“All Roads Lead To Moab”
The Trailhead To Moab
A year before I set the goal of visiting all the U.S. national parks, I found myself in northeastern Israel working on an archaeological dig (unearthing a Roman layer of ancient civilization in the hopes of discovering Greco then Israelite and, finally, Middle Bronze Age Canaanite). The dig terminated with me crossing the near Jordan River, into the bordering country of the same name, and rucksacking through the Moab Desert with two Polish archaeologists. This involved a dread-clenching taxi ride through northern Jordan, periodic stops for Muslim prayer, a transfer in the capital city of Ammon, and an Arab-pop-music filled bus ride to Petra and later Aqaba.
Fast forward two years and I find myself in Moab, Utah, for the first time in my life. The experience is quite different—no bells signaling an Islamic call to prayer, no language barrier, no Jordanian dinar as my form of cash—but the landscape is equitable with rising plateaus and hills, deep ravines, hot days and cold nights, and weather-induced erosion. The desert, a universal and quite biblical human experience, from one country to the next.
Tread Lightly During Your Moab Adventure
Similar to the site of Petra, first made famous in Western culture by Indiana Jones and later the Transformers film franchise, the American Moab has become a place of touristic pilgrimage. This was Edward Abbey’s fear; in his 1968 memoir, Desert Solitaire, about living in Arches National Monument (later upgraded to “National Park”), he warns of industrial tourism and its consequences, the inevitable paving of the then dirt roads, and suggesting a mandatory bus system (like we now see in Denali and Zion) for what would surely become a traffic-congested park. He was right in the prophesizing, with Arches’ visitation rate having grown 90% in just the last decade. There are days, starting in the early morning, when visitors are no longer allowed to enter because the maximum capacity has already been reached.
None of this, however, was on my mind when I showed up in 2011, a reckless adventurer who rolled into communities more concerned with the experiences I could take rather than the reciprocity I could bring. I became another car on the road, another carbon emitter unto the air, another body to block famous vistas. The problem is that the region, with Moab at the epicenter of both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, does not disappoint: hikes through enchanting geological features are abundant, the sites are accessible to most and condensed into a nicely curated drive, and the town of Moab is quant, charming, and still locally driven. Subtract the sheer number of travelers and the place is a near-perfect national park experience.
Discover A Moab Trail Less Traveled
The solution to our problem is space and education, the two working in concert to bring the potential perfection to fruition. First, with space, you’ll find it unfurling in 360 degrees. To avoid the crowds, try off-the-beaten path experiences like hiking in the Needles section of Canyonlands, mountain biking the Island in the Sky section, or canyoneering through the Maze section. Arches is a little trickier, but with proper knowledge (acquired through GuideGap’s services), you can avoid the crowds while still accessing wonder. For example, you can apply for one of the limited permits to hike the Fiery Furnace, a trail that loosely guides you through eroded fin formations to jaw-dropping arches and slot canyons. Or, as I like to do, try hiking to Delicate Arch at midnight—the crowds will be minimal and you’ll have a unique story that most have never experienced.
Since my first trip to Moab, Utah, my little brother and I started a tradition of returning each spring to undertake both new and old hikes and reengage with the landscape. What I’d first come to expect, as stated, was a relationship of consumption: me taking and Moab giving. This has subsequently shifted over the years toward reciprocity, an exchange with mutual benefits. And this is important to recognize when entering national park gateway towns—the locals are providing services and guidance to best protect their cultural and environmental ecosystems while also striving toward a financially sustainable economy that provides visitors with the information and gear necessary for a safe trip. Of course, I’ve found my favorite haunts over the years: Quesadilla Mobilla, Love Muffin Café, Jailhouse Café, Giliberto’s Mexican Taco Shop. Outdoor guides are abundant, too, with local favorites being Aspect Adventures and JG Outfitters.
Find Yourself In The Moab Desert
Returning again to Ed Abbey, I take comfort in his Desert Solitaire quote: “You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.”
This is an intimate relationship we share with the desert, one of hands and knees and crawling and blood. I invite you to engage to this degree, whether figuratively or metaphorically or quite literally, but always with an eye toward acknowledgement: this is Native land (Pueblo of Zuni, Hopi, Southern Ute, Ute Indian Tribe-Uintah and Ouray, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, and Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians), later settled by Latter-Day Saints, and now a recreationalist town named for a foreign desert some 8,000 miles away. The arches and canyons that surround speak of deep history. Like an archaeologist, engage with the earth and listen.
*Further reading: The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen is the true story of a man, Daniel Suelo, who abandons the conventions of money and survives via dumpster diving in Moab and squatting in caves throughout Arches National Park.
About The Author: Tyler
Tyler Dunning grew up in southwestern Montana, having developed a feral curiosity and reflective personality at a young age. This mindset has led him around the world, to nearly all of the U.S. national parks, and to the darker recesses of his own creativity. He’s dabbled in such occupations as professional wrestling, archaeology, social justice advocacy, and academia. At his core he is a writer. Check out Tyler’s website at: Tyler Dunning
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