Monday, November 10, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part VIII): Moab, Utah as a town that keeps remaking itself


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As we headed north on U.S. 191 from Bluff to Moab, the first community we passed through was tiny White Mesa, a Ute community of very modest homes and a recent-vintage community center. White Mesa isn’t even shown on our detailed Utah state map, although it appears to be as large as Bluff. Indeed, it is a census designated place, with a 2000 population of 277.

Shortly before reaching Blanding, San Juan County’s largest town with 3,162 residents, we began to see the marvelous Abajo mountains – with snow on top – apparently from the cold, wet system that had just passed through. We also saw bright green irrigated fields. According to our guidebook, Mormon settlers made a more enduring go of turning this part of Utah into agricultural heartland than they did in Bluff. While I expected Blanding to look particularly salubrious because of its size and its Latter Day Saints (LDS) credentials, it wasn’t particularly tidy. In fact, it lived up to other rural stereotypes, with large collections of junk along Hwy. 191 at both ends of town. Monticello, population 1,958, the county seat located 20 miles farther north, was more in line with my expectations. The public buildings – most notably the county courthouse – and the LDS church, looked particularly well kept.
Like Moab, these communities grew up around uranium mining. There’s little evidence of this any longer, unless you have some reason for knowing that many of the area’s roads – a lot of them still unpaved – started out as mining trails. But there aren’t a lot of roads, in part because there aren’t a lot of people. From Monticello on to Moab, scenic overlooks and turnouts for viewing natural marvels like Church Rock far outnumber visible residences. The more northern part of the journey is dominated by frequently changing but consistently stunning landscapes, including views of the majestic La Sal Mountains.

That brings you to Moab. This is our second trip to Moab, and I’m sure we’ll be back. It is after all, the gateway to two fabulous national parks: Arches and Canyonlands. Some of the other reasons are summed up in our guidebook, The Rough Guide to the Southwest USA:
Perhaps the main reason Moab has grown so fast is that out-of-state visitors tend to find Utah’s rural communities so irredeemably boring. As soon as Moab emerged from the pack, it became a beacon in the desert, attracting tourists ecstatic to find a town that stayed up after dark.
Well, the staying up late part isn’t that important to us, but good food and accommodation are. Like Springdale across the state (just outside Zion National Park), Moab has developed a pretty sophisticated tourism infrastructure that serves most segments, from back-packer to the up-market traveler. Last time we were in Moab we discovered The Center CafĂ©. Now the Desert Bistro is completing for those seeking fine dining.
The guidebook also notes Moab’s boom-bust-boom history:
Few communities can have experienced quite such a rollercoaster ride as Moab. Within the last sixty years, it has gone from an insignificant backwater in the 1940s, to being celebrated as “The Richest Town in the USA” by McCalls magazine in the 1950s, only to become what one journalist called “one of the most economically depressed towns in Utah” by 1986, and then find itself transformed, almost against its will, into the Southwest’s number-one adventure-vacation destination.

With a 2000 population just under 5,000 and growing, Moab is the county seat of Grand County, which has a population of only 8,485. With a land area of 3,694 square miles, the county’s population density is well under 3 persons per square mile – significantly greater than that of San Juan County, but easily nonmetro/rural. (Photo above of Grand County courthouse).

A Utah Supreme Court Justice dissenting in a 2002 case, Gallivan v. Walker, 54 P.3d 1069, 1115, recognized Moab’s in-between status in the context of a law that differentiated between rural counties and urban ones for purposes of getting an initiative on the ballot. He wrote that “both Park City and Moab, each with very small year-round populations, defy characterization because both could reasonably be considered both urban and rural in character.”

In spite of Moab’s population churn, and its evident transition to an outdoor mecca, I heard and saw plenty of evidence that not all long-time Moabites are happily along for the ride.

A radio broadcast featured a local DJ suggesting forcefully that the solution to the current financial crisis should not involve governmental action – of any sort. Bear in mind that this was the second week in October when Congress was debating details of what became the $700 billion bailout. In short, it was a time when I thought the country was considering what form the bailout would take—not whether there would be a bailout. In such incredibly troubled economic times, the DJ’s position seemed mighty libertarian. Who could deny that free markets were not working in this instance and that government intervention was necessary? This wasn’t talk radio, mind you. This was interstitial commentary between musical selections on the local station.

I had seen a similar position taken in an “alternative” weekly newspaper, The Blue Mountain Panorama, in San Juan County a few days earlier. Here’s a quote: “If someone mugged you on the street, beat you senseless, stole your wallet and all your money and then asked if you would drive her to the next mugging location, would you do it? Nancy Pelosi threw gasoline on an already volatile environment Monday, cried fire and blamed the Republican party.” Hmmm. Interesting analogies there between responses to a global financial crisis, a street crime, and crying fire . . . plus, why all the vitriol directed at Pelosi? Is this the sort of thing one should expect from a place associated with the Sagebrush Rebellion and other advocacy for local control and limited federal government?

Moab’s sociocultural tension was also reflected in our innkeepers’ description of Moab’s three “cultures”:
  • The service culture – those who party, go out and have a good time
  • The Mormon culture, “of course”
  • “The highly educated folks with a lot of money who want to run everything.” The innkeepers opined that these folks currently do, in fact, run everything, changing ordinances and making new laws, “telling everyone how to live.” By way of example, the innkeepers observed that “every year, more roads are closed to ATVs and Jeeps.”
Hmmm. I noted that Grand County was one of two Utah counties to go for Obama in the Presidential election. (Read a post about it here). Guess those “highly educated folks with lots of money” are having an impact on more than the local off-road trails. They are changing Utah’s electorate, a wee bit at a time.

(This completes the series from my Oct. 2008 vacation in the Southwest.)

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