History, in Black and White

Stand of Popular Trees

When they wrote on the trees, Ansel Adams was capturing the essence of their homeland. As they longed for their origins, the world was learning of forgotten places — Coyote, Gallina, Hernandez — via gelatin-silver. The migrants’ yearning for the left behind is recorded on aged trees along nearby wooded trails. Every aspen-bound signature is accompanied by its source — the town from which the carver hailed.

Ansel Adams finally achieved financial success thanks to an autumnal moonrise above a northern New Mexico village, graveside crosses a glowing testament to the day’s dying sun. Many of the residents of this town — Hernandez — achieved financial security by working elsewhere, leaving the buried and the yet-to-be-buried behind. Some made a livelihood of herding sheep in Utah’s La Sal Mountain meadows.

The oldest inscriptions on South Mountain’s flanks date back to the ’20s, making the trees century-old sentinels. The Spanish names continue to appear through the ’50s: Lovato, Garcia, Chacon, Sandoval, Sanchez and others. Some of the surnames still reside in the Moab phonebook — a surprise considering the connection these men felt to their hometowns. One sheepherder wrote an entire ode to Coyote, New Mexico, on an aspen tree. All that remains now is “Yo creo que Coyote es … ” before it devolves into black blisters on bark.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to know what he believed about his home.

Ansel Adams captured the faces and churches of Coyote in the ’30s. Are these the relatives and reliquaries of La Sal Mountain sheepherders? How did Monticello or Moab become home after centuries of faith and family along the Chama River? When they arrived, Catholicism and Spanish were not practiced forms of communion here. Meanwhile, they left towns so isolated and integrated that a form of 16th-century Spanish — otherwise extinct — is still spoken there.

Today, we delight in walking the aspen glades, finding messages from the past on the papery edge between this world and one now gone. Here, yesteryear speaks in riddles. Its language is a labyrinthine network connecting myriad unknowns. After each alpine excursion, we return home and seek glimpses beyond the abstraction of names, into the heart of the people and places mentioned in the trees. Sometimes we find that the past constellates into the present. Sometimes we find that certain galaxies of interest have blinked into oblivion.

We’ve uncovered some of the men’s names in Moab’s newspaper archives: records of illness and death, birth and travel. We’ve found Coyote to be an enigma, as if we are looking at it through the telescope of Ansel Adams’ lens — looking back in time to a town that once was — with no inkling as to its present condition. And we’ve discovered living relatives seeking connection with their past, perhaps unaware of a hidden, sylvan genealogy.

The most gratifying find has been the website of Cosme Chacon’s granddaughter, Ruby. She is an artist, a writer, a proud and beautiful expression of her heritage. Among her artwork, I found a pastels-on-sidewalk representation of her grandfather, a La Sal Mountain sheepherder. Strangely, I am now able to look into the gentle eyes of a man whose 70-year-old steps I recently followed through the forest.

Thanks to Ruby’s writings, I also have a sense for the world in which Cosme lived in Monticello: Spanish was forbidden. There was no Catholic church, so the family had to travel to Colorado for the rituals that lend life meaning. And though the culture wouldn’t accept them, cancer did. The Clan of Downwinders is multilingual, transcultural, perhaps the only true melting — or melding — pot we have.

I want to meet Ruby and — through her memories — Cosme. I want to travel Highways 96 and 84 through Gallina, Coyote and Hernandez. I want to draw the unseen connections between the mountains beyond my window and the memories beyond my knowing. I want to bring color to the clues left in black and white by carving sheepherders and a camera-wielding man.

Coyote is a place. Cosme is a name. And the aspen trees only hint at the fact that they are also so much more.

A Meditation on Taxidermy and the Breath that Binds

Bighorn

The walls had eyes. Literally. The cabin was a veritable monument to taxidermy. Every spare vertical inch was adorned with a head that gazed upon our group for the weekend. Bighorn, moose, elk, caribou, deer, antelope — if it had horns, it held space. Enormous chandeliers hung pendulously with the weight of assorted antlers. Flat surfaces were covered in furs and hides culled from feline, ursine and musteline mammals alike. Reanimated pheasants and grouse were frozen in the perpetual motion of fleeing their pursuers

We hung our coats on 40-calliber bullet casings pounded into juniper posts, and each of us took in the scene with varying degrees of awe and aversion. The cabin had been booked sight unseen. But death and dominion be damned, this would be our sacred space. We circled up in the great room, beneath the unwavering stares of onetime beings, and began the silent practice of stalking ever-elusive peace.

