Moab

Audrey Thompson


Cliffs along highway 191, south of Moab Haystack Mountain with lake
Hollyhocks at Pack Creek Ranch Mountains above Moab
Disclaimer: Overly informative and underly entertaining, this newsletter has too many facts in it. As a result, it lacks the profound insight of my usual newsletters, which do not get so tangled up in mundane facts that they lose sight of the underlying truth about human frailty. It is basically Ivan’s and Barbara’s fault that this newsletter is so short on universal interest and so long on length. Barb and Ivan are always saying that I ought to have more facts in my newsletters, but they do not realize how limiting facts are. It is hard to get to the heart of things when all you are allowed to say are things like, “First, I got up, then I had breakfast.” Ivan, who had denounced my previous newsletters for their lack of journalistic rigor, has begun to change his mind. “Maybe you should stick to fiction,” he says. “It’s more entertaining, even if it is all a pack of filthy lies.”

The plan was for everyone to leave Salt Lake City at 10:00 a.m. on Friday. This was a plan, as my mother would say, that was made to be broken. Ivan and I left at 12:30 and got to Moab at 4:30, shoehorning in a brief visit to an Indian art and jewelry store before driving out to Pack Creek Ranch to join the rest of the group. Pack Creek Ranch is 2,000 feet above Moab, out in the middle of the desert. It is pretty isolated, but that is not to say that you couldn’t get lost. There is a road right before you get to the ranch that will take you the wrong way. The road sign is pretty specific about this. The name of the road is “Take the Other Road.”

Crossroads of Take the Other Road and Pack Creek Road Ivan at the crossroads of Take the Other Road and Pack Creek Road

When we arrived at Pack Creek Ranch, Olin was there to greet us. “Ivan!” he shouted when he saw the car. “Ivan!” There was no mention of “Audrey.” This did not really surprise me. While Olin is slowly warming up to me, I am no Ivan and I am no Bryan. If Olin, who is two, sees Ivan halfway across the supermarket, he will shout “Ivan!” and wave. If he sees Bryan, he will give him gifts. Not only am I not given gifts, I am suspected of trying to get them on false pretenses. Once, when we were visiting Olin when he was about a year old, he dragged Bryan by the hand into the dining room and showed him the riches of candles stowed in one of the buffet drawers. He handed Bryan a candle and Bryan acted suitably appreciative, so Olin handed Bryan another candle. “Olin,” I said, “can I have a candle too?” He looked at me speculatively, then shut the drawer firmly. He wasn’t talking yet, but we could see what was going through his mind: “Sorry, shop’s closed.”

You might not be able to tell on the page, but “Olin” has a Spanish, not a Swedish pronunciation. There is a clue in the fact that his parents are named Octavio and Dolores. In person, of course, it is easy to tell. You listen to how his parents pronounce “Olin,” and then you know how to pronounce it yourself. I am speaking in broad generalizations, here. It is not actually true that everyone can do this. For some people, hearing how “Olin” is pronounced does not make any difference at all. A fair number of people of Scandinavian descent, apparently taking their forebears as a universal reference point, assume that Olin has been named after their Swedish or Norwegian ancestors. “Oh, OH-lyn!” they say. “You chose a proud, ancient Viking name for your son. How wonderful.” “No, it’s oh-LEEN, a proud, ancient Aztec name,” says Octavio. They nod. “OH-lyn,” they say agreeably. “A wonderful name. I am descended from the Vikings myself, you know.”

Olin

Like Ivan and me, Dolores and Octavio had left Salt Lake City later than planned. “It was Octavio’s fault,” Dolores told us. “Last year, Octavio couldn’t join us till the second day, so I was alone with Olin when we all set out. I was the first one at Frank and Donna’s house. This proves that I am not the one who is late. I reminded Octavio of that.” Then she added meditatively, “Of course, it’s true that I got a speeding ticket on the way to Frank and Donna’s. Octavio says that illegal speed may have had something to do with my having been the first one there. Nevertheless, the fact remains, it was not my fault that we were late today.”

“We were late leaving, too,” said Ivan. He looked at me meaningfully. “Whose fault was that?” he asked.

