Desert Lullaby

Theresa wakes up early each morning, puts on work clothes – cargo pants and Chacos – and heads to the office, a small, red A-frame building labeled “Red River Canoe Company.” The parking lot is bustling when she gets there, but not with business; instead it is her friends, cycling guides Mike and Maggie, loading dust bags full of the week’s supplies onto the top of the Coyote Shuttle – a Barbie pink VW van operated by Jesse, a big man with a long gray braid cascading down his back.

“You heading to the canyons?” Theresa asks one of Mike and Maggie’s guests, treating the total stranger like a new friend. “The La Sals got snow yesterday,” she says, pointing to the cluster of 14,000-footers looming in the distance. “But the weather should be good.”

Here in Moab, a small tourist outpost in the middle of southeastern Utah’s canyon country, life happens a little differently. Weather is the stock market, the market fluctuating with dips and spikes in temperature. Biking spandex is considered business casual, since a wetsuit is the only suit ever worn. And “painting the town” refers to the way the sun sets on the red rocks, lighting them on fire, streaking purple and blue through the sky like paint on an artist’s brush.

A mecca for outdoor adventures, the reasons are countless why someone ends up in Moab: to bike, to climb, to jeep, to raft or to simply gaze into the vast red unknown, snap a picture and comment on the prettiness of it all. But whatever the reason, one thing is sure: no one ends up in Moab by accident. The kind of town that one has to look for to find, Moab is not just a place; it’s a destination.

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Nestled among the cottonwoods and tamarisk on the banks of the Colorado River, Moab is like an oasis in the desert, a respite from the miles of “public land” that the Utah road travels through for hours. As the highway dips down to river level, the red rock – the signature feature of Moab – appears. These soaring sandstone cliffs surround the town like the walls of Jericho, sheltering it from the pressures of the outside world. Kokopelli, the hunchbacked, flute-playing god of Anasazi legend, litters the land with his image, etched into the rock by ancient peoples who believed he brought fertility, hope, love and life.

The road continues tunnel-like before opening up in downtown Moab, one main strip of tiny buildings that looks like the quintessential wild west town, painted with stucco and clay to match the sandstone of the desert. This is in fact the terrain where famed outlaws like Butch Cassidy roamed, and it is easy to imagine the corner grill as a saloon, the bicycle shop as a corral, the crosswalk at the center of town as a site for high noon duels, the old prison-turned-breakfast-joint full of wanted men.

Originally a small Mormon settlement, Moab flourished as a mining town during the uranium boom of the 1950s. Though the town is fairly young, the history of the area runs deep, with old Anasazi ruins fossilized high in canyon walls, pottery and artifacts buried under the red dirt, ancient rock portrayals of horned deities on the back roads outside of town.

But it is adventure, not history that brings the modern day cowboys to Moab. They come to ride the range of the dusty trails and jeep roads winding through the canyons, their steeds Trek bicycles that help them navigate an array of natural wonders  – the earth’s great engineering feats found in the stone bridges of Arches National Park; the sheer windgate and deep crevices of Canyonlands; Slickrock Park, a rolling terrain of frozen sand dunes notorious for giving even the most seasoned mountain bikers a run for their money.

Named for the biblical town bordering Canaan, a green, fertile valley in the middle of a desert, Moab is aptly titled. It’s a gateway to the Southwest’s promised land – a high desert landscape painted in blues and reds and dotted with green juniper and shrubs, the only life tough enough to survive in the arid climate. If God had an age, he would have created this terrain during a day at the beach as a small child, digging deep holes until he found water, taking handfuls of wet sand and letting it dribble into layered shapes and towers, leaving the buttes and walls there like frozen sand castles.

Undeniably trendy, Moab is a hodgepodge of locally owned grocery store co- ops, restaurants, outfitters and art galleries. It is Chaco-wearing, organically grown, environmentally savvy; but despite its inerrant coolness, Moab is entirely unassuming, much like the people who come here. There is no image, only reason, in its personality – granola is good trail food, outdoor gear makes a difference in daily survival, the environment matters because its preservation is the lifeblood of the industry of town.

For most people, Moab is a weeklong escape, that far away place dreamt of from cubicles in the East. But for others, like Theresa, Moab is the place where life-long dreams of adventure are realized, the place where those dreams some people chase – those wild, flighty ones their parents frowned upon – stop and let them catch up. It is these dreamers – the wild ones  – who end up in Moab indefinitely.


But dreaming isn’t an easy profession. For the locals, mostly guides and outfitters, the hot morning sun brings the question of rain and business, those variable vitals; and like the junipers and desert shrubs that cling to the thin dry soil, Moab locals cling to the land in hopes it will lure tourists –  customers – into town.

Though it is free from the pressures of 8 to 5, offices and the corporate ladder, like the harsh desert landscape in which it is nestled, Moab can be a hard place to sustain life. Unemployment is the norm from October until March when the canyons are covered with snow, and employment means long hours, unpredictable income and calloused hands.

