“The Devils Garden Overlord & Cactus Ed”
(photos by the author except where noted)
Author’s Note: For more than three years , I have spent most of my keyboard time writing “informational/investigative” long form articles (some might suggest ‘long-winded’) about excruciatingly serious topics…Moab politics, San Juan County politics, sustainability in the New West, historic elections, the rise of reckless and inexcusable mainstream media manipulation, and of course, the bedeviling Bears Ears National Monument.
While I’m sure I’ll have more to say down the line (like it or not), I desperately need to stop for a moment, and do what I prefer…wax nostalgic about the West I discovered and loved when I first “came to the country,” almost half a century ago. After all, The Zephyr motto once proclaimed that we are “hopelessly clinging to the past.” So this is the first of a multi-part series about my decade as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park. It was a different time and a different world. As is so often the case with all of us, I didn’t know how good I had it, until ‘it’ was gone.
Until the 1990s, when the mountain bike/ATV explosion and the enthusiastic embrace of Industrial Tourism transformed forever my little part of southeast Utah, Grand County supported only two densely concentrated populations of humans on a regular basis. One was Moab, of course. The other, from April to October, was the Devils Garden Campground at Arches National Park.
On any given day, especially in the Spring, the campground teemed with human activity. It writhed and pulsated with all the qualities that are associated with humans when they are crammed tightly together in one “designated” place. For some, the expression ‘bat-shit crazy mob’ comes to mind.
And so, I unwittingly became the Overlord of the Devils Garden–For over a decade I was its mayor and constable. Its mediator and resolutions specialist. Its dedicated but abused public servant. It was not the job I had in mind.
I had dreamed of ‘Desert Solitaire Redux.’ I had envisioned myself as the latter day lone (park) ranger, surrounded by solitude and stillness. I imagined myself sitting alone on an outcrop of Entrada sandstone, observing the clouds pass, contemplating the sun set. Yes, I had expected to spend this summer by myself, meditating. Debating with myself, the meaning of life, the essence of the desert, of a grain of sand.
I survived Easter Week Madness and was, in fact, fed well by the Salt Lake City Fire Department (see “Ranger Stiles” volume #2). And I thought the pace might slow down as I watched the trailers and motorhomes roll out of the campground…outbound Praise Be!
Now, I thought, I can relax a bit.
But they kept coming – motorhomes, trailers, cab-over campers, recreational vehicles of all types. A lady climbed out of an Airstream trailer and cried, “Yoo hoo, Ranger! We’re from the 5th Ward in Bountiful. We always come here in April. There’ll be about a hundred more tomorrow.” She roared off in search of a campsite.
Ten minutes later, a school bus pulled up. Fifty Boy Scouts poured out of it like angry ants and started running up and down the slickrock domes and cliffs, screaming and yelling, and, by all appearances, trying to kill each other. A meek, bespectacled little man in a Boy Scout uniform tiptoed over to me on spindly legs and handed me an envelope.
“We’re Troop 451 from Orem,” he whispered. “We have reservations for the group site.”
I told him where his site was located, but advised him he had to control his kids.
“Oh my, yes…of course.” He turned in the general direction of the marauding little monsters and squeaked, “Now, now, boys. The rangers want us to behave ourselves. Let’s all be good scouts.”
The uniformed urchins continued to act like drug-crazed loonies. I went back in the trailer and pulled the shades. This is not what I expected, I thought to myself. How introspective can I be with all this noise? How can I possibly contemplate the meaning of a grain of sand when these Boy Scouts are throwing it at me?
Within an hour the campground was full again, but the campers kept coming. I worked overtime that night, the first of many long nights. I parked the carry-all at the junction. RV after RV rolled by, long after midnight.
Finally, I gave up. I went back to the trailer and took off my uniform. I was in my shorts and about to turn off the lights when a lady walked in my front door. She just walked in. Before I could even voice a protest over this obvious illegal entry, the woman with tear-filled eyes began to plead her case:
“Ranger, please! I’m begging you. We’ve driven all the way from Logan. My seven children are screaming, the baby threw up on the front seat, and my husband says he’s going to leave me if we can’t stay here tonight. I beg of you to help us.” She sobbed big gut-wrenching tears.
