UNKNOWN TERRITORIES
 

    

 

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH JIM STILES

A seasonal ranger at Arches National Park, Jim Stiles founded the newspaper Canyon Country Zephyr ("All the news that causes fits") in Moab, Utah, in 1989. He had drawn illustrations that accompanied one of Abbey's books -- the infamous image of crack winding its way down the face of Glen Canyon Dam, and Stiles published one of Abbey's stories just before the author's death.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: So when did you first arrive in Moab?

STILES: I was in college and I came out here in the summer in 1971. I didn’t really move to Moab until late ’75. I sort of stumbled into town freezing, and I got a job as a volunteer with Arches for three dollars a night.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Is that when you fell in love with the area?

STILES: I had already fallen in love with it. I just couldn’t figure out a way to come here and live. That was the fall where it was the first and only time in my life that I had a string of good luck. I came to Moab, I met Abbey, I got a job at the Park Service. It was a good time.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: How did you meet Abbey?

STILES: The previous summer I had read Desert Solitaire, of course. I carried it around like my bible. I had decided to do this drawing of Glen Canyon Dam blown up. So, I’m more of a cartoonist than anything else. So, I’d sort of done this line drawing of the dam with a big hole in the middle and a pile of rubble at the bottom. Right after I finished this thing, The Monkey Wrench Gang came out. Of course, I bought the book the first day it showed up on a shelf and it was just the greatest book of all time.

On the jacket cover of the book, it said that he lived in Wolf Hole, Arizona. So I got out my map and I’m trying to find Wolf Hole. Finally, I spot it. It’s this little place on the Arizona Strip, south of St. George, north of Toroweep. I thought: “Wouldn’t you know it? Wouldn’t you know Ed Abbey would live in a place like that?” So I got in my Volkswagen bus, and I drove all the way over there, down this dirt road for fifty miles. I got to Wolf Hole. There was nothing there. It’s just this big, wide-open valley. There are no structures. It’s not a town, it’s just like a hole. So I thought: “Well, Abbey, you know this is what I would expect.” In fact, I had written on this drawing “to Edward Abbey” and then, after I couldn’t find him, I wrote “wherever you are.”

So, somehow, maybe a month later, I ended back up over in this part of the country. Actually, I ended up at Natural Bridges. It was getting cold. I was trying to find a warm place to sleep. I met some of the rangers over at Bridges. They told me about this volunteer program, but it also turned out that one of the seasonals knew Abbey. It turned out that Abbey lived in Moab. So maybe a month later, I had gotten this volunteer job at Arches and one night my friend Jim Conklin who was a ranger at the B.L.M. came out and said that Ed Abbey was going to be playing poker at Doug Treadway’s place tonight, “Do you want to give him the drawing?” The house where Treadway lived is this big brick home that’s just north of Moab. I remember walking in the back door, walking into the living room. There was a bedroom off to the left and the lights were off but you could see the front window. It was sort of lit up from outside lights. And there was this silhouette of this man standing in the dark in that room. Treadway yelled: “Hey, Ed. Stiles is here to give you this drawing.”

I remember Ed coming out of that darkness. He had like this fur trooper’s hat on for some reason or another. He was precisely what I thought he would be. Maybe a little bit more soft spoken than I thought. But he was just very kind and very generous and thanked me profusely for the drawing.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: So he liked it right away?

STILES: He said: “At long last, Floyd Dominy Falls.” I told him how I had driven all the way to Wolf Hole, Arizona to find him and he went: “Yes, what’s it like down there?” So then I would see him from time to time over the next few months at the post office or wherever. He was curious whether I’d get a regular job. I was just a volunteer, at first. and they hired me in March to be a seasonal.

But then one day in June, in that same year, I went down to Moab to check my mail one day. Here was this letter from these publishers in New York, E.P. Dutton. I open it up and it said: “Dear Mr. Stiles, would you be interested in doing a series of drawings for Edward Abbey’s next book of essays?” And I thought: “This has got to be a joke.” But I was puzzled because it was a New York postmark and E.P. Dutton on the envelope. But, that’s the kind of thing Abbey did.

I went back up to the trailer and was getting ready for work, when Abbey pulled up and stuck his head in the door, “Jim, did you get a letter from some publishers in New York?” He’d done it. He’d recommended me. He was always trying to help out young writers and artists, give them a break.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Did Abbey think that spending time in the desert would help change people? How?