We meditated amongst the hunted.

Over the course of the weekend, as wild minds sought refuge from silence in myriad mundane distractions, each of us met the wall’s once-wild gazes in our own time and fashion. Some of us were saddened or startled — excellent fodder for interior work — and some were bemused by the irony of a group of vegan-eating meditators following the precept of nonviolence while inside a wildlife mausoleum.

It is the stuff of which B-rated comedies are made. And it is this stuff — where we see the sublime is the ridiculous — that reminds us all to take none of it too seriously. A humorless world makes one’s presence within it difficult.

Though the container was seemingly incongruous to the event — like shoving a square peg in a bullet hole — upon later reflection, it was unassumingly appropriate. While I own a gun to obtain meat, not trophies, I am familiar with the hunt that landed all these animals on the wall. And it is not so different from meditation.

Hunting is an exercise in singular awareness and absolute presence. It requires silence of being and attention to the smallest details — noticing the ground textures that amplify footfalls, spotting the faint hoof-prints of traveling animals, finding places providing vantage and refuge, water and food. It necessitates a state of not so much thinking as feeling. And just like meditation retreats, hunting requires greeting the day before dawn.

In its purest state, I think the hunt can be a celebration of existence and all that sustains us, honoring what it is to be human, connected to other beings for survival and meaning. Such practice should feel familiar to any soulful, seeking being — even vegan-eating retreat-goers searching for the ground of existence in an unexpected space.

As my mind wandered that weekend — despite my best intentions — I wondered at how a convergence of hunters and hippies might look in this cabin: southern Utah natives uncomfortably perched atop cushions while more-recent imports sat uneasily underneath a taxidermist’s dreamscape. What might we say to one another? Would conversation ever take us beyond the realm of superficial incongruities to that place where we both find meaning? Would we uncover a common language related to the presence and pursuit of something greater? Perhaps not. It could be a very awkward dinner party. Or a great screenplay.

But I have a vague sense for that shared space beneath it all. I’ve felt the same quiet calm, the same openness, on retreat as I have hunting. Insights have arisen during the rare mind-silences both opportunities provide.

As Rumi wrote:Ancient drawing

I … have seen the two worlds
as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

The walls had eyes. And we met their gazes — as breath, breathing human beings. Because that’s all we can ever do. That’s all that we ever are.

Desert Rat Dumpster Diving

With the car packed for a traditional desert outing — two cameras, two dogs, two .22s and two beers apiece — we left in search of sunset. We found it on the distant Book Cliffs, recently snowcapped, glowing with the low burn of a winter day’s final embers. Though lapine prey remained elusive — and, thus, the guns made no appearance — the sunset was striking enough to abate our bunny bloodlust.

As we watched the shadows race across the flats around us, soon lifting the curtain of light on the cliffs to showcase dusk and her dance into dark, we noticed a jumble of junk in the foreground. Abandoned buildings and the stormy detritus of human-habitation-gone-missing occupied the cracked and barren earth near the railroad tracks. Places like this, where desert meets the outward fringe of its denizens, are always the most compelling, suggesting stories of inventive collaboration. With trepidation — not wanting to surprise anyone with guns more at-the-ready than ours — we approached the scatter of trash.

First, we poked around the coupled singlewides, two riveted together to form a DIY double. The outdoor couch had eroded to nothing but wooden slats and springs. Bike frames rusted, plastic toys cracked and clothing disintegrated as if before our eyes. Though we grew more daring with the lack of shots or shouts fired our way, our courage dissipated at the entrance to the trailers. The sense of vita interruptus, of the inhabitants having been snatched away in the midst of ironing and cooking and changing the baby, was too potent. This disheveled inner sanctum was not ours to invade.

Curiosity then led us to a plywood crate standing on its side. One wall had fallen off to expose scores of used printers and scanners, their squat grey bodies and electric-cord tails giving them the look of nesting mice. Nearby, the undercarriage of half a charred caboose met our gaze. Despite our desire to associate the freight with the railcar, the two seemed unconnected. What we had was a story made only of nouns, like a three-dimensional Mad-Lib scattered across the desert. We needed more verbs. We needed a voice.

