We blew into Moab in Utah on the back of a thunderstorm. Sand clouds billowed across the wide road in front of our car, and a ball of tumbleweed bounced away. Lightning streaked the dark skies above the high rose-orange cliffs.
The storm clouds had been gathering all afternoon as we drove carefully along the narrow road following a canyon bottom, listening to country songs on the radio. The roads were eerily deserted, except for one truck, completely encrusted in peach-coloured mud, driving away from town. A turgid river rolled along next to us, glinting as shafts of late afternoon light shone past the ominous clouds.
As we arrived the billboards welcomed us, rearing up from the desert and announcing pancakes for three dollars. In town the shop awnings rattled in the sudden wind and people took shelter. Mist sprayed from the outside of buildings, cooling passers-by and attempting to damp down the flying dust.
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It looked like a Wild West movie set, shaken up and repainted with modern chain-store signs, with one road through town and the red cliffs overshadowing everything.
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Our hostel was behind a storage depot on the outskirts. We jumped out of the car shielding our faces as the vicious wind blew stinging sand across our skin. We hurried inside the main building, an ancient wooden shack that looked like it had been built by a cowboy and sold to a hippie. A large metal lizard curved around the door frame.
Inside, a man with a biblical beard came to the reception desk. Another massively white-bearded man was cooking in the small kitchen. Our room was a small log cabin, hot and airless with a packed earth floor. The air-con rattled into life cooling the air but whirring like an aeroplane. The showers were walled with chipped and cracked mosaics.
The following evening one of the bearded men cooked hot-dogs on an outdoor grill. He spoke softly with a southern accent, offering us onions and refried beans. We sat on picnic benches in the warm evening air and drank low-alcohol beers with the other guests. One told us he was a hostel resident – living there because a series of medical bills had bankrupted him.
“Where are you off to next?” he asked us.
“Camping in Canyonlands,” we told him.
“Used to be a trip guide in Canyonlands,” he said. “We could be in the desert for three, four months at a time. Didn’t see anyone else out there. One time, my wife and I were camping, and she went up exploring. Came across a cave just 50 yards from where we’d been sleeping, and there was a mountain lion just lounging inside. Gotta be careful out there.”
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