The steady stream of bad news from the world of print journalism brings word that the 20th anniversary February-March issue of Moab's Canyon Country Zephyr will be the last. The Zephyr's editor and publisher, Jim Stiles, says he's moving to Australia to get married. The Zephyr will continue on-line.
This wasn't just another small-town publishing venture. Stiles, who became a friend of Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire author Edward Abbey near the end of Abbey’s abbreviated life, was "the torch bearer for Abbey's firebrand environmentalism," New West has observed, noting that the paper had become "famous for Stiles’ opinionated screeds and iconic caricatures."
New West has also reported that "[a]fter railing for years about the amenity economy eating away at this desert town’s dusty soul, Stiles says, Moab's New West mentality killed the Zephyr long before the economy tanked. New businesses just weren't advertising and old businesses weren't keeping it afloat. 'There just isn't the support for it in this town anymore,' he says."
Maybe. The wonder isn't that a paper of that kind has shut down — or, rather, has abandoned print and may or may not survive online. The wonder is that it kept going for 20 years. Stiles had to really want it. A friend recalls him driving an old pickup to Cortez, Colorado, 115 miles away, to get the paper printed, then driving back with bundled papers in the bed.
Like many other places in the intermountain west (which Wallace Stegner, among others, considered the real west) Moab changed years ago. As you drive through that part of the country, you don't find little towns that time forgot. You see places that time has altered dramatically, one way or another. In some, the agricultural economy has gone south, commerce has moved down the road to the Wal Mart, cable TV has replaced local movies, and any surviving trade with people just passing through has relocated to the nearest freeway off-ramp. You see boarded-up theaters, vacant gas stations with rusting pumps, main streets lined with thrift shops and empty storefronts. The movie theater my mother- and father-in-law used to run in central Utah was demolished long ago. The café where my mother-in-law waited tables in the 1930s is still, remarkably, in business; the local economy received a shot in the arm when the state built a prison nearby.
Other places, relatively few of them, have become centers of second homes and retirement, with upscale restaurants and rising land values. This isn't all bad. You can get a very good cup of coffee in Moab. (In most of the intermountain west, you encounter good coffee as rarely as you do fresh vegetables.) That's probably a sure-fire test: if you can buy a good cup of coffee in a western town, the place has been yuppified. (There are many culinary clues to social change. I knew Seattle had changed for good, years ago, when — on a bleak, temporarily-deserted stretch of Second Avenue — I saw a seagull pecking at a discarded croissant.) It's not only easier to find a good cup of coffee in a place like Moab than in most of the small towns you drive through between Seattle and Chicago, it's easier to find people who don't assume that what's good for the ranching and mining industries is good for the universe.
Personally, I like the feel of Moab, Bend, Ore. and other places where young (and not-so-young) people gather to do physical stuff outdoors, but even if all the new people were environmentalists and baristas, there would still be too many of them. Once the fit outsiders reach a certain critical mass, they tend to obliterate any older, more organic local culture. And that's not all they obliterate. Utah's red-rock desert is a landscape ill-suited to the kind of growth it has seen in the past couple of decades (and it contains a political infrastructure ill-equipped to deal with rapid growth). The knobby tires of mountain bikes have long since destroyed the vegetation in some patches of scenic desert as thoroughly as the sheep herds (John Muir's "hoofed locusts") that defoliated large parts of the west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
If you look at census numbers Moab hasn’t grown much. It has just barely climbed back to the population level it achieved in the 1960s and '70s, when it was the "uranium capital of the world." After the mines shut down, population plummeted in the 1980s. But the modest new numbers give no hint of the people who have second homes in the area, of the motels, the tour buses, the hordes of mountain bikers and hikers. Nor do they reflect the fact that Arches National Park, just north of town, and Canyonlands National Park, a little to the south, now draw more than a million visitors a year.
The numbers come closer to telling the story of St. George, in the southwestern corner of Utah, an hour's drive from Zion National Park and a couple of hours from Las Vegas, where my mother-in-law has lived for the past 30 years. Probably no place in Utah has changed more dramatically than St. George. In 2005, this desert community, where July's daily average high temperature tops 102 degrees F., was called the second-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States. The federal government has chipped in money to build a new airport large enough to handle regional jets — which are supposed to follow approach patterns that minimize the noise they inflict on Zion National Park.
Meanwhile, local boosters want a pipeline to bring in water from Lake Powell, so that entrepreneurs can keep building subdivisions in the desert, subdivision residents can keep watering their lawns, and retirees can keep playing golf. (When Mike Hightower of the Sandia National Laboratory was in Seattle recently to talk about the link between water use and energy development, he observed that places like St. George, developed for retirees who wanted to play golf, were in a quandry: the retirees are already there; stop watering the golf courses "and what are they going to do, watch the dust blow?") The water would be pumped 2,000 feet uphill, then piped 130-odd miles to St. George and other potential users. The state legislature has authorized the project, but so far no one seems eager to pick up the tab.
Edward Abbey would have been appalled — but not at all surprised.
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