Meander: A History

…Hope, Fear. Ruin, Rebirth

There is a buried and meandering channel of history moving unseen through the Moab Valley’s narrow, rimrock embrace. It curves through eras of rock art and warpaint, medical research and industrial warfare, salvation through service and damnation in detention. The substance of its serpentine events — now captured in history’s stony embrace — is infused with the elemental polarities of human nature: Hope, fear. Ruin, rebirth.

Though this channel of stories is now dormant beneath a newly laid desert floor, the curves and turns of yesteryear still tug at the paths forged today.

They are called paleochannels — abandoned streambeds from ancient landscapes, now buried under layers of sediment-turned-stone. Uranium miners followed them. Like ouzels, the birds that dive under cool canyon currents and walk submerged surfaces, these men dove below stone to the canyon bottoms of a previous age, searching for the sustenance that uranium might provide.

They mined around meanders and dug deeper-down pour-offs. They sought the phantom pool below the extinct waterfall for the logjam or dinosaur corpse providing the organic matter where uranium accumulates.

Uranium is a shape-shifting element. Ever lonely, it seeks the companionship of carboniferous deposits. It infuses tree limbs and bones with its essence, slowly replacing the dead matter with its elemental self. It is constantly on the move, from deep in the earth’s mantle outward, migrating on the wings of water. Driving plate tectonics. It is a vagabond. And it resists identification, hiding behind a multiplicity of hues and concentrations.

In this way, it mirrors humankind’s shape-shifting nature, each of us wavering on the tightrope strung between our hopes and our fears. With each falter and overcorrection, we shift the terrain of history. And we fashion the course of our lives.

“We inherit the warlike type,” said William James in his 1906 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” “Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us.”

In this way, tales of war act like uranium, seeking the companionship of our hearts and minds, seeping into our bones, remaking individuals and societies in its elemental image. Even when we are not at war, the metaphors and memories remain in our lives, livelihoods and literature. Are we ever truly at peace? Is peace an illusion? Is it simply a time of preparation, of readiness? A state of tension anticipating some red glow on the horizon?

“‘Peace’ in military mouths today is a synonym for ‘war expected,’” James continued. “[T]he battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the ‘peace’-interval.”

Is peace a less stable element than war?

What is the half-life of peace?

In the years leading up to World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps built 23,000 miles of hiking trails, 125,000 miles of new roads and 47,000 bridges. They stocked one billion fish in waterways nationwide, strung 89,000 miles of telephone lines and erected 3,470 fire towers. They spent over four million man-days fighting forest fires, dedicated seven million man-days to habitat restoration and worked for nine straight years on erosion control, water conservation, forest management and rangeland improvements. They are best known for planting over three billion trees.

It was the largest peacetime mobilization of men in our country’s history.

The CCC was phased out in 1942. We needed the manpower to go to war.

Fifteen short months after the closure of Moab’s Dalton Wells Civilian Conservation Corps camp with the advent of World War II, the site was converted into the Moab Isolation Center, a Japanese internment camp. The barracks that once housed men intent on building a better future for themselves and their country now detained Japanese Americans — “troublemakers” from other relocation centers. Prisoners were shipped to this remote desert outpost and held without due process, kept under military guard, given no warrants, no right to defense, no trial and no contact with family. Their mail was censored. The Japanese tongue was not allowed. They required military escort to perform basic bodily functions.

The head of the War Relocation Authority at the time — the agency responsible for Japanese internment — referred to the Moab Isolation Center as “nothing but a concentration camp.”

One man was held there for the crime of referring to a Caucasian nurse as an “old maid.”

The Moab Isolation Center was never publicized. The world was largely unaware of these desert detainees. All photo documentation of the camp was destroyed. It became a hole in the landscape, a gap in the deep history of Dalton Wells, an abandoned meander in its course of events.

The Japanese internment camp in Moab was officially referred to as a “rehabilitation center.”

Rehabilitation from what?

When detainee Harry Ueno was moved from the Moab Isolation Center to another internment camp, he and four other prisoners were placed in a blacked out, four-by-six box with a single air-hole. They were transported this way — in the back of a truck — across 11 hours worth of gravel roads.

What kind of rehabilitation is this?

