Times in the High Desert (page 1 of 3)
My Recollections, Opinions, and some Facts

Clearing Storm, Arches National Park, Utah
A passing storm leaves desert potholes overflowing. Potholes are an important source of water for desert wildlife, so they should not be disturbed or polluted. The availability of water determines which plants and animals survive in the desert climate.

Once Upon a Time...

Between 1983 and 1994, I did the vast majority of my nature photography in the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau. Although I traveled throughout the region, I concentrated on the area around one particular little town. I was completely taken with the place, and went there between one and five times each year. I wandered the backcountry both on foot and by vehicle, and in total I accumulated well over a year's time there. I came to know the beauty and fragility of the desert. I also came to know the town and some of its people. These are my abbreviated thoughts about those times and what has happened since. I have changed the names, but the story is as accurate as my recollection allows.


It was a home away from home. Quite simply, it always felt good to be in Moab, Utah. I first ventured into the sleepy little town in 1983. Back then the whole town closed down at about 8 PM, and you could travel the 110 miles from Grand Junction, Colorado in near isolation. Everyone in town knew everyone else. It was Mayberry in the desert.


The magic of the place was a synergy of the town, its people, and above all, the surrounding land. The LaSalle Mountains which loom just east of town seemed almost close enough to touch in the clear air. About three miles north of town is the entrance to Arches National Park. To the west lie the three districts of Canyonlands National Park. Federal lands every bit as pristine and beautiful as the national parks, but run by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), engulf it all.

Canyonlands and Juniper, Canyonlands National Park

An ancient and gnarled juniper frames this image of Canyonlands National Park, taken from Island in the Sky. The Green River can be seen in the upper right area of the photograph, and the Maze district of the park lies in the far distance.

The Uranium Era – Boom to Bust


In order to understand Moab, you need to know a little about its history. Moab was a uranium boomtown back in the 1950s. During the boom, prospectors scratched long and thin exploration roads into the land. These were roads in the loosest sense of the word, and they meandered into some of America’s most spectacular wilderness.


Congress inadvertently protected Arches National Park from most of this activity by declaring it a National Monument in the late 1920s. All other federal lands in the area were open to exploration until 1964, when Canyonlands became a national park. The Park Service has since closed a number of the old roads, but some are still open as 4-wheel drive and mountain bike trails. The BLM has kept most of them open, but does not maintain them in any significant way. The old exploration roads are still the sole means of access to some areas, including Canyonlands’ Maze district.


When the uranium boom went bust, so did Moab. The bust was in full swing in the early 1980s. The mines were closed or closing, the mountain bike phenomena had not yet happened, and the term SUV did not yet exist. The old mineral exploration roads were the lonely domain of a few die-hard Jeepers.

Colorado River Storm

The drama of a storm unfolds along the Colorado River a short distance from this vantage point on land administered by the B.L.M. (Bureau of Land Management, a.k.a. Bureau of Logging and Mining). 

Places and People


I always stayed in one small motel on the north edge of town, owned and run by Fred and Joan. Fred used to say, “They always come back to Moab”, and the number of rooms typically occupied by regulars validated his statement. Fred would rise long before the sun did. He would sit in the dark and sip his coffee while looking out the big windows. His day would begin in earnest when the sun hit the top of the red cliffs opposite the motel. Joan was a night owl. That was good because together they could cover a long day of comings and goings at the motel. Dinners with Fred and Joan, cowboy songs sung by an old doctor, eating Green River melons, and conversations that sometimes lasted until the wee hours of morning punctuate my memories of the place. Occasionally these things would completely obliterate my early morning or evening photography plans, but it was all a part of being there. They were good people who took care of me as if I were family.


Jim and Kate ran a self-service gas station where they pumped your gas, washed all of your windows including side view mirrors, and checked your oil. I have yet to figure out why their sign said “Self-Service”. Jim was a great mechanic. He knew that being stranded in the backcountry was dangerous, so he always did everything the right way. I had many oil changes, plenty of tinkering, and a suspension modification done there. Their gas station was a sort of town meeting place. Various people would stop by to pass the time of day by telling jokes, tales of adventure, and gossip. Kate always had stories about their children and grandchildren. Bob, a tour guide, always had stories about the misadventures of his latest group of tourists, and Larry would always have something to say about local politics. He usually had something to say about Bob, too. Martha, who worked as a maid at the motel, had stories about anything you could imagine and some things you could not.

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Copyright © 2002 Dean M. Chriss, dmcPhoto.com