The Color of Moab

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There are some colors that can ignite your heart.

A mere glimpse of them can soften the accumulated crust on the surface of your soul; further contemplation can actually rekindle a flagging spirit.

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The sinfully rich reddish-orange of Moab’s desert landscape is this color for me.

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I’ve been to Moab, Utah many times in the last twenty years. In my previous life as an outdoor educator, I led river and canyon courses in the area, and as a former Idaho ski-town dweller, Moab was a standard biannual “mud-season” escape destination. Each and every time I’ve driven down Utah State Highway 191 from desolate I-70 towards this remote outpost, I’ve had my breath taken away by Moab’s color palette. No matter how many times I see this painting, I am still struck by it.

Almost all of Moab’s rock is sandstone; much of it Navajo sandstone. Geologists describe Navajo sandstone as “petrified sand dunes,” and a closer look at many walls will reveal curves and swirls that narrate countless episodes of ancient sand deposition. Because sandstone is quite porous, liquids can move through it. In the 190 million years that have passed since the deposition of these ancient dunes, water laden with dissolved minerals has altered the rock’s composition and caused the precipitation of iron oxides and other compounds. It is these chemical interactions that created the rich array of yellow, orange, red, and brown tones that characterize Moab’s amazing vistas.

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It turns out that this brilliantly colored rock, in addition to being visually arresting, makes a fabulous surface for mountain biking. Back in 1969, Moab residents laid out the now-infamous Slickrock Trail as a four-wheel drive (or “jeep”) trail, allowing daredevil drivers to test their skills by crawling up and down steep rock pitches in their winch-equipped vehicles. What people call “slickrock” is not really very slick at all (unless it’s wet). For the most part, it’s quite grippy, and rubber tires of any variety have substantial traction on it. Mountain bikers discovered this not long after mountain bikes were invented, and since then they’ve been making pilgrimages to this world-renowned, thirteen-mile-long, expert trail.

Moab’s not just about the Slickrock Trail anymore, however; the former Mormon uranium mining town has recast itself as the recreational hub of the Colorado Plateau region. Over the last twenty years, I’ve seen the both the jeep and mountain bike trail systems triple in size. The crowds seem to have done the same, not surprisingly, and the downtown area’s new Hilton hotel attests to the town’s shifting tourist base.

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I returned to Moab last week to ride my bike with two of my favorite biking buddies. We rode the Slickrock Trail, yes; but we also rode both new trails high above town that afforded incredible views of the region and older trails north of town that permitted peeks into the back side of Arches National Park. The trails are much better marked than they once were, with painted dashes on the rock marking their trajectories. There are also signpost-mounted, laminated maps at nearly every trail junction in nearly every trail system, making it possible to ride without ever purchasing a paper map. This was not the case twenty years ago, when my guidebook described certain adventures as “Moses rides” — because one might be found wandering lost and confused in the desert like the Biblical progenitor.

Despite all of those changes, Moab’s rock formations haven’t changed a bit. Nor have its views; nor has the the effect of the area’s natural beauty on my mood and mental space. I’m never sure if it’s the feeling of the grippy rock beneath my flip flops or the fact that I know I can, at any moment, spin in circles on a gigantic dance floor of sandstone that grounds me. I just know that Moab’s fantastical mounds of rusty rock center me and bring me incredible peace. And, when their color combines alchemically with the forest green piñon-juniper pointillism and the effervescent blue of the high desert sky, the resulting vision is the most soothing drug I’ve encountered.

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It’s just a color palette, and a free one, at that. Go figure.

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