'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
 

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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."

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