And then the real mystery appeared. Beyond the burned-out caboose stood Scraphenge.

Included: a maze of stacked computers in which our dog became lost, innumerable televisions and toaster ovens, Matchbox cars and Mason jars, ornate boxes for jewelry and burly boxes for tools, Cuisinarts and car parts, pots for plants and pans for cooking, laundry detergent and dirty laundry, fluorescent lights and floorboards, Discmen and Visqueen, doorknobs and corncobs, a sewing machine, two bags of topsoil and a surprisingly well preserved recliner. We sorted through the bounty, shouting with delight while uncovering new and surprising treasure, sharing theories on the pile’s origin story. For us desert rats, this was our sunken merchant ship, our Eldorado. Though not abounding in traditional riches, it was rife with mystery — an even more intoxicating currency.

Our incomplete inventory — and our enthusiasm — waned as night enveloped the scene. Soon, we were forced to turn our attention to Jupiter and Venus queuing up behind the smiling crescent moon. On the dark walk back to the car, as the dogs wove our paths together while sleuthing their own scented unknowns, we vowed to return, to continue to tally that which has been forgotten, to enliven lost objects with a contemplative gaze.

We will return to reinvent histories, like rearward-gazing gods, one artifact at a time.

Each item — now on its journey to desert decomposition — was once a part of a story. But we must make it up. We will never know who wore the size-10 high heels or baked in the bread pan. We will never know what was stitched together on the sewing machine or rent apart by the hatchet. We will never know what dreams were dreamed on the pillowcase or plans unfurled on the office desk. The lives that once animated these items are now detached from them, much as souls eventually leave bodies. And seeing these objects isolated from possession and purpose is a reminder that they do no constitute the weft and warp of our lives. They merely play bit parts in the ever-unraveling, day-to-day screenplay.

But beyond the brief bliss we found in it, this inert detritus of a life no longer has a supporting role. It occupies the desert floor under the indifferent gaze of celestial bodies, now a backdrop to the action. Our worlds will rush on around this forgotten waypoint of taciturn tales, the true substance of our lives standing apart from it all, enduring tides of wealth and want. Persisting. Prevailing. Allowing us to take joy — no matter our means — in the simplicity of sunset. Camaraderie. Playful dogs and cold beers. Trash. And the mystery of the voiceless unknown.

Forgetting is a Failure of Conscience

Utah holds a heartrending history with the atom. From the disastrous effects of Nevada’s nuclear testing on unsuspecting citizens, we have a legacy of downwinders and cancer. Uranium mines and mills have left a mark on communities all over southern Utah, from the Navajo Nation, where miners’ exposure to radiation led to alarming rates of cancer, to Moab’s infamous 16-million-ton tailings pile on the Colorado River. Monticello, south of Moab, also has higher-than-normal cancer rates, linked to a now-defunct Department of Energy uranium-processing mill.

“Uranium” and “nuclear” are not words we take lightly here.

Yet, against this dark backdrop of loss and unease, plans for a nuclear power plant near Green River are incrementally moving forward. A group called Blue Castle Holdings is seeking funding for the construction of two reactors at the base of the Book Cliffs. With a combined output of 3,000 megawatts, they would increase electricity output in the state by 50 percent. This power would diversify Utah’s coal-heavy energy portfolio. And the plant would bring high-paying jobs to a rural region where economic stability has never been known.

However, Utah is not short on power. This electricity would be produced for use elsewhere. And considering that nuclear reactors are thirsty creatures, building two in the deserts of the nation’s second-driest state seems like folly. The president of this enterprise is a former state representative and one-time owner of a vegan restaurant, seller of inspirational audiotapes and online purveyor of prescription drugs. He is not an energy guru, but an entrepreneur looking for the next way to make a buck … or a million. This is not a resume that inspires confidence in the company’s nuclear competency.

During a recent Grand County Council meeting in Moab, Blue Castle presented its vague plans and touted nuclear power’s clean track record — no direct fatalities in the history of the United States. The company has been warmly welcomed in Green River, a small town hungry for jobs, but the reception in Moab was different. The council chambers were standing room only, and scores of residents spoke in opposition to Blue Castle’s plans. Even council members expressed concerns. Moab, once the “Uranium Capital of the World,” knows firsthand that nuclear power is about more than generating electricity. We have 16 million tons of uranium waste on the edge of town — currently in transit to a safer resting place — to remind us of the costs of this “clean” energy. The reactors are only one small part of a beast whose tentacles reach throughout countless landscapes and communities across the country.

