Take It or Leave It: ‘Old Moab’ vs. ‘New Moab’…by Jim Stiles


‘Old Moab’ vs. ‘New Moab’

Ed Abbey, Chilled Red Wine & When to Clap at the Symphony.

In 1952, when Charlie Steen discovered uranium and turned Moab from a sleepy little village to the most famous Boom Town in America, many residents were not happy about its sudden transformation. Moab was tucked away in one of the most remote corners of the country and was better known for its wind and dust and heat and mosquitoes than anything else. The uranium boom changed all that.

Maxine Newell was born in Dove Creek but came to Moab with the boom; she remembers the animosity of the old Moabites. “Every time I gripe about bikers,” she recalled in a 1995 Zephyr interview, “ it reminds me of what people said about us. The old timers were just furious.”

Maxine noted that when thousands of fortune seekers descended on Moab, there were only four or five telephones in the entire town. People stood in line for hours just to make a call to their families. Water was only available every other day. Trailers sprung up in backyards to accommodate the overflow.

But eventually, Newell, notes, the changes were for the better. Better services, improved schools. More substantial infrastructure, paved roads. Moab would never be the remote pastoral community it had once been.
In 2012, the Moab of mid-20th Century is rarely recalled, much less missed or revered. With a few exceptions, even the ‘Old Moab’ of 1980 fails to stir much interest for many of its new residents.

My own memories of my old hometown of almost 30 years go back to the late 70s, when Moab’s energy boom was on the wane and its tourist economy had not quite taken off. To coin a phrase from the title of a wonderful book about Jackson, Wyoming in the 50s, my early time in Moab was its “cocktail hour”—the town was still reeling from the collapse of the uranium industry and its more entrepreneurial elements had not yet geared up in earnest for a future that would take Moab, for better or worse, to the place it has become.

Is Moab a better place to live in 2012 than it was 60 years ago? Or 30?  It was certainly a more provincial town back then, less diverse, less cultured. I will always remember a few months in 1980, when its most famous—or perhaps most notorious—resident prepared to sell his home and move south to Arizona.


Ed Abbey called  Moab home for seven or eight years in the 70s, when he and his wife bought a ranch-style house on Spanish Valley Drive.  I met him soon after my own arrival. Abbey, always trying to lend a hand to young artists, convinced his publisher to use some of my cartoons in a book he was working on (ultimately called ‘The Journey Home’) and I saw him occasionally for the next five years, usually at the post office or at the Westerner Grill.

But by Spring 1980, Abbey was ready for a move. I heard he’d bought a home in Tucson and in early May, a friend told me that Ed was loading up a U-Haul truck and planned to be gone by the end of the week. I figured it was my last chance to say goodbye, so I drove out to his home, expecting half the town and a cluster of Abbey Groupies to be there helping out. Instead, I was surprised to find him alone, trying to wrestle a large wood dresser out the door.

I spent most of the afternoon there as we grappled with the rest of the furniture. Most of it fit, but he pointed to an impressive cache of timber in his garage, 2 x 12 lumber that must have been 20 feet long.

“Damn,” he muttered. “I’ll have to leave the beams behind. They’ll never fit in the truck.”

I asked him what he planned to do with them. Abbey grinned.

“You know…for the houseboat on Lake Powell…the adobe houseboat. That part of the story was true.”


Later he invited me to dinner at the Sundowner (now Buck’s Grill). He asked me what kind of wine I preferred and I suggested he choose. I was loathe to admit that my knowledge of wine then was limited to Boone’s Farm and Cella Lambrusco (it’s only improved marginally since). He ordered a red wine and a big sirloin steak and we talked about Moab and the future.

A year earlier, the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania had cast a dark and ominous cloud over the industry and the price of uranium ore started to plummet. Layoffs at the Atlas mill were forthcoming and some thought Moab might just dry up and blow away. Abbey fancied the idea of a small self-sustaining “artist community.” How he thought such a community might escape the commercialism and hype that goes with such a self-proclaimed designation—well, he hadn’t figured that part out yet.

The wine came. I’ll take a guess and say it was a good merlot. But the staff at the Sundowner had seen fit to place the bottle in a bucket of ice cubes. Abbey was gracious enough not to embarrass the waitress but when she’d left, Ed grabbed the bottle by the neck and pulled it from the bucket.

“For Christ’s sake, “ Abbey moaned. “Typical Moab. Doesn’t anyone in this town know that you DON’T chill a red?”

He dried off the bottle and put it under his jacket, hoping he could at least take the chill off. Then he realized that trying to warm the wine by wedging it in an armpit might be just as offensive to some as its temperature. He decided he was too thirsty for the merlot to await its return to 63 degrees.


As we sipped our icy drinks, Abbey recalled another recent Moab faux pas.

In those days, the Utah Symphony made an annual trip to some of the smaller southern Utah communities, usually in February and the dead of winter, and performed for the locals. In 1980, a visit to Moab by the orchestra was an event. Moab was still a working man’s town then. And yet, Moab music lovers turned out each year in record numbers.

