At a gas station in Moab, a Thursday afternoon in June, the temperature a little over 100, heat rising from the oily asphalt. The pumps are lined with vehicles gassing up: 4 x 4 pickups, lots of Jeeps, old, local and dented, and new, jacked up, stud-tired, and rented, offroad Tonka toys for the slickrock trade; also little nondescript rental sedans packed with tourists, mostly apparently Chinese couples in shapeless cotton clothes in primary colors, and clutches of Euro dudes sporting horizontally striped shirts, spiky, dyed haircuts, and sunburns. They’re headed for the national parks, the Indian ruins, the river, the redrock desert, what they don’t have at home. What they have in Utah. Inside, I wonder what is edible: there are racks of coral reef colors, every kind of soda pop, candy, and chips in taut, pneumatic, mirrored bags, as though a new product line by Jeff Koons, priced for retail. Steamy, filmy glass cases with revolving red hot dogs and jalapeño cheese poppers. A pimply cashier guy shrugs. In apology? Or just to say, This is it, these are your choices. I get Cool Ranch Doritos in a metallic blue bag and chat about the weather. He says it’s the only place he’s lived where it tends to rain while the sun is shining. Maybe clouds drift down off the peaks of the La Sals? I suggest. He rings me up.
The main street, Highway 191, is four lanes of traffic, bumping along a line of red lights, past rental outfitters offering Jeeps, Hummers, quads, mountain bikes, rubber rafts and inflatable kayaks. There are fleets of vans to shuttle customers between trails, river put-ins and take-outs, and dirt roads. Brewpubs, diners, motels, more gas stations, too many for a town this size. There is Uranium Avenue, and there, is the Uranium Building, a little modernist storefront from when this old Mormon farming settlement struck Cold War gold in radioactive dirt. After the boom decades of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, it bottomed out. Down by the Colorado River, a dune of uranium mining tailings crouches by the snot-green water flowing past, and looms in at least a few of the minds of the 30 million or so people downstream.
On the radio, a Grand County commissioner, a woman, laments the traffic on 191, calling it the area’s biggest problem. The morning commute can be 20 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic, she says. South out of town, the road rises onto a pinyon and juniper-covered plateau, where, without warning, a field of tall, blindingly white wind turbines turns slowly, then is gone. We see no others.
On the San Juan River, in rented rubber boats, we pull ashore to see ancient Ancestral Puebloan Indian stone houses set in the cliffs, and panels of drawings, strange anthropomorphic figures, doodles, bighorn sheep, and tricksters etched into the vertical red rock. They are layered up, willy-nilly, graffiti accreted over thousands of years. The artists disappeared from these canyons and mesas hundreds of years ago, fleeing South and leaving these traces. Drought and a changing climate played a central role, making it harder to grow their crops and game more scarce; forests and meadows retreated up the mountains. The stress worsened conflict with their neighbors, who became enemies. A culture with magnificent art and architecture, and good technologies, but it couldn’t adapt to a changing, drying world.