- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

BOULDER, Utah

I used my best drugstore-cowboy amble to approach the real-life cowboy seated in front of the Hills & Hollows General Store.

After asking how far it was to Boulder, I underwent a head-to-foot scan that seemed to go on forever. Finally, the lanky local replied in a thick drawl, “Ya just came through it.”

Glancing back at the tiny gathering of mostly ramshackle buildings and fenced fields of horses I had just passed, I felt my heart do a little dance at yet another introduction to a real piece of Americana.

A concise description of Boulder was offered by the desk clerk at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, where I spent the night. I asked her to tell me a bit about the town. She paused, rolled her eyes, and replied, “What town?”

The cares of Washington’s world of wars, terrorists and politics seemed far away. The folks I met in southern Utah focus on really important things that affect their everyday lives. They check on the rising cost of leasing grazing land for cattle, worry about whether the several-year drought has broken and wonder how much business they’ll get from visitors to the five national parks strung across the region like dazzling jewels in a necklace.

The tiny towns sprinkled across southern Utah warrant a stop even without the nearby national parks. A brief or even longer stay provides an introduction to a way of life that in many ways is like a time capsule from the past.

It’s easy to drive through Boulder before you know you have arrived. Estimates from people in town put the population at about 200. A billboard at the Anasazi State Park Museum says “about 250.” My Official Highway Map from the Utah Department of Transportation lists the “estimated population” at 141, and that includes people who reside in about a 20-square-mile area.

Whatever the number, when you’re in Boulder, you know you’re not in Kansas or Washington or anywhere else. Located about halfway between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national parks, Boulder is one of the most remote towns in the continental United States, and folks there take pride in that.

I was told more than once that Boulder was the last town in the country to have its mail delivered by vehicle rather than mule and one of the last to be provided with electricity and telephone service — in the 1940s.

One reason to make a detour to Boulder is the Anasazi State Park Museum, built at the site of an Indian village that was occupied during the 12th century.

This little gem of a museum contains interactive exhibits, models of pueblos and other abodes and collections of artifacts uncovered there.

In back is the village site where the life of the Anasazi is demonstrated at several excavated structures, among more than 100 that have been identified, and in a full-scale, six-room replica of a pueblo room block.

Torrey, just outside Capitol Reef National Park, is about the same size as Boulder. It also has become home to ranchers, farmers and others who discovered their dream corner of the country and stayed. Resident Jerome West explained why he likes Torrey: “If you can’t make a U-turn in the middle of town, there are too many cars.”

Even so, Torrey has a somewhat less rural, slightly more sophisticated feeling. In part, that’s because of several galleries that exhibit works by Utah artists, some of them well-known. Despite its unimaginative name, the tiny Torrey Gallery features an imaginative display of paintings, kinetic outdoor sculpture, and antique and contemporary Navajo rugs.

Springdale, which hugs the southern entrance into Zion National Park, isn’t much larger than Torrey and Boulder but feels slightly larger. Zion Park Boulevard, its main (and almost only) street, is wedged tightly between towering red-rock cliffs. It is lined by restaurants, galleries, craft shops and outdoor outfitters. In this eclectic setting, Panda Garden — the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant — is the neighbor of the Westwind Indian Village gift shop and the Pioneer Lodge.

I decided to check out what at home would be morning rush hour, driving slowly along the main street through town: perhaps a dozen cars, several people pedaling bikes, a truckload of cows, and one young girl riding a pony. This is life in the pleasantly slow lane.

Things are somewhat more lively in Moab, the perfect launching spot for touring Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

The town has a varied history, including establishment as a Mormon settlement in the 19th century and development into a fruit-growing center and a uranium boomtown during the 1950s. Several popular John Wayne Westerns and other movies were filmed around Moab, which gives some visitors a sense of deja vu when they arrive.

As uranium mining petered out, a few locals decided to rent bicycles and offer guided tours, and tourism took over.

That led to the realization that the parklands and other nearby terrain also are ideal for four-wheel vehicles. Today, Moab is a mecca for mountain bikers and is widely recognized as the “four-wheel capital of the world.”

Some residents complain that tourism has trashed the town — the term “Aspenized” has been used. Other locals have taken advantage of the trend.

Bike shops, adventure outfitters and restaurants abound.

Even so, like other southern Utah towns, Moab retains much of its character.

Streets are shared by seniors and toddlers, families with young children and tattooed youths. Among ads displayed recently on the billboard outside Eddie McStiff’s microbrewery were announcements about American tribal belly dancing, ecological living weekends and a meeting of the Citizens for Peace & Global Awareness.

The atmosphere of acceptance between the strong Mormon influence that pervades much of Utah and more touristy areas far from Salt Lake City is exemplified near the bar at Zak’s.

A sign hanging on the wall urges customers to enjoy a “Polygamy Porter,” with the slogan “Why have just one?”

After a day of enjoying truly awe-inspiring works of nature, the opportunity to kick back and relax in such a fun and funky atmosphere adds to the pleasure of a trip to the area.

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