The turnout in 1980 surely exceeded a thousand. Wives dragged their cowboy or miner husbands to the high school gymnasium where the symphony performed and even forced them to dress for the occasion. The number of uncomfortable males that night who spent much of the evening jerking nervously on their neck tie knots cannot be overestimated.  Still, everyone, even the reluctant prospectors, seemed to enjoy themselves.

But we rural Utahns were all novices to this. Abbey recalled the moment when the symphony came to the end of the first movement and the audience broke into applause…

“How can these people not understand? You do…not…applaud…between… movements!”


I nodded solemnly. I didn’t want to tell Abbey that I’d only learned the error of my ways a couple years earlier, when I committed the same sin and my ranger buddy Jim Martin practically snapped off my hands at the wrists.
But finally, Abbey shrugged and laughed. “I guess it doesn’t really matter if they drink iced red wine and clap between movements. If they’ll just leave our canyons alone, Stiles.”
Years later, in a mild put down to the gentrification of camping, Abbey would write,” We don’t go into the wilderness to exhibit our skills at gourmet cooking. We go into the wilderness to get away from people who think gourmet cooking is important.”
Barely a year before he died, Abbey spent his last summer in Moab. I took him up to the Sand Flats one day to see the recently re-discovered “Slickrock Bike Trail.” Moab was on the verge of being transformed once again. Soon we would become the “Mountain Bicycle Capital of the World” and the old “Uranium Capital…” sign would be relegated to Woody’s bar.
But Ed had once  promoted the idea of replacing cars with bicycles and was annoyed at first by my lack of enthusiasm.
“Hell, Stiles,” he complained. “You’re more negative than I am!”
“Well, “ I defended myself. “Have a look first.”
Abbey and I drove his old Ford truck up the switchbacks above the town and he saw the hordes of pedaling recreationists who had made the pilgrimage to Moab. We watched the crowds fill the parking lot as the bikes fanned out over the vast expanse of sandstone; Abbey noted some of the cars and license plates–lots of BMWs and Saabs and Audis. Many California plates…Marin County. A rash of yupstermobiles from Crested Butte. Ed flashed back to our conversation of almost a decade earlier.
“One thing’s for certain, “ Ed said. “When these people drink a red, they know not to chill it.”
Moab’s not the town that it once was, nor is it the town it will become—New Moabites, bewildered and amused at the sentimentality of people like me, will someday find themselves waxing nostalgic for the things they’ve lost, as the world continues to turn over, again and again. Each generation loses something and gains something. A never ending trade-off.
Is it worth the pain to lament what’s gone forever? Is it even worth remembering? For me, remembering is what keeps the fire alive. Without it, in many ways, I don’t even know what the point of all this is. Still the world lurches forward.
I finally gave up ‘clinging hopelessly to the past.’ My own life is beyond excellent these days as we try to create our own reality and blot out those parts of the ‘real world’ that are too overwhelming to contemplate on a daily basis.
But I can’t help but bask from time to time in the fond memories of Days that no longer exist. If you don’t understand what I mean, someday you will.
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14 comments for “Take It or Leave It: ‘Old Moab’ vs. ‘New Moab’…by Jim Stiles

  1. February 7, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Ah… mountain biking. They keep coming. We skiied the old Emerald Mountain trail behind Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs a couple weeks back… it used to just be an unmaintained dirt road. Then the city turned it into a designated nordic ski trail. Then the city added trail grooming and additional loops off the road. But it’s still a great ski, up the road, 900 feet elevation gain, and back down through deep powder in the oak groves. Damn, I just gave it away. Guess what we saw this year? A “plague” of bicycles (10 of them, i think), with specialized tires three-inches wide pedaling up the ski trail. In my experience, everywhere that mountain bikes go, the resource is eventually ruined for all other users. Will this trend follow on the ski trail?

  2. m.posinoff
    February 13, 2013 at 11:22 am

    February 13, 2013

    Yes remembering some of the past gone by. Thanks Jim. My memory comes in during late winter/ early springtime 1975.
    Traveling over Hurrah Pass to the airfield down by the Needles took eight days. The old cabin nearer to the airfield still had a fruit tree and vegetable plants then growing wild around it. The era before bicycles was a much quieter time. One could hear themselves THINK while out there.

  3. March 3, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    I guess I’m one of the hordes of “tourists” who visit Moab to go hiking, biking, and camping. I can relate to what you’re saying, though, because places in the east (I live in New York City) that I loved fifty, forty, thirty, and even twenty years ago have been changed forever by tourists, cars, and development.

    I first visited Moab in 1992, and I’ve been back many times since. But, of course, I’ve noticed the changes over the years.

    Let’s all tread lightly, wherever we are.

    David Schiff

  4. March 3, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    I guess I’m one of the hordes of “tourists” who visit Moab to go hiking, biking, and camping. I can relate to what you’re saying, though, because places in the east (I live in New York City) that I loved fifty, forty, thirty, and even twenty years ago have been changed forever by tourists, cars, and development.