“Madam,” I said finally. “Do you realize that you just walked into my trailer? My residence…my home? And that I’m standing here in my jockey shorts?”
Through the blur of tears, she looked closely at me for the first time… “Well,” she replied, “I did notice you were out of uniform.”
What could I do? That night this wretched family from Logan, Utah, slept in the empty group site, but I was hardly rewarded for my kindness and compassion.
It never stopped—hordes of tourists just kept on coming, and almost without exception, they all felt the need to “check in” at the Devils Garden trailer, my humble home. It was like the proverbial fishbowl, except all the fish were on the outside. Finally, one day a German tourist walked in the trailer and asked for directions to Landscape Arch while I was taking a shower (I was actually shouting instructions through the bathroom door). And that was it. I finally reached my limit.
I put a big sign on my door. I explained that the trailer was a residence, not an office. There was no need to stop. I explained the campground registration system, where the nearest phone was. Every conceivable question was dealt with on that sign. I proudly installed it on the front door and went inside. About five minutes later, there was a knock on the door.
“Yeah, I’ve been reading this sign of yours, ranger … Is all this information on here true?”
I became desperate. Finally, in what I modestly believe was a stroke of genius, I devised a brilliant new strategy. The Devils Garden trailer had two doors, both on the same side, facing the campground road. Each had small portable wooden steps in front of them. I dragged one set of steps behind the trailer. I placed the other set of steps in front of a blank section of exterior wall. Then I placed new signs on the two doors. The first sign said, “This is not a door.” The other sign said, “This is not a door either – there are no doors.”
It worked (sort of). Tourists would read one sign, then the other, slowly circle the trailer, and leave. I could hear them through the walls meekly saying, “Hello?” from time to time. Once while peering through the curtain, I saw a man walk up the wooden steps and actually knock on the blank wall. Eventually, they left, looking confused and bewildered. I sensed victory.
But sometimes, genius is unappreciated. My boss was not pleased. Larry Reed was a patient man and was sympathetic to my plight. But the “No Door” strategy was just too much.
“Doggone it, shoot, Jim,” Larry said when he first saw the sign. “This is just not acceptable.” When Larry’s language degenerated to “doggone it,” I knew I was in trouble. Larry did not mince words. “And that picture has got to go,” he added. “You’re going to scare somebody.”
Well, maybe so. It was just a small glossy of me in a rented gorilla suit, wearing my ranger hat. Some thought the “monkey look” was an improvement. Anyway, I thought it added a nice touch to the door, but again I was vetoed.
I went back to the old sign and tried to make the best of it. As the summer rolled on, I realized I needed to include an additional piece of information. Once they got past questions regarding the nearest toilet, phone, and water fountain, many park visitors wanted to know:
“Was this Edward Abbey’s trailer?”
In ever increasing numbers, a diverse array of Ed Abbey Groupies made their pilgrimage to the Arches, to the Devils Garden and to my little trailer. They approached the trailer with reverence in their eyes, as if it were a shrine. Some had tears in their eyes. One admirer came with tin snips, hoping to take home a little piece of the trailer as a memento.
At first, I told them the truth. No, this was not Edward Abbey’s trailer. His trailer was at the time lying in a state of ruin at the central maintenance yard. It was eventually to be sold for scrap. And I made a sign that said:
“This was NOT Edward Abbey’s trailer.”
But after a while, I thought, Why disappoint these people? Of course this was Ed Abbey’s trailer (by the way). Maybe I could start selling little snippets of tin, to supplement my meager government income.
Also, it needs to be noted, and with great trepidation in this #MeToo Era, that in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a sub-culture of women, from across the country and around the globe, whose unshakable objective in Life was to find and bed Edward Abbey. He was the most sought after male in the Intermountain West. They would not be denied.
It’s not hard to understand how the charismatic and ruggedly handsome Cactus Ed appealed to women, but I discovered and was ultimately grateful that even a short, skinny ranger who simply knew Ed Abbey bore an inexplicable appeal as well. So when a beautiful young woman came by one day, touched my cheek with her hand and sighed that she just had to see where Ed Abbey slept, I knew that it was my duty, my responsibility as a loyal public servant, to give her the full tour. Subsequently, another brand new sign came to mind:
Edward Abbey Slept Here
If You Play Your Cards Right,You Can Too
“No,” said Larry simply. My boss didn’t even want to discuss it. I had a feeling I was pushing my luck.