Based entirely on a thriving but unforeseeable tourism industry, Moab’s economy fluctuates with the weather, with gas prices, with the mood of the masses. Most locals are entrepreneurs, lining the town’s streets with family-owned hotels, restaurants and guide outposts, feeling the sometimes cruel invisible hand in each and every exchange. They have no salary, only transactions.

Still, in search of wide open spaces, these pioneers of the new millennium settle here, venturing from far off lands, hoping to strike rich in the gold of the tourism industry. Their covered wagons are VW vans (it is said that it’s easier to find a van than a house in Moab, as many simply live parked by the river), their settlements sparse (the demand for housing is great, making it expensive and hard to find).

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Mike Holme and Maggie Wilson are two of these pioneers. Not afraid to mix business and love, the couple owns Magpie Adventures, a mountain biking outfitter that specializes in guided tours through Canyonlands National Park and other parts of the Southwest. Guiding in Moab since 2004, Maggie cites “bring them back alive,” as her job description. They run every aspect of the business, from booking trips to safety training and education to cooking and biking to sales.

A self-described “California Refugee” who can’t drink a drop of caffeine without being awake for two days, Maggie’s long, slender arms and legs seem to move as wild and free as she is – until she puts them to work effortlessly powering up hills on a bike, complaining about the workout as she breathes at a perfectly normal pace. She is headstrong, refusing to own a TV, subtly side-eyeing Mike as he sneaks a handful of M&Ms, a charitable donation from a tour guest who knows he only eats organic food at home. Full of life, Maggie salutes the sun every morning, and it seems to salute her back, filling her with contagious light.

Mike is sweet and stable, a teacher by nature, a voice of calm kindness and patience despite his undeniable skill. Though he dabbled in architecture and getting a college education, Mike is a cyclist to the core, excelling at everything from BMX to mountain biking to bicycle repairs. One can’t help but wonder whether his legs are really the artificial machine, simply there to power the bike he was born on, a seemingly natural part of him.

It takes just about an hour with Mike and Maggie to make it impossible to imagine them anywhere else. They epitomize the people of Moab; the circles in the square hole of corporate America.

Their specialty is a four-day bike tour of the White Rim Trail, an 80-mile jeep road that winds along a ledge nestled between 1,200 vertical feet of windgate and a 1,200 foot drop to the Colorado River. The work is challenging, both mentally and physically – they alternate biking with their guests (usually around 25 miles and several hundred feet of elevation change each day) and driving Patches, the old Toyota pickup rigged with stoves, water and four-wheel drive. When they roll into camp after a long day on the trail and guests retreat to their tents, Mike and Maggie’s day is just beginning as they scramble to prepare a meal in the desert and fix any popped tires or sore legs that their guests acquired during the day. Simply unpacking and repacking the truck is hard labor.

“I don’t always have fun on my job,” Maggie admits, citing worries about guests’ abilities and safety, about whether or not their experience was positive, about unpredictable weather, about their own livelihood. “It’s very seasonal,” Maggie said. “And not just the four seasons, but the seasons of the economy.”

“But we’re here because we love it and we like to share it with people,” Maggie says. “We’re not here for the money.”

This lack of a consumption mentality has created a strong sense of community among Moab’s outfitters. Though technically these outfitters are competitors, all offering the same product and all seeking the same clientele, Maggie says they prefer to call each other cooperators. They’re all friends, and they bike together, go to potlucks and Halloween parties together and see themselves as sharers and stewards of the land together.

The same “life is good” sentiment that reigns on t-shirts and bumper stickers in town is the creed of these people who, at the core, are simply trying to enjoy life, even with the sacrifices that the quest requires.

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When the sunset illuminates the desert walls, setting them on fire with an internal glow, rush hour in Moab begins. Main Street fills with bikers and hikers coming in from the trails and canyons, retreating to one of Moab’s many motels, restocking for tomorrow’s adventures, searching for meals that can’t fit in a backpack. As the last boat pulls into Red River Canoe Company, ending Theresa’s long day, the town’s small businesses are just beginning to bustle.

In town, the “nightlife” is new friends gathering under the kayaks, bikes and ATVs retired in the rafters of the Moab Brewery to share cold beers and stories of the day in the wilderness. For Mike and Maggie, most days end deep in a canyon, curled up in a bed of sleeping bags on top of Patches. Night in the desert brings silence – no crickets chirping, no nature sounds – just pure silence, interrupted only by the occasional gust of wind or ghostlike laugh drifting from camp to camp.

Soon the moon rises above the cliffs, lighting up a dark sky splatter painted with a billion stars, and Moab’s small nightlife settles down. Bed comes early here, as sore muscles beg for rest, and daylight comes soon, bringing a new set of excursions.

And maybe it’s just the desert playing tricks, but as the little town falls asleep, you can’t help but wonder if you hear the ring of Kokopelli’s flute bouncing subtly across the crystal air, echoing off the canyon walls, bringing his melody of life and realized dreams, a lullaby heard uniquely in Moab.


© Kristen Shoates, 2018