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(from the 1999 Archives) ‘Moab’s Unsung Heroes—REMEMBERING the IRASCIBLE ROCKY NEWELL’ —Jim Stiles

Longtime Moabite Rocky Newell died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 78. He was one of a kind and I doubt if Moab will ever be as interesting a place to live. If you’re new here (relatively speaking) you might not know Rocky by name, but you do know he was the crossing guard in front of Helen M. Knight School and that if you didn’t obey his instructions, you probably got a look from the Rocket Man that would have curled your liver. Rocky was not a man to be trifled with.

I knew Rocky for almost 20 years. He was a seasonal maintenance man at Arches when I was a seasonal ranger and he was almost a daily visitor to the Devils Garden trailer during the lunch hour. Well…no…that’s not quite right. He was in the vicinity. Many Moabites don’t know that Rocky Newell was one of the great environmentalists of our time, and he’d slap me silly right now if he heard me say all this.

But it’s true. I’d come back to the trailer at noon for lunch and as I passed the NPS garbage truck, I often detected a slight movement coming from its innards.

“Rocky!” I’d yell, “Are you in there?”

“You bet Jim-O,” he’d answer.

“Any luck?”

“A few cans and a cook stove,” he’d advise.

Rocky Newell kept more good stuff from going to the dump than perhaps any man alive. I doubt if a single empty aluminum can ever left Arches National Park if it didn’t leave with Rocky. In those days the NPS had no official recycling plan, so Rocky took it upon himself to provide the service. I put out a spare garbage can and hung an “aluminum cans only” sign on it to help out, but it was mostly Rocky’s relentless pursuit of aluminum that allowed him to supplement his income by a few bucks each week (he’d never give me exact figures on his aluminum booty).

But he pursued more than just aluminum. Anything that could be recycled, Rocky claimed: discarded tents, sleeping bags, cook stoves, articles of clothing—even food. Nothing went to waste. He once dropped by with a bag full of fruits and vegetables and, to be honest, they looked a little ripe. But Rocky assured me the produce was fine and suggested I make a big salad for dinner.

That evening, still dubious about his offering, I decided to pass on the salad idea, but, not thinking at all, I threw it in the garbage. The next day at noon, there was Rocky, holding the salad that wouldn’t die.

“What’s wrong with you?” he growled. “This is good food. Don’t waste it.”

I nodded meekly and promised I’d never make the same mistake. That night I drove out to Salt Valley and left the fruits and veggies in the desert—out of sight from the road. You couldn’t be too careful.

One of the saddest days of his life came when Moab City closed the dump to junk salvagers like Rocky. “If I can’t make an extra $2500 a year from dump junk,” he used to say, “it’s a bad year.” He found everything from vacuum cleaners to curling irons up there, brought them home, fixed them and then had a yard sale.

Recently he turned to art–gourd art to be exact. His creations were beautiful and I regret that he never tempted me into buying one (which he proudly displayed and sold out of the trunk of his car). I saw him the day before he died, standing at the post office in those big baggy shorts he was so fond of wearing, and I cannot believe I’ll never see him again. Rocky made life a lot more fun and a lot more interesting and I will surely miss him. His likes will not pass this way again.

Rocky died on July 2, 1999.

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