Nostalgia is a moving target

  • Paul Larmer


I recently realized that my kids have become old enough to be nostalgic. It was a strange feeling. We were driving past the old brick house we lived in five years ago, when my 16-year-old daughter said: "Remember when we used to swing under the old maple tree and see how far we could jump off into a pile of leaves?"

"Yeah," responded my 13-year-old son, a far-off look in his eyes. "And remember when Mom cut that baseball diamond into the lawn, and we hit whiffle balls over the fence into Louis’ yard, and how we’d sneak over there and get them back before he saw us?"

And so on for the next half-hour, a swapping of stories from a misty past that seemed, from my own 45-year-old perspective, to have happened only yesterday.

This hankering for a simpler, happier past seems to be hard-wired into most of us. Some of us, however, have it worse than others. Take Jim Stiles, the editor/publisher/owner of The Canyon Country Zephyr. For the past two decades, Stiles has raged against the forces changing the redrock wildlands of southern Utah, while at the same time lamenting the loss of the town he loved at first sight in the 1970s.

Stiles — the subject of this issue’s cover story — began by taking on the traditional Western environmental bogeymen — the uranium miners and ranchers. But as the extractive industries faded in the 1980s, he turned his fierce and funny pen against the "industrial tourism" that came in their wake, bringing wave after wave of mountain bikers, Jeepers and monster-truck drivers.

More recently, Stiles has gone after the environmental movement itself, accusing his former allies of complicity in this new onslaught. In their single-minded focus on getting a few more acres of wilderness protected, he says, they have ignored, and even promoted, the recreation and real estate boom now overrunning the West. In southern Utah, this new clash of human enterprise and the natural environment is as plain to see as a freshly cut ORV trail in the fragile desert soil.

There are no easy answers here. It is true that the West’s environmentalists have long promoted recreation as an alternative for towns that once relied on extractive industry. And it is true that some of us are more comfortable in the noble struggle for wilderness protection than in the messy face-to-face deal-making that is local land-use planning.

But environmentalists didn’t create the amenities economy, nor did they anticipate its power. As longtime Moab conservationist Bill Hedden wrote in a prescient 1994 essay in HCN: "… our resilient community leaders got in their row boat and went fishing for a little tourism to revive and diversify our economy. They hooked a great white shark."

Of course, if my kids’ nostalgia is any indication, today’s great white shark will seem like tomorrow’s bluegill. In a few years, we may look fondly back at the good old days when you could still buy a house in Moab for $300,000, when a mere 50,000 mountain bikers attended the Fat Tire rally, and when you only had to book a camping spot in Arches a year or two in advance.

If we’re lucky, though, we’ll still have curmudgeons like Stiles around to keep us on our toes, and to remind us what it is we love about the West.

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 [email protected].

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