The summer ground on. I started wearing my Darth Vader mask whenever anyone knocked on the door, but the visitors didn’t seem to notice. I started wondering why I was living in this crummy tin can. I’d come here for solitude, to be near the rocks and watch the sky.
I thought that if I made my sign look more official, that it might have a greater impact. So I drove down to the shop one morning, found a piece of wood, the stencils and a router and whipped something up that I thought was simple and concise. I even painted it in the official NPS brown and white paint. It read:
I hung the sign on my front door and hoped for the best.
Nope. It still had no effect and my bosses were starting to wish I’d ‘go away’ as well…perhaps to the unemployment line.
I had a particular problem with German tourists. They were often demanding and bellicose and they were always stealing somebody else’s campsite. An occupied campsite was no obstacle to them. If they saw a tent or even a vehicle in the site, it didn’t matter. They moved in anyway.
I’d get a complaint from the legal campsite occupants and wearily take action to remove the illegals. I’d say, “Excuse me, but these people have already occupied and paid for this site. You’ll have to move.”
They’d invariably look at me contemptuously and reply, “You do NOT understand…Vee are GERMAN!”
One day, after several of these incidents, I was at the downtown NPS HQ and saw the assistant superintendent, Tom Hartman. Tom was from Tennessee and I was raised in Kentucky, so despite our grade level difference (He was a GS-13. I was a GS-4…in the government, there is definitely a class distinction), we understood each other.
I unloaded on Hartman, and told him of my recent frustrations regarding the Germans. Tom leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the desk. He might have even been dipping snuff at the time…I’m not sure…but he leaned back, cupped his hands behind his head and said, “Stiles…next time these German tourists give you any trouble, here’s what you do.”
I listened intently.
“You get right up in their face,” Hartman said. “Look ’em in the eye and tell ’em to get out. And if they give you any lip, you just grin and say, ‘Hey…we whupped you twice and we’ll whup you again.’ You tell ’em that.”
Wow, I thought. I love this man. I said, “Seriously? I can really say that?”
Tom said, “Sure you can….I’ll fire you and deny I ever told you this. But sure, you bet you can say it.”
And so, my quiet suffering continued.
One night at 3 a.m., I was awakened by a knock on the door. A woman was standing anxiously on the porch. Her husband had kidney stones, she explained. Could I please take him to the hospital? The poor man groaned and moaned all the way to Moab, while his wife berated him for his alleged excessive beer drinking.
We arrived at the hospital, and I turned the beleaguered husband over to Dr. Mayberry, climbed wearily into the carry-all and headed back to my little Devils Garden trailer. The sun was up by now. I stumbled through the front door and collapsed on the couch. I was about to drift away when there came a rapping at my door.
“Excuse me,” the man said, “but is this Edward Abbey’s trailer?” He had a copy of “Desert Solitaire” under his arm. He wanted Ed to sign it.
It was seven o’clock in the morning. I looked at this devoted Cactus Ed Devotee through bleary eyes. “What? What do you want?” I asked incredulously.
“I was wondering,” he repeated, “if Ed Abbey was here. I’d like him to sign my copy of his book.”
“Sir,” I finally replied, “I am Edward Abbey.”
He looked me over, up and down. “Really,” he said skeptically. “I thought you’d be taller.”
I could have killed him, right there.”Do you want me to autograph your book or not?” I snarled.
He handed me his copy, and I must admit there was a look of reverence in his eyes as I wrote “To my old friend Fred … Don’t ever knock on my trailer door again…Your pal, Ed Abbey.”
Fred left, a happy man. I went back to the couch. Damn Abbey, I muttered silently. You got me in this mess to begin with.
___ ___ ___
And it was true, of course. Years earlier, Abbey’s book had turned me into a groupie as well. The previous October, I had even made the long difficult passage over dusty corrugated dirt roads to a place called Wolf Hole to meet the legendary writer, and the inspirer of my soul. I even came bearing a gift; I had doodled a cartoon of Glen Canyon Dam in ruins and thought he might like it.
