago, when Arches saw about 25000 visitors per year, Abbey saw what was happening. Today more than 1.8 million visitors per year (up 7000%) visit Arches and his worst fears have been realized.

Conclusion

In the 1980s I was naive enough to think that with federal protection America's national parks and monuments would remain pristine forever. Over the years I came to realize that, like Arches, many of these places will not even outlast me. In the long term they will remain unspoiled only in photographs. Those on this website are my own attempt to share and preserve a memory of some places that I have been privileged to experience. People much younger than me will definitely not have the opportunities I had. Many of them do not exist today.

My friends Fred and Larry passed away in the late 1990s. Fred's wife Joan moved back east and joined him a dozen years later. Jim and Kate moved back west. I eventually lost track of them and Martha too. Bob passed away more recently in Moab. The magic of Moab outlived Fred and Larry, but died a slow death during the next decade. It is difficult to say when its final breath occurred, but I'd say it was sometime before 2010. I still miss all of them.

I still visit Moab occasionally as a short stopover on the way to or from somewhere else. I usually avoid Arches completely, but if I go I'm through the gate well before sunrise and out before 9 or 10 AM. Even in those early hours there are many in the park, but depending on where you go it can be quiet enough to prompt a memory of what used to be.

Dean