A Hydra with Many Heads: One of the toughest local papers in the West perseveres against change

By on January 4, 2018

Change.  What a concept.  It is a hydra with many heads.

Change is inevitable; it happens to us whether we are prepared for it or not;  it is necessary; it must occur or communities wither;  change is the agent whereby we destroy the old, sick and dying, and make way for the young, virile, and living.

At least, this is the rationale we are given by people who benefit most from ignoring history or pretending it never existed.

No one has articulated the sense of irreverence and ambivalence about the changing West more publicly than Jim Stiles, founder, publisher, and agitator in chief of the Canyon Country Zephyr, the little contrarian newspaper in Moab, Utah.

Many Greater Yellowstoneans know the Zephyr well and can relate to Stiles’ belief that change holds little value if its agenda is erasing the memