Take it or Leave it: RETURN TO ABAJO PEAK, AN AUTUMN’S VIEW…by Jim Stiles



In the blink of an eye, summer has left us. The maples are turning red below South Peak, the aspens are on the cusp. The mornings are cold and crisp. The most poignant and melancholy and lovely time of the year has arrived in all its mystical Autumnal glory

It seems like only yesterday that I was complaining about the heat and the no-see-ums. Time just isn’t what it used to be.

A few weeks ago, I stepped outside at 3 AM and saw, in the eastern sky, the constellation Orion, rising again after a four month absence. It is a portent of shorter days and long nights and cold weather.

For better or worse, my life is steeped in tradition and hopeless sentimentality, and the fall always aggravates that condition. Everything I do triggers some distant memory and almost every date on the calendar is an “anniversary,” a commemoration of some event that is utterly meaningless to anyone but me…


I remember when and where I drank my first Dr. Pepper (traveling to Florida with my family on our first ‘big vacation.’ We’d stopped for gas near Nashville. I was seven)

I own a small jewelry box that belonged to my grandfather that was given to me after he died. Decades later, it still contains the same piece of Dentyne gum that he put there a few days before he passed away.

When Bill Benge died, almost six years ago, he’d just given me a pot of his famous shrimp remoulade…I still can’t bring myself to finish what remains in my freezer.

A 1963 Volvo that I bought in 1981 and which was, for years, my only mode of transportation, still resides in the back yard. It is slowly rotting into the ground and has become home to living entities I normally set traps for. But I can’t seem to part with the old car.  It’s a familiar and needed component of my comfort view shed.

I save gasoline receipts from 1973 and I have a champagne bottle cap that a girl who I was hopelessly and secretly in love with stuck on my thumb at a college dance.

For better or worse, I seem to remember the most trivial details of a life that has had its ups and downs, but which has never been dull. My life is full of mementoes and memories.

Every summer I make the hike to the summit of my favorite mountain. I scribble an addendum to the cluster of notes I have hidden in a film can, 17 paces from the register box. I ponder the magnificent view for a while—it is an unobstructed panorama that stretches a hundred miles or more in all directions. I eat my traditional artichoke hearts and sip a bottle of  Dr. Pepper. Finally, reluctantly, I head back down to the pass–it’s easier going down than up.


I’ve made twenty-eight trips to the top since that first hike on September 3, 1985, with a friend who died just four months later. This year I returned, exactly 24 years to the hour. Remarkably, it hasn’t changed much from year to year.  Even my lungs and legs functioned almost as well as they did so long ago, for which I am most grateful.

Though a few of my friends know the destination of my annual pilgrimage, I can guarantee this…it’s NOT Abajo Peak.

I visited that summit  last month as well, though the experience is not quite the same.
No walking is required; a two wheel drive gravel road hugs the flanks of the Blue Mountains, just west of Monticello, winds around the base of South Peak and finally approaches the summit from the west side. The view is partially obstructed by a stunning array of radio and tv towers, microwave dishes, concrete bunker buildings and an assorted selection of warning signs that tell the “peak bagger” of this particular mountain that touching just about anything on this mountaintop is a federal crime.


The view is still spectacular, but very different from my anonymous summit, where even at night, it’s almost impossible to see signs of civilization. Besides the communications jungle, the land below Abajo Peak is more developed. I can see Monticello, of course, though to its credit, it has changed very little (so far). I credit its timeless nature to the complete absence of bars, brew pubs and bike shops and that its biggest tourist attraction is the Mormon mini-temple. 


The land to the east was once called The Great Sage Plain; now it’s mostly agricultural, dominated by pinto beans and winter wheat and alfalfa. The giant sage is mostly a memory. Looking north I can spot some of the new SITLA residential developments,  and at night, the glow of Cortez, Colorado and even Moab 55 miles to the north, is clearly visible.

