DATELINE: MOAB, UTAH—APRIL 4, 1956
It seems like only yesterday when our little hamlet of Moab slumbered peacefully, like a throwback to the 19th Century. Quiet lazy mornings. Peaceful green evenings. My serenity was only disturbed by the rumble of an occasional passing truck or the clip-clop of kids on horseback (and the sound of me swatting all those infernal mosquitoes that are bound to be back soon with the warm weather.).
But haven’t times changed? In just a few short years, our little orchard town has become a hub of activity. When Charlie Steen found uranium in 1952, in a place where all the “experts”—those smart-ass government and corporate geologists—said it didn’t exist, his discovery turned our little “lost world” and the City of Moab, Utah upside down. Right now, I’m just hanging on for the ride.
Nowadays when I walk downtown, the streets are busy and the cafes are packed.I have to drive around and search for an open parking space. It’s what they call ‘bustling.’ Moab has one pay phone and last Saturday morning, there was a line of anxious, impatient men a block long—seriously—I’d bet more than 200 of them were waiting to use that pay phone to call home. Even our land line phones are always busy—I think we have about 12 people on our party line; the best time to use our phone is at 3 o’clock in the morning, which is perfect if I’m trying to call Australia!
This week, to make matters even more chaotic, they’re holding a big “Uranium Convention” here in Moab. It’s a gathering of the “American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical Petroleum Engineers,” and they expect about 500 people to attend. The organizers are planning field trips and guest speakers, talking about the energy industry and what the future holds for us. They figure this might be the biggest day for out-of-town visitors in Moab’s history and the Chamber of Commerce reckons it could bring in as much as $25,000 for the weekend to motels, gas stations, restaurants and such. Personally, I’ll be glad when it’s over and we can just get back to our new “sort of crazy” normal, instead of full bore totally nutzo crazy that’s fast-approaching.
Many Moabites are happy about our recent transformation and others are already looking forward to a slowdown. Nobody could argue that there are many more jobs here and high-paying ones at that, but the cost of living has increased as well. And mining uranium comes at a cost too. We hear stories about the radioactivity being bad for the miners and that it could create some serious health issues down the road. But none of us can predict the future–maybe we’ll all pay a price for this later. But one thing is certain–just the work alone can be hazardous. We’ve heard some disturbing reports, just in the last couple weeks, about mine accidents.
Tim Jordan, of Green River, was critically injured in March when a rock, blown out during a routing explosion, struck him in the head. He was rushed by ambulance to Price and then by airplane to Salt lake City, where he remains in critical condition. There have been several other recent fatal accidents; the most horrific came last week when a young fellow from La Sal named Walter Kopf lost his footing and fell almost 600 feet into a deep shaft at Lisbon Valley. He was another young veteran of the war who’d only been in the area about ten months. Like so many others, he and his wife came to Moab to find their fortunes. Now his bride returns home to her family in New Jersey alone.
* * *
To get away from the crowds I went out to the Arches last week to see Bates Wilson, but he was in
something of a foul mood himself. Turns out he caught some kids again carving their names on Delicate Arch. He told me, and I’m quoting here, “The number of fools trying to scribble their names on Delicate Arch has reached an all-time high, and I’m not going to put up with it any longer!” (And I think he might have added a few more expletives along the way.)
Bates’ assistant, Chief Ranger Lloyd Pierson was there and he had a few choice words about the graffiti too. He’s been out at the arch, trying to remove the vandalism with a wire brush but he’s afraid he may be doing more harm than good. After all, the arch is pretty thin to begin with.
Lloyd introduced me to a young fellow who just reported for duty as a seasonal ranger at the monument. He will be living up in the park near Balanced Rock, in a little tin trailer the Park Service recently acquired.
