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.