In peacetime, Dalton Wells was a place of hope and regeneration. During war, the same desert silence, the same modest buildings, the same sage and redrock and dust and wind … these elements forged a hell for 49 Japanese Americans.

In the powdery soils of Dalton Wells today, we find that hope and fear are made of the same raw materials and supported by the same ground. Our collective consciousness and conscience determine the differing outcomes.

The landscape — just like the heart of a nation — is vast enough to hold both realities.

Individuals, too, are raw materials. We, too, can become infused with the elemental — war and fear, compassion and courage — as it emanates from the hot mantle of those in power.

It is a fragile division between peaceful pursuits and wartime atrocities, between the solace of a desert’s solitude and the despair of its isolation. It is a fine line we walk within our own hearts and in our collective capacities for kindness and contempt.

Not far from Dalton Wells, on a remote canyon wall, sits a millennia-old Barrier Canyon-style being who seems to catch comets. He is painted in red, outlined in gold. He is taller than I. This panel’s beauty is one that transcends the truth of its meaning — one which we will never know.

The same reds and golds that give life to the comet catcher are the ones once used as warpaint by the Ute and Navajo. The same reds and golds once used in war were later shipped east to color ceramics like Fiestaware.

This element from the desert that speaks in hues of red and gold was used by Madame Curie in her efforts to cure cancer. Some of her radium came from Moab-area mines. This same element that was used to end suffering also caused more of it than the world had ever seen in a single day.

When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a member of the Enola Gay crew recalled that the mushroom cloud included yellowish clouds enveloping reddish clouds.

One-seventh of the atomic bomb’s radioactive material came from Moab.

Altruism and war. Beauty and suffering. Caught in the channels incised by our chosen leadership and our basic needs, we meander back and forth between the poles.

Of the men who worked in Moab-area uranium mines after World War II, many remained, many became sick, and many died here. Some sought a cure through nuclear medicine, bringing the element full circle. Uranium — a vagabond element, a shape-shifter. A killer and a redeemer.

These men — with their own shape-shifting stories — mined the raw materials of our sense of safety during the Cold War. They also invested in the Moab community. Uranium money built schools, neighborhoods, churches, roads and the necessary infrastructure to support a burgeoning population. Moab was blessed by war.

When the Atomic Energy Commission no longer needed uranium, Moab suffered. When the uranium processing mill finally closed in the early ’80s, Moab all but dried up and blew away on persistent desert winds.

“Global peace has been a disaster for the uranium industry,” wrote Tom Zoellner, author of a book on uranium’s deep history.

Global peace nearly killed Moab.

“A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure economy,” wrote James. “So long as antimilitarists propose no substitute for war’s disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war…so long they fail to realize the full inwardness of the situation.”

The Dalton Wells site, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is a ghost of its former self. The cottonwood trees that the CCCers planted remain. The concrete foundations scattered on the desert floor are buckled, cracked, submitting to the elemental forces that shape this landscape. The area is now used by recreationists. They set up their RVs across the foundations of another time, using the site as a staging area for their adventures — atop motorcycles, ATVs and mountain bikes. This forms the basis for Moab’s current economy: Industrial tourism. A pleasure-based economy. Our antidote to the boom-and-bust cycle of supplying the raw materials of war.

As the two-stroke engines whine across this storied and stony landscape, who follows the flow of stories just beneath the surface? Who studies the oscillations between hope and fear cradled in an unlikely and isolated space? Who studies these ancient, subterranean routes so that we — as a people — might learn to chart a new course?

Who will now walk the paleochannels? And for what reason?

Who will now wander the prison yard? And what will he dream for its tomorrows?

Who will now collect reds and golds? And for what purpose?

What is the half-life of memory?

Here and elsewhere, we continue to walk the tension between our conflicting potentialities, engaging in this daring-and-dreamy high-wire act that we refer to simply as life. And we also walk a subterranean route collectively cut into this earth, our footprints a soft attrition. It is a channel of ruin and redemption incised deeply in the shared landscapes of memory, heart and home.

On this walk, we carry with us our layers of kindnesses and faults — mirroring the rocky strata of the Moab landscape — allowing erosion to determine which echelon we act upon and which serves as counterbalance in our ever-meandering destiny.

Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “A Hiker’s Guide to the Desert,” which appeared in MG #177. Her monthly blog, “Desert Reflections,” can by viewed at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.

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