'Clinging hopelessly to the past'
The cantankerous gospel of Jim Stiles and The Canyon Country Zephyr
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more than 20 years ago for $18,000, where he has put out issue after issue of The Zephyr, by hand, using technology so out-of-date it seems premeditatedly retro.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.
I have admired Jim Stiles from afar for more than a decade, ever since I first came upon a copy of The Canyon Country Zephyr. The paper has set the standard for rural alternative publications in the West. From its in-your-face panache to its hand-drawn covers and advertisements (all done by Stiles) to its bedrock policy of providing both sides of an issue, it is the complete package. It also has perhaps the best newspaper slogan ever conceived, "Clinging hopelessly to the past since 1989."
The Zephyr has also been a business success (though admittedly a modest one) since the get-go, and that alone, in the world of small, independently owned publications, is worth accolades. It has succeeded because Stiles has managed to hang onto a diverse core group of advertisers. He often harangues Moab’s mountain-bike and real estate cultures, but mountain-bike shops and realtors continue to advertise.
This says a lot about the man and his work. Small-town publications have to walk a constant tightrope. There are bound to be ad-revenue ramifications in a resort-economy town when one dedicates an entire issue to, say, the flimsy underpinnings of resort economies. Some call that "biting the hand that feeds you."
Stiles is a private person who is considered a hermit by many in Moab. One condition of this story was that I not reveal his age. (Suffice it to say that he carries his chronological burdens well.) Once he loosens up and gets to know someone, he can be very social, even gabby. But in the classic Abbey tradition, he prefers solitude to company. Several times during my visit, he half-jokingly says that he does not have that many friends. Only half-jokingly.
And true to his motto, he clings to the past. He’s an old-movie buff. He regularly plasters the pages of the paper with historical photos of car camping in southern Utah’s early highway days. He has a thing for John F. Kennedy. In a recent issue of The Zephyr, he reprinted a 1979 speech from Jimmy Carter.
Stiles created The Zephyr for the same reason many people start new publications: He did not feel that the local newspaper, the weekly Moab Times-Independent, adequately addressed important local issues in a larger context. That, and he was trying to manufacture himself a job, and maybe even a career. Maybe even a raison d’etre.
After 10 years in Arches, Stiles had left the Park Service. "I could no longer handle what a poor job the Park Service was doing of reconciling its admittedly difficult dual-mission of maintaining the ecological integrity of the parks while simultaneously making those same parks accessible to visitors," he says. "It seemed like almost every single time, decisions came down on the side of accessibility."
Stiles’ newspaper background consisted of cartooning for the Earth First! Journal and writing a few stories for a local rag called The Stinking Desert Gazette. He had a degree in economics from the University of Louisville, but no money. To get the paper off the ground, he says, "I convinced 100 of my friends and family to buy a $10 subscription, and I coerced some of my new advertisers to pay in advance."
Stiles toyed with names including The Slickrock Journal and The Canyon Courier. The Canyon Country Zephyr came to him in a voice-of-God fashion while he was driving to Dave’s Corner Market for a cup of coffee. (No $4 java-hut, shade-grown, organic Sumatran for Stiles — not then, and not now.) He picked a launch date of March 14, 1989.
As Stiles was laying the groundwork for The Zephyr, Abbey came to town, promoting his latest book, The Fool’s Progress. Abbey was enthused, and even offered to write an original piece for the first issue.
"As March 14 approached, I drove 120 miles to Cortez, Colo., to see the first issue of The Canyon Country Zephyr come to life," Stiles writes in Brave New West. "They started the press at noon and an hour later, we’d somehow bundled and loaded 2,000 copies into my ’63 Volvo. I wondered what Abbey would think of it. (Back in Moab,) I had just shut off the motor and was unloading the first bundle when a friend approached and asked if I’d heard about Abbey."
Abbey had died in the Sonoran Desert just hours before the inaugural issue of The Zephyr came off the press. Abbey was such a huge part of Stiles’ reason for being in Moab that I am surprised that Stiles didn’t abandon The Zephyr. He attended a memorial service in Tucson, and, along with Ken Sleight, the man who inspired the character Seldom Seen Smith in Abbey’s book The Monkey Wrench Gang, organized a sunrise service in Abbey’s beloved Utah desert. Over a thousand people attended, coming from across the country.
