“Hey dude! How’s the desert treating you?” asked our friendly neighbour, looking a little like Bon Jovi meets a wizened 1960’s flower child. He looked us carefully up and down, sussing out just what type of Moab visitors we might be.
Some people come to Moab’s desert to drive through Arches National Park, stopping to take photos of magnificent sandstone features and do short but satisfying hikes to the bases of awe inspiring arches and natural stone bridges.
They love the drive through this breathtakingly beautiful landscape from the comfort of their air conditioned vehicles, rolling along a smooth carpet of asphalt that unfurls before them, stopping and viewing canyons and rock formations at picturesque roadside turn-outs to their hearts’ content.
Some come to hike through the desert landscape, marvelling at the sand, the rock arches and mounds, the dwarf-like juniper forests, the cacti shapes and the tenacity of the extremophile animals, vegetation, cryptobiotic soil and microbial life that call this harsh environment home.
Some come to paint the incredible palette of the desert here: the rusts and coppers, the magentas and soft purples, the dark charcoals and light greys, the teals, sages and emerald greens, the oranges and the burnt umbers, the soft beiges and tans… and all those wonderful golds. The colours meld together so beautifully in the harsh desert light.
With fascinating shapes that lie in the rock pillars and towers, in the rolling waves of sandstone, in the skyward reaching stone arches and in the awkwardly twisted shapes in the dwarf forests of juniper, there is plenty of inspiring subject matter to paint and sketch. There are the contrasts of prickly pear cacti and the smooth, rounded mounds of sandstone, the jagged piles of fallen rock rubble and the massive, yet smooth cliff faces.
And then there is the artist’s conundrum: how to capture the sheer scale of the landscape in a way that does not overstate it, making it seem trite and trivial.
Taken at a local café, these paintings capture the patterns, lines and curves of this landscape in captivating, imaginative ways.
Some come to marvel at the depth and breadth of the numerous canyons of the area. With names like Dead Horse Point State Park and Horse Thief Canyon, you just know that there are intriguing stories to hear, and a wild west persona to experience. The canyons are cut deeply into the high desert plateaus and are astonishing in their breadth, depth and scale. Some argue that they’re best experienced on horseback (and there numerous outfitters ready to accommodate).
Some come for fossil hunting, searching out the fish fossils and the famous dinosaur tracks and bones of the area. And some come to rock hound, searching out copper and uranium treasures, searching for those delicate desert roses and marvelling at the way manganese creates a dark varnish on the stone of the cliff faces. They do this all while tromping about and exploring, first hand, the impact that salt has had in moulding, shaping and sculpting this landscape.
Some come to see and wonder at the ancient rock art, their imaginations captured by the Native American history of the area. The intricacies of some of the paintings, and the alien nature of some of the body shapes leave lots to the imagination.
Some come to explore the glory days of the wild west, or the second gold rush time, brought on by the discovery of uranium here around the time of WWII. Uranium is still mined here to this day.
Some come to peacefully raft down the mighty Colorado River… …while others get their thrills jet boating up its course. Some come to zipline through the slickrock and skydive into the desert, catching their adrenalin rushes through the air rather than on the water or rock. Others come to peacefully pass through in hot air balloons.
Some come to climb, pitting their fingers, fists and bodies against the incredible cracks in the sandstone cliff faces. Cracks that might one day, a millennium down the road, become canyons. They shimmy up “chimneys” and they climb to the top of massive stone finger formations to balance, at quite a height, on a platform of rock no bigger than a chair seat.
Some come to do canyoning, scrambling over boulders, rappelling down waterfalls and plunging into pools in the deep recesses of narrow slot canyons. Yes, even in the desert.
One of the most popular reasons people come here is to drive jeeps, dune buggies and dirt bikes on sandstone that rises up out of the desert, like rolling waves of petrified sand dunes. Known as slickrock, the sandstone is anything but slick. It is grippy and textured. These people are here to pit man and machine against nature, to do the impossible on the steep and rugged terrain.
They get their thrills from tearing through the desert at great speed on curving singletrack trails with terrific flow, plunging into sand traps, thumping down bouldery drops, hurtling down the impossibly steep slopes of that slickrock and powering up the sandblasted and scoured mounds of sculpted rock, traversing their slopes at impossible angles.
As a post script… while we might think MOAB stands for Most Outrageous American Biking, there is a Mexican restaurant in town that serves pillow-sized burritos, named “Mother Of All Burritos” on their menu. We might’ve enjoyed those and their margaritas too…