In the late 1990s, as Moab was starting to feel the first pangs of unrestrained growth, I penned a Zephyr article called, “Return to Moab: 2020 AD.” I wrote it mostly for laughs but now, as we approach that once distant date, I gave my prophesy a second read. I was off the mark in many ways, but sometimes I was fairly prescient. A recent article in the local weeklies about projected explosive growth in Spanish Valley comes particularly close to the bulls eye.
So return with Mike Marooney and me to the near Future, to see what’s about to happen, as I gazed into my crystal ball almost 25 years ago…JS
* * * *
April 1, 2020…Moab, Utah
The young boy and his father strolled the streets of Moab one summer evening. They paused to look at the new construction underway, just a block or two from their own condominium.
“Why do they call it Orchard Vista Estates, Dad?”
“Well, because there used to be an orchard here, son.”
“…..what’s an orchard?”
It was just after three in the afternoon when our Boeing 827 made its final approach to the new Moab National Airport, ten miles south of town on what used to be called Johnson’s Up On Top. Beside me in the window seat (he had insisted on it) was my old friend Mike Marooney, who I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years. We had both left Moab (given up is maybe a better way to put it) not long after the year 2000, and had not been back since. When the real estate market really went nuts in 2002, Mike and I sold our respective properties and found new homes. With the profits from the sale of his Dos Amigos cantina and his house, Mike bought a 20,000 acre ranch in western Mexico and is now raising ostriches;
I had finally been tempted by Outside Magazine‘s persistent efforts to buy a controlling interest in the Zephyr and turn it into an outdoor equipment shopper’s guide. I invested the money in a small farm near Benkelman, Nebraska.
Marooney turned in his seat to stare at me. “I still can’t get over it Stiles. I never really thought you’d go bald…You always had such a bushy head of hair.”
“Don’t remind me,” I groaned. “But it was that damn follicle rejuvenator treatment they came up with in 2010. Who would have dreamed I’d have an adverse reaction? I didn’t even really need the stuff…all I had was a slight receding hairline. Now look. No one had a clue it could make all my hair fall out. I see it’s worked well on you.”
The silver jet banked one last time and we both saw the Moab Valley come into view. From a height of 5000 feet, we couldn’t really see a difference in the downtown area, with one notable exception.
“Look at those towers going up the side of the Portal,” Mike said. “I guess they finally got their damn Tram.”
Sure enough, the Tram was easily visible in the late afternoon sun. On top, we could see a variety of buildings and trails, and what appeared to be a paved road approaching from the south.
“Is it too late to turn this plane around?” I wondered.
The 827 made a perfect touchdown and rolled to a stop near the terminal, a stone and glass structure that resembled the old downtown visitor center the county built in the 90s. We disembarked the big jet and walked across the tarmac to the terminal. Above the tourist entrance a large video sign welcomed travelers to Moab. A man on the giant screen was beckoning us to stay and enjoy the many wonders of southeast Utah. The rambling voice and the picture sounded familiar to both of us.
“As Mayor of the City of Moab, it is my distinct pleasure to say ‘WELCOME!’
“It just can’t be,” I exclaimed.
But it was true…Tom Stocks was still mayor. And in the video, I would swear he was wearing those same polyester suits in 1994.
“I always said Tom was a survivor,” Marooney chuckled. “He must be a hundred years old. Remember the time he tried to choke you over some piece you were writing about him?”
“Don’t remind me. Let’s get a ride into town.”
The airport was jammed with oddly dressed tourists, and in this regard, things hadn’t changed much. Of course, cellular wrist phones integrated into the fabric of “RecSuits,” as they were called, made it appear that all these people were talking into their elbows. We made our way through the throngs to a shuttle pickup point; actually there were two such locations. One limo shuttle provided service to downtown Moab and to what we learned was called the Kokopelli Village. The other shuttle, a standard hydrogen powered 35 passenger bus, transported its load to Spanish Valley City, a community that didn’t even exist in 2002.
After careful consideration, we chose neither and opted instead to rent an all-terrain mini truck. Not only would this vehicle give us more freedom to explore the back streets of Moab, we could get onto a jeep road or two as well. I was particularly anxious to see how the canyonlands backcountry had fared over the years.
“Let’s check out this Spanish Valley City,” said Mike. “It’s on the way.”
I could remember talk of a new town in South Spanish Valley, even in the late 90s. Thousands of acres of state-owned land were poised to be sold by the Division of State Lands and we knew then, that only a high dollar developer could afford to buy the entire package.
Sure enough, as we came down off the red rock escarpment, the late afternoon sun made the new city glimmer under its glare. The town itself, as we got closer, resembled the old Moab we’d left behind. Portable InstaHomes, the 21st Century successor to the trailer, dotted what was once marginal grazing land and franchised fast food restaurants seemed to reside on every corner. At the intersection of the south airport road with Interstate 84 (the Interstate was completed in 2002, the year I left town), a Wal-Mart dominated the western side of the highway.
We saw an old man…another old man come out of the big store that looked familiar but I just couldn’t place him. But he seemed to recognize us, or at least Mike.
“Excuse me,” said the man, “but aren’t you Mike Marooney?”
“Yes I am,” Mike replied. “You look awful familiar to me too.”
“I’m David Knutson. I used to be a county commissioner here..it’s been a long time.”
I couldn’t believe it. “But you’ve got so much hair,” I exclaimed.
David looked at me closely through squinty eyes, searching for a name to go with my face.
“It was the follicle treatment program…Stiles?” David said finally. “What happened to your hair?”
“It’s a long story.”
