Usually, even in the dead of winter, I like to rise early, stoke the fire in the woodstove, get some coffee going and gaze out the kitchen window at my beloved Moab Valley. Winters here are usually tolerable, at least relatively speaking, and getting through the cold dark months of January and February can be, in fact, a pleasure. Sometimes I can even wander outside in my long johns, steaming coffee in hand, and watch the sunrise.
But not this year. I can’t watch the sunrise from my front porch or out the kitchen window, In fact, I can’t see anything out my windows and haven’t been able to for weeks. Instead I’m looking at a snowdrift that starts in our front yard and extends all the way to the roof. No need for a ladder. And cold? It’s minus 13 degrees at 7 AM. We’re hoping for a high of 17 today. We haven’t seen the sun since late December.
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Seriously, this is as bad a winter as any of us can recall. We all remember the Winter of 1949 and until now, that was the benchmark year for really bad rotten, even dangerous weather. And I will admit the high winds that year caused a lot of drifting and made it even harder to keep the roads open (or what passed for roads in 1949!). But even in ’49, we got some breaks and some warm ups.
This year, winter has been relentless. The weather bureau says we’ve had over 45 inches of snow so far, starting with that first big storm that rolled in here on December 27. And because it’s so brutally cold, NONE of it has melted. Our night time lows have been between -10 to -15. I went out to shovel the snow off our driveway one morning and my nostrils froze! An inadequately dressed man wouldn’t last 20 minutes in that cold.
It’s been hard just getting around town. Mayor Bunce hired five extra plows and trucks to deal with this white mess on the main roads and extra men to operate them as well. I’ve heard some of those fellas have logged in as much as 50 hours in overtime in the last week alone. The problem is, you can’t just plow it. There’s so much snow that they’ve resorted to piling it up in big mountains in the shopping center parking lots and then using loaders and dump trucks to haul it away. The Valley Shopping Center parking lot looks like somebody built a new version of the Disneyland Matterhorn and the kids have been sledding down it for weeks. All the subdivision roads and the backstreets are still snowpacked and only a really good Jeep can crawl out of some of those drifts.
Out at Arches, the park has been closed for days now; every time they run a plow out to the Devils Garden, it snows the next day. I was out there last week, just as far as the ranger station and they told me Arches only got 93 visitors for the entire month of January. Usually it’s double that number. And of course access to Canyonlands, to both the Island in the Sky and to the Needles is closed as well. I hope the ranger staff down there has plenty of canned beans and coffee squirreled away.
I saw Jack West, down at the Chevron station on Main Street last week. He’s owned that station for twenty years and he said he’s never seen anything like it. Jack told me about this one kid that stopped for gas late one afternoon last week, on a particularly cold and foggy day. He was driving a beat up Volkswagen Squareback with Kentucky plates and a big Husky dog was sitting next to him. They both looked near frozen.
Apparently the young fella didn’t realize that his heater didn’t work and he was driving all the way home from LA. He said when he came down Blue Hill, the fog started causing the inside of his windshield to freeze up and Jack said he saw him furiously using his ice scraper as he pulled in to the station, trying to see where he was going.
Jack said he told the boy he ought to just get a motel room and wait for morning, but the kid seemed determined to make it as far as Grand Junction.
Jack shook his head and told me:
“You won’t believe what that crazy kid did next. He asked if he could leave his car here for a couple minutes and I watched him cross Main Street and climb over those big mounds of snow to Walker Drug Store. He came back with a stack of Sterno cans! I said, ‘What the hell are you going to do with that Sterno?’ and he sort of smiled through his chattering teeth and said, ‘I’m gonna light them.’
The snow has been here for so long, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere for another great while, and yet, I suppose sooner or later, the sun will again shine and the clouds will part and all this white stuff will melt and Life in Moab and Southeast Utah will get back to normal. And then it’ll be politics as usual. I’ve been reading some of the issues we have to look forward to this spring when we all thaw out.
For starters, they’re talking about “Mill Creek Dam” again. Ken McDougald was up in Salt Lake last week, representing the Grand County Water Conservancy District, talking up the plan for a dam with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. From what we’ve heard, the Corps thinks the engineering work done so far indicated that a dam located just below the confluence of Mill Creek and its North Fork” is feasible. They’re talking about a 210 foot high rockfill dam and most of the materials to build it can be found locally. I heard a price tag of about $3 million mentioned.
I’m not too pleased with the idea. Tonya and I have been hiking up the canyon for years; we rarely see anybody else up there and can’t imagine all that quiet beauty flooded under 200 feet of water. I know the community needs water but let’s hope they can figure out a better way to store it. And let’s hope Moab stays quiet like it is right now (maybe not THIS quiet, buried under two feet of snow).
Before the weather turned bad, we spent some time down in San Juan County. We love the Highway 95, especially when it winds its way to the top of Comb Ridge and then snakes down the dugway on its western edge. The dugway is barely a lane wide and apparently, it wasn’t wide enough for some—a few smashed vehicles reside at the bottom of the adjacent canyon. But in all the years we’ve traversed the dugway, we have never encountered an oncoming car or truck. We are exceedingly grateful for that.
Still it’s a bit of a white knuckle ride but when you reach the bottom of the dugway, at Comb Wash, it’s like Paradise found. Running parallel to the Ridge, Comb Wash is lined with some of the most magnificent cottonwood trees I have ever seen. For most of the year, the creek is just a trickle and fording it is easy. Of course, when it flash floods, it’s shut down for days. Plenty of quicksand around too.
