“Change, loss and a stubborn love of place”
By Katie Klingsporn, Associate Editor May 23, 2008
The Daily Planet
-Ed Abbey said, “It’s not the writer’s task to answer questions, but to question answers. To be impertinent, insolent, and, if necessary, subversive.”
Jim Stiles has done all that, many times over. He’s also been humorous, irreverent, rabble-rousing and downright cranky.
And in Moab, Utah, where he’s been the one-man force behind the Canyon County Zephyr for nearly 20 years, his fierce attacks of everything from real estate development to cattle ranching, mountain biking, off-road vehicle use and oil and gas have earned him admirers and enemies alike.
But whether you like him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Stiles is a true Western individualist, one whose stubborn connection with the land kept him plugging along, through even the most vicious squalls of criticism and pain, to rail against what he sees as devastating changes in the West.
“He’s hugely dismayed about what’s happening in the West, and he has real reason to be,” festival director David Holbrooke said. “To me, Jim Stiles is a really smart and prescient chronicler of the West.”
“Brave New West” is a portrait of Stiles, curmudgeon, writer, hermit, artist and obstinate fighter for open spaces.
But the movie transcends the story of Stiles, and at its heart, it’s about the devastation of loss and irreversible change, about finding kinship in this big strange world and about gathering the strength to do what you think is important even when discouragement is everywhere.
“Change of all kinds is a theme that runs through the film,” said director/producer Doug Hawes-Davis.
BRAVE NEW WEST, by High Plains Films, will show on Saturday at 5:15 p.m. at High Camp, and again Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Masons Theater. Hawes-Davis will be there to answer questions after the screenings.
Stiles was born in Kentucky, but was engaged in a full-on love affair with the West by the time he was a young man. He moved to Utah as a fresh-faced Abbey fanatic in 1975, and took a job as a park ranger.
Stiles ended up tracking down Abbey to give him a drawing of a bomb-obliterated Glen Canyon Dam, and the two became friends (Stiles went on to illustrate many of Abbey’s works). And as that friendship evolved, Stiles forged connections with other colorful (and sometimes crusty) desert characters.
In the late ‘80s, Stiles decided to start the Zephyr. It first went to print in 1989, and over the decades has become a distinct voice of the West humorous, sharp, and always provocative.
It is filled with the writings of guest columnists and rants from Stiles, of historical pictures (gems taken by his friend Herb Ringer) and, most notably, the art of Stiles, who does all the illustrations for his covers, ads and stories.
In the film, Stiles still puts paper together the old-fashioned way, with an exacto knife and wax paper.
“I think the more complicated life becomes, the more unpleasant it is,” he explains. But the work is hard, sometimes thankless and often criticized.
And toward the end of the movie, you can see that Stiles is growing weary, conflicted and is deeply troubled about the unstoppable juggernaut of change, which has turned a new corner in Moab, which now markets amenities and beauty to fuel the economy. Stiles explains that for a long time with the Zephyr, he was earnestly clinging to the past, a simpler time when people had deeper relationships with the land.
“But now, I think the paper’s just more of a chronicle of what’s happening and how it has changed,” he says. “Ultimately, for me at least, it’s a way to find kindred spirits in this world, which are becoming fewer and farther between.”
The movie came out last fall. And this spring, Stiles, who has moved to Monticello, penned a letter announcing his intention to shut down the Zephyr.
He cited the business struggles of running a one-man show and his increasing difficulties in functioning in Moab’s new, tourist-driven economy.
“I know there are many fellow Westerners who share my worries and fears,” he wrote. “They are the kindred spirits that have sustained me for so long. But I’ve done this paper alone for two decades and I just don’t have the strength to start over again in such a way.”
As BRAVE NEW WEST tells the story of Stiles, the film also chronicles the heartbreaking history of human-caused change in the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau.
Through old footage a mix of archived material and incredible footage shot in the ‘50s by a father of Stiles’ friend and stories of the people who lived it (including Ken Sleight, who was the basis of Abbey’s lovable Seldom Seen Slim) we see idyllic boat trips down the Glen Canyon, a true paradise on earth. We see open spaces lovely in their emptiness, those lone early explorers of the wild and untrammeled desertscapes.
Extractions industries, roads, mining, dams and grazing have altered the face of the land. But also guilty are those people, drawn by the mystique and beauty of the West, who have arrived and fueled the construction of pavement and buildings, housing developments, filling stations and tourist attractions.
Many in Telluride, myself included, see Moab as a weekend paradise, where you go shake off the winter blues with beautiful single-track trails, climbing routes and treks in that gloriously sunbathed sandstone landscape under the La Sals.
And, if you are like me, this movie can’t help but change how you feel about Moab, a town that was once a quiet town on the Colorado River, but is now into an international destination crawling with tourists.
As Stiles puts it, people head to Moab seeking adventure, solitude and wilderness. He did it himself, back when.
“When it’s a religious experience I completely understand,” Stiles says in the film. “But you do have to realistically address the fact that when hundreds of thousands or millions of people all go to the same place to find solitude, they’re not going to find it, eventually.
“And now, it’s down to the point where you’re marketing the beauty of the land itself, as if we’re moving into this last phase in this total taming of the west where it’s actually the people who claim to love it the most who are ultimately going to ruin it completely.”