“Octavio’s,” I said.

Ivan nodded, satisfied. As long as it is acknowledged that being late was not his fault, it does not matter all that much to him who gets blamed.

Pack Creek Ranch entrance sign Country buggies

When we went to check in at the ranch, we saw several of our fellow Salt Lake vacationers. They did not say “Hello.” They said, “Did you stop on the way and buy jewelry? We know you did.” Delightful as my friends and colleagues are, it seems to me that they are of a suspicious cast of mind. For all they knew, Ivan and I could have had a small car emergency or something like that. It is always best to show real concern and to say things like, “Did you have a safe trip?” and “I hope you didn’t have any trouble?” rather than things like, “It’s no use pretending that you didn’t buy any Indian jewelry in Moab. We hope you left some for us.”

Our cabin was called “Trails End.” Being of intermittently literal casts of mind, Ivan and I headed for the end of the trail, driving past where the dirt road ended all the way to the end of the rutted meadow road. Eventually we arrived back at the sign that said, “Take the Other Road.” “It’s going to be a long walk back for breakfast,” I said, after we had driven about two miles, with a guy in a white station wagon tailgating us almost the whole way.

It turned out, however, that our cabin was right next door to the one where Larry, Wanda, Kim, Jeremy, Donna, Frank, and Esther were staying. While ours was indeed the last cabin, it was at the “end of the trail” only in the way that a suburban mailbox is at the end of the drive. It was not exactly a hike from one cabin to the next.

Trails End cabin The neighbors

“That guy in the car behind us must live in one of those houses down there, ” I said to Ivan. “He probably wondered where on earth we were going.”

“I don’t think he wondered at all,” said Ivan. “He probably thought, ’More tourists, lost on a dude ranch.’ No doubt he is used to us dude-ranch types.”

Until that moment, I had never really thought of myself as a dude-ranch type.

“Trails End” was charming, especially if you were under 5' 6". Described as a honeymoon cabin, it had privacy, a delightful view, a cozy livingroom, and a very wide but very short bed. Looking in the bedroom — we all took tours of one another’s cabins — Larry said, “What is someone like Jim Anderson supposed to do?” Jim is 6' 6" or so. The only way he would have fit in that bed would have been sideways. Still, the more salient question, since Jim was not there, was, what was someone like me supposed to do? I am 5' 6½"; my toes hung off the end of the bed. Ivan slept with his knees propped up. In the bathroom, we sat sideways. It was lucky that Ivan and I aren’t your tall, rangy dude-ranch types. Still, we liked our cabin a lot. It had a great view of the sunset and a good view of the turkeys.

We would go there again, but it is being put up for sale. We weren’t surprised to learn that. Pretty much every hotel, ranch, or bed and breakfast that Donna has taken us to, we have fallen in love with, and pretty much every one of them has been put up for sale immediately after our visit. We don’t know whether it’s our presence or Donna’s recommendation or the combination that represents the kiss of death. We continue to rely on Donna for hotel recommendations, though, because we have no alternative. One time I got a glowing recommendation from someone else about a hotel in New Orleans, so I reserved their best room. It turned out to have no windows. That hotel is still in business.

Friday evening was Sofia’s and Troy’s wedding. For a while, Quanah was the best dressed person at the wedding, but eventually he shed the tie he was wearing and got down to basics. Doris took off his tie because she said that it did not go with diapers. Only Karen was planning to get dressed up, but either she did not want to compete with Quanah or she knew that, regardless of what the rest of us wore, she would look better than we would. Even Karen’s jogging suit is gorgeous.

Karen, Ivan, and Doris with Quanah looking suspiciously at Ivan’s moustache Bryan with a halo and Quanah without a tie

Having taken the seven- rather than the four-hour route from Salt Lake to Moab, Troy and Sofia were married rather late on Friday night. They had not stopped on the way for jewelry, but unfortunately they also had not stopped for a map. The wedding was romantic and heartfelt; Rudy and Nadia played the guitar, Adrian and Atzin and Giancarlo brought flowers, and Frank performed the marriage.

Troy and Sofia The wedding ceremony

We all watched the festivities.

