Bewitched and bewildered near Moab, Utah

 

If there’s a doubt in anyone’s mind about the rapidly changing rural West, look no further than the latest controversy to grip Moab, Utah. It doesn’t get much stranger than this.

A few months ago, Robbie Levin, owner of Sorrel River Ranch, a luxury lodge north of Moab, applied for a cabaret license from the state. As part of the process, Levin requested a letter of support from Grand County. But County Councilman Al McLeod dropped a bombshell when he accused Levin of operating a sexually oriented business. He definitely had a point.

In 2003, HBO shot 13 episodes of a cable-TV series called Hotel Erotica on Levin’s property along the Colorado River. An HBO Web site says the series contains "adult content, nudity, strong sexual content and adult language."

Levin conceded that rooms had been rented to the production company for the filming of Hotel Erotica but that it was a one-time occurrence. Levin complained, "How do you respond to something so stupid and ignorant? We are completely family-oriented here."

His friends fired off angry letters to the local weekly in defense of Levin. Local developer Tom Shellenberger observed, "Never have we seen a hint of impropriety at the ranch. The filming that took place at the ranch was conducted in private..." And he added, "Robbie and Hope Levin have created a four-diamond resort in our community, the level of which has never been seen before in Grand County."

That's true, of course. Before multimillionaire Levin came along and bought up all the bottomland, Bill Boulden grew alfalfa and ran a few cows, and environmentalists grumbled about about misuse of the land and worried about cow manure seeping into the Colorado River. It's true that Levin still maintains some of the alfalfa fields; it's what passes for grazing on them that has changed dramatically.

Personally, I don’t care what goes on behind closed doors by consenting adults, whether it’s across the street or 20 miles up the river. And I don’t care whether those activities are engaged in for fun or for profit. On the other hand, I long ago accepted the reality of my situation. Utah is perhaps the most conservative state in America, a state where even buying a mixed drink is a challenge. It is a state heavily influenced by the dominance of the Mormon Church, whose doctrines also frown upon the consumption of coffee and Coca-Cola.

But I chose to live here. My values may be different from the Utah mainstream, but I have no desire to impose them on 70 percent of Utah’s population. As for Robbie Levin, he has brought a different kind of West to southeastern Utah. Levin could have been honest and proclaimed, "Sure, they shot a soft porn TV series here, and it made us a lot of money and brought a bunch of revenue to Grand County, too. This is the future, folks, and if you don’t like it you better step aside, because the future is here and it’s not wearing clothes."

If he had said that, I could respect his candor. But he didn’t; he acted like a …New Westerner. He raged that he’d been slandered and he threatened retribution in the form of lawsuits. By now, we're all weary of that kind of attempted intimidation from someone who can act threateningly simply because he has more money than the rest of us combined.

Besides, Levin's claims that he served only as an innkeeper fell apart when we all found out that his stunningly beautiful wife, former Playmate of the Month Hope Levin, was one of the "stars" of the series. She appears in at least two episodes, including a role as someone named Queen Thodosius in an episode called "Bewitched and Bewildered."

It all reminds me of that old song of the old West, "The Sons of the Pioneers": "This ain’t the same old range …Everything seems to change … Where are the pals I used to ride with? … Gone to a land so strange." In any case, referring to the "bottomland" along the Colorado River has taken on an entirely new meaning. And if there’s ever a sequel to John Ford’s classic movie, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," here’s a title suggestion: "She ONLY Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Moab, Utah, where he is the publisher and editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.