His name is Edward Abbey, though he told me to just call him ‘Ed’ He’s a tall, lanky young guy, with a bit of a stubbly beard and according to Lloyd, he has the biggest head anyone in the Park Service has ever seen. They can’t find a ‘Smoky’ hat that fits Ed so he’s been wearing a black cowboy hat. But Bates doesn’t think it looks professional enough, so he found one of those ‘pith helmets,’ or Safari helmets that we see in movies from time to time. Abbey didn’t seem too pleased with the new head gear.
Later, Lloyd pulled me aside and whispered, “We’re hearing a rumor that this fellow Abbey is a Communist, but he seems pretty harmless to us.”
Lloyd explained that they’d received a memo, from someone “up above,” as he put it, claiming there had been an FBI investigation into Abbey’s loyalty. They say he created quite a ruckus in Albuquerque, when he was a student at the University of New Mexico, but nobody is quite sure just what dis-loyal act he committed. Anyway Lloyd said that Bates planned to drive down to Santa fe to the regional office and try to get things straightened out. Abbey seems like a decent fellow to me, despite his big head.
I was complaining to Bates and Lloyd about the crowds in Moab and both of them gave me a sort of funny look. Finally Bates spoke up and warned me that things might soon be getting crazier at the Arches too. Apparently, the government has allocated more than $2 million to build a new road into the monument. Eventually it will go all the way to the Devils Garden, about 18 miles.
Lloyd showed me where an old CCC crew started blasting out a new road up the cliffs behind Bates’ home, way back in 1939. They didn’t get far and then the war came and everything stopped for the duration. Now, more than a decade after the war ended, the government is moving forward with park ‘improvement’ projects all over the country.
They call it “Mission 66” and the plan is to improve the roads and facilities at parks across America. It will cost billions of dollars and they hope to have the work done by 1966, a decade from now.
Anyway, they showed me some aerial photographs of the planned new road; Bates and Lloyd laid out the route themselves, and they hope that it can be constructed without damaging the scenery too much. But neither Bates nor Lloyd is optimistic. Bates says that with the paved roads, they could see visitation to the monument increase dramatically. Last year, Arches greeted about 25,000 people; after the roads are paved, the numbers could reach as high as 100,000. I don’t know if Arches could handle that many tourists in a year without doing irreparable damage.
Throughout the conversation, young Ranger Abbey sat under a tree, muttering something under his breath that I could not quite understand. I wasn’t sure if he was upset about the road construction plans, or his pith helmet. Or both.
* * *
I drove back to Moab, over the new bridge, and as I often do, stopped to visit with the Goat Man, my buddy Jack Holley. He was in an upbeat mood and celebrating his new ‘home.’ Last year, when the Utah Highway Department started building the new bridge and re-aligning the road, they realized that the right-of-way ran right through Jack’s old stone cabin. Of course, Jack doesn’t own the property; in fact, he’s been squatting there for more than 25 years. So it appeared that after all these decades, the Goat Man might wind up homeless.
But the Highway Department guys came up with a solution. They had an equipment shed that was being used during construction to store a variety of tools and gear. With the work almost done, somebody–nobody is saying who–decided that they could just misplace that shed. The guys moved it across the road into a nice stand of cottonwoods and helped Jack transfer his earthly belongings to it from his old stone shelter. Somebody even ran a power line from the main pole to his ‘front porch.” For the first time in his life, Jack Holley is electrified.
Jack was grateful for the new shed and the light, but he did complain that the electricity was “attracting bugs” and he mostly keeps it turned off. And though some upstairs Salt Lake City bureaucrat would probably have a fit if he knew about the misappropriation of a tool shed, we are guessing he never knew.
I left Jack to contemplate the sunset and drove into a very busy downtown Moab. I really miss those slow buccolic days before the Boom. But there’s at least one positive change brought on by Uranium Frenzy, and I decided to take full advantage of it. I turned up Center Street to Fourth East, straight to the Stop n’ Eat, found my favorite stool by the window, and ordered a chili cheeseburger, fries and a malt. Moab without Milt and Audrey Galbraith and their wonderful diner seems impossible. Unthinkable.
I can tolerate anything Life throws at me, as long as I can seek refuge here.