But for me, within this panorama is where most of my life has played out. For years, my Abajo Peak view was my dream and my ultimate destination, a place I obsessed over from the distant green trenches of Louisville Kentucky. It was down there that I met Ed Abbey and many of the people I still treasure as friends today. It’s where my beloved dogs lived out their lives chasing jackrabbits and ground squirrels (in violation of federal regulations) and where they died old and happy. And it’s where my cats were born and where they lived into ancient age, sleeping and eating and living a life most of us can only envy. One of them still hangs on, at 100, still doing nothing at an undisclosed location.

A few years ago, convinced I was moving into the final chapters of my life, I penned much of this, thinking there would be little to add as the calendar spun relentlessly forward. Expecting a future that was more introspective and sentimental than dynamic and changing, my expectations failed to appreciate the unexpected. And then came Tonya and a life I would never have imagined, just a few years before. I am grateful beyond my ability to express it.

Still I am always drawn back here. This is where I lived and worked and played and grieved and wandered and watched, and where I became hopelessly lost and found, again and again.

Down there is much of my life. And somewhere, from another peak, is yours as well. Wherever the future takes us, we will all have our memories. From this vista, on a crisp autumn afternoon, they seem particularly clear.

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4 comments for “Take it or Leave it: RETURN TO ABAJO PEAK, AN AUTUMN’S VIEW…by Jim Stiles

  1. Melinda
    October 2, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    Thanks for the lyrical step away from my prosaic life. The feel of it lingers even when I click off.

    November 8, 2016 at 7:21 am

    Finding that special place to view without and within helps us see the past, present, and future.

  3. Chinle Miller
    November 10, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    My dad was the microwave technician who maintained all that communications equipment on Abajo Peak for many years for the BuRec and later the Dept. of Energy. He went up in trucks, snowcats, and even helicopters and could tell some pretty hairy stories about it all, especially when the wind blew, which it often did, and he was usually alone. The building with the main equipment in it has a door on the roof for winter entry, and even so, he often had to shovel for a long time before he could get in. He talked of going up in whiteouts in a snowcat and getting totally disoriented and finally finding his way through sheer grit (he grew up on a ranch in NW Colorado and was used to snow and cold).

    It was more than a job for him, as he loved the peak and being up there and especially liked the views. Of course, Abajo wasn’t his only peak, as he ranged from Flag up to N. Colorado and points west. He loved the beauty, especially in the winter, even though it could be a life-threatening experience to get up there. I have some stunning winter photos he took of trees caked with deep snow up on top – it was like a fairy tale. He ahd encounters with bears and lions, though not in winter.

    I mention all this to put a human and personal face on all that equipment, ugly as it is. It served as a refuge for him in the face of often raw and unpredictable conditions. When I see the towers up there and those on many other peaks that he maintained, I think of him. It’s kind of nice, like having a bunch of private memorials to someone you love wherever you go way up high where you can always see them, though I would personally prefer all that stuff wasn’t there at all, though it has a purpose.

    He was like you in the keepsakes department, and when he passed, he left behind a lot of personal treasures, including a small piece of the rail used for moving the big crane at Glen Canyon Dam, which he helped wire. After the dam was built, they cut the rail into small pieces and gave it to the workers there as souvenirs. Some of his stuff I kept, but most I gave away to people it meant more to. The rail went to a Moabite who’s been active in trying to decommission the dam and restore the waterways, which I found wonderfully ironic (you know him).

    My dad would be in his early 90s if he were still around. He was a sentimental soul, and autumn always got to him, his favorite time of year to wonder if he’d make it through the next winter. Well, one winter he didn’t. He died on the last day of the year at age 85.

    Thanks for reminding me of him with this wonderful piece of writing and beautiful photo. I’m so happy you found your wife, as you deserve to be happy after some very hard times (yes, I know the peak you allude to and that film can, though I’ve never personally been up there). All my best and keep on living, Chinle

  4. andy bishop
    October 17, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    good one Jim…sounding like Wendell Berry in your old age!

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