But as it turned out, Cactus Ed wasn’t there…nothing was there.
Not even a fence post. Wolf Hole. I couldn’t even find a hole. I walked away from the car, into the dry grass and looked for miles across the dusty expanse of meadow and pygmy forest, beyond the trees to Mt. Trumbull. Nothing. I gave up. I pulled out my little drawing of the damn dam. I had written, “To Edward Abbey” in the lower left corner. Now I added, “..wherever you are.” Muckluk and I climbed back into the VW bus and left the Hole, headed back to Utah.
But just a couple months later, thanks to my new friends in the Park Service, I discovered that Abbey had been hiding in plain sight. He was living in Moab all along (for crying out loud) and in fact, owned a ranch-style one-story home on Spanish Valley Drive. He had electricity and a flush toilet. The works. I was sort of disappointed. I thought he’d be somewhere off the grid, huddled by a fire and poaching the occasional deer for meat. Instead he was almost living mainstream in Moab.
But Abbey was also friends to most of the seasonal rangers at Arches and Canyonlands. A mutual Park Service buddy, Jim Conklin, came by the park one afternoon to tell me Abbey was playing poker with Treadway that night. This, he said, would be a good chance to meet him.
But suddenly I was gripped by fear. I’d driven all the way to Wolf Hole, but now I lost my nerve. “Christ!” I said to Conklin, “What if I say something stupid?”
“Hmmm…You very well might,” he nodded. “It…would probably be better to say nothing at all. If he asks you a question, just answer it as simply as you can. Don’t elaborate. The less you say, the better. Quiet people are more mysterious. Maybe he’ll even think you’re deep.”
Abbey was playing poker that night at the ranch house, north of town. Today it’s called Moab Springs Guest Ranch and Condos, a high-end, over-development that charges $200 a night to sleep next to one of the busiest truck highways in America. But in 1975 it was just a ramshackle old brick home that once belonged to the family of Bobby Kennedy’s wife–-they’d stayed there on their honeymoon–and which was now rented by seasonal ranger, ne’r-do-well, and famous dog humper (see Volume #2), Doug Treadway.
Doug greeted Conklin and me at the back door and led us into the brightly lit but drafty old home. “Ed,” Treadway shouted, “the guy with the dam drawing is here.”
The lights in the front bedroom were off but it faced the highway; reflected light from passing traffic revealed the silhouette of a man standing in the front window. The dark figure turned slowly and walked toward me. Out of the shadows and into the light stepped my Hero, Edward Abbey. Conklin poked me gently and whispered, “Remember…don’t say much.”
But Abbey could not have been kinder or more gracious. He asked how long I’d been in Moab and was especially pleased to hear I was about to start work as a volunteer at Arches National Park.
I told him about my long drive to Wolf Hole and Abbey grinned and said, “Yes. Wolf Hole. What’s it like down there?”
I finally unfurled my Glen Canyon Damn drawing. Ed threw back his head and laughed. “My God…Floyd Dominy Falls at last!” I pointed out some of the smaller and more subtle aspects of the drawing including the tiny inscription on a large chunk of smashed concrete in the picture’s foreground that read, “Ken Sleight was here for the ride.”
I’d been doing so well, keeping my mouth mostly shut, only nodding if possible. Then Abbey told me about their upcoming poker game and invited me to join them. “Oh,” I explained, “I’m not much of a poker player.”
“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re all rank amateurs here. Come on and join us.”
“Well, ” I tried to explain, “the problem is, when I have a good hand, I tend to giggle and it gives me away.”
Abbey had still been gazing at my Dam drawing but now he looked up. “You what?” he said.
I felt my face start to grow warm, right around my ears at first. Sweat suddenly appeared. I thought about suicide as a viable option.
“Uh…I sort of, you know..giggle.”
It was the first time I personally saw Edward Abbey furrow his famous brow. He looked right through me, he gazed blankly out at the dark highway and muttered, ‘Yeah…maybe you’d better not play.”
I was so close–-this close—to getting through the entire event without looking like an idiot. But then, one little mistake. I was depressed for days.
* * *
NEXT TIME: Searches and Rescues. Who really needs assistance? Who’s just stupid?
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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