But honestly, I think that little crossing, in the middle of summer, where the high green canopy of shade lets you escape the desert heat, and the cottonwood leaves do their little shimmering dance in the breeze, and the ravens are squawking and soaring up above, just flying for the fun of it…well, that’s about as close to Heaven as I think I’ll ever find. In fact, if Heaven isn’t like Comb Wash, to quote a cowboy pal of mine, “I ain’t going.”
We spent some time hiking at Natural Bridges and in Grand Gulch, which has recently been declared a ‘primitive area.’ There are some magnificent ruins and archaeological resources there that are stunning. Fortunately very few people know about these treasures and I truly believe it’s their anonymity that provides them the best protection. Still, we read in the Monticello papers that their state senator Cal Black is seeking funding for a “Museum of Indian Culture” in San Juan County. He noted that San Juan County has the highest number of native Americans and that many of the archaeological sites were being vandalized.
But there are also plans to pave a lot of these backcountry state highways and I worry what improved accessibility will do to the area. We were shocked to discover that the highway department is not just paving the old dirt Highway 95, they are in some places completely re-aligning it. The construction crews have been blasting a massive notch in Comb Ridge–about 400 feet deep—for the new highway. Eventually the road will bypass the old dugway altogether.
Eventually, Highway 95 will be paved from Blanding all the way to Hanksville. And that’s not all–they also plan to pave the road over Boulder Mountain, and the roads into Canyonlands National Park at the Needles, about 15 miles north of Monticello, and the Island in the Sky, north of Moab.
I also heard they’re about to extend Interstate 70, from Crescent Junction to Yellowcat and they’re already working on making it four lane from Cisco to the State Line. Big changes ahead.
I know that since the roads at Arches were paved in the late 1950s, the tourist numbers have exploded. I think I heard that in 1972, over 200,000 visitors came to the park.That’s about ten times the numbers they saw just a decade ago. Hopefully, the tourism will slow down and these numbers will level off. I don’t think any of these parks could handle much more visitation than they’re already receiving.
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We had an election back in November and saw Commissioners Mars Pope and Ralph Miller, Sr. hand over the gavel and the work of Grand County to DL Taylor and Hub Newell. Both Mars and Ralph have served the Moab area for years and they decided it was time to retire and let somebody else carry the load.
I know both fellas, though not well. But I know Hub’s wife Maxine and there’s nobody tougher or sweeter than that woman. She grew up in Dove Creek and has written some about her life out there on the Great Sage Plain. She later moved to Monticello and had a government job when the war broke out. She applied for a job in Washington, DC and got it. She’d never been farther away that Grand Junction and now she was headed across country on a steam locomotive. The next year she took a government job working on the Al-CAN Highway, the road the government built from Alaska to the Lower 48, when we thought the Japanese would invade us.
She told me met Hub at Hole n’ the Rock, back when they had a bar there. She said it was pretty wild and, in fact, her parents had banned Maxine from dating any “Moab Men,” but she and Hub met by chance, over a beer, and a year later they were married.
She works out at Arches now and also does stories from time to time for the local paper. She recently told me a great story about our friend Bates Wilson, who recently retired as Canyonlands National Park’s first superintendent. A few years back, Bates and a group of friends were exploring a part of Arches called the
Fiery Furnace. It’s a labyrinth of slots and canyons and it’s easy to get lost. On that afternoon, Bates took a wrong turn up a box canyon. He was about to turn back when he tipped back the brim of his Stetson and to his shock, spotted a magnificent never-before-seen arch. He, in fact, called it ‘Surprise Arch.’
But Bates sometimes utilizes a very expressive and…colorful language to convey his shock and surprise. It’s rumored that he declared, “Well, I’ll be a godamn son of a bitch. Thats a damn ARCH up there!.” He told Maxine about his discovery and described the event, including his own comments, exactly as they occurred (Bates is a stickler for accuracy). Maxine duly noted his comments and submitted the story for publication the following week.
But when Bates read the article for himself, he discovered that he’d been sanitized. According to Maxine’s account, Bates exclaimed, “Oh my goodness! Look! there is an arch!” Bates later complained to anyone who would listen, “I never said ‘my goodness’ in my entire goddamn life.”
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Finally, on a more solemn note, I should mention that the War in Vietnam, or at least our role in it, has finally ended. Just last week, on January 23rd, the Peace Accords in Paris were signed by representatives of the United States and North and South Vietnam. Fifty thousand American lives and the death of more than a million Vietnamese lives later (many of them civilians), at least America finally seems removed from the conflict.
But right here in Moab, there are those who think our country still bears a great responsibility and shame that is not absolved by the recent “peace accord.” For quite a while, some very ardent Moabite peace activists have openly opposed the war and clashes between them and some of our more conservative citizens have become heated at times.
Just a block off Main Street, one of Moab’s oldest homes has borne a huge banner that reads, “STOP THE WAR,” much to the chagrin of those who supported the Vietnam War. When the sign didn’t come down last week, there were more complaints. But Suesan Taylor, who is partly responsible for the banner, wrote to the local paper last week, saying that their sign will remain “until there is complete withdrawal of all (US) involvement in Southeast Asia.” Until then, she wrote, “there will be no hope for peace.”
I admire their passion and only time will tell if any lessons have been learned from this long, sad conflict. What I sense from so many of my friends, Republican and Democrat alike, is a certain weariness about it all—more a sadness about the war than a passion to end it. It’s difficult to imagine the country ever getting itself into this kind of controversial war again. let’s hope that’s the case.