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The Beauty of Trailers…Jim Stiles

From the Zephyr Archives…June/July 2002   Photographs by Michael Brohm

Living in a trailer always made me feel so much closer to Nature. For ten years I lived at the Devils Garden trailer, near the Arches National Park campground. It was the only residence in the heart of the park and it was my privilege to reside among the flora and fauna.

They became a part of me.

For one thing, trailers aren’t real tight, so the mice and kangaroo rats and bushy-tailed wood rats were free to come and go at will. At night I could hear them scurrying about the place, in search of food scraps or, at other times, scrounging building materials for their next nest. They were my little nocturnal pals. The deer mice especially were always ready to take over the trailer if I was gone too long. I recall on several occasions, I’d been away for a couple weeks and when I returned the mice had built a nest in my underwear drawer and were in the process of raising a family in the midst of my jockey shorts. Those mice are the reason, in fact, I gave up tight-fitting underwear. Imagine my surprise one morning when I pulled on a pair of old white briefs in the dim early morning light and felt seven newborn mice wiggling inside. It was almost a religious experience.

And of course, wherever rodents go, they leave their calling cards behind. Over the years the mouse and rat turds accumulated behind the walls. Whenever we bumped into the walls or tried to hang a picture–whenever anyone so much as touched those walls, you could hear the most recent rodent deposits trickle slowly to the floor. It sounded like one of those rain sticks you can buy at the nearest New Age crafts store. So in the brutal heart of a typical canyon country summer, listening to the gentle beat of mouse turds behind our walls was such a comfort. On demand, we could conjure up the sensation of a light summer rain. Blessed we were beyond my ability to describe it.

The Devils Garden Trailer at Arches NP in the late 70s

This was all before the Age of Hantivirus, the deer-mouse carried respiratory disease that is known to be fatal in humans and which has created an irrational fear of our little friends and the turds they produce. Nowadays, the idea of sweeping mouse berries away with a broom is a shocking violation of hantivirus protocol. Health authorities would have a nervous breakdown if they could have seen me pushing a cloud of dusty mouse turds out the door with a push broom. The cloud would grow as I swept from one end of the trailer to the other. My buddy and roommate, Mike Salamacha, would come in a from a long hike and see the dust devil moving toward him and some blurred human form within it and say, “Stiles? Is that you in there?”

I’d wave cheerily and answer, “Almost done. Stand back. I’m pushing this shit out the door.” Mike would oblige and move to a far corner of the trailer.

“One of these days,” he said later as we shared a cold beer, “we should make the Park Service buy us a vacuum cleaner.”

“Yeah…right,” I chuckled. “Right after we get a big raise and medical benefits.”

Years later, when the hantivirus threat made the Park Service remove and burn the old trailer, they tore off the interior walls and found almost a foot of rodent droppings accumulated at the base of the 2 x 2 studs. And yet Salamander and I have shown no ill effects from our long stay with the mice and rats. In fact, within our body chemistries, he and I may contain the very anti-bodies that hold the key to a hantivirus vaccine. Today we both stand prepared to offer our anti-bodies to modern medicine.

There were other forms of wildlife and other advantages to trailer life. A mobile home is built light for ease of movement from one place to another, so its walls aren’t exactly built of adobe. As a result, the sounds of Nature outside often sounded as if they were right next to me. I could hear the young mule deer in the back yard, browsing the new green growth above the septic tank leach field and sometimes young bucks rubbed their antlers against the trailer’s tin walls. I could hear the coyote’s call in the late evening when the moon rose. I could hear the hoot of a Great Horned Owl that lived for years in the dark upper recesses of a sandstone fin near the campground entrance. And on very still nights, I could even hear the lonely wail of a Rio Grande freight train as it roared east or west along the base of the Book Cliffs, thirty miles to the north.

And I could often hear the conversations of the newly arrived campers just up the road from me…

“If you think I’m camping in this pesthole, Walter, you’ve got another thing coming!”

“Well…at least we’re near the Comfort Station, dear.”

“I doubt if I’ll find much ‘comfort’ there. But probably more than I’ll get from you, Walter.”

Conversely, most of those same campers could hear everything that came out of the trailer. On the morning after the night that my beloved ex-wife and I had our penultimate screaming argument and she went off soon after to find an attorney, the entire west half of the campground came by to offer condolences; one man, a lawyer, gave me his card.

And then there was the wind. I could really appreciate the power and majesty of the wind at the trailer. A 5 mph breeze sounded like a 50 mph wind. A 50 mph wind sounded like a cyclone. It was during one of these tornado-like episodes that maintenance foreman Dave Baker explained to me why God made old tires. About two dozen of them, scattered at short intervals across the roof, reduced the perceived wind velocity and its effects significantly.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of my trailer was its alleged connection to Edward Abbey. Almost everyone who came to Arches in those golden days had read or was in the process of reading Desert Solitaire, although I came to question in the years to come, their reading comprehension. How many times, my GOD how many times did I answer a late night knock at the door only to find a fresh-faced kid (like me at the time) clutching a copy of Abbey’s masterpiece? And I’d have to explain once again that, no, this was not Edward Abbey’s trailer. In fact, Ed’s trailer sat abandoned and in an increasing state of decay at the NPS Central Maintenance yard in Moab for years and was finally sold for its axles to Mesa County, Colorado.

The Skinniest Ranger in the NPS,  at the Devils Garden in Arches.

Years ago, my old trailer was hauled away (the very trailer that is on the cover of this issue) and replaced by a bigger trailer. The NPS decided to move the ‘ranger residence’ away from the road to give us a bit more privacy. A ‘bit’ is what we got. At a cost of more than $50,000, they moved the new trailer ten feet. Government efficiency at its best.

Finally they hauled the trailer away completely; it lay abandoned at the Balanced Rock junk yard/gravel pit for a couple of years. Then they dragged it to the old Moab airport in upper Spanish Valley and the Moab Volunteer Fire Department burned it to the ground for practice. Since then, I’ve wondered if the broiled mouse turds might mutate as a smoke-borne version of the hantivirus and spread its deadly disease on masses of people. I hope Osama bin Laden is not reading this.

Today, at the old Devils Garden trailer site, an ugly cheap permanent structure sits just a few paces back from the entrance. It was intended originally to house a ranger but as far as I know, the plan has never been implemented. A volunteer “campground host” has replaced the seasonals who lived at the trailer for more than 25 years. The building, a true eyesore, remains.

And that ultimately was and is the beauty of trailers—when it has served its purpose, and a big Diesel truck has hauled it away, only those of us who have memories of it will ever know the trailer was there. Like leaving no foot steps, the trailer, more than a faux adobe condo or a trophy log cabin, is truly an environmentally compatible structure for our times.

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2 Responses

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  1. Lewis said

    Great piece from the achives, Jim. What was the name of your dog/coyete?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. from the ZArchives: THE BEAUTY OF TRAILERS…by Jim Stiles – The Zephyr linked to this post on January 25, 2015

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