When I was 22 years old, I had a brief fling with the town of Moab, Utah. I was fresh out of college and looking to try on the lifestyle of a climbing bum for a while. So when the local newspaper editor told me she had work for me, I packed up my Subaru and moved there sight unseen, settling into a ratty apartment just off Main Street.
It was still winter, and when I woke up on my first morning, a late sunrise was lighting up the sandstone cliffs across the valley from my front door, washing them in bright orange and pink. I was a kid who had grown up entirely east of the Mississippi, and as the day broke over the red rock, I felt like I had stepped onto another planet.
Within a few weeks, I found a routine. The paper went to press on Monday; I’d work through the weekend, and then go exploring. My first hike was Grandstaff Canyon, a 2-mile trail that wends along an unassuming tributary stream of the Colorado before abruptly dead-ending at massive Morning Glory Arch, a 243-foot-long formation that looks like it was sawn from the rock face next to it. In Moab, I quickly discovered, the wilderness was everywhere once you left the bubble of town, a maze of sandstone canyons, mesas and soaring towers that spread for miles in every direction.
A friend once told me that we only remember the good parts of being young and in love, and my highs in those days were monumental. I climbed Castleton Tower with a guy I had just met days before and watched storm clouds gather and spill over the mesas hundreds of feet below. I hiked through deserted box canyons where only my own footprints marred the sand, stopping to watch fat tadpoles swim around pools in the rock. In between, I haunted Big Bend, a local bouldering area along the Colorado River that’s as close as the town has to a climbing gym, tooling around on black-varnished faces while locals and the occasional pro climber drifted in and out.
Like any good love affair, my time in Moab ended before I was ready for it to. A few months after I arrived, a magazine in New Mexico offered me a dream job, complete with a steady salary and benefits. If I was tempted to turn it down, my finances made the decision for me. I packed up my belongings and my new cat and headed southeast to Santa Fe.
I’ve been back to Moab since I left, and every time, I do the same thing: I wake up early, open my tent flap, and watch the sun rise over the sandstone cliffs. You never forget your first love, I guess, even when it didn’t work out.