'Clinging hopelessly to the past'

The cantankerous gospel of Jim Stiles and The Canyon Country Zephyr

  • A small-town newspaperman tackles big recreation, and runs into a few environmentalists in the process

    Mark Fox
  • Jim Stiles, editor and publisher of The Canyon Country Zephyr on the Slockrock Trail near Moab

    Mark Fox
  • Safari Me

    Jim Stiles
  • Ed Abbey and Moab

    Jim Stiles
  • Jim Stiles, in what he calls his 'Sonny Bono' look, as a ranger in 1976

    Courtesy Jim Stiles
  • Jim Stiles finds signs of the continuing development of Canyon Country around Moab

    Mark Fox
  • Four-wheelers backed up at the entrance to the Slickrock Trail

    Mark Fox
  • Moab today has an increasingly spiffed-up loo, with a gentrified downtown and upscale new development reaching into the surrounding canyon country

    Mark Fox
  • Moab

    Mark Fox

Jim Stiles and I are bouncing down a dusty dirt road in the heart of Arches National Park. It’s late April, southeast Utah’s most-touristed time of year, and the traffic along the one paved road is thick. Almost every parking lot and pullout is packed with the kind of vehicles that make Stiles — founder, publisher and one-man staff of The Canyon Country Zephyr — grit his teeth and long for the good ol’ days. Motorhomes and station wagons spew forth the corpulent masses, and the roofracks of the SUVs overflow with mountain bikes.

Suddenly, Stiles’ expression lightens. "Do you want to see where Abbey’s trailer was?" he asks conspiratorially.

He is, of course, referring to Edward Abbey, who lived and worked as a National Park Service ranger in Arches in 1955-’56. Stiles bounds from the car and leads me to a nondescript spot (as nondescript as a spot may be in a place as awesome as Arches). "Here it is," he proclaims.

We have been on a daylong memory-lane tour that’s a show-and-tell for Stiles’ first book, Brave New West: When Worlds Collide in Moab, Utah, which is under contract from the University of Arizona Press. The book ties together 30 years of experience and observation into what Stiles calls "a chronicle of Moab’s demise." It is, truth be told, more a chronicle of his love affair with the town.

Stiles has already pointed out where an old cottonwood tree, which served as an orientation point for Moab for more than 100 years, once stood. He showed me Dave’s Corner Market, once a locals-only gathering place before mountain bikers and off-road enthusiasts descended on Moab like cash-bearing locusts. Here was an old cow pasture that the town could have purchased for open space but instead was sold to a developer for a tacky condominium project. There was an old diner, before the fast-food chains arrived. South of town was the house Abbey lived in when Stiles first came to Moab. And over there was Jim Stiles’ house, which he bought more than 20 years ago for $18,000, where he has put out issue after issue of The Zephyr, by hand, using technology so out-of-date it seems premeditatedly retro.

Finally, there is the site of Abbey’s trailer in Arches, the place where the writer penned his 1968 book, Desert Solitaire. There is nothing left, save the remnants of a rusty sewage pipe, leading off into the sage. And a lot of memories. In Jim Stiles’ life, this is spiritual Ground Zero.

Stiles first met Abbey in 1976. He’d come to Moab because he’d read a copy of Desert Solitaire; it was given to him by a coworker of his father’s at a Sears and Roebuck in Louisville, Ky. "Like a lot of people, Abbey crystallized my feelings about growth and change," he says, "and I wanted to see his country." Shortly after arriving in Moab, Stiles landed a job — and a trailer — in Arches, just like Abbey two decades before.

"I had done a drawing of Glen Canyon Dam disintegrating, and I wanted to show it to Abbey and to tell him what a profound effect Desert Solitaire had had on me," he says. "I had tried to hunt Abbey down in Wolf Hole, Ariz., which is where he always wrote he lived. Turns out, there was no Wolf Hole, Ariz. It was just a fabrication. So I just hung out on the North Rim (of the Grand Canyon) for a solid month, all by myself.

"Ends up, he was living the whole time right outside Moab," says Stiles. A mutual friend took him out to Abbey’s house and introduced them. They soon became fast friends. "We spent a lot of time just hanging out and talking, and we did a lot of trekking around Moab."

Stiles returns to the subject of Abbey’s trailer. "Ed and I talked once about cutting the sewage pipe into three-inch sections and mounting them on cheap wooden plaques with the message, ‘Edward Abbey’s Shit Passed Through This Pipe,’ " Stiles says. "He would autograph and authenticate them. We’d sell them for $50. I’d handle marketing, and we’d both be rich! Somehow, we never got around to it."

