“When I make it to Moab, I’ll get my canteen filled/
There’s nothing that the road cannot heal.”
– Conor Oberst, “Moab”
“I have called it a garden, and it is–a rock garden. Despite the great variety of living things to be found here, most of the surface of the land, at least three-quarters of it, is sand or sandstone, naked, monolithic, austere and unadorned as the sculpture of the moon. It is undoubtedly a desert place, clean, pure, totally useless, quite unprofitable.”
– Edward Abbey, writing about Arches National Park in Desert Solitaire, 29
In the southwest United States, there are towns with names like Surprise and Virgin. In southwest Utah, there is a national park called Zion. I never found out whether or not Mormons are responsible, but in Utah, to ask is almost redundant. Mormons are as much a part of the oral history as the ancient Pueblo people.
Zion National Park brings together landscapes of thick desert vegetation, enormous boulders, and red rock faces. The “scenic drive” is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, with the scenery rising directly above, encapsulating the car. I imagined the lion and the lamb sharing a space under a bush in the cool belly of the canyons.
Were the low temperatures not hovering around zero, I would camp in Zion — maybe stay for weeks. As it is, my destination is the Lazy Lizard Hostel in Moab, where a night on a bunk costs $11.00 plus tax.
Moab is a town in southeast Utah near the Colorado border. It lies along Highway 191, Moab’s section of which is lined with motels, in a state where the limit on draft beer’s alcohol content is 3.2% ABW (4.0% ABV).
All evening I drive north and then east from Zion on an interstate spotted with ice; but I arrive at the hostel unscathed thanks to luck, God, or dark matter. Inside, I absorb the scrappiness and joyless fatigue of the crowd — a handful of guys, thirty to sixty — in their aged puffy jackets. The front desk guy appears only when someone needs to check in — a sign printed on an office laserjet tells me to call him on the landline telephone. It rings, and he shows up.
In the living room, there is a TV, but it’s not turned on. In the evenings a guy named Chef Denali cooks dinner ($7 minimum donation). The regulars digest their food in various parts of the living room; after dinner some sip malt liquor and others browse the internet. One guy wears headphones and sits with his legs crossed and a tablet propped on his knee. He takes the earbuds out every few minutes to share some observation about the presidential race or about the crime show he’s watching. His audience shrugs and laughs.
I fix a peanut butter sandwich and eat it in their discomforting, quiet presence. I could or could not be the reason for it.
Soon, other tourists from England and California come in, and there’s more talking. I am the only woman, but the manners of my cohort couldn’t be less threatening. The English guy begins to talk about Salt Lake City, about the Mormon girl he met on Tinder there (“Just looking for someone to show me around”). Once someone mentions Mormons, the stories flow like wine — one guy who hasn’t said anything tells about “going back” for his sister’s wedding, of which he could only witness a part, having been excommunicated from the LDS church at eighteen.
Out back of the hostel, in tents and cabins, these guys hole up for winter. They will return to living under a bridge, or hitch-hike somewhere out of Moab, perhaps, come Spring. They are friendly enough, but they are not in the business of growing close to outsiders. They’ll answer questions, share their pizza and beer, and if you’re lucky they will tell you about growing up Mormon.
In the days that follow, I move through Moab imagining how everyone I meet is touched by the LDS church. I buy coffee, gas, the conservative draft beer, and groceries. I drive Highway 191 to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and take hiking advice from the park rangers. I begin to see the town as a macrocosm of the hostel: a fort between desert and mountains, whose defenses are the motels which take in the visitors and guard the locals from tourists’ volatility, so that one will never catch wind of the other.