The service was cathartic, and Stiles continued with The Zephyr, I suspect at least partially because he felt Abbey would have wanted him to. (Though it would be unfair to call The Zephyr the official publication of Abbey’s memory, it would not be too much a stretch to call it a channeling device for his philosophy.)
At the end of the day, Stiles and I sip beverages while the sun sets over Arches.
"He was larger than life," Stiles says of Abbey. "I wish you could have known him." It is not lost on me that, much as I believe Stiles is enjoying my company, he would give his left testicle to be sharing these drinks and this sunset with Cactus Ed instead. You never recover from losing someone you love and respect that much.
In the early days, The Zephyr was little more than a local newspaper. For the first couple years, Stiles printed verbatim interviews with local political bigwigs, like the county commissioners, the mayor and various candidates for local office. From the outset, though, he incorporated many colorful voices from Canyon Country. The Zephyr sailed along. And Stiles dug it. Owning a paper automatically makes you somebody in your town.
Gradually, The Zephyr started evolving to more of a regional, issues-oriented publication that, despite its newsprint packaging, was more of a magazine than a paper. Distribution started expanding into Colorado and other areas of Utah. More importantly, it was a crucial voice in the socio-political dialogue in the Moab region.
"I thought it was a fine publication, though Jim and I did not always agree on the issues," says Sam Taylor, who has published the Moab Times-Independent for more than 50 years. "I think Jim lived up to the promise he made at the outset to be fair and thorough. (The paper) has been a big part of our community."
Almost everyone I talk to about The Zephyr mentions one particular local issue: In 1992, it came to light that the commissioners of Grand County, of which Moab is the seat, had executed a political end run around local voters by establishing a new highway commission, then appointing themselves to that commission, which came with all sorts of state funding attached. The move ultimately proved to be political suicide, thanks in no small part to Stiles, who used The Zephyr to push a petition drive that changed the entire way Grand County elected its local representatives.
"I think Jim has been right about a lot of things over the years," says Heidi McIntosh, SUWA’s conservation director, from her home in Salt Lake City. "At one time, The Zephyr was important."
Implicit in that statement is the idea that, somewhere along the line, things changed.
What changed was that Stiles had a long-time-coming New-West revelation in 1993, when he penned a piece titled, "New West Blues." The meat of the story was: Whoops! What hath we wrought?
"We are watching, in effect, the West’s last land rush, and, when it’s over the West will bear little resemblance to what it is today," Stiles wrote. Driving that rush, he said, was the very tourism/second homes/"amenities" economy that he and his environmental brethren had long championed as a replacement for mining and grazing.
When he wrote "New West Blues," Stiles says, "I had to admit that I was wrong about a lot of things."
Next, he began to point his pen at what he perceived as the causes of the New West economy. Once he did, a lot of heretofore-solid social bridges started crumbling under his feet.
In particular, he scrutinized the environmental movement. For many years, Stiles made common cause with environmentalists in battling the forces of what he calls "rich-weasel greedhead stupidity." He helped fight a toxic-waste incinerator proposed for Moab in the 1980s, and took on the extractive industries that long dominated the area.
And yet this troubled Stiles, because he had loved the interesting demographic mix of Moab in the ’70s — its uranium miners and cowboys as well as its river rats and backcountry aficionados. He was even more troubled by what happened when he and his friends started winning some of their battles.
"What we didn’t realize as we were working so hard to eliminate the extractive industries from the face of the earth was that, by doing so, we were creating an economic vacuum," Stiles says. "And that vacuum got filled with what Abbey called the forces of industrial tourism."
It started innocuously enough, according to Stiles, when some enterprising locals looking for Something Big to market to tourists re-invented the Slickrock Trail, originally a dirtbike trail, as a playground for mountain bikers. National Geographic happened into town about the same time, spawning a story that drew the attention of a magazine called Mountain Bike, which featured the trail on its inaugural cover.