Nuclear power is mining. It is milling, tailings piles and nuclear waste storage. It is roads across landscapes, holes in cliffs, trucks burning fossil fuels to get uranium to mills and then to plants. It is a millennia-long responsibility to dangerous byproducts. It is miners and mill workers dying of cancer, the indirect and silent fatalities that the nuclear industry doesn’t tally. These aspects of power production pose problems for which we haven’t yet learned solutions — problems whose effects reach beyond the bounds of Emery County and thousands of years into the future.

I do not want to echo the mistakes of a heavy history. I do not want to see 60 million gallons of water a day permanently diverted from the Green River to cool an apparatus whose thirst will not safely be slaked in this lifetime. I do not want to see billions of dollars fund a questionable power source when it could instead fuel innovation. I do not want to challenge fate, to tempt the unexpected, to repeat events at Fukushima, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and dozens of other far-flung sites whose accidents went largely unreported.

I want prosperity for Green River and power for our homes, but not at the expense of the health and safety of generations to come. I want to move forward, but we must remember what lies behind us — our suffering, our losses, the collective grief of fractured families, cultures and landscapes — because forgetting is a failure of conscience.

Questioning answers, strengthening humbleness and other gifts of the desert stream

As we prepare to leave for our first-ever float of the Grand Canyon, I find myself reflecting on my relationship with rivers. For one who grew up next to Oregon’s iconic Rogue River, worked alongside the Snake in Jackson, and who now lives on the shores of the mighty Colorado, I have little river experience. One Westwater trip and a rush along the Price River at flood-stage, two long flat-water floats on the Green, and three Daily runs on the Colorado (two of which were on an air mattress) are the sum total of my notable river outings. Sad, I know.

Though the rivers most talked about have always been out my backdoor, it has never been with them that I’ve built relationships. Chalk it up to a lack of gear or gear-laden loved ones. Instead, it’s been the ephemeral, fickle and fiendishly flashing waterways that have held my heart in their changeable currents. The adrenaline-laced beauty of these streams lies not in their rapids but in their rapidly changing demeanor. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and I lay my heart at their feet, even as the hidden predator’s fangs are revealed in flash flood debris 10 feet above my head.

Though I want to build big-river relationships — and what better chance than on the Grand? — it is thus far the inglorious stream that has been my companion. And I do not regret it.

One such creek near Moab only flows with snowmelt and strategically placed monsoon showers. Forget calendar dates and the whims of groundhogs; the canyon is my almanac. Spring is officially here when I’m able to float supine in a deep pothole, circling with the gentle current, watching the canyon walls spin above my head. Summer arrives when desiccated algae replaces the meandering stream. A new configuration of sand and driftwood against canyon walls announces monsoon season. This is where I come to set my internal clock and place question marks where I have always assumed there to be periods.

Then there is a bit of Eden west of here — a clear, spring-fed creek overhung with box elders and ponderosa — constrained to a 1,000-foot-deep defile, surrounded by harshest, driest desert. Every small bank and bench is colonized by poison ivy. Heaven and hell coexist in a space as narrow as 15 feet. There is no better — or worse — place to be, depending on the time of year and the placement of your feet or tent.

This spring, we attempted an 80-mile float on a small desert stream that we found to be aptly named. Unfortunately, it disregarded the notice that all rivers in Utah were flooding at the time. Instead of a float, it was a push-pull-tugging at about 60 cfs. The trip was a sun-scorched, wind-and-sand-chafed, rain-soaked, oh-my-God-our-dog-is-foaming-at-the-mouth misery. We performed 10-hour marches each day through ankle-deep water and knee-deep quicksand, towing our gear the entire way. There was no idyllic floating or exploration of tantalizing side canyons. There was nothing more than the monotonous and enduring rhythm of right-splash!-left-splash! on down the stream.

A powerful monsoon pushed these same river flows to an incomprehensible 35,000 cfs a few years ago. As the water level dropped during our trip — despite the intermittent showers we endured — we stared wistfully at enormous cottonwood trunks still balanced on rock ledges 20 feet above the canyon floor, gently placed there by the once-upon-a-time wall of water.

