Beyond the service industry shroud, there is madness and mayhem in Moab. Within each river guide, shuttle driver, restaurant server, bike mechanic and hotel operator, there exists an undercurrent of something more. This undercurrent is a man rolling down Main Street in a handmade hamster wheel. It is the annual fashion show, wherein minimum-wage workers get to be top models — bedecked in mini-blinds or vacuum hose — for a night. It is Molotov cocktails tossed off Hurrah Pass at 2 a.m. It is a 28-day Daily run on the Colorado River. It is a stealth mission to turn the iconic “G” on the cliffs above town (“G” for Grand County) into a directive to “Go Away!” during Jeep Safari. It is the brilliance of Moab Community Theatre, the thrill of breaking world records at the Pumpkin Chuckin’ Festival, and the hushed glory of prominent community members dancing with nearly naked skydivers — leather-bound leg acrobatically propped up on bare, brawny shoulder — at the bar on Halloween.
Yes, we are a tourist town. Yes, we survive by the grace of our guests, living thanks to those who love our surroundings. But Moab is also something more. There still exists an element holding steadfast to eccentricity amidst the onslaught of gentrification and commodification. For, once we’ve lost our idiosyncratic heart — beating to a rhythm as unpredictable as summer monsoons and sudden rock fall — then the real Moab is dead. Eccentricity is vanquished. And I will have to plant the seeds of my landscape love elsewhere.
Moab needs its eccentrics. It needs its darers and dreamers. They are the essential artists painting on the canvas of the day-to-day, reminding us that this life is less desperate — and more urgent — than we suppose. The eccentrics advise us that imagination is not a childhood relic, that dreams need not be confined to the brain and that conformity is the first sign of societal heart disease. But eccentricity is a dying breed, relegated to the shadows — especially during tourist season.
My boyfriend, Tyler, is an import to Moab from Durango, a town where, much to his sadness, the flame of eccentricity is flickering out. He came to Moab for me, but other loves have since abetted the original, including mountains, canyons, friends and the town itself.
He, too, is a daring dreamer, an important addition to the Moab milieu. Together, we ran the Colorado at high water on an air mattress, asking hapless boaters, “We just woke up; where are we?” and noting, “Wow! We’ve never seen the Dolores this big!” Inspired by the sweeping cinematography of a National Geographic documentary, he built operational camera equipment — an enormous jib and a dolly — out of scrap metal. During the first month of our courtship, he bought us a 1971 Streamline trailer to live in. He is my mountain man — a firefighter, a flawless feller of trees, a fearless adventurer. And he is my artist — with an ear for the essential, an eye for the emotional and a mind for the intuitive. And when he dresses as a bunny to run the half-marathon or plays alt-country versions of Lady Gaga on the guitar, no one around him can take this life too damned seriously. Like any good nonconformist, he helps me to see the comic within the consecrated. And for that I am grateful.
Tyler was a Moab resident for just a week when he experienced the town’s harbinger of the holiday season, the Winter Sun Festival. We ran the 10K, we visited the craft fair and we bundled up to stand among the crowds on Main Street for the annual Electric Light Parade. This is Moab at its shining finest. The spectacle is an assemblage of trucks full of teenagers and bisexuals on bicycles, antique tractors and elaborately decorated trailers, livestock and live music, dance troupes and costumed groups. The unifying theme is that every entrant — animal, vegetable or mineral — is adorned in lights. And the greatest beauty is that, for 30 golden minutes, Main Street is closed to everything but this one, locals-only holiday event. Suddenly, Highway 191 isn’t bisecting our town, cleaving west side from east with the noise and girth of semi traffic. Instead, it’s simply Main Street. And it belongs to Moab, a town not worried about making a buck — because there isn’t one to be had in December.
I was thrilled to share the parade with Tyler, the neophyte Moabite, to show him that this desert town is much more than the Slickrock Trail and Jeep Safari. We are passionately quirky in ways our visitors will never know. We live hidden lives of authenticity, colorful communion and song. Our increasingly short off-season is full of creative pursuits — parades, fashion shows, theater and craft nights — to while away the darker, carefree hours. We give off a shine that money can’t buy when winter is at its worst. I wanted Tyler to know that he was in the midst of kindred spirits.
At the parade, he got it. He loved it. And I loved him for loving it.
Following the procession, Frankie D’s Bar hosted an after-party with Moab’s best (and only) disco cover band, Sparkle Motion. The bar is housed in a Quonset hut painted with enough magic and memories — or alcohol, I suppose — to make its origins seem less humble. One never knows when Frankie’s will implode with debauchery — it’s hit or miss, directed by some devious turn of collective consciousness — but when the masses arrive, it’s disorderly perfection.
Ty and I sat in my darkened car parked across from a crowded Frankie’s, downing the contents of my thermos (a drink we labeled Hepatitis C on the Beach in honor of one of Moab’s many eccentrics). As any good, recession-era dirtbag knows, you do your drinking before entering the bar, to save money.
Just as we were about to make the move from car to bar, a straggler from the Electric Light Parade rode his bike across our field of vision, headed toward Frankie D’s. The scene was double-take-worthy.
His bike trailer was on fire.
Initially, the flames were small and confined to one portion of the trailer. We assumed that it was perhaps a portable barbecue — in Moab, why not? However, as he swiveled and swayed his way across the street, the mobile conflagration grew. When he hit the curb in front of the bar, the trailer broke free from the bike. With this, he finally became aware of his dangerously flickering hitchhiker.
We watched from our shadowy vantage, unobserved and absolutely titillated.
The cyclist stood above the trailer blaze and scratched his chin, seemingly unperturbed, puzzling over the predicament as if it were a simple mechanical problem that could wait until morning. But inspiration struck, and even in the dark, we could see it light up his features. We watched him unzip, extract, aim and fire. His urine flow was so copious that, not only did our hero douse the blaze, but hardly a wisp of smoke remained in the aftermath.
The alcohol that likely led to the fire’s ignition also helped to put it out. The inundated bladder saved the day for the inebriated brain. It was a glorious display of bodily self-correction. We silently cheered from the car.
Seconds later, a figure emerged from the bar. She wore a glowing, spinning electric fan on her forehead and a boa bedecked in sparkling lights. It was none other than Moab’s Queen of Westwater, our most infamous and beloved eccentric, trained (among other things) in the arts of branding and bondage. She stormed over to reprimand the hapless biker, fan spinning on forehead all the while. We desperately wanted to hear what was being said, so I inserted my key in the ignition to roll down the automatic windows. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that the key-ignition combo prompts illumination of the dome lights and commencement of buckle-your-seatbelt beeping. I’d blown our voyeuristic cover. We froze. But the Queen of Westwater and the King of Firewater didn’t notice. And we’d already missed the bulk of their absurdly surreal confrontation.
With the eventual dissipation of the spectacle, Tyler breathlessly broke the silence in the vehicle with, “I think I just fell in love with Moab.”
And he’s been falling in love ever since.
Finally, we made our way into the bar for a typical night in Moab — fires, fans, freaks and all — our lives painted vibrant by the creative palettes of our compatriots in nonconformity.
Jen Jackson resides in Moab, where she will spend the off-season learning the finer arts of driving a 1976 Kenworth W900A, servicing a Stihl MS290, shooting rabbits with a .22 and loving this life —quirks and all — with an ever-bigger heart.