BILL DAVIS & ‘ENOUGH ROPE”
A MOAB REPORTER RETURNS AFTER 35 YEARS.
In the late 70s. Moab was experiencing a mini-boom of sorts. The Atlas mill was still running full-tilt. The price of oil had skyrocketed, thanks to the Iranian crisis, and the town was hopping with activity. New faces were everywhere, the cafe’s and bars were buzzing, and the streets were crowded.
With all that traffic, what I kept noticing was the blur of a canary yellow Volkswagen ‘Thing,’ sprinting up, or down, or across Main Street, or headed into the Boonies. The Thing was everywhere. Each time I came down from the Arches campground to check mail or eat breakfast at the Westerner Grill, there was that damn Thing.
And when I say “Thing,” it’s not that I can’t recall its real name. In the 70s, VW actually produced a vehicle called “The Thing, which was based on the design of a German personnel carrier during WWII. Really.
The driver of this particular Thing was a shaggy young fellow, who, when I could catch a glimpse of him as he sped by, looked like a man on a mission. Like he was racing to a deadline. And sure enough, I finally learned that the Thing’s owner was Bill Davis, the new reporter for the Times-Independent. For the next six years, from 1978 to 1984, Bill was one of the most recognized faces in Moab. And he was a damn good reporter.
If there was a fire, Bill was there (as he will attest to soon). He packed a scanner with him, tuned to the local law enforcement channels, and responded to every emergency. The Doxol explosion in 1981? When a tourist fell off a rock and we had to carry him three miles to a waiting ambulance? Bill was there. He even helped carry the guy out. And when the park hosted the Utah Symphony at the Devils Garden trailhead and thousands of people showed up, and Ranger Stiles almost blew a gasket, Davis, who was also an excellent photographer, was there to capture the moment. Southeast Utah was his beat and Bill Davis took the job seriously.
Then in 1981, publisher Sam Taylor gave Bill Davis his own weekly column, titled “Enough Rope” and made him news editor to boot. Bill was a busy man.
Meanwhile, out at Arches, another new face arrived in 1980. When I was a seasonal ranger, I sometimes dreaded coming back to work after my days off. My dogs and I would reluctantly make our way back to Moab, the park, and the 18 mile drive to the campground. What made it easier for me, at least some of the time, was that the entrance station was often staffed by the friendly face of a wonderful woman named Kris Allen.
Kris ran the gate for several years and it was somehow easier to face the park when I got to talk to Kris first. She’d update me on the traffic, whether many tourists were inquiring about campsites, and warned me of any potential troublemakers. We commiserated a lot. Kris sort of ‘set the tone’ for the day.
Then, to bring these two seemingly unrelated threads together, Bill Davis and my fellow Arches ranger Kris Allen fell in love and got married. Bill was on an assignment in the park when he and Kris first met, at the Arches entrance station, of course. Bill found reasons to return to the park, “on assignment,” and Kris started waiving the entrance fee. After all, Bill was a practicing journalist and she thought he was cute. And vice versa.
This is Bill’s story to tell, but one thing led to another, yada yada, and finally in 1984, Bill and Kris quit their jobs, left Moab and eventually moved to California. I remember, after Bill quit the Times, he and Kris came by the park to show off their new “mountain bikes.” None of us had heard of these contraptions, but Bill and Kris insisted they were going to revolutionize tourism in southeast Utah.
“It’s a game changer,” Bill insisted, but I thought he was crazy. Bill had noted that mountain bikes could go anywhere a Jeep could travel, but somehow in my mind, I thought he meant the jeepers themselves might transition to two wheels. It didn’t occur to me there might be an entirely new market out there. Bill saw the future and I was sure he was wrong.
Over the years, I lost contact with Bill and Kris, and often wondered whatever became of them. Then, one day, Bill’s name popped up on the facebook page, “You know you are from Moab when…”
For all my complaining about Facebook, the social media monster does get a few things right, and re-locating old friends is one of them. Eventually, Bill and I re-connected, and I learned that he and Kris had lived for a quarter century in Stockton, California where Bill was a professor of journalism at Delta College. In 2010, they retired and moved to Reno, Nevada.
