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Spring brings thoughts of Abbey, Moab

Tom Boyd

Spring is in the air, and we’ve definitely caught the bug over here at the Vail Trail.Dan has longer days and more light for his photography, Amanda is getting out on her bike down in Eagle, John is lining up his brackets for March Madness, and rumor has it that our publisher, Laura, is flipping through kayak catalogues in hopes that we get more snow and have a good water year.As for me, I’ve officially begun indulging in some of my favorite spring rites, which mostly involve dreaming about all the warm places of the world, listening to Caribbean music, and wearing sandals whenever possible.Unlike Scott Willoughby (our most-eligible columnist and proud liaison to the Minturn underground) I have exercised my right as an American spring breaker many times. In college, in fact, I would take several spring breaks a year, spreading them out along the calendar under the guiding principle that it must be springtime somewhere in the world, and nobody’s spring should go uncelebrated.Over the years of exploring I’ve come to love a certain few precious places, and I find myself dreaming about those places during our mud season here. Topping the list is Moab but not the Moab we know today. I’m talking about Moab before the tourism explosion and after the uranium bust, when dad and I used to make a few spring voyages each year to catch the desert in its prime.It may not have been a bowl of cherries for the Moab locals, but a failing uranium economy suited me fine back in the 1980s. After all, the desert is supposed to be about desertion, loneliness, heart-breaking emptiness and huge amounts of uninhabited space. The areas around Moab offered all of this at least until the Mormons discovered the power of the tourist dollar.Like thousands of others, I still love to head out that way but now I stick to more desolate places (and I keep the whereabouts to myself). It’s part of growing up, I understand, to figure out that you’re not the only one who feels the power of the wilderness, or who loves to get out in it, explore, ride bikes, kayak, or just stand in it and soak up natural beauty like a sponge to water but it was a hard lesson. I had to learn that the places in the mountains and the desert that I loved did not, in fact, belong to me. They belong to everyone. And even more so, they belong to the Earth itself.But back then I believed (with every part of my young soul) that the Fisher Towers were my personal home, a red-oven warming ground that freed me from the perpetual cold of winter, a place where dad and I would go to hike, ride early-model mountain bikes and paddle the Colorado below Dewey Bridge.It was also where I first read Edward Abbey as a pre-teen kid flipping through dad’s copy of Desert Solitaire in lantern light while he poked around in the back of the pickup truck, searching for thawed elk steak and pheasant to toss on his old gold-pan grill. By that age I had seen the desert in the spring, I had walked over all those miles of sandstone rock, peered at silhouetted spires as the sun set behind them, felt the warmth of the rock as it radiated captured heat from the hot day well into the night but I never read anyone who could give a voice to it so well as Abbey.So when the winter dragged on (and school with it), I began to dream endlessly about the freedom of the desert. I wanted to wear sandals. I wanted heat. I wanted dryness. As a teenage kid I had little hope to make an escape to the desert, even if I somehow summoned the courage to steal dad’s pickup truck and make a break for it. Besides, it was only a matter of time until he felt the same way and want to go with me. Until then I did the next best thing I read Abbey.And when I was in college in Atlanta I had a vivid dream one night that Abbey’s soul drifted all the way down South, to the sticky, swampy south, to tell me to return home to the West. A few months later, I did.And it was a wonderful decision.Still, I didn’t return to the West that I had left behind. As Thomas Wolfe would tell me: you can’t go home again. But that’s doubly true here in the West, where areas like Edwards and Moab change so drastically over the course of 10 years that they’re practically unrecognizable.I’ve read a lot of opinions lately about Moab and Abbey, and it seems that most people agree that Abbey wouldn’t like the way things are going out in the Red Desert. He wants humanity to stay where it belongs: in the city. And he wants the desert all to himself.I owe Abbey a lot, mostly for all the times he transported my mind and soul into his desert landscapes. But I have to say that, although he is brilliant, he always held onto the belief that the desert belonged to him, that he and his cronies were the only ones who truly belonged out in it, and this becomes more clear when he flushes out some of his deeper philosophies. The Moab that we see today is certainly not the same one dad introduced me to 20 years ago but it is beautiful all the same.And as Abbey and I both know, there are still places of wild desolation out there, where you can come and go and nobody knows the difference. Nobody talks about them because, well, nobody knows about them (and the people that do are keeping the secret for as long as possible.)I would like to think that if he and I were on a walk out there, in one of those secret desert places, that he might come around to a happier point of view when it comes to his old Moab stomping grounds. I’d like to think that he’d grow up, and understand that Moab, just like most of the West, is going to have to be shared with everyone else. And that, in the end, that’s a good thing.Tom Boyd can be reached at tboyd@vailtrail.com or (970) 390-1585.


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