Knutson told us that when the real estate market exploded in 2002, the housing shortage became critical. Most of the alfalfa fields in northern Spanish Valley had fallen to developers and real estate agents years before. But the homes were in the $350,000 range, and it became clear something had to be done to house the 8,000 plus residents who worked in the service industry in Moab.
“San Juan County always had fewer restrictions on building, especially after Grand County decided in earnest to go for the Telluride Cute Look,” chuckled David. “So a group of us old-timers bought the entire state land package, and opened the area up to just about anyone who wanted to come in here. I’ve never been happier. Besides I couldn’t afford to live in Moab anymore anyway.”
We told Knutson we were headed to Moab for the night and he chuckled again. “I hope you made reservations. Otherwise I’ll see you back here in a couple of hours.”
I jotted down Knutson’s phone number and then Mike and I got back in the mini truck and accessed to I-84 for the quick ride to Moab. We were both amazed. When we left Utah almost 20 years earlier, much of the open space of Spanish Valley had already given way to subdivisions, but we were not prepared for the fact that virtually all of that open space now lay under condo developments and high dollar subdivisions.
“Look at that,” said Mike as he read the large roadside sign. “‘Equestrian Acres’…I’d heard a developer bought the Spanish Trail Arena and created a community for horse lovers around it. And there it is.”
It occurred to us, however, as we passed one subdivision development after another, that there was one subdivision missing.
“Isn’t this where the Mountain View Subdivision should be?” I asked.
“My God, you’re right Stiles. They built the by-pass. They…they removed Mountain View.” We found ourselves passing right over the sites of homes that once belonged to our friends. It was an eerie feeling. I’d lived in Moab for almost 30 years and yet now, nothing looked familiar.
“Let’s get off this damn freeway,” I said to Marooney “I want to see Main Street.
We took the 500 West exit and followed it east to the main highway. Before taking a right turn into town, we decided to go north on the old Highway 191 to the Colorado River bridge. The water slide, which had begun operation in the mid 90s had been torn down and replaced by an even more grandiose amusement park called Cliffside. The entire facility was built literally on the edge of the cliff, and included every terrifying ride ever invented. Somewhere up there was a new water slide, but it was no longer the main attraction. Beyond Cliffside, both sides of the highway were lined with motels, restaurants, and mini-malls.
“Do you want to take a look at the Arches?” Mike asked hesitantly.
“I don’t think I could handle it right now…Let’s go back to town and look for a room.”
We found that Main Street had been completely transformed in the years we’d been gone. Beginning at the Moab Hilton, below what used to be called Mi Vida, Main Street had been turned into something of a boulevard. A narrow center median supported large shade trees and a bicycle path, though bikers seldom used it since the late 90s when Free-Style Spakling! replaced biking as the challenge sport of choice. We both agreed the downtown area looked…well, real cute. Just as Knutson had said.
Most of the original buildings on Main between 100 North and 100 South that were standing when we left Moab, had survived. And an attempt to create an “historic district” had been fairly successful. But moving away from the core of Moab, little of “my Moab” was left. The old middle school was torn down in 2005 and, despite the efforts of Sheriff Nyland during his last term of office to see a minimum security correctional facility built on the site, private developers bought the property and got the zoning change to build a K-Mart. Promoters of the giant discount store argued that Grand County money was being drained by the Wal-Mart in Spanish Valley City, and efforts by preservationists to save the old middle school building failed. But the new K-Mart was required to follow strict architectural standards, and proponents of the discount store were said to be quite proud of the “giant pueblo look.” A fake adobe K-Mart.
Marooney and I looked for familiar faces, but they were few and far between. More often than not, the people we recognized were the reasons we’d left in the first place. We heard that Jane and Mike Jones sold their five acres of junk for almost a million dollars to a collector from Durango and had left on an ocean cruise; while at sea, Wal-Mart bought their land as well, and Jane and Mike never returned.
Later in the afternoon, we drove up to Locust Lane to see my old house, but it wasn’t there anymore. The entire neighborhood had been torn down and replaced by the exclusive Maple Meadow Estates. My little bungalow was gone without a trace. We later heard the estates were developed by Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
We got back on I-84 and drove south to Spanish Valley City. Like Knutson predicted, there wasn’t an available motel room in Moab and we couldn’t have afforded the price anyway. We spotted a Motel 6 ($99.99 Nationwide) at the Spanish Valley City south exit and we decided to call it a day.
As we unloaded our bags from the mini truck, the sun dipped behind the rim of the West Wall.
“Are you sorry we came back?” I asked Mike.
He glanced back over his shoulder to the north, to the City of Moab, population 22,436 and growing…an “All American City for the 21st Century,” according to the Chamber of Commerce.
“Times change, Stiles,” he said. “Those people don’t miss what’s been lost because most of them don’t remember what we had. That’s our blessing, as well as our curse…let’s get a cup of coffee.”
We walked across the street to a Denny’s. It was lousy coffee.
EPILOGUE: Marooney moved to Mexico. I moved to the Great Plains, but Outside magazine never tried to buy The Zephyr—I insulted them way too many times to ever hope for an offer.
David Knutson still lives in Moab and is a bishop in the LDS Church. Though we thought Tom Stocks would live forever, the Mayor died in 2011.
Johnsons Up on Top did not become an airport, but a newly revitalized airport in Spanish Valley is making headlines just the same. Wal-Mart hasn’t come to Spanish Valley…yet. Plans to build both commercial and residential developments on SITLA lands continue to move forward and population projections for future growth are estimated at 14,000.
I still have most of my hair…JS
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
To comment, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Don’t forget the Zephyr ads! All links are hot!