I sat under Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, 60 minutes from Moab and 20 miles as the crow flies, on a busy fall Friday night. I watched the full moon rise over the silhouette of the La Sal Mountains through the 40-foot weathered slot in the rock, no one else around at what is normally a busy trail during the day. After the moonrise, a few miles down Grandview Point Road, I pulled my van onto a dirt road on BLM land, drove 300 feet and tucked it into a small cove of sandstone and junipers, and didn’t see a set of headlights all night.
In a place that’s swarmed with RVs, Jeeps, mountain bikes, climbers, hikers and thousands of visitors every weekend, it’s still easy to find quiet places. Edward Abbey would probably roll over in his grave at the popularity of his old hometown, and I’m sure plenty of people miss the days 20 years ago when Moab was less busy, but I take it for what it is now, and hold it as one of my favorite places on earth. I’d like to think I understand it in some small way, after passing in and out for the past eight years.
Probably the third time I’d ever been to Moab, I noticed a sign in the men’s restroom at the Shell gas station reading, “Please don’t use our restroom as your shower.” I laughed, but after a few more visits, I realized it was a fairly common sentiment. Most of the hotels in town politely ask guests to please not use hotel towels to clean mountain bikes, or offer rags specifically for that purpose.
Moab is known for a lot of things, but I think it might be accurate to call it the Sink Shower Capital of America. It’s kind of like Aspen for people who love dirt instead of snow, but you can’t buy fancy clothes anywhere in town, and the most expensive hotel room in town is about 200 bucks in the high season. Maybe America’s Sandbox would be more appropriate. There may be better places to climb in the American desert (Joshua Tree), or better places to mountain bike (Fruita or Sedona), or hike, or drive a Jeep, but there can’t be a place that draws a bigger, more diverse crowd of people who like to get dirty.
Every year for the past decade, magazines have published some iteration of lists of Best Adventure Towns—where to live and work, where to raise an outdoorsy family, et cetera. The lists change every year, and Moab never really made the lists—probably because it would be cliche to mention it, or too obvious. As an adventure town, no one ever mentions it in the same sentence as Chamonix—it’s too scrappy, too dirty, too lowbrow—but I think it’s on a short list of towns in the West that you can hear a dozen different languages spoken on Main Street and still rent an apartment for under $750 a month or get a cheeseburger for less than $10. And access some of the country’s best splitter cracks and singletrack, and a bajillion miles of hiking trails. We go there during the shoulder seasons out West—between the end of ski season and the beginning of summer, and between the end of summer and the beginning of ski season—and if it grabs you, you go more often, more than just something to do between seasons. And it usually does.
I have spent more than two months of days in Moab and around the desert nearby, climbing, hiking, exploring slot canyons. I think I’ve taken less than five showers there, every single one for $3 at the Lazy Lizard, the hostel tucked behind the storage units south of town.
Billy Joel sang about how sometimes folks like to get away, take a holiday from the neighborhood, hop a flight to Miami Beach or Hollywood, but he was just fine taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River Line and staying in New York. That’s kind of how I feel about Moab. I have done tons of things there twice or more: climbed certain routes on Wall Street and the Ice Cream Parlor, watched sunsets at Dead Horse Point, hiked the Chesler Park Loop or up on the fins in Devils Garden, eaten multi-fistfuls of tater tots at Milt’s, and sipped coffee as the sun washed into the front windows at the Love Muffin.
If you’re lucky as an American, you get to take a few vacations, put together a few long weekends and see some new places every year. I’ve found reasons to travel to, or pass through Moab, since 2005, and it never gets old. I think if you travel someplace enough times, it begins to feel like a sort of home, even though you don’t live there. You feel something when you pull into town after being away for a few months or a year, and when you finish your trip and leave, it never feels like it was long enough.
I left Moab on a Saturday afternoon in September without having done anything really notable during two days there—a short hike, watching the moon rise, cooking dinner in the Green River Overlook parking lot. But as I drove over the Colorado River bridge north of town for probably the 30th time, I couldn’t imagine someone ever going there once and thinking that was enough.