Moab had not only been discovered, it had been anointed the adventure-sports capital of the New West. Suddenly, there were hordes of visitors, many of whom cared a lot more about recreation and adventure than environmental stewardship. According to Stiles, the environmental community simply sat back and watched.
"When Moab’s amenities economy really gathered steam in 1993, when seven motels were constructed in a matter of months and nationally franchised fast-food eateries like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell and Burger King began to sprout along Main Street, when recreational visitation increased exponentially on surrounding public lands, none of the major environmental organizations expressed concern — not SUWA, not the Sierra Club, not the Grand Canyon Trust, not the Wilderness Society," Stiles laments in Brave New West. "It was as if they didn’t even notice all the hundreds of thousands of people coming in and riding their mountain bikes through crypto-biotic soil.
"Some were loath to praise the specific consequences of the amenities boom, and privately expressed horror at the explosive and uncontrolled growth, but no one wanted to go on the record opposing it. It was, after all, their idea."
So Stiles threw down his gauntlet. And some people felt — and continue to feel — that he threw poorly, and nailed himself in the foot.
Here I run into trouble telling this story, because what comes next is, for the most part, off the record. One of the reasons Stiles left the Park Service was that his immediate supervisor, to whom Stiles was very close, took her own life. Suffice it to say that there was a lot more to that story, and that "lot more" lasted 10 long years and includes stuff you would not believe.
Then, in 2002, Stiles, in his words, "lost hope in just about everything." There was a situation with a woman. (Isn’t there always?) He was tired from 13 years of putting out The Zephyr all by his lonesome, and stressed out by what he viewed as the ruination of his beloved Moab. And he was even more stressed from the reaction when he began taking aim at the forces he considered guilty, or at least complicit, in that ruination.
To put it delicately, Stiles had a breakdown. And though coming out of that period took a lot of time and a lot of effort, I will fast-forward and say that he eventually emerged from his despair. At least, so he says.
Throughout a couple of dark years, several things remained constant in Stiles’ life: 1) His DNA-level honest quest for truth, justice and the American way; 2) His insistence on integrating Abbey’s philosophy into his life; 3) The Zephyr, which he kept getting out the door, year after year, issue after issue.
Truth be told, the paper may have been a form of therapy for Stiles, a place to vent his feelings about the New West economy and those who purveyed it. And that got him into increasingly hot water with an awful lot of people in Moab who would call this economy "trying to make a living in a part of the country where opportunities are few and resourcefulness and flexibility are prerequisites for putting beans on the table."
His relationship with his former buddies in the environmental community, too, continued to fray.
This would be a good place to stress that no one, not even Stiles, is accusing the environmental movement of premeditation in fomenting the amenities-based ruination of the West. Stiles knows as well as anyone that a host of forces have conspired to create this beast, from the global economics that torpedoed Southern Utah’s uranium mining industry, to the Baby Boom’s mass retirement, which is sending us a tsunami of second-home buyers. Nor is Stiles an apologist for the extractive industries; he feels there’s a special place in hell for many ranchers and miners.
But Stiles does believe that the amenities economy that defines so many "New West" towns is as harmful to the environment as the extractive industries were. He contends that the environmental movement helped usher in that economy as an alternative to mining, timbering and ranching. And he says that the environmental movement can’t come out and lambaste the New West economy, even if it wants to, because it is so invested in the argument that wilderness is the perfect economic engine for rural towns.
"They’ve painted themselves into an argumentative corner," Stiles says, as we smoke cigars in the gathering twilight. (He has decided that we must thumb our noses at The Man and poach an illegal campsite in Arches.)
Stiles growls out a small part of his list of SUWA’s transgressions: SUWA regularly berates the off-road vehicle crowd, but rarely dares to point a finger at mountain bikers, he says, despite the fact that the International Mountain Biking Association opposes designating new wilderness unless the boundaries are adjusted to accommodate bikers. According to Stiles, SUWA is so beholden to the mountain biking crowd that it adjusted the boundaries of a proposed wilderness area to accommodate the 24 Hours of Moab bike race — a race that draws thousands of riders, and their SUVs.
