Death of a New Westerner

 

Late on a Friday night last October, word came to me that my best friend, Bill Benge, had died suddenly of a massive heart attack in Moab, Utah. He was only 60. We had both come from large cities to Moab as young men, more than 30 years ago, and had chosen, for our own reasons, to make a life in this once rural and largely unknown community.

Bill was a lawyer by trade, and in 1974, he became the youngest person in Utah history to be elected as a county attorney. He served as Grand County Attorney for most of the next three decades. After he retired, he moved briefly to Salt Lake City but came back to Moab less than a year before his death and opened a private practice.

In the last year of Bill’s life, we spent a significant amount of our time together reminiscing and lamenting the changes that had transformed Moab in the last decade. We were very good at it. It had been, for years, a quiet, albeit oddly diverse little community; now, in little more than a decade, Moab has become just another real estate market to be exploited and sold off in quarter-acre parcels. We barely recognized our old town anymore.

We often had breakfast at the Moab Diner, one of the few cafes left in Moab that didn’t exist merely for the tourist traffic -- it was still affordable, and the waitresses knew our names. On one of our last trips to the diner, however, we found our café so crammed with strange faces that we had to take a number and wait for a table. Bill turned to me and said, "It’s over, Stiles."

A couple of weeks later, I found myself driving north to Moab, to Bill’s funeral. Along the way, I passed all the faux adobe condo developments in various stages of completion. Moab, even in late October, was busy, even hectic, with tourist traffic and the effects of a seasonally bloated residential population.

Yet again, I found myself cursing this New West phenomenon that had robbed me of the quieter world I still treasure, if only in my memory. But as I sat in my chair at the funeral home and waited for the service to begin, I looked at all the faces around me and was struck by the fact that so many of us were Moab’s first New Westerners. Many of us had come from urban areas across America to Moab, decades ago, seeking a simpler and quieter life; no one was more prototypical than Bill.

Bill Benge grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and as a young man, embraced and absorbed the many cultural opportunities that an international city like San Francisco offered. His taste in music was eclectic and extensive, he read constantly and he traveled the world. Bill was my walking, talking encyclopedia. He was often faster and more accurate than a Google search. I liked to call him Renaissance Man — Ren Man for short — and he appreciated the title.

Despite his erudite ways, he preferred the quieter life that he found in Moab. He never wore his sophistication on his sleeve. It was simply who Bill was and in that spirit, his friends were as broad and diverse as his vocabulary. He counted among those closest to him, teachers and artists and writers -- he was Ed Abbey’s attorney while Ed lived in Moab -- and also ranchers and miners and carpenters and short-order cooks, and even some of the men and women he’d prosecuted over the years.

His talents and his personality enriched the community, but Bill never wanted his town to reflect himself. He loved and reveled in its differences. And more than anything, he loathed the bland homogeneity that has infected so much of the rural West in recent years.

Today’s latest New West immigrants could learn something from Bill. They might try embracing a small town on its terms, not theirs. They might consider that different values can often complement each other, instead of conflict. And that in the end, the New West should strive to be the sum of its many different parts, and not an exclusive and regimented and inflexible culture determined to rid itself of the very qualities in a small town that brought them there in the first place.

I miss my buddy Bill. And I’d like to think that somewhere, out there, he misses us too. But at least he doesn’t have to take a number to get a cheeseburger anymore.

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

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