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Land's natural beauty preserved for all

I don't get around much, but last fall I found myself on main street in Moab, Utah.

Moviemakers discovered Moab in the 1950s. Nearby parks and the Colorado River drew tourists and adventures. Most recently, mountain bikers made the hard-rock plateaus surrounding this distance outpost a "must-ride."

It was the day before Thanksgiving, the last big weekend before the three-month winter snooze. Moab has a population nearing 5,000. It's the county seat of Grand County, which is four times the land mass of Kandiyohi County but with one-third the population.

Grand Junction, Colo., the nearest city, is 110 miles to the northeast. It's 235 miles from Salt Lake City, 350 from Denver and 460 from Las Vegas.

Yet, on this holiday that stresses family togetherness, the town is hopping. The shops are busy and the restaurants crowded. The streets are filled with jeeps with reinforced roll bars, pickups on oversized tires and trailers loaded down with dune-buggies and motorcycles. Perhaps, every fifth car carries a rack of mountain bikes.

I'm here with our daughter, Carmen, who lives on Colorado's eastern slope. We had hooked up at a rental car agency at Denver International and then drove over the Continental Divide in new snow.

Colleagues at work had told her of the amazing formations at Arches National Park, four miles north of Moab. She set aside her five-day Thanksgiving break to go. Thoughtfully, she asked her dad if he was interested in tagging along.

Others make the pilgrimage to rock climb, or probe deep into the slot canyons at sprawling Canyonlands National Park. In high water, rafting and kayaking is popular on the Colorado.

Of course, adventure doesn't come cheap. But one bargain we did find was the Apache Motel, a mile from downtown -- only $40 in the off season. In the small knotty-pine lobby hung black & white photos of Hollywood stars that came to Moab to make Westerns a half-century earlier. John Wayne stayed here; there's an autographed picture in front of his room to prove it.

Moab's association with Hollywood began in 1949. Directors, notably John Ford, had filmed in Monument Valley 120 miles to the south. Ford made four Westerns in Southeast Utah in the '40s, including "Stagecoach"

Moab was a sleepy little trading center for ranchers and uranium miners on a road to nowhere. But it had scenery -- did it ever.

Upon visiting nearby Professor Valley with its rusty buttes and 10-story towers along the Colorado, Ford gushed: "That's the greatest sight I've ever seen."

A Moab film committee formed to woo productions. Once glimpsed, the brilliant colors and shapes proved irresistible to filmmakers. In the 1950s and '60s Moab became a prime location for movie companies wanting the real deal over Hollywood back lots.

The glory days of the Western have passed. More recently, the road movie "Thelma and Louise" (1989) used the stunning backdrops outside Moab. And Steven Speilberg's camera crews filmed at Arches for early scenes in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1988). Ridley Scott, who directed "Thelma," is quoted: "I have seen more wonderful and varied scenery in a single day around Moab than any other day I have scouted."

The landscape is vast and mostly empty. Users of recreation and park lands are consistently reminded to respect the drought-resistant plants that take years to recover from a crushing footstep or tire.

We would make three separate visits to Arches. The first was during a heavy snowfall that made the dark-red pillars and monuments appear ghost-like. The other two trips were a mix of clouds and sunshine playing on the fins, spires and arches.

The traffic and crowds were light. There were visitors from many countries. Our motel manager tells us Germans lead the foreign tourist numbers.

Saturday I went riding on the famous Slickrock Bike Trail. It wasn't the bike's fault, but I fell immediately trying to scale a fold in the rolling rock. The bike stalled, slid backwards and I slammed to the rock on my rib cage. The pain and embarrassment at my ineptitude on this famous trail were about equal.

I timidly attacked the shorter two-mile trail for the next two hours. There were riders on $3,000 full-suspension bikes and pre-teens on low-end hard-tails (front suspension only).

It was spectacular up there on the hard rock. The 13,000-foot La Sal Mountains reared up to the east. It was blue sky and about 45 degrees.

By the time I finished the minor loop (the long loop is 12 miles and rated "Difficult"), the parking lot was filling up with cars and riders. There were also a few scramblers. Originally, this was a motorcycle trail. In 1969, riders painted white slashes on the buff-colored rocks to mark a trail still used today with the blessing of the Bureau of Land Management.

The slick rock is smooth but sometimes difficult with sharp descents, creases and steep climbs. Shoed horses found it hard going, hence the name. But rubber on the rock is like Velcro to flannel. It grips.

While I biked, Carmen drove back up the river valley toward Cisco and visited two wineries, one on the river and the other in Castle Valley, a settlement among high mesas.

We left early Sunday morning to make the six-hour trip to Denver. Soon enough, we'd moved from the high desert to watching snowboarders on either side of Interstate 70.

We had only made a hand-touch as far as seeing Utah's natural wonders, preserved and accessible because of a federal system of parks, monuments and recreation areas.

As the car climbed up Vail Pass, I kept thinking of the reddish panorama of the old frontier we'd left behind. I felt grateful that in a world of super-heated change, some things are there forever.