The day we exited the canyon, the river came up to a runable level … and stayed there for three months.

I have never admired a canyon so much.

And I can’t wait to return, to do it all over again, to be reminded of how much is beyond my control and my knowing, to let the gods once again giggle at my ignorance.

But these are all flirtatious trifles compared to my true love, my heart-home, a river that I have slept near countless nights, one whose flows recently jumped from one cfs to 1,000 in 15 minutes. Sometimes in looking at all the leaps and valleys of the blue line on the river data graph during monsoon season, I wonder if a map of my heartbeats would chart a similar course. Perhaps silt from this stream flows through my veins.

While this is a river I’ve gone to for solace, healing, hope and a sense of home, it does not offer comfort in a traditional sense. I’ve found the upper section dry when I’ve been in need of water. I’ve been stranded on the opposite bank from camp when a flash flood pushed through on a clear and starry night. I camped for a week with unrelenting 90-degree temperatures in the canyon only to have a wall-to-wall, 100-year flood follow my exit out of the drainage. I’ve sunk to mid-thigh in quicksand, and I’ve had that same sand ruin two water filters. And I’ve loved every minute because they’ve all acted as counterpoint to other, more sublime moments: early-morning tea under Orion’s watchful eye, the salmon-colored glow of sunrise bleeding down sandstone walls, canyon wren song in the air and turkey feathers on the ground, drinking centuries-old water seeping from the canyon wall amongst ferns and box elders and wild mint. My love affair with this place includes the catastrophes and the kindnesses in equal measure.

As we prepare for 18 days on the Grand, I wonder what kind of relationship I will develop with the canyon. It is a river with so many admirers and managers. Where will my hopes, intentions and affections fit in? I know there will be plenty of chances on this trip for the gods to find amusement in my foibles, but beyond the 22 seconds I will spend in the likes of Lava or Crystal, I am most anticipating the moments that often go untold — whether it be communion with constellations or quicksand — when life’s great questions emerge from encounters with the unexpected.

Jeweled Jars of Memory

Our garden is laden with countless squash, cucumbers and tomatoes on the vine. The desert’s trees are heavy with fruit. This is the season for setting food aside, preserving summer’s abundance to alleviate winter’s want. So far, we have pickles, jams and canned apricots, peaches and nectarines. The jeweled jars glitter like treasure under our bed — the only available storage space in our 26-foot trailer home — and this food-based fortune grows on a weekly basis. What we may lack in material goods, we make up for in the joys of working directly with sustenance.

Twenty-six quart-sized Mason jars hold the season’s offering of sun-soaked apricots. I picked this fruit at Capitol Reef National Park, home to some of Utah’s most stunning landscapes, as well as the Mormon settlement of Fruita, a place emptied of its residents but still resplendent with their colorful, fruit-bound legacy. The Park Service now tends to trees that once ensured life and livelihood for generations of the community’s residents.

My jars of apricots hold memories within their matrices of syrup and fruit. A dear friend and I went to the park to harvest amidst the monsoon season’s fickle moods. When we arrived in the orchard, so did the deluge. In no time, the Fremont River swelled, the towering cliffs erupted into a chorus of torrential waterfalls, and the orchard flooded in a bubbling murmur of red muck. As we picked fruit, we waded through shin-deep mud, enjoying the best of childhood in the process: climbing trees, stuffing our faces with candy-like fruit, and covering ourselves in sloppy, red earth. We returned home wearing a sticky, earthen residue of summer and joy. This is all packed into my jars. To finally eat the fruit will be to relive the memory. I am mindful that I am storing stories under my bed, my dreams perhaps permeated by their sweetness.

The apricots carry another story as well: the history of Fruita. The canyon’s residents anchored their world to the junction of Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River with orchards, the thousands of trees helping to make meaning of a life rife with floods and scarcity. So accustomed to barter and simplicity was this small community that the Great Depression’s lack of cash flow had no effect on it; Fruita’s isolation rendered orchards its treasury and fruit its currency. As the country struggled, this settlement soldiered forward as it always had — with a pocket full of faith and a pantry full of fruit.

