“They are a cancer.” We heard this exact phrase from several of the locals regarding the number of ATVs trolling the roads of what I remembered as a laid back mountain biking town. They are simply everywhere—like super loud bumblebees with far less charm and way more environmental impact. Since I was last here, well over a decade ago, things have changed. It’s amazing how a landscape millions of years old can feel recently renovated. Arches National Park now has timed one-hour entry to control the crowds. It is still being perfected apparently as it took nearly two hours to simply enter the park. Luckily, with the way we travel, we get to meet the locals—and by locals, I mean, people who have lived here long enough to have purchased land.
Because what is happening in Moab is far from unique. On our travels we often hit destination spots—coastal cities, mountain towns, desert oases like Moab. New people are not moving to Moab, but it is growing. In fact, one local who moved here 30 years ago and bought a house in town when town didn’t even have a stop sign, let along a stoplight, informed us that the population of Moab is right now exactly the same as it was three decades ago. Only businesses and developers are moving in. Sure, McDonald’s is offering $20/hour here, but even a full-time gig at $20/hour won’t rent a room in Moab. In fact, two of those won’t rent a place here. Yet, there is a subdivision of 250 homes being built right below Moab Rim. Those are summer homes for rich people. Homes that will sit vacant for most of the year and drive up land prices and taxes. The wait staff at the restaurant, the river guides, and bike shop repair people—they live in a community of buses and old RVs outside of town. If this were a novel, the dichotomy would be an all-too-on-the-nose metaphor. But here we are.
Anyway, we got to meet the locals. One gentleman told us about Tom Tom—an eccentric man who was a WWII pilot and collected VWs. By collecting we mean that when a VW broke down around here, he got it and parked it on his lot where it became part of the landscape. If you’re a fan of Edward Abbey (I am), there’s an episode in his memoir where he talks about some old coot crashing a plane they were flying and they only had a bottle of whiskey to make it back home. That old coot was Tom Tom. Well, Tom Tom’s yard of cars was not loved by the city. They rezoned the land so he would have to move them. But any friend of Ed Abbey knows who happens next. A permit later and Tom Tom’s Auto Museum was born.
The ghost of Abbey looms over this place, especially in how much it has changed. He prophesied the change to a chilling degree in his masterpiece, Desert Solitaire. A scene that stuck with me for years is the county engineers taking a jeep across the landscape and staking out the roadways. Abbey saw what they were doing and predicted that Arches would become an amusement park, this corner of the desert into a playground for the rich and those who would destroy it in pursuit of the next dollar. So he followed the path of the jeep, pulling out the stakes and throwing them far and wide.
Progress came, of course. Drive-thrus and timeshares and ATVs. Time entry and double-wide walking trails to accommodate the crowds. In the midst of this mess, there’s Miracle, Jolene, and I—told to stay in town by the doctor because Miracle had a concussion. But Moab had turned into a tourist town and the spot we secured at an RV park was only good for two days. The weekend was here and literally every spot in Moab was full for the night.
Miracle went in for an appointment on Saturday morning and Jolene and I stayed out in the bus—me making some minor repairs to our cabinets and Jolene sunbathing.
“You’re Ryan,” a voice said. A man in a baseball cap and sunglasses stood next to the bus. “And you’re Jolene.”
“Either you looked us up off our window cling or my ex has finally come for the bus,” I joked.
“No,” he said. “I’m the guy with the white Westy.”
Our first day in town, amidst the head trauma, we saw a beautiful white Eurovan with a Westfalia pop top. We waved to the guy and he spoke briefly to Miracle when I ran into a store.
“I know this is a tough town to find a spot and I meant to let you know that I have a place outside of town where you could park if needed.”
If needed. Miracle was in rough shape, but insisting she could move on. But given her confused speech and desire to sleep right after she woke, I told this guy—Terry is his name—that we might take him up on the offer.
We did. We rolled into his place that evening and he showed me his slice of paradise, a view of the Moab Rim and a deeply wooded lot. Terry was our hero—Miracle had a bed (a real bed) to sleep in, while Terry and I swapped tales. He told me about a failed land sale to a JCPenny heir and how they make their living off AirBnB rentals these days, though they preferred not to cater to the ATV crowd; the land is too peaceful for that. He showed us the art in their house, including a sketch of his father-in-law, the county engineer who staked out the roads of Arches.