Family and friends Mark, Ruth, and Nemilitzli
The Buendias and other friends and family Briana and Sandra
Larry and Wanda Francisco and Nemilitzli

I hogged the babies.

Audrey and Giancarlo Nemilitzli and Audrey

Norma and I had to go to bed early because we were going horseback riding at 8:30 the next morning. We were to be the official adults on the dude ranch expedition and it was a heavy responsibility. Not that we wouldn’t have a guide, of course, but we still had to set an example.

Audrey on Spots Audrey, Nadia, and Norma set forth

The legal form we were required to sign before we were allowed anywhere near the horses was sobering, not to say somber. It made you want to say your goodbyes now, while there was still time. Among other things, the form reminded would-be riders that what attracted people to horseback riding — its danger and exhilaration, its drama and power — were the very things that could result in premature death. The form detailed the many, many ways in which horseback riding could lead to the grave — slippery cliffs, horses rearing up at the sight of poisonous snakes, sudden storms and stampedes, unreliable saddles, startling noises. All in all, it made death sound pretty much like a foregone conclusion.

As it turned out, riding the trail was very pleasant and scenic but not what you would call perilous. In terms of risk, it was not unlike riding the horses on a merry-go-round, the only serious difference being that there was a certain amount of stopping for refreshment. Frank asked afterwards if anyone had had a horse with spirit. I did, I said. Cool, he said. I don’t know so much about cool, I said. My horse had a mind of his own, but the only thing really on his mind was eating. We stopped a lot so that he could chomp on grass and sagebrush. He would get ticked off if I made him stop eating. Once, he plunged into a little mini gallop, just to show me. It did not last long. The horse in front of us on the trail was only three horse lengths away. By the next round in the bend, Spots was back to nibbling sagebrush.

When Ed had Spots for the 10:30 outing, he managed him much more successfully than I had done. I assume that he whispered sweet post-structural nothings in his ear. “Spots,” he probably said, “you are letting yourself get drawn in by a master narrative of conspicuous consumption. You have to remember that it’s all discourse. Don’t get sidetracked by minutiae.” I would have tried that line myself, actually, but I didn’t see how I could make it work. Spots was all about minutiae.

I don’t know about the 10:30 group, but most of the kids in our group had never been on a horse before and neither Norma nor I had been horseback riding in thirty years. While the wrangler, Ken, who referred to himself in the third person, gave us careful and detailed instructions about how to sit, how to use the reins, and how to talk to the horses, he directed the vast bulk of his instructions at the onlookers. Ken was not pleased at their inability to follow instructions, most of which involved the need for parents and other onlookers to fade silently into the background. You could tell that Ken was used to horses who obeyed him, rather than people who did not. Those of us on horseback were better at obeying him than the onlookers were, since we already knew that the odds of living past ten o’clock were heavily stacked against us.

Ken saddles up Jeremy, while Larry watches Adrian, Nadia with Ken, Norma, and Audrey

The actual ride was beautiful. The mountains were gorgeous, and the plants, of which I saw a lot, thanks to Spots, looked delicious. I could not take any pictures because Ivan wouldn’t let me bring the camera along. Having read the legal form, he knew that the chances of my coming back intact were slim and he did not see why his camera should suffer the same fate.

Plant life somewhere else entirely (in the mountains above Moab) A scenic view somewhere else, high above Moab

I have to confess that, in talking about the horseback riding expedition without first mentioning the turkeys and the prairie dogs we saw in the paddock after breakfast, I have violated the strict narrative principles according to which both Ivan and I, albeit separately, were reared. Thompson and Van Laningham paternal regulations hold that one must tell a story in the exact order in which it occurred. Any deviation from this principle requires that one start over again at the very beginning.