STILES: I can recall several times when he suggested the best environmentalist was the person who stayed home and watched T.V. and drank beer and never went to the desert, and therefore left it alone. Obviously, it was important to him and he wrote about how the desert affected him. I think the people who were drawn to Abbey were drawn to him because they had the same feeling. I don’t know if he wrote to try to encourage more people to come to the desert, it’s just that this is the way that he felt about it himself.

The other thing, and this is how I feel, is that wanting to protect the desert—wanting to save the desert, the canyons, the West—primarily, it really isn’t about us. It’s about the desert. If we get to enjoy it, then that’s a bonus. But, we shouldn’t be doing this because we like to recreate on it, because we are reinvigorated by coming to the desert, or if we’re inspired by coming to the desert. The desert is there and it should always be allowed to exist. I think that’s a message that gets lost sometimes. We’re not doing this to create a playground for ourselves. We’re doing it because there are things on this planet that need to be saved and to be left alone.

Sometimes I think the best wildlife wilderness areas in America are gunnery ranges. Nobody’s allowed to go in. They allow a few bombs out there three or four days out of the year and otherwise it’s left alone. When I was a kid, I used to paddle my canoe through Fort Knox military reservation. It was illegal as hell but there were no signs on the far eastern end of the river telling you you couldn’t go in, and we were only twelve or thirteen so we could always plead ignorance and stupidity and youth. I had never seen such a wilderness as was inside Fort Knox. There were deer and all kinds of wildlife. There was this one bad place where you had to paddle under a pontoon bridge near the firing range. You could hear them shooting their machine guns into the side of one hill and shouting orders to the troops and everything, which just made it more exciting. But, it was a magnificent area. Mostly the reason it was such a magnificent area was because nobody had used it. It was left alone.

Dave Foreman’s talked about this, he started Earth First!. We both talked about how maybe that’s what a wilderness should be. It should be absolutely terra incognita. You should throw away all maps of the area. They should be eliminated until it becomes a tierra incognita, a blank spot on the map. That if you go into a wilderness, no one’s going to come rescue you if you get caught. You can’t take your cell phone. You can’t take a GPS. Maybe that’s the way wilderness ought to be managed.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: How have things changed around here since Abbey died?

STILES: They’ve changed totally, I think. I mean it was starting to happen right there in those last couple years before he died. I guess this change has always been happening. There’s always been the development of tourist towns and ski towns, a shift in the demographics of the population, people who came out here and wanted to live here. But it’s changed dramatically.

I think what’s happening is, up until maybe ten or twelve/thirteen years ago, people who wanted to move to the rural West were willing to make sacrifices to make that change. There were things you weren’t going to find in a little town in Utah or a little town in Colorado or Wyoming, that you would have in a big city, but it was worth it. You moved to that town to be a part of that town. You may not agree with it. You may not agree with its philosophy. You may yell and scream at your neighbors. But you still didn’t want to transform the town and sure didn’t want to make everyone who was there before you have to move. That’s the difference now.

I remember one quote that Abbey made that I think gets abused a lot. That’s when Ed said, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs more defenders.” What I see is a lot of people calling themselves environmental defenders but really they’re entrepreneurs, or what I call enviropreneurs. They’re people who are embracing environmental issues because they can make money off it. That’s transforming the rural West in ways that I don’t think that any of us even dreamed of fifteen years ago.

You just continue to see that kind of influence and that kind of emphasis placed even on subjects as pure as wilderness designation. There’s money to be made off wilderness. We’re not saving it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s because it’s good for the economy and everybody can fill their pockets by following this particular political force.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: How do you think Abbey would have reacted to all this?

STILES: Again, it’s hard to speak for a dead man, so I don’t know. I do think if The Monkey Wrench Gang were being written today, Hayduke would also target Lexus S.U.V.’s and trophy homes. I think that would all be part of the mix.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: And all the tourism like mountain biking and jeep tours?

STILES: Well, it’s always the numbers. It’s not that mountain biking is bad. It’s the sheer numbers that are overwhelming. And jeepers and commercial back-country canyoneering companies. All of these commercial entities trying to make money and requiring an ever-increasing consumer base in order to make their business work. It gets to the point where they’re at cross purposes with their own philosophy. People have come to Moab wanting to get away from the crowds, wanting to have a nice quiet business, make a reasonable income. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s all I want to do.

Take a place like Moab. Let’s say a guy opens a restaurant. Then people see that he’s doing really well. So other people from other towns decide that they’re going to come to Moab and open restaurants. So suddenly instead of having fifteen restaurants that are trying to provide for a permanent population of eight thousand and maybe four hundred to five hundred thousand tourists a year, you’ve got twenty. Twenty restaurants. So you keep seeing this never-ending catch-22, where as more restaurants are built or whatever, whether it’s restaurants or river companies or bike shops, as more companies come in, all trying to get a hold of this golden ring, their piece of the pie shrinks until they start freaking out that they’re not going to make it. The only thing that will give a boost to their business is if even more people come. If you go from four hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand, then their size of the pie increases but then more businesses come in. It never ends.