And then came the designation of the landscape as a national monument. With it arrived tourists, paved roads and the outside entering in — the death knell for a town clinging to a past that modernity had made obsolete. In preserving a landscape, the government had inadvertently evicted those populating the terrain with story. The Park Service bought out the orchards and forcibly evicted those living in the path of the new highway. Many residents recognized there was no other option but to leave; their remoteness had rendered them an anachronism that would crumble amidst the flood of progress. They accepted government money and moved on. Most of the buildings were quickly razed to make room for park infrastructure. A raging Fremont could have wrought no greater destruction in this small town. And, thus, a rooted narrative was silenced to make room for a newer one of snapshots, scenery and short stays. But, as with my apricots, this preserved place is rife with memories.

Today, 2,600 fruit trees live on to tell a quiet tale of communion with place, of inhabited space being all the richer for its ever-evolving story. And my apricots connect me — if briefly, tenuously, with just a taste — to this narrative. These jeweled jars hold tales of a time when money was less meaningful than the vagaries of frost and flood, and fruit could build or break one’s world.

 

The (Supposed) Madness and Mystery of the King of the World

The facts are few, barely enough to illuminate a life: He went by the name of Aaron Andrew. That was not his name. He was a foreigner. He arrived with horses, goats and body bedecked in self-made medallions. He was artistically inclined, not only crafting coins embossed with his profile, but also producing a detailed relief carving on a large boulder near Moab. He camped at the north end of town in a makeshift tent built of canvas scraps and sticks. On Sundays, he would parade up and down Main Street in full military regalia, replete with sword and .40-caliber rifle. He was kind to local children. He caused no disruptions beyond a puzzled town’s conjecturing. He was evicted from town, arrested in Provo and institutionalized. He was bound with ropes at the state mental hospital. He died there.

The mysteries loom large, shadowing the truth of his existence: his real name, country of origin, age, occupational history, family connections, trials and tribulations leading to emigration, path to Moab, actual dates of residence here, reasons for rock carving, why he referred to himself at times as “King America” and “King World” and cause of death. His medical records are inaccessible, and those who remember him are nearly all deceased.

In the few pictures that exist, Aaron Andrew is a stout man with a broad face and nose, with gentle eyes and smile. He looks Eastern European. He appears proud and happy despite living the life of an itinerant eccentric. He is self-possessed, but even in the pictures of him in his military regalia, raising his sword skyward, there is a hint of mirth in his face, a sense of taking none of it too seriously.

I wish I could have known him.

I can’t seem to get him out of my head. He’s made an impression there — of man and horses and weapons — just as he did on his boulder over 75 years ago. The relief sculpture he made is militaristic and menacing, but his presence in Moab — or at least in my mind — was avuncular, unconventional and shrouded in mystery.

He spent months carving the King World rock. It depicts a man astride a horse — perhaps a self-portrait — with a sword and gun, wearing a Cossack-style hat that bears the world’s continents on its surface. His lapel buttons feature the Americas on one and Eurasia on the other. Between his head and that of the horse is a cryptic inscription reading:

M.C.F. HHAESUS

AMERICA

AHARRON

ANDEEW

KING AMERICA

KING WORLD

Based on his inscription — and a few documented details — I have painted a picture of his life. His name was not Aaron Andrew. That was an adopted name, born of the need to assimilate. He escaped from a war-torn, oppressive place, leaving behind his trade, his roots and his suffering. Perhaps he had already lost his family; departure would be no greater grief. He abandoned fighting and fear to those who had the heart for it.

Upon arriving in America, he became intoxicated with liberty. Compared to his country of origin, here he had the life of a king. King America. King World. He traveled, moving west, exploring an exotic terrain containing a generosity of space and mind. He eventually stumbled upon Moab, entering via the grandeur of Mill Creek Canyon, gifting his handmade coins to young boys gigging frogs there. He decided to make a home.

He camped, he carved, he helped area families with chores, he befriended the town’s braver boys. He paraded, with sword and rifle, along Main Street every Sunday. And with this deplorable habit — practiced on the Lord’s Day, of all days –—he angered Moab’s most-prominent citizens. The local family that had come to love him was forced to evict him from his home.

He was told to go to Provo. There, the police and the mental hospital awaited his arrival. The freest man in the country, the King of the World, was locked up and tied up, subjected to the kind of oppression he had once fled. But guns and violence did not herald this subjugation. Instead, it came quietly and insidiously, fueled by an unspoken clause within our guarantee to freedom, a qualification in fine print: Ultimately, one’s comportment is more powerful than his liberty. Ultimately, we are only as free as our adherence to certain mores. Ultimately, eccentricity may be seen as a battle cry.

