Moab: Less cool than in 1998 when last I visited for the week-long canoe trip down the Green River. There was a Jeep Jamboree that weekend – Wranglers with tags from all over North America parked in sales-lot lines in front of restaurants and mobile homes. I don’t remember the McDonald’s; I must have blocked it from my memory to remember Moab as the desert adventure town of lore.
Climbers, mountain bikers, backpackers, and river rats we Boy Scouts all were to some extent, exploring what of our native New Mexico offered our teenage thirst for adrenaline. Our thirty-something mentor Anthony, an EMT from Albuquerque and avid single-track rider, on stage at our scout meetings, told us stories of sandstone arches and curvaceous canyon walls that – he later told a few of us in relative privacy (in the shadow of 1000′ red cliff) – were “sexier than a woman’s hips.” I wondered if he ever said that to his wife.
He spoke of sleeping through the early 80′s in the bed of a Nissan nears Canyonlands National Park, biking and rappelling his days away, fueled by oatmeal and ramen noodles. He’d go into the wilderness for days by himself, “when I was an idiot,” on Friday showing up at a friend’s trailer with a six-pack to let them know he was still alive.
I was hooked. Envisioning a desert town with at a gas station, a general store, and just enough mobile homes to house the ex-groupie cashier, her various boyfriends and speech-impaired children, Moab was the place I wanted to spend my summers, armed with a bike, a backpack and rock shoes, to get away from the wide world of you-must-do-this and you’re-nothing-if-you-don’t-do-that. I wrote my own list of must-do’s; on it were ambitious goals like buying a Jeep with big tires and mastering downhill switchbacks on a bike without using brakes. Landing on top of one of Arizona’s Monument Valley pillars from a skydive and BASE jumping from there was number thirty-seven.
In 1999, a year and a half after the Green River trip, I moved to Alaska instead of Moab. The list only grew. There was snowboarding and ice climbing, there were glacier-fed rivers with rapids to run. One could walk for hundreds of miles without crossing a road, climb mountains yet unnamed, disappear.
Instantly, Alaska became home. The place I would live, leave, miss, and return to for adventure when she called, like an ex-girlfriend who wanted presence without strings. I was happy to oblige. But the Southwest to me childhood memories still. Sweet nothings. Could-have-beens. Possibilities. Future adventures.
The few times I’ve returned to Moab, Durango, the Pecos Mountains in New Mexico, have been in passing, usually en route to Alaska. I’ve had a few days in the area each time – to climb granite, perhaps a 14er, hike up Pecos Baldy, mountain board deserted jeep trails, but Time is the persistent mistress pushing for divorce. Alaska calls; my work is up north, the salmon smell their streams, and I must follow, catch and sell them to keep traveling.
And what does it say that I have not returned to the Four Corners, where my love for the wild cultivated into the need to see a little bit of everywhere, including cities fantastic beyond my dreams of what civilization is capable of? That I have ignored my roots for bigger mountains, deeper snow, and less mountain culture pretension?
Have I kept my fears too close? Would I end up staying here for years like Anthony did, doing only what I loved, even if it meant I couldn’t travel internationally? Do I just not love it enough? Or so much that I avoid it?
The “Moab guy” at the breakfast café Love Muffin, with his North Face shorts and tattoos of mountainscapes, tells his friends of massive waterfalls in the San Juans, canyoneering in slots nearby, and how excited he is for the shower when he’s done. It seems like his whole life is embedded in the layers of red, orange, yellow, white sandstone that surround us.
In my mind I criticize him and all of the other people here who wear the same clothes and talk the same shit, have tattoos in the same places, who wear trim beards and Chaco sandals. The girls wear tank tops, hair back, ripped muscles and Chacos too.
Culture reinvents itself everywhere. People are attracted to places based on natural surroundings, or in the case of cities, for lack of them.
Heather tells me that I blend in here. With my techie pants, unshaven face, athletic body. I am complimented and disappointed. I don’t want to fit in. I love these places differently. I love them so much that I won’t commit to staying in just one. But I don’t know the curves of the canyons like I could. I just visit them, love them, take their love, and keep going.
The wilderness knows me like women know me, and I know both equally, emphatically, passionately. We complete lifetimes in hours, days, weeks, and move on. Those I hold for longer – the Pecos, Alaska, Emily, Katie, now Heather, affect me deeper, call louder, love harder. I project their impact outward, learn [about myself] only what applied directly to them, such as how to find a good handhold, what line through a set of rapids to take, how to respond to hard questions, or how to take a compliment.
The parallels run for miles, I’m sure. But I’m in Moab with Heather only for a day or two, and we must adventure. So I’ll adjust the straps on my Chacos, and we’ll be out the door.