It’s the commodification of nature. It’s the marketing of beauty. To me, what’s happening now is no different than any other extractive industry. You’re taking a product and you're packaging it and you're selling it. Except now, it’s the very beauty of the land itself. Environmentalists used to be fighting to protect the beauty. Now even environmentalists are exploiting the beauty. Sometimes even for profit. That really troubles me.

I think a lot of environmental groups have gotten caught up in this money game. I don’t mean that they’re trying to make money, but, if you’re trying to stage a national campaign to protect wilderness, the assumption is that you need a lot of money and a national campaign in order to accomplish it. I think some of the things that environmentalists have had to do, they try to rationalize by saying that the means justify the end. But I don’t think they do. I think sometimes the means are going to corrupt the end. For instance, by supporting what I feel like is really the urbanization of the rural West and by promoting tourism as this panacea for all the economic woes of rural towns, that if they’re successful with that, if the old economies of the rural West end and are replaced by economies such as the one that runs Moab now, if they ever do, for instance, in this state, get their Wilderness Bill, they’ll wonder what they even accomplished because it will be such a different place. It will be such a more crowded place. You may have preserved the resource but all these other aspects of the West and of wilderness that we’ve always thought were so important, the openness, the solitude, the silence, all these things are going to be lost. I think that would be a tragedy.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: He always believed in taking direct action. How would Abbey have responded to the growth in tourism?

STILES: That’s a tough one, isn’t it? Well, I don’t know if people can take action against tourists. I think tourists can only take action for themselves. There’s this belief that if you complain about tourism, then you’re a hypocrite because we were all tourists at one time. What you hear a lot is: “Oh, sure, now that you’re here, you don’t want anybody else to live here.” That’s a valid point, but one thing, especially nowadays where the rate of growth is so accelerated, you have to at least remind people that if fifty thousand of you who are living in big cities all think that the way to solve your problems is to move to Moab at the same time, then you will have created a whole new nightmare that you didn’t even realize could be invented when you got this idea. That’s what people at least have to think about, that sheer numbers of people moving into an area that’s short on resources in the first place is bound to have a profound effect on the way that land will be in the future.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Can you explain the difference between ecotage and ecoterrorism?

STILES: Just what he said. Ecotage was an attack against the creations of man, against machinery. Ecoterrorism was an assault on other people who had families and loved ones and friends. I don’t think he wanted to be a part of that. I think the fact that he realized that there were some really great people with families, who cared about a lot of things that he cared about, who were sitting behind D9 bulldozers or even running chainsaws, that he couldn’t be part of that kind of violence.

But he wasn’t afraid to make people angry. That’s another characteristic that I think is really missing these days. In so much of the writing I see by environmentalists these days, it’s almost a selective political-correctness. No one wants to get angry. Nobody wants to, other than the traditional targets—I mean, we don’t have a problem ruffling the feathers of someone that we’ve always perceived to be an adversary of the environment. But, in terms of saying something that might be unpopular, even to your friends, Abbey wasn’t afraid to do that. I think a lot of people are today and it’s a problem.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Do you think Abbey had any guilty feelings as he became more famous and was attracting more people here?

STILES: I don’t think he ever felt guilty. How can you feel guilty about writing Desert Solitaire? You also have to consider the time in which that was written. It was in 1968. Nobody even knew where southern Utah was. I don’t think in his wildest dreams he ever thought anything like this might happen. I will say this though, well, for instance, he told me not too long before he died that if there was one thing he could change in Desert Solitaire, it’s that he would have pulled that chapter out about the Maze because he always felt he shined way too much light on the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park and that he was responsible for the increase in use. It’s still lower than practically any other place out here because it’s so hard to get to.

The other thing he did, though, that I always thought was interesting, when he wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang, all the place names in that book were real, even the really remote Hidden Splendor Mine, Land of Standing Rocks, all these little places where Hayduke and Smith and the gang went. When he wrote Hayduke Lives! he had become so aware of the fact that there were all these idiots like me who were going around trying to find all the places that Hayduke and Smith went, that when it came to back country names, he made them all up. None of them are real places. So he was aware of that. He was definitely aware of the impact that he was having. He wasn’t about to start leading people into places that he didn’t want ruined.

 



Stiles

Jim Stiles

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