    I first visited Moab in 1992, and I’ve been back many times since. But, of course, I’ve noticed the changes over the years.

    Let’s all tread lightly, wherever we are.


  5. Paul Swanstrom
    March 5, 2013 at 12:21 am

    Yes,, I remember a certain moment in time, in Moab where the food at the Westener was good, the conversation with you and Too Tall was better and the women were starting a new organization….

  6. jim stiles
    March 5, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Hey Paul…Yes I remember that ‘certain moment’ and Too Tall and the Westerner and a group of Sensitive New Age Guys (S.N.A.G.) who mixed it up with some more..uh..’traditional’ men who called their group “Come ON Woman!” (Or C.O.W.) In 2013, anyone claiming to be a member of the latter in Moab has a fair chance of being castrated.

  7. March 5, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    how topical. rite when i’m composing a mostly-farcical light-hearted poke at Moab in favor of Green River. “read all about it” soon.

    as usual, a good short sweet all-inclusive history of Moab, nicely done.

  8. March 6, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Enjoyed the story very much. How provincial am I still? I’ve got a 6 pack (that’s a 6 pack for crying out loud) of Cella Lambrusco in my ‘fridge right now. I’ve got some straws for those that prefer them. The stuff is really good with a couple of squirts of “squeeze cheese.”

  9. March 11, 2013 at 10:43 am

    (as threatened): “light-hearted poke” — w/a BIG NOD (?) and assistance from the ‘Zeph. and the Groffs:


    the post with the title ‘Mountain Bike Green River? — the “Poor Man’s Moab” ‘

  10. Kirk Knighton
    March 13, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Damn Jim, I was thinking of Ed tonight, and thinking of you and that very first edition of the Zephyr coming out the day Ed died. Thinking that I wish I had something new about Ed to read right about now. And here is your excellent memoir. My wife and I attended an event last weekend where they served beer and wine. I felt like a glass of red wine, and they served it to me CHILLED! Horrors! There are many horrible things in life; one of them is chilled red wine. I’ve been to Moab…let’s see…twice in 1980, then not again ’till 2003…then again in 2009 and 2010. Five times? That’s all? And yet it has always felt like a kind of home to me. I still find solitude in Arches in spite of the crowds…and sometimes amongst the crowds there is a gem, such as a French lady I met there in 2009 who absolutely charmed my socks off. I think Ed would have approved…

  11. Warren Musselman
    March 27, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Hell, I remember Moab in the late 70’s and through the 80’s before the influx of industrial tourists and mountain bikes made it the LAST place I would go during tourist season (March-April-May and September-October-November). Hell, I remember seeing Stiles personally stick piles of the early Zephyr into the rack at Back of Beyond. Moab was ruined the day the first brilliant idiot thought mountain biking was something he could turn a few bucks at.

    I still love the landscape, still love the town in some kinda way, but it is the last place I would move to or visit except to hit the City Market. When my less than wilderness-oriented friends ask where to go in Utah, Moab is where I send them since it got ruined 30 years ago. Personally, I would NEVER tell anyone about the good places that are left … and like Ed Abbey, if I find you there, I’ll be happy to shoot you just for being in my solitude.

  12. Dan e young
    August 23, 2015 at 8:21 pm

    Ed Abbey. Was/is the problem. Guy came to town stayed a short stay and then exploited it all for his own benefit and then moved to Arizona. I was born in Moab in 1961 and watched and participated in its demise punched cows out in all the good places in the desert for the first 16 years of my life drilled for uranium in the same good places for a couple years ran rivers with Paul swanstrom too tall and Brian Coombs. For a couple years. Moved out mostly because I had the Moab illness drug and alcohol abuse. I live in grand junction and don’t go home and see my family much because it’s just sad what it’s becoming. But I agree past is past. Now it’s all gonna be turned into a monument so on we go. Again Ed Abby the problem not the hero. Also Tourism is the most non green industry to come to the canyons. Thanks for nothing Ed !

  13. Robert pisapia
    October 22, 2016 at 9:35 am

    I first visited Moab in 1985.The Westerner Grill was the local gathering place.The old Atomic Motel was typical retro.Many years later,possibly in the 90’s I drove into town from Crescent Junction.Behold a huge sign “Visit the Other Arches”. Over the years I saw development that goes beyon reasonable.On my last visit to Moab in October 2016, I drove through town in a traffic jam. The cars lined up at the entrance to Arches National Park stretched for a quarter mile.

  14. Dana VanVoorhees
    January 29, 2019 at 4:14 pm

    In my opinion the real carnage in Moab is noise and congestion from the hordes of ATVs, Razors, Super Razors, UTVs, Can Ams and Rock crawlers zooming all over town and in the backcountry at all hours. All that damn noise from those jacked-up golf cart machines give me lots of headaches. Not sure how the town tolerates it. It’s a freakin’ circus.

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