We started sharing our memories of Moab, from those days when there was more concern that Moab might “dry up and blow away,” than become the Industrial Tourism Monster it is today. It was clear that Bill’s recollections are as strong now as they were in 1980, and finally one day it occurred me— why isn’t Bill writing this stuff down?
I immediately offered Bill his own column and he immediately accepted. As we chatted back and forth about topics, the memories of the names and dates and events began to flow back to us— Jimmie Walker. Ray Tibbetts. Maggie Stryker. Sog Shaefer, Pearl Baker, Heck Bowman, Les Erbes, Bill Benge. Lynn Izatt…and of course, his boss, Sam Taylor.
Now, all these years later, Bill Davis is happy to remember and recount Moab the way it was. What interests Bill now are those stories behind the scenes from 40 years ago, the friends he made, the characters he met along the way, the events he witnessed and was a part of. These are Bill’s memories, all these years later. As Moab races away from its own history, it’s important to preserve those great times. Nobody is better equipped than Bill Davis. His old column was called “Enough Rope.” He still has enough.
REMEMBERING THE T-I’s SAM TAYLOR…
As Bill Davis and I chatted about his new column, one name dominated our thoughts more than any other. Sam Taylor, the longtime publisher of the Moab Times-Independent, hired Bill in 1978. Though their politics could not have been more incompatible, Sam was as generous with his new protege as Bill could ever have hoped for.
Even before Bill arrived in Moab, I had discovered the depth of Sam’s sense of fairness and his talent for bridging differences. Sam was a patient man, even at times to people who didn’t fully deserve it. Like me.
Here I need to offer my own memory.
When I came to Moab as an obnoxious, opinionated, skinny, 24 year old seasonal park ranger, Sam had already run the Times for 20 years. Before Sam, of course, his father Bish had published the T-I for decades. In fact, the Taylor Family had been an integral part of Moab for a century. Then I arrived and decided I should tell him and his readers why my newfound perspectives mattered more.
It was a bad start.
The debate over public lands was just as fierce in the late 1970s as it is now, perhaps even more so. I’d been a resident of Moab for all of a year or less when I decided to fire off my first “Dear Sam” letter to the T-I. I can only recall bits and pieces of my premier rant, but it had something to do with wilderness, and why we needed lots of it, and who wanted it, and who opposed it. There was some reference in my letter about the “silent majority” and I still recall ending my first literary endeavor with the admonition, “sighs and whispers don’t count.” I don’t even know what that was supposed to mean.
In any event, Sam devoted much of his adjacent “Community Comments” column to taking me to the wood shed and giving me a well-deserved pummeling. Sam noted that “this young ranger from Arches,” had only lived in Moab for a short time; yet I now seemed fully prepared to give the residents of southeast Utah the advice and counsel that–I thought–they so sorely needed.
Sam asked rhetorically just how I expected Grand County’s residents to survive economically, if I had my way and transformed canyon country into one big wilderness area. Sam supported a diverse economy, he explained. He supported tourism, but he had made a career out of seeking balance for Southeast Utah. He wrote about the years-long process and the thousands of hours that had been invested in seeking solutions. Should all of them just yield to me?
Then, as now, the subject of multiple use on public lands was far more complicated than anyone, Left or Right, wanted to acknowledge. When I think back on it, Sam probably handled it better than most.
It’s a blessing that I haven’t been able to find the precise text in the Marriott Library archives. I don’t know if I could bear to re-read my own words. And I only remember the “young ranger at Arches” part because I was sure I was about to be fired. I went to see my boss, Arches manager Larry Reed who practically cringed when I entered his office. Larry shook his head and said, “Well…you really screwed up, Stiles.” He advised me to go see the Canyonlands Group Superintendent, Pete Parry. “I think he wants to talk to you.”
I’d never met Pete. He was new to his job too, but was already known for his taciturn nature. I thought it might be possible he’d fire me just by glaring at me. I made an appointment and sat nervously in the outer office while his secretary Marge, eyed me suspiciously.
Finally Pete came to the door. “Come on in, Ranger Stiles.” The super told me to have a seat. Pete often lapsed into long, uncomfortable silences; strange interludes is the way the Marx brothers might have described them. Pete fiddled with something on his desk. Finally he looked up and locked his inscrutable stare on me.