With hope and faith extinguished, Aaron Andrew died shortly after being institutionalized. Without knowledge of his given name, his medical records are inaccessible.

Now, beyond a rockbound self-portrait known only to Moabites, there is no trace of King America, King World. It’s as if he never existed … except in my mind, which is constantly calling for the necessary knowledge to breathe him back to life.

Welcome to the World’s Playground

After a long day of manual labor as a trail-crew leader, I sat in camp near the Colorado River to rest and reorganize the group’s food supply for the week. It was the kind of sunny spring day that reminds a Moabite why she’s sacrificed what she has to live here. And it was the kind of spring day that millions of tourists seek in their sojourns here.

With tasks completed, I set out on a short stroll before the group reassembled to be fed. I soon encountered three young mountain bikers approaching on the gravel road leading to the group camp. They had the look of college kids on spring break. The sum total of their communication consisted of screaming “Yeah! MOAB!” utilizing various intonations and pronunciations. Since the road dead-ended at our camp — and there were no bike trails nearby — I was curious to see what the young visitors would do. They soon ascertained that this route was going nowhere fast, but the boldest of the three was not deterred. With a warrior’s cry that once again consisted solely of the words “yeah” and “Moab,” he pushed his bike up the nearest crumbly, crypto-clad slope and raced down at top speed, slalom-style, before braking at the last possible moment and spraying half the hill’s contents onto his friends. With desert now subdued, shouts of “Yeah! MOAB!” met the conqueror. Momentarily sated, the adrenaline junkies departed.

I stood with my voice caught somewhere between my heart and my vocal chords. I wanted to tell them that this was unacceptable behavior, that there are thousands of miles of pre-existing trails for their use and abuse, that the elegant curves of virgin hillsides were not waiting for their heavy, treaded caress. That this was not a playground. That, to some, this is sacred ground. But as the futility of such remarks welled up beyond my ability to state them — and with the realization that speaking up would make me sound so old — I simply turned back toward camp and busied myself with the needs of the group.

A dusty red cloud of melancholy then hovered over me. I was leading a trip for Wilderness Volunteers, a nonprofit that organizes service projects to rehabilitate public lands. The ten members of my crew were paying to fill their vacation time with heavy lifting and the use of McLeods, Pulaskis, rock bars and shovels. The week’s work consisted largely of erasing the kinds of scars I had just seen created. We raked out and blocked off a spider-web network of user-created trails. We carefully transplanted cacti and grasses into barren ground that once supported such life. We willingly spent our days in a haze of dirt and sweat and ache. I am constantly in awe of those who give of their time in such a way. But if this kind of intense labor — one that arises from an immense generosity of spirit — can be undone in a mere three seconds, what is the use? Are our actions as futile as the words that never emerged from my heart and throat?

As if to further underscore such questions, Moab’s annual Jeep Safari kicked into high gear just as our service project was ending. This is the time each year when thousands of Jeeps and rock-crawlers simultaneously descend upon the surrounding landscape for a week-and-a-half of backcountry rides and frontcountry showmanship. While the event organizers and registered participants are conscientious about adhering to maintained trails and Tread Lightly ethics, the hordes of Jeep Safari groupies are not as enlightened. The event’s aftermath consistently includes torn-up trees, scattered trash and signs of clumsy intrusion in areas closed to motorized use. Mud-splattered machines out of a “Mad Max” cinemascape parade up and down Main Street waving Confederate and pirate flags. In years past, the drivers have implored female pedestrians to “show me your titties,” and piles of waste (including beer cans, used condoms and piss puddles) have decorated residents’ yards.

While many locals have worked hard to mitigate this spring break vibe — with varying degrees of success — the fact remains that Moab has marketed itself as the world’s playground. And though this status brings us the cash we need to survive, it also comes with costs. As a playground, we abide by the whims of those playing here and the recess bell that sends them all home each winter. As a playground, we cannot expect respect from anyone we host; rather, reverence — as exemplified by the group I worked with several weeks ago — has become a quiet and valued mercy occasionally laid at the feet of this desert and those who call it home. Reverence is why many of us are here. And, paradoxically, both its existence and its lack are what support us through each tourist season.