Moab is a redrock R&R hot spot, but slow to grow

Famed recreation getaway trails the rest of Utah in population gain.
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New York-London-Tokyo-Paris-Moab.

It's just a bumper sticker, and it might be tongue in cheek, but a few folks out there - those who slap it on their Jeeps and kayaks - think Utah's desert playground is pretty cosmopolitan.

Cosmopolitan, maybe. Metropolitan maybe never.

Moab anchors Utah's 23rd-fastest-growing county, way behind such international unknowns as Millard and Beaver.

Yet Jeep enthusiasts by the tens of thousands drive to Moab every Easter to grind rubber on rock, and even more Germans follow them in summer to taste the dry essence of Western Americana. The place has its postcard photographers, its wondrous redrock arches, its renowned fat-tire biking trails -- just not the scads of settlers whom the rest of Utah is absorbing.

"I've now 'seen it all,' and when I retire in five years, I'm going to the most beautiful and awe-inspiring place in the USA," one visitor posted to a Moab tourism Web site.

So why don't more folks actually move here?

Grand County, dominated by Moab, is inching along at a 1 percent yearly population gain and will average that for the next half-century, the Utah Population Estimates Committee predicts. That's roughly half the state's overall growth rate. It's less than half the rate of Kane, another southern Utah county with Western movie looks and film credits. It's a third the rate around Utah's other global recreation name brand, the Olympic-tested ski slopes of Park City.

In 2060, when state demographers predict Utah will be bursting with 6.8 million people, Grand County still will have fewer than 16,000 locals. Right now there are 9,000, and more than half live in Moab. Only recently has it climbed back to the historic high of the 1960s uranium-mining boom.

Island Moab

Moab is isolated. The same sandstone labyrinth that beckons modern explorers also buffers Main Street's espressos and curios from greater civilization. It's more than an hour's drive to the nearest retail hub in Grand Junction, Colo., and Salt Lake City is 235 miles off across mostly two-lane roads. The work force follows the summer visitors who bike the slickrock trails, raft the whitewater or just marvel at the wind-carved rock windows -- and then leave town. Residents who aren't independently wealthy must sop up their incomes seasonally the way a prickly pear stores its share of a desert monsoon.

"You'd better have something else lined up for the rest of the year," University of Utah demographer Pamela Perlich said, "or you won't be living there the rest of the year." And you had better like isolation, she said.

That's the starkly beautiful life Steve Goodwin pictured when he abandoned Baltimore: scrimp, save, savor. He is one of the few compliant with the desert's demands for fulfilling a dream here.

The 53-year-old former rock-music sound technician was selling furniture in Maryland when the canyons beckoned. It was spring 1996, and he wanted to explore. He knew the store would hire him back when he returned. He loaded the van with camping gear and headed to the canyons. Then he did it again, and again, for 10 years.

"Every time I'd go back I'd see the gray haze over Baltimore in the distance and I'd say, 'Why the hell am I doing this?' " he remembered over coffee in his double-wide Moab mobile home on a recent morning.

He saved his money, bought his new house with cash and dropped it on a rental lot in a cozy mobile-home park whose 250 units, he figures, house 15 percent of Moab's residents. They're the working people who tend the city's motel bedsheets, teach its kids, or, like him, guide Hummer-loads of its tourists across the desert.

Behind his home, where he has planted a flowering pear tree and a pink catalpha, he can sit and ponder the rugged orange Moab Rim, which paints the city's southwest edge.

The rocks aren't out of sight indoors, either. On the white wall at one end of his dining room is a framed black-and-white poster of clustered formations in nearby Arches National Park. A color snapshot from the same vantage point is tucked into the frame's lower-left corner.

Goodwin cleaned toilets in 2006. Last year he landed a job as tour guide, where he is in his second season. He makes $15,000 to $20,000 a year, and his expenses -- thanks to his lack of a mortgage -- are $400 a month. He has no health insurance.

He has fun. On the trail, he teases his clients about the steep rock faces they soon will be lurching over at impossible angles. "Haven't lost one yet, this season," he tells them as the vehicle approaches an axle-narrow rock passage across a sandstone mound. The ride is a thrill for him and obviously for them. One tourist soiled her pants last season.

Goodwin plays the role of lanky Western rambler in blue jeans, work boots, a flannel shirt and a wide-brimmed straw hat that he straps under his short gray beard when the wind whips up.