The group has dropped its policy against crowd-drawing guidebooks, according to Stiles, and now sponsors a guidebook author who travels the country promoting canyoneering, and arguing that in order to save wilderness, more people must visit it. Stiles also winces at the group’s offering of cushy tours to benefactors, when he thinks SUWA ought to be the first people to insist on low-impact, roughing-it travel.
The environmental movement, according to Stiles, is simply unable or unwilling to face the New West’s new realities. You could say that he’s accusing SUWA and other groups of doing just what he’s been doing: clinging hopelessly to the past.
"The environmental movement has not advocated for this new economy," responds Scott Groene, SUWA’s executive director. "We have raised concerns about guidebooks. We have raised concerns about agencies creating user areas that will only draw more use. But the new economy is being driven by forces that are far greater than we are."
This all reached an argumentative crescendo earlier this year when Stiles submitted a column to the High Country News opinion syndicate, Writers on the Range, chastising SUWA for, of all things, having such a large war chest. According to tax documents Stiles hunted down, in 2004 SUWA had almost $5 million in "net assets and fund balances." He argued that, rather than letting its money sit in the bank, SUWA ought to disperse some of it to other, less-funded environmental groups that are tackling New West issues.
In a response published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Groene called Stiles the desert country’s "own Barney Fife. He’s worth having around, even if we have to clean up after him now and again." Groene said SUWA’s "rainy day fund" was similar to those of comparable environmental groups, and said, "True enough, for almost the first time in its 23-year history, SUWA can pay its bills."
From the sidelines, it would be easy to dismiss all this as a family squabble, one that, for all we know, has roots in a softball game argument 20 years ago. SUWA has done its best to dismiss Stiles’ writings as the product of an angry, even unstable man. "It’s like he’s angry about something deeper and taking it out on us," says McIntosh, SUWA’s conservation director.
But that explanation cheapens Stiles’ real point, which Groene ignored in the Tribune. That point is that SUWA does little to fight the threats that the New West economy poses to the Canyon Country. Instead, it pours its substantial resources into the decades-old fight to protect huge gobs of wilderness — a fight that, in Stiles’ estimation, has gotten nowhere.
"Jim doesn’t seem to get it that our mission statement, the reason people donated all that money to us in the first place, is that we are fighting to get 9 million acres of new wilderness established in Utah," responds McIntosh. "He fails to mention that we helped get 100,000 new acres of wilderness established in the West Desert. He doesn’t mention that we helped get the BLM to up its Wilderness Study Area inventory from 3.2 million acres to 5.5 million acres."
As for SUWA’s assets, McIntosh says, "We have to have money in the bank because we’re fighting the oil and gas industry, and guess how much money they have?
"I can’t even read The Zephyr anymore," she says. "It’s not relevant."
Stiles says he didn’t set out to pick a fight with SUWA, just to foment a little discussion. Nonetheless, he’s quick to throw gas onto the flames. By holding to its all-or-nothing wilderness philosophy, and repeatedly upping the ante by adding acres to its wilderness proposal, SUWA has guaranteed that the issue will remain in political gridlock, he says. "Ed Abbey said, ‘no compromise,’ but this is beyond no compromise; this is no dialogue, no discussion, no nothing.
"SUWA couldn’t pass a wilderness bill 20 years ago when it was broke, and it can’t pass one now with $5 million in the bank," he says.
It’s hard not to be reminded of another of Abbey’s best-known sayings — this one from One Life at a Time Please: "If there’s anyone still present whom I’ve failed to insult, I apologize."
Given the fact that as recently as two years ago, Jim Stiles was in a bad way psychologically, I can’t help wondering how this current battle will play out in his personal life and, by extension, the life of The Zephyr.
"I feel great," Stiles says. "I am a journalist; it is my job to ask hard questions of everyone, and I do not understand how asking the same kinds of questions I would ask of the mining or development industries of the environmental movement is wrong."
Stiles has his doubters, of course, and not just his old friends at SUWA. "I’ve been here 27 years, and I’ve always liked Jim and The Zephyr, even though I think the main thing about Jim is that he simply doesn’t like change," says Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council. "I would say, however, that there are a whole lot more people in Moab who favor the recent changes than oppose them, so I think The Zephyr was more relevant when it started than it is now in many ways."
