The Abbiest Place on Earth
I can’t help but say or think or feel it: this is Abbey Land. Despite the various crusts that have formed over the years since Abbey was alive and well in the Moab area, this is still his place. Of course, it is the earth first, shifting and sliding and tectonically galloping—and not giving a damn about who you are or what you do, or how good you are at shimmying up a crack or descending technical single track—but it is also Abbey’s essence. Or at least I have reason in his writing to believe so, and to believe he’s still here, if you can find him.
I know it’s cliché, and that the rad little bookstore along the main street in town has a wall dedicated to him, a wall that I felt like a sucker for even browsing but did so anyway, but it’s true this is Abbey Land. I look for him in the sandstone bulbs and hollows as I move beneath them, in the shimmering Colorado to my left, in the ways this place, soon enough, will make me feel. I’m also looking for my own way in, my own encounter with a wild place that, rightfully so, keeps persisting in its wildness, regardless of whether or not I’m here to encounter it.
I am here with my husband and a newly acquired campsite friend. It is the first evening before our first day mountain biking in these yawning canyon lands, and we are on the outskirts of it all. Meaning we are close to town and bedding down inside our luminous tents. Right now, I am one of those tourists standing on the outside looking in. Thinking of this makes me itch. It itches to be safe and bolstered in a blue tent by the side of the road, seeing what everyone else sees, gaping at the same things, snapping photos for record, and not yet placing my cheek and my chest and my hips against the heart of this place. I am here in Moab, where the town itself feels like the outpost, and the expanses over which the sun is violently setting are the center, and I cannot wait to find a way in.
All I know about this area I know from the man himself. I see his sinewy and tanned body, ducking and surfacing the Colorado as we glide alongside on two wheels each. Where is Bonnie Abzug? I want to meet her. And Hayduke? I wonder if we could share a gritty kiss beneath the sliver-moon, before he slips back into his world and I into mine.
In the belly of Mag 7—which is short for Magnificent 7 and encompasses seven linked trails in one long traverse—I can’t stop smiling or hooting or tearing up from the oh-shit moments, the search for the rim we’re not sure is actually there, the cairn-following, the built-up and then eventually dissipated fear of exposure. Here, where the clouds mimic the rocks that mimic the clouds, I witness how the earth had been running at full speed, towards the blue above or to catch Icarus mid-tumble, and then just sheared off. Limbs dropping out from under her mid-run. Then I watch as she rests in her dramatic way, the length of her sprint behind her in one long, low-angle swath of stone.
Somewhere along Gold Bar Rim, we enter the Thunderdome. For the brief section of this trail where we share cascading double-track with motos and Jeeps and rock crawlers, I am Furiosa in a sandstorm, evading my pursuers by pedaling up and up. I am Mad Max avoiding silvery spray paint. And, of course, I see the Monkey Wrench Gang in the distance below, pouring sand into crankcases. My thoughts meet with: What does this kind of commotion and access mean for the wildness, the wilderness of a place? They crawl and pick lines and we crawl and pick lines. Are we not complicit in this, too? Yes, we are much quieter and use peanut butter, bananas, and bread for fuel; we tread lightly, look up and out often, take deep breaths, get even quieter still. But we are still treading, no?
I remember. The mountains and the rocks and the dirt and the canyons, they don’t care how awesome we think we are. We have to be on it, aware. To move with respect and always keep one eye and one ear to complicity. And even then, sometimes we get swallowed.
Our last night we camp in the Sand Flats. There is a windstorm, the gusts of which intermittently compress our blue tent into our nylon- and down-swaddled bodies. Even with the rainfly secured, by morning we are covered in a fine powder of sand and dirt. Like a nocturnally applied layer of cosmetic foundation or unsweetened cocoa or cinnamon, only grittier. We pack up, brew coffee over a cook stove and sip in silence. We descend into and then depart Moab, a chalky amalgam of pestled tourist piss, spat toothpaste, and Abbey’s bones covering our bodies.