"The Europeans go, 'Oh, we get picture with you, John Wayne!" he said. "Little do they know I'm just a schmo from Baltimore."

He saves what he can each month; he will be temporarily unemployed in September.

"I don't need a new TV. I don't want that anymore. I want this, and I'm willing to pay the price to get it."

Labor pains

It is not an easy life, especially for those further down the service-industry food chain.

Holly Dinsmore sees them year-round, the working poor who browse for jeans, silverware or shoes in the nonprofit Wabi Sabi thrift shop she manages. But she really gets to know them in January.

Every winter Wabi Sabi (the Japanese name means elegant imperfection) offers free Sunday brunch. It's a little favor to the restaurant and hotel workers who are waiting for their seasonal paychecks to resume, and there's a big turnout. The largest this year was 201.

The hot topic for brunchers all winter was the perceived threat -- since cooled by official assurances that it isn't so -- from a city zoning change that could allow more upscale development to displace a mobile-home park.

"I feel really bad," Dinsmore said. "A lot of people move here with the intention of making this their home, and they leave because they can't find anything they can afford." Dinsmore would be bolting with them, she said, if she and her late husband hadn't bought more than a dozen years ago, before prices escalated.

In recent years Grand County has added 100 to 170 new homes each year. The average value per residential permit shot up from $126,000 to $152,000 in 2007 alone, according to a Utah Department of Workforce Services economic profile. The average monthly wage during last year's third quarter - the high season - was $2,156, or about $26,000 for those lucky enough to hold their jobs all year.

Chris Payne grew up here, but can't afford to live here. He still works in Moab, doing odd construction jobs at $12 an hour for the owners of Eddie McStiff's Plaza, a strip mall that houses the popular brew pub. Last month, he was painting the base of the restaurant's neon flying-waiter sign. It's good hourly pay for here, he said.

"Anything over 10 bucks, wow. And if it's under the table, great."

But he bought a house a half-hour away in La Sal, for $62,000. He has taken in a co-worker and is able to save $150 a month for the lean winters.

There aren't a lot of opportunities for career changes here, especially because he's not college-educated. But he enjoys the work and helping to spruce up his hometown.

"I could be working in a restaurant - I speak Spanish and everything - but I don't have the want for being inside," Payne said while leaning on the tailgate of his Chevy Colorado pickup, its bed carrying tools and paint cans. "I'd rather have my nose red, and not take orders from people."

The un-Utah

Besides Moab's seasonally slim job pickings, U. demographer Perlich said, the area's unique family structure helps suppress growth.

Unique to Utah, she means, because Moab looks a tad more like the nation than most Utah towns. Its largest population segment is the baby boomers, who are now in their later working years. Younger adults have left town, perhaps looking for city careers. Grand County's average age, in the late 30s, is consistently a decade older than the state's.

In most of Utah, by comparison, the Mormon tendency of large families keeps the population young, Perlich said. Grand County is Utah's least-Mormon, at 26 percent.

There is reason to be bullish on Moab's future growth, though. For once, the gains in the former boom-and-bust outpost appear to be real and sustainable, which wasn't the case during the uranium boom. Grand County muddled along with about 2,000 inhabitants through the 1940s and early ' 50s before doubling. The population doubled again in the early '60s. In the late '60s, the county contracted by a couple of thousand, and mostly slumbered along until the recreation economy took off around 1990.

Since then, Moab has grown slowly, but more surely.

"I don't expect another bust," Perlich said.

Others expect accelerated growth despite the isolation. In its annual "State of the Rockies" report this spring, a team of Colorado College researchers ranked Moab sixth among the region's top 50 rural-recreation economies - recreation accounting for 41 percent of the economic activity here.

Moab "has transitioned from beginnings in mining to being basically the biggest identifier of recreation in the West," said Porter Friedman, a student researcher who wrote the section about such economies. "As a mountain biker myself, I know it's considered just the coolest place to be."

That lure will make Moab thrive, Friedman said. Since 1970, the Colorado College team found, the top 50 Western recreation communities have grown a combined 144 percent. Rural-resource economies, such as mining and logging towns, have grown 102 percent.

"It means there's a ton of potential," he said.

For now, though, the solitude seekers here still can retreat from Utah's population surge.