But many locals say Stiles is doing good work. Taylor, publisher of the Moab Times-Independent, says: "For SUWA to be saying now that he is unfair and that he doesn’t get his facts straight is itself unfair and almost desperate. They’re just not used to being questioned the way Jim is questioning them. Jim is finally asking the right questions."
Adds Sleight: "I think The Zephyr is as good as it ever was. Jim seems to be mellowing out, if anything. The point is that the environmental groups — and I am a big supporter of SUWA — need to think about the impacts of the New West they helped foster. They have helped cause a lot of the social problems in small rural New West towns. It’s as simple as that. But they don’t want to hear it."
SUWA board member Richard Ingebretsen agrees. "Whether the other SUWA board members or its staff understand it or not, Jim has started a very important dialogue," he says. "David Brower once said that environmental groups should not have money in the bank, that they should use it as soon as they get it.
"At the same time, you have to be careful about how you create opposition to an existing idea," Ingebretsen continues. "I keep warning Jim that he does not need to become polemic.
He is not a coalition builder. He works alone. Still, he’s not a necessary evil — he’s a necessary voice."
In the end, it’s important to ask ourselves, as people who love the West, where we would be without the often-thankless efforts of environmental groups large and small, well- and under-funded. But it’s equally important to realize that the answers to those questions are not always simple and black-and-white.
Let me go off on a tangent here. Fifteen or so years ago, then-Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, D, came to my hometown in the mountains extolling the virtues of "attraction, not extraction" — meaning that the time of the extractive industries was thank-godfully gone, and now it was time for the dominance of the tourist industry. "Hallelujah!" we all shouted. And every environmental group from Colorado to Alaska took up the rallying cry of killing the extractive industries and pushing the New West economy/social agenda as a means of filling the resulting economic hole.
I look out my window now and see amber waves of condos; I see backcountry environmental degradation not witnessed since the late-1800s. I see so many concomitant negative social and environmental impacts it would take a library to catalog them. It makes me long for the old days, where there might have been more cows in the wilderness, but there were a lot fewer ski lifts and a lot less traffic.
I do not lay blame at the feet of anyone, including the environmental groups. How could I? I am them, and they are me. And Stiles is them — as was Abbey before him. In a twist of irony that, in his later years, made Abbey wince, many of the hordes that descended upon Canyon Country bore copies of Desert Solitaire — and they continue to descend.
No one can predict the future. We weren’t all wrong, but we weren’t all right, either. It’s time to re-evaluate the strategies and objectives of this thing we call the "environmental movement." That’s all that Jim Stiles is really saying.
"Abbey did not see this commodification of Nature thing coming," Stiles says. "His last summer in Moab was 1987. I’d said something disparaging about the mountain bikes, and he was annoyed with me. He thought, if it was non-motorized, it must be good. So I drove up to the Sand Flats with him to see the carnage on the Slickrock Trail, and he was blown away. He had always assumed, as we all had, that non-motorized recreation would always have that reverential link. The whole adrenaline, gear-head shit missed him."
It has not missed Stiles. And this man, who quotes Abbey the way some people quote scripture, is still in Canyon Country, loving the land, but angry at what is happening to it, and, increasingly, at those who sit by and let it happen.
Does he think he has all the answers? Not at all. "I don’t know that I could offer a 12-step program on how rural towns can save themselves," he says. What he can offer, with The Zephyr, is a figurative campfire that everyone can sit around, smoke cigars, and talk about the mess we’re in and how to extricate ourselves from it.
"I’ll keep doing The Zephyr as long as it can make a difference," he says, as he leaves Moab to drive back to his new hometown — a place with no hordes of mountain bikers or jeep safaris or Starbucks or brewpubs (and no economy to speak of) a place where one does not have to cling hopelessly to the past, because the past is still the present. For now.
M. John Fayhee is one of the owners of the Mountain Gazette. He lives in a place where there is no longer a past to cling hopelessly to.
To read Jim Stiles’ commentary on the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, SUWA’s retort, and other related stories, www.hcn.org.
For information on subscribing to The Canyon Country Zephyr, see www.canyoncountryzephyr.com.