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“There’s only one NIK HOUGAN” (from the 1996 archives) —Stiles

     President’s Day Weekend in Moab…the first crazed tourist invasion of 1996. On Main Street, traffic thickens like crankcase sludge on a cold day, and moves about as fast, except for the 18 wheel truckers who thumb their noses at the speed limit and weave their way through traffic like 85 foot long sports cars. Recreationists fight for parking spaces and jockey for tables at their favorite cafe. Everyone is looking at each others’ new outfits; after all, this is the first chance to show off the latest in Lycra Fashion for ’96. Moab merchants, hungry after the lean winter months, hope for a good weekend. But they worry about making payroll, fret about the scarcity of labor, check their cash flow charts, consult the computer, and wonder if they’ll still be in business at the end of the season. There’s a lot
of stress in the little town of Moab these days, whether you live here or not.
But several miles from downtown Moab, in a secluded and still mostly undiscovered canyon, Nik Hougan carries none of the trappings of 20th Century life, even as we’re about to enter the 21st. His string of horses are his only means of transportation, his home is the white canvas wall tent that he’s pitched on a grassy shelf above and away from the creek. Somehow, Nik has managed to preserve a way of life that most of us only read about. He’s an American Original…there’s no one quite like Nik.

Talking to Nik Hougan is one of the easiest pleasures on Earth; finding him is something else. On a sunny Saturday morning, after wading my way through the bikers on the Sand Flats, I turned off on a dirt track for a half mile, then parked and hiked along the canyon rim until I spotted his camp. I picked a route down the talus and 30 minutes later, I was in the canyon. Nik stepped out to greet me, smiling broadly from behind his long sandy beard. But he was worried that I’d made the trip for nothing. He was just now saddling up to ride into town for a day or two and, after all, it’s sort of difficult to call ahead. Cell phones are no more in Nik’s future than a Winnebago.
We decided we could talk as we both walked out of the canyon. Nik led his horses and I unloaded my tape recorder. For the next couple of hours, Nik told me about his life. Most of what follows are in
Nik’s own words…
At first Nik seemed reluctant to talk about the details of his earlier life, but I’d missed the point. “It doesn’t matter,” he explained. “It just isn’t that particularly exciting. I grew up in the average dysfunctional family, middle-class, working professionals, and lived all around really. I grew up in the Northwest, but I also lived in Las Vegas when all that was being built up in the 50s. I dropped out of high school in my junior year at Newport Beach, California and went into the Navy. I got out, drifted around in the merchant marines…this and that.

“I moved to Moab in ’73. I was running rivers, working part-time for Sam at the Times-Independent, and managed Sidewinder River Expeditions for awhile, but first I was an artist and a cartoonist. I did some political and environmentally oriented cartoons for the Sunday supplement to the Oregonian. But back in ’79 is when I really tried to make a go of it with just my art work. It’s been hard…it’s hard now.”
Nik’s work is all over town…literally. If you see a big mural, it’s probably Nik’s. He just did a T-shirt design for the Poplar Place and he may start work soon on an outside mural for Eddie McStiff’s. When Nik says he’s going to paint the town, you have to ask him to be more specific.
I’ve always wondered if there had been a day in Nik’s life when he made the conscious decision to walk away from modern society (so-called) but he makes no such claim. “It just sort of happened. I always loved being outside as a kid, one thing led to another, and now it’s hard for me to do anything else. After all this time, I’ve pretty much lost a lot of my social skills, actually. Even this time back in Moab, I thought about re-integrating with the community, getting involved in things, you know, do all those normal things that civilized human beings do…Absolutely zeroed out on it. Now I’m ready to saddle up and head out.”
I asked Nik if he worried about things like health insurance. It took him a few seconds to stop laughing so he could answer the question…
“No, Jim. No insurance. No credit cards. I don’t even have a driver’s license anymore. I think it expired about nine years ago.”
We paused for a moment to re-gain our bearings and to take in the view on this mild and sunny February day. A golden eagle soared above us, below we could hear the creek as it tripped over sandstone shelves and fallen trees on its way to the Moab Valley. I asked Nik what he thought of the New Moab.
“I find it painful. Even where we’re at right now, I’ve always used this beautiful spot when I’m working out of Moab. But with that blankety-blank new road development on the Sand Flats, it’s ruined. Any day now, there’ll be hordes of people down here and one more beautiful, pristine place will be destroyed because everybody comes out here turning the country into what they’re trying to get away from. So anyway…that’s my bitch with Moab.
“But the changes I’ve seen in 20 years are amazing. I find people everywhere these days. I used to go into the Waterpocket Fold and once I found this cowboy cave. There were old charcoal writings, going back to 1927…some guy named ‘Shorty,’ with the ‘S’ spelled backwards. The whole cave was full of old cans and being in that cave and out of the weather, even the labels on the cans were intact. Today, there’s a marked trail going right through that spot.”