It is lucky that Ivan was already familiar with this strict creed, because he came upon it in full force at my parents’ house when he and I began dating. I had invited him to a family dinner followed by slides from my father’s visit to Kenya. Dad had gone to Africa in his capacity as a Caterpillar service manager and had spent the night at a hotel up in the trees. From there, he was able to take dozens of pictures of the wild animals at a nearby watering hole. The photographs themselves were interesting, but the accompanying monologue was not. The monologue went something like this: “Now, did the rhinoceros come before or after the giraffe? After, I am almost sure. Okay, now, here is the hippopotamus. Wait, that has to be wrong. Why are these slides in the wrong order? What is that elephant doing there? The elephant came much, much later; that, I know for a fact. Look, here are the chimps and gorillas. Hold on, that little chimp came after the big one, not before. How did these slides get out of order? I will start again at the very beginning. First, we have the giraffe. No, that can’t be right. Where are the gazelles? This whole carousel needs to be reorganized from scratch. Okay, back to the giraffe. What came after the giraffe? Could it have been the lion? No, I am pretty sure that I remember the tiger being there first. This is confusing. Where are the wildebeests? Okay, here’s the cheetah. That’s good. Next, we have some zebras. No, that is definitely wrong. The zebras should come later. We had better start again at the beginning. Here’s the giraffe.”

In failing to mention the turkeys and prairie dogs, not only have I violated the exact-order principle, but I have violated the animals rule. In my family, you always mention all of the animals.

The turkeys appeared while we were at breakfast.

Turkeys in the paddock Turkeys outside the living room window

There was some discussion in our group as to whether the turkeys could be wild. It would have been easy enough to ask the woman at the desk whether or not the turkeys belonged at the ranch, but that is not our system. Our system is to debate such questions on their merits, after a careful examination of any first-hand evidence along with the available scholarly literature. Most of us are academics, which, according to Frank, means that we are neurotic. Some of us take issue with this analysis and some of us do not. Doris agrees with it. “I like neurotic people,” she says. “Actually, I think that’s the only kind of people I know.”

Over the weekend, the debating points that were entertained included the fact that the turkeys were not restrained, the peculiarity of the turkeys having neither fear of nor interest in humans, the question of whether the turkeys realized just how dangerous humans really are, the issue of turkey intelligence, the significance of the fact that the turkeys kept coming back, and the question of where the turkeys slept at night and whether that was who the coyotes were eating. These matters led to further debate about the nature of animal intelligence testing and the legitimacy of property claims, along with some strong words about the ideologues who shot down Benjamin Franklin’s proposal to make turkeys the national bird, instituting the notoriously sneaky, carrion-eating eagle in place of the much smarter and eminently more deserving turkey.

One thing we never determined for certain was whether what we assumed were turkeys were, in fact, turkeys. There were two whole sets of encyclopedias in the biggest cabin, but we did not consult them.

Encyclopedias, Mark Twain, and Readers’ Digest Condensed Books

Nor did we ever ask anyone who worked at Pack Creek about the turkeys. We didn’t want to look like ignorant dude-ranch types.

Unlike the turkeys, the prairie dogs did not inspire debate. We could pretty much figure that they were wild, since we had never heard of anyone who lived in the desert bothering to raise prairie dogs. There were dozens of them in the paddock, racing from one den to the next and sitting up at attention whenever the guard prairie dog yelled danger. Every time Ivan and I went anywhere near them, that guard dog yelled danger very, very loudly. You could have heard the squawking at the other end of the ranch. When Ivan tried to take pictures, the prairie dog yelled even louder, clearly indicating, “No pictures!” I would have thought that the horses, who were wandering around in the paddock, would have posed more of a threat than Ivan and I did, standing like well-behaved tourists on the other side of the fence, but apparently the prairie dogs had been reading up in the scholarly literature and knew what the turkeys didn’t — humans are dangerous animals.

Crow in paddock, with the prairie dogs lying low

Bryan was not allowed to participate in the turkey debate. Neutral and impartial observers had detected hints of bias. Most damagingly, Bryan was seen wearing a baseball cap Donna had given him that said, “Vegetarian: Old Indian Word for Bad Hunter.”

Bryan in unscientific anti-vegetarian cap.

After the people in the second horseback riding expedition — Donna, Kim, Ed and Sandra, and those cute Buendía girls, Savina and Briana — had returned without fatal incident, we drove up to a lake in the mountains for lunch and photo opportunities. The excursion was not actually advertised as a photo opportunity. It was advertised as a picnic and a walk around the lake.