“You’re sort of…I don’t know…impulsive, aren’t you?” Pete asked.
I nodded. “Sort of.”
Pete stared at his fingernails for another long ten seconds, and then he said, “I’m going to give you two pieces of advice. You can take them or leave them, but I’ll at least put it out there for you.”
I nodded again.
“First,” he continued, “whenever you get the urge to scribble another letter like that, go ahead and write it. Vent to your heart’s content. But then, take that piece of paper and put it in a drawer for 48 hours. Don’t look at it. Don’t even think about it. Leave it there. If after two days you still want to mail it, well at least you’ve thought it through.”
His words sounded wise beyond my years, which wasn’t that difficult a task at the moment. I was sure my maturity and intellect might score at an eighth grade level, but I took his advice to heart. Then I asked, “What’s the second piece of advice?”
Pete said, “Go talk to Sam Taylor.”
Gulp. I drove down to Center Street, parked and went in. Sam was standing at the counter, scribbling in a note pad. He looked up, peering over his glasses and smiled. “Hi. Can I help you?”
“Well,” I said, “Pete Parry sent me…I’m, uh…Jim Stiles.”
I wondered if Pete might have tipped Sam off, but he gave no sign of it. Sam laid down his writing pad, picked up his pipe, placed it in the corner of his mouth and said, “Let’s go into my office.” He led. I followed. Sam took a seat behind his desk, his pipe still firmly clenched. He leaned back and placed his hands behind his neck.
Now what? I wondered. I’d expected a stern lecture but instead, he asked, “Where’re you from? And how in the heck did you end up in Moab, Utah?”
From the get-go, the “chewing out” I’d feared never happened. Instead, we had a constructive conversation and, in spite of my own preconceptions, I liked him instantly. He spoke, I listened. Then I spoke, he listened. For those fortunate to have known Sam, you also know he had one of the most mellifluous, soothing, baritone voices on the planet. Even if he’d been harsh, I might not have noticed.
But we soon decided neither of us was as bad as the other had assumed, and for me, it was the first of many long chats over the years. I also learned, just from that conversation, that I didn’t know as much about the complex problems of southeast Utah as I thought, nor did I have any real solutions, though it took me many years to come to grips with it.
In the next three decades, I cannot recall a time when Sam wasn’t amenable to a chat. And as years passed, we seemed to agree on issues more often than not. In the early 2000s, as my concerns about the impacts of Industrial Tourism grew, I took a lot of heat from my environmentalist pals who were so busy creating alliances with venture capitalist billionaires and the recreation industry that they failed to notice the long term impacts they were helping to create.
In a 2006 cover story about The Zephyr for ‘High Country News,’ author John Fayhee found plenty of critics who thought I was “out of touch” at best. But I could not have been more gratified or honored than to have Sam Taylor come to my defense. For the article, Sam called The Zephyr:
“…a fine publication, though Jim and I did not always agree on the issues…I think Jim lived up to the promise he made at the outset to be fair and thorough. (The paper) has been a big part of our community.”
And then, responding to some pretty harsh personal criticism from Utah’s most vocal environmental group, Sam noted:
“For SUWA to be saying now that he is unfair and that he doesn’t get his facts straight is itself unfair and almost desperate. They’re just not used to being questioned the way Jim is questioning them…”
Sam added, “Jim is finally asking the right questions,” which I might have phrased differently. I think finally I was asking ALL the questions. Not just one side of the argument. But Sam’s observation was a fair point, just the same.
Later, I stopped by the office to see Sam a couple times, but never found him there. His health had started to decline and he wasn’t coming to the office as often. I’ll always regret that I didn’t get to thank him personally before Sam passed away. Today the Taylor Family still runs the Times, hasn’t caved to the corporate media world, and has run the paper continuously for almost a century and a quarter. An astonishing accomplishment.
In fact, in 2020, every time I read a news article by their young reporter, Carter Pape, I think of Bill Davis and the excellent reporting he did at the T-I. It’s good to see that kind of honest journalism live on. I’m sure Sam would be pleased. And I know Bill is.
Jim Stiles is Founding Publisher and Senior Editor of The Canyon Country Zephyr.