When I was 25, a man in Moab gave me a smooth stone that he’d found nearby on one of his rockhounding ventures. Ray was then in his early eighties, with a receding white hairline and leathery canyons lining his face.
“Put that in your pocket,” he said. “Maybe you can call that your worry stone.”
I did. For years, whenever I felt anxious or weighed down with writer’s block, I would pick it up. Feeling the rock’s weight as it warmed in my hands, I would think about Moab, the person I was there, and how far away they both felt.
I had visited Moab for the first time a year before I met Ray, and a stray line in a guidebook sparked what would become an ongoing obsession. Driving roads first built to transport ore, I learned about the area’s uranium boom history and its toxic and complex legacy, about the abandoned mines and remains of mills that stipple the region.
At the time, I was just hungry for a story. I was living in New York City and had recently finished my first year in a master’s program in creative nonfiction. I didn’t yet have the tools to sculpt a story from the formless stone of an idea, a landscape, a place in time. But in Moab, I had a sense that there was something worth pursuing, that a town which had gone from uranium boom to bust and then to tourism boom might be a generative place for a writer to poke around.
That first trip led to longer stays as I began to fashion a writing project around what I learned — a project I imagined becoming a book. I conducted interviews with people I deemed important to my still-mushy narrative: older folks like Ray who remembered the mining boom years, conservationists, park rangers from past and present. I toured the uranium tailings pile just outside town — the radioactive detritus of the mill that changed Moab irrevocably — and the permanent storage cell 30 miles north, to which trains are slowly transporting the tailings to be buried for some stretch of forever.
I drove along the Colorado River’s curves and walked sandy trails with a vague sense of responsibility, trying to turn points on the map into places I could know. I threw myself into this “research” with more desire and desperation than was probably reasonable.
Before long, it became clear that my attraction to the place was about more than just writing: Moab gave me a means of escaping from an urban life that rarely felt right. In Moab, everything — the vast, tumbled-up landscape, the sky, my own choices — felt more expansive. In New York, I felt stuck, drawn loosely elsewhere without a clear sense of what I wanted. But retreating into my research files, into chapters I was crafting, into the red-rock desert and its stories, offered a kind of relief. It gave me a way to tap into that expansiveness, to smuggle a bit of desert magic into the pragmatic city.
That writing project has long since been shelved, taking with it my sense of purpose on visits to Moab. But I’ve continued going back at least once a year, and often more. The past few times, I felt a little lost there, a little trampled by my own memories. Though I’d once been a tourist, too, I’d grown attached to the Moab I’d come to know, and I found myself preoccupied with assessing what had and hadn’t changed as tourism has continued to reshape the place. I walked, bewildered, into the sleek new shops on Main Street. Why would anyone come to Moab to browse this Etsy-looking jewelry? When did a cellphone repair shop replace the used bookstore? Who in the world would buy a $3,000 dinosaur bone, and what in the world would one do with it? I was turning as curmudgeonly as Desert Solitaire author Edward Abbey (“A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins”) and everyone else who has ever wished they could stop time in Moab at the moment they first arrived — whenever that happened to be. I stubbornly took comfort in my favorite coffee shop, which remains the same as ever, where the owner still remembers me.
These days, when I pick up my worry stone, I think about Ray, who has since passed away, and about that afternoon on his patio. A onetime county commissioner and fervent Sagebrush Rebel — part of a movement to turn over federal lands to state and local control — he and I held opposing views on pretty much everything. He drew lines in the dust on his glass-topped patio table to show me how oil companies built redundant roads through the desert — redundant roads that he believes should stay open on principle. “Now, I don’t advocate we go out and make a whole bunch more roads,” he told me, “but we’ve got to have access to the land.” He tapped my bare ring finger, couldn’t believe I’d never even been proposed to. Told me I shouldn’t have any trouble finding a husband “with them dimples and everything.”
I nodded through all kinds of objectionable comments. Ray’s gravelly voice and cowboy charm knocked me so far off my moral axis that I later found, scribbled in my notes, things like “Three Mile Island — just a leak” when Ray casually dismissed the biggest nuclear plant accident in U.S. history. I was not yet secure enough in myself as an interlocutor to try to push back. And I didn’t yet know that Ray’s was a worldview I’d encounter again and again all over the West.
Ray embodied a certain persistent old-time version of the frontier myth: The land is his for the taking, feds be damned. Subscribing to the idea that the federal government is an “absentee landlord” locking up the land, he wanted local control and fewer regulations. His ethos was not far off from the fiery sense of entitlement that would later bring the Bundys and their followers to occupy a wildlife refuge in Oregon. In 1980, when Ray was a county commissioner, he led a protest of hundreds of people into a wilderness study area that he wished the government would release for other uses. Flying the American flag, he drove a bulldozer straight through a “ROAD CLOSED” sign. Ray was never charged or prosecuted. (But the Bureau of Land Management did threaten to sue if the county commission didn’t restore the area, so they did.)
The one thing Ray and I agreed on was the beauty of the land itself, which he spoke of with deep reverence. The red rock “gets into your DNA,” he warned me more than once. Sandstone cliffs jutted up from his backyard, and I could tell he never tired of looking at them.
But Ray and I had more in common than that — more, maybe, than I wanted to admit. Not only did we love the red-rock landscape, but for better or worse, we’d both been shaped by the mythology that emanated from it. In Moab, I was living out my own version of a Wild West fantasy: drawn to desert exploration, as ruggedly independent as I’d ever been, more open to possibilities, somehow, than I was in the East. Ray and I had started with the same romantic notions about the West. We’d just fashioned them into profoundly different belief systems.
I was just another stranger seeking fortune in a desert town, same old story shined up with Gor-Tex hiking boots and a fancy writing program. All these years later, I’m still grappling with what I found.