Bovine at elevation 11,642 Mountains and lake at Haystack Mountain picnic place

The picnic part definitely took place.

Ed, Sandra, Ruth, Briana, Nemilitzli, Xiomara, Anayansi, Francisco, Ivan Karen, Doris, Buendías, Ruth, and Dolores (at the other table) looking dubious
Nemilitzli, Xiomara, Anayansi, and Francisco, with others in background Ed, Doris, Karen, Ivan
Octavio, Donna, Bryan, Esther, Dolores Larry and Audrey
Octavio, Larry, Wanda, Josie, Olin, Dolores, with others in background Frank, Doris, and Kim wrapped for warmth

On the way up to the Haystack Mountain picnic site, there had been cows and horses wandering across the road. They were not very intimidated by our cars. I don’t know whether this is relevant, but practically everyone was driving a Subaru. When we got to the picnic site, there were more cows and also a bull. The adults stayed close to the picnic tables. When the kids wanted to take a short cut across the meadow to the lake, the adults prevented them. “See those cows and bulls? They are keeping a very sharp eye on us humans,” said the adults. “If they decide they don’t like you, they will rush at you and trample you. The newspaper headlines will say, ’City slickers killed by cows.’” The adults were concerned and protective, but it would be too much to say that they clung desperately to the kids in a ferment of anxiety. It would be more accurate to say that they shook their heads and wondered how children nowadays come to know so little about cows. Personally, I am a little skeptical about the reported sad decline from the cow-knowing days of yore. About half of the adults in the group grew up in New York City and Los Angeles and it is news to me that children in old-time L. A. were more or less experts on the psychology of cows.

Cows pretending to be unconcerned Vigilant bull and cows

After lunch, Ivan was led to believe, we would all go on a nice walk around the lake. People had talked about going for a walk and Ivan assumed that this meant that we would. It is a walking kind of group and, remarkably, Ivan actually wanted to go for a walk around the lake. He set out hopefully with the others.

Bryan, Donna, and Esther setting out for the lake

After two hundred yards, the whole group came to a dead standstill. We had arrived. There was to be no walk. It was like one of those staged media moments when a political candidate pretending to have a deep interest in health issues hugs a person in voluminous bandages outside a clearly marked hospital. Posing by a lake and a mountain simultaneously seemed to Ivan a cynical strategy aimed at falsely advertising the degree to which academics are in touch with nature. Ivan took the group picture, but he was not pleased. He had expected a walk and his hopes had been dashed.

Back: Ed with Sandra, Dolores, Frank, Donna with Briana, Karen, Audrey, Wanda, Kim, Larry, Doris with Quanah, Esther, Josie, Ruth.  Front: Octavio with Olin, Savina, Adrian, Jeremy, Xiomara with Nemilitzli, Bryan

Things started to look up later in the afternoon, though. A shopping expedition was advertised and when it materialized as planned, Ivan and Karen heaved deep sighs of relief.

Downtown Moab Denizens of Moab

There is no hard and fast evidence regarding any jewelry purchases. There are no photographs. There is only hearsay.

The gathering that night was counterposed against much wailing of coyotes. The morning was given over to scientific speculation about what had gotten them so excited. At no time was the idea entertained that the coyotes might object to our presence no less strenuously than did the prairie dogs. The night watchman, however, hinted at the possibility. “Those people are certainly a presence on the ranch,” he said to the woman at the front desk. “That’s because they all know each other. They aren’t just sitting alone in their cabins,” she said. It may be that coyotes prefer the kind of dude-ranchers who stay indoors.

Frank and Larry Wanda, Larry, and Frank

Not all of the animals objected to our presence. The cats liked us, and some of the horses did.

Doris and Quanah saying goodbye to horse

Sunday morning, we set out for Arches. We got a late start. Very late. Noon is not the best time of day to go hiking in Arches. Before we left the parking lot, Donna doused her shirt in ice water to cool off. Frankly, this idea would never have occurred to me. It is a chilling thought that being able to wear an ice-water shirt may be one of the measures of full professorhood in the West.