The Park Service eventually hauled the trailer off to a boneyard, and then sold it. "It was later junked for axles," says Stiles. "But the trailer should have been preserved as a shrine."

To Stiles, the trailer’s fate is just another example of all that has gone wrong in the Moab area since Abbey came and went. In fact, three decades after having a "this-is-the-place-I’m-going-to-call-home-the-rest-of-my-life" epiphany, Stiles has pulled up stakes and moved to another town.

But he hasn’t fled Canyon Country (he asked that I not reveal his new town) and he sure as hell isn’t backing down with The Zephyr. After 17 years of publishing, during which time he has tackled almost every imaginable issue in this poster-child region of the New West, he has found himself in a heated in-print brouhaha with the environmental movement. Specifically, he’s wrestling with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) — a group he once championed with enthusiasm. The resulting fracas has been downright ugly.

"Jim looks at the environment like a religion, and he is a fundamentalist," says longtime friend Rich Ingebretsen, a board member of SUWA and president of the board of the Glen Canyon Institute. "He has been preaching at the environmental movement lately, and most people do not like to be preached at."

As we travel even deeper into the Arches backcountry, it strikes me that Stiles does indeed look like a Southern Baptist minister, descending from the pulpit to journey into the land of the infidels. These days, the infidels are wearing Lycra.

Anonymous says:
May 30, 2006 03:03 PM

I would really like to get some of whatever Jim Stiles is smoking. To say that mountain bikers are the equivalent of extractive industries, he must be scoring some serious weed. For every , mt. biker who cut switchbacks, make illegal trails and are inconsiderate of other trail users, there is one who volunteers to build and rehab trails, works with land mangement agencies to protect resources and still provide for outdoor recreational expereinces and promotes a healthy lifestyle to a population where obesity is at epidemic proportions. As to finding fault to people who drive to experience the outdoors, is Mr. Stiles suggesting he himself doesn't do the exact same thing? How did he access Arches NP, or the Slickrock Trail? With all the serious issues that affect the west, I found Mr. Stiles to be a bit pathetic in selecting outdoor recreation as a major issue to devote his skills and energy to attack. Personally, I'll take mountain bikers over oil and gas wells, open pit mines and clear cuts any day. Mark Martin Portales, NM

Anonymous says:
May 31, 2006 11:50 AM

Great article. I'm also concerned about industrialized recreation. What happend to the days of parking near a trailhead and hoofing into an area with a simple backpack, bedroll, hiking books, and a topo map? I hope Jim Stiles keeps this issue alive and in the face of everyone including environmental groups. Keep up the excellent writing HCN!

Anonymous says:
May 31, 2006 11:50 AM

Here's the story on the 100,000 acres of wilderness SUWA "helped" create. The announcement of the designation began: "December 16, 2005 (Washington, DC) - Today, the Utah Wilderness Coalition (the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, the Wasatch Mountain Club, the Sierra Club, and other member groups) congratulates the Utah Congressional delegation on successfully including a proposal to designate the Cedar Mountain Wilderness, protect Utah from nuclear waste, and preserve the Utah Test and Training Range in the final version of the Defense Authorization bill. The Coalition also congratulates Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. for his hard work on behalf of the legislation." The designation was part of a DOD bill authored by Rep Bishop. Primarily, it was to stop proposed use of the west desert as a nuke dump. "Wilderness" was just the vehicle these reps used. I'm not unhappy that it happened, but little credit is due SUWA for designation of wilderness under these unusual circumstances. With or without SUWA, Huntsman and Bishop would have used this vehicle. SUWA shouldn't "spin" the truth into a SUWA success story. With that, SUWA does some good work. At least that would if they would quit calling environmentalists with other perspectives "irrelevant."

Anonymous says:
Jul 25, 2006 11:51 AM

I was born and raised in Utah. My father was a geologist and I spent most of my youth being drug around Canyon Country long before Abbey and Stiles discovered it. I remember Moab long before the first mountain bike, even before there was a Glenn Canyon Dam. Stiles, and maybe Abbey as well, wanted to shut the door behind them as they settled into Eastern Utah for the good life. Like so many people they fail to recognize that they are not observers of the problem, they are part of the problem, and the problem is simply that life goes on and sometimes it's the way we want it, and sometimes it isn't. My mother use to say, "Only babies like change," and I suppose this is what she was talking about. But like dirty babies, change will come and if Mr. Stiles doesn't like it, he should move to that last refuge for those who can't or won't adapt; (not Alaska) Northern Nevada.

Anonymous says:
Mar 29, 2007 12:52 PM

Excellent article!