Still Nik perseveres. And so for much of the last 20 years, Nik has been camping out. As a result, cities have become a treat of sorts, when taken in small doses. “I guess in the tradition of the cowboy, the miner, the mountain man, or whatever, you go into town and you’ve got some money, and it’s like going to the carnival. It’s new, it’s fresh. You get drunk, there’s women…there’s a definite lack of women out in the hills. I’ve always referred to it as ‘going to Dodge’ or ‘hurrahing the town.’ It’s OK for while.”
The money Nik gets to ‘hurrah the town’ comes mostly from his art; although he’s done some cowboy work to get by, he doesn’t particularly like it. “I don’t make too much money cowboying because I’m much too lazy that way. It’s not my life. I’m an artist and I work hard at that. I sell enough of my work to survive this way. But living in town, I’d have to rent a place, find a place to board my horses, buy hay, and all of a sudden, there’s all these expenses of living in town. I’m still trying to make ends meet on an income that works in the wilderness. It’s a hole that’s hard to get out of, once you get in it.
“I thought, though, even last fall, that maybe I could re-join civilization, but…I don’t know…it may be too late. I can’t seem to make that adjustment.”
So I wondered. What does Nik do out here by himself every day? And does he ever get lonely?
“Well, there’s a lot of work that just goes into survival. Food and water. Taking care of my horses…their needs come first. Setting and breaking camp. And I’m sort of into yoga and mediation. I can do that for
hours. And I do my art work. I like to discipline myself to do so many paintings a month. I have to do that. Sometimes I get caught up in traveling and the weather, and this and that, and I have to work especially hard to stay on that schedule.
“So it’s never boring. But the loneliness is a totally different thing. It’s something you can never completely escape. I don’t believe it when someone says they never get lonely. Of course, some of the loneliest places I’ve ever been are in the middle of the city. It’s a burden everybody carries in their hearts. We are social creatures and it is hard to be isolated from other people. It’s probably not healthy…I’m probably crazier than a fruit cake.
“My horses are a great comfort to me. I’m with them all the time and I’ve gotten them out of a lot of dangerous situations. They’ll hang around the camp and they like to be scratched. I guess it’s more like the indifference of a cat, but they’re still very loving and affectionate. I’d like to think they can read my mind, you know?”
Despite the time Nik spends alone, he’s quick to point out that he’s no hermit. But a few years ago, Life magazine decided otherwise. According to Nik, a writer for Life who was working on a story about hermits and eccentrics heard about Nik and proposed to do a story about him. She tracked him down via a local cafe and presented the idea. Nik thought she was kidding. “I guess maybe I’m a little eccentric, but I’m no hermit. At the time I was even living with a woman and I told the writer that, thinking that ought to disqualify me right there. But it didn’t seem to matter to the writer. All of a sudden, a bell went off. I get it, I thought…they’ve already written the article. They already had their facts and I was their ‘character’ actor. So I figured, you want a hermit, you’ve got a hermit. And I made a point to lie about everything. Well, it was very distorted truths.”
Where to next? Nik and his horses are thinking about a summer trip along the spine of the Continental Divide this summer; yet, eventually Nik seems to always head back to Moab. “I have to admit though,” Nik worries, “Moab is starting to lose its interest for me, real fast. I love the town, I’ve always loved it, but it’s kind of a love/hate relationship too. There’s parts of it that exemplify the sinister aspects of everything that’s going on in our society. The sell-out of values, the exploitation of resources, and it’s kind of runaway in Moab right now.”
Outside Moab, Nik has had his conflicts with “progress” as well, especially with the BLM and certain law enforcement authorities in San Juan County. “I could wallpaper my walls with all the trespass tickets they’ve given me in the last 20 years, if I had any walls,” said Nik. He was once camped by Lake Powell and got a ticket because his horses were too close to the lake. The ranger told him his horses constituted a health threat. Yet, humans, not horses, have pumped so much raw sewage into the reservoir that entire sections of it have been closed to the public in recent years. Nik takes it all in stride.
I asked Nik where he thought he’d be twenty years from now. He chuckled.
“I probably won’t be around. This is a very dangerous lifestyle. I could be laying out there with a broken leg for a long time and nobody’s going to miss me. Nobody’ll be sending a search party, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t bother me. The whole world could end tomorrow. I try to live for the day. The moment. I try to, more and more…”

We came to a fork in the trail. I could climb out of the canyon over a rocky talus slope but it was too steep for the horses; we shook hands and headed our separate ways. When I reached the rim, I could see five or six Yuppie 4WD vehicles within a few hundred yards of the canyon that weren’t there this morning. Nik was right…the hordes are moving in. I looked back and below me. I could still see Nik and his horses making their way slowly along the trail.
There’s only one Nik Hougan, I reminded myself. I hiked back to the car, to my Yuppie 4WD and drove slowly back to town, the traffic, the crowds, and 1996.

UPDATE: In 2012, more than 15 years after this story was written, Nik is still out there in the red rock hills, being true to himself and to the land he loves…JS


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5 Responses

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  1. Michelle Wybenga said

    Thanks so much for sharing this article on Nik! I met him by divine accident at Mondo Cafe in Moab in 2005. Had a good long conversation with him thanks to an introduction by Bob Morgan, Mondo owner. Nik was unique and wonderful, full of heart and mischievous twinkle. My friend and I both bought necklaces from him which he had made from juniper berry stones. I still smile when i think of spending that time with him, and shake my head at the fact it actually happened. But I’m really hoping to run into him again someday. Again, thanks for sharing your story and sharing Nik’s words. 🙂

  2. Newt said

    I knew Nik when he lived with us in Portland back in 1969-70. His paintings were psychedelic, colorful and well represented the countercultural times. I still have one of them— a weird vision of a frog jumping while Nik was on acid. Very cool. I recall Nik effectively baiting a Mormon friend in debate one time, wrapping the Mormon up in linguistic snares, and then gently telling him that he too was a Christian, demolishing the Latter Day Saint. Nik is a unforgettable one off. Cheers to his hermitage!

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