Donna demonstrating full-professor toughness

Arches is a gorgeous park. You really have to be there to get a sense of its grandeur; pictures can’t capture it.

Arches Arches

The brochure that the park gives you says that in order “to grasp the aura of time and silence,” you have to “get out of your car and walk.” Evidently dating from the fifties, when most people’s idea of a relaxing cross-country vacation did not involve getting out of the car, the text in the pamphlet also betrays a peculiar idea of history. All the Indians, apparently, are dead. “Archaic people, and later ancestral Puebloan, Fremont, and Utes searched the arid desert for game animals, wild plant foods, and stone for tools and weapons,” the pamphlet says, leaving “evidence of their passing on a few pictograph and petroglyph panels.” Eons later, with no human presence felt since the pictographs were painted, “white explorers” found and “settled” the place (Arches Official Map and Guide, National Park Service, undated yet dated).

Wolfe Ranch at Arches

At any rate, it is certainly true that you have to get out of your car and walk, to feel the sweep of time and space in Arches National Park.

Donna had us take the trail to Delicate Arch leaving from Wolfe Ranch. Earlier, I had made the mistake of telling Ivan that this would be the same easy trek on which we had gone some years previously, when we had walked up a mild incline for a half mile or so. That was in 1995, Esther said. She knew the exact date right off the top of her head, even though she hadn’t been there with us. George would have been pleased at her knowing the date. He himself always had numerous useful facts at his fingertips. Once, when he was telling me about someone he considered a sociopath, I said, “George, don’t you think that ’sociopath’ is kind of a strong term for him?” “No, I do not,” said George. “It is the exact clinical term for him. As a matter of fact, I happen to have a clipping about sociopaths right here in my wallet. It will tell you everything you need to know.”

Although Esther knew the date of our previous Arches hike by heart, she did not remember which route we had taken. A quarter of the way up a steep slope on the path to Delicate Arch, Ivan said, “Believe me, I would remember if I had ever gone on this hike before.” It turned out that we had walked to Windows on the previous visit. The Delicate Arch hike is considerably more demanding, particularly at noon in early September. Before long, Ivan was figuring out who to blame.

Arches vista with arch in background Landscape on the trail to Delicate Arch
Ivan resting on the trail Ivan persevering

Luckily for me, he settled on Donna.

“Donna said that this would be a one-and-a-half-mile walk,” Ivan mentioned to me more than once, adding broodingly, “It has been at least nine miles already.” When Donna came up behind us, Ivan accused her directly. She defended herself.

“It really is one and a half miles!” said Donna. “It says so right on the sign back there.”

“You can see from here,” said Ivan firmly, “that it is at least nine miles back to the parking lot and civilization, and we are nowhere near Delicate Arch yet.” Donna took the complaints in good part. Ivan has made similar accusations when having to cross particularly large shopping mall parking lots.

When we finally got to Delicate Arch, even Ivan admitted that it was worth the walk. Not that those were his exact words, but you could tell that was what he meant.

Delicate Arch Dolores, Olin, Esther, and others
Bryan in ubiquitous anti-vegetarian hat, at Arches Audrey and Octavio at Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch Near Delicate Arch

We left Arches quite a bit later than intended. Rumor has it that it may have been Octavio’s fault.

Arches National Park near Delicate Arch Arches vista
Arches landscape Cliffs in Arches

According to my father’s strict guidelines regarding narrative structure, this story is by no means complete, regardless of whether the interesting part of the story is over. There are important details still to be filled in. I need to talk about the gas stations we stopped at on the way back, for example, and the gas station we were not allowed to visit in Woodside because it was closed to out-of-town drivers, along with the fact that Bryan and Doris passed us on the way home going roughly 180 miles an hour in revenge for Ivan’s having passed them going 180 miles an hour on the way in. What is worse, I have neglected to so much as mention the crows we saw both at Pack Creek Ranch and at Delicate Arch.

Maybe I had better start again at the very beginning. The plan was to leave Salt Lake at 10 a.m. on Friday. . . .

Two crows overlooking Delicate Arch area

With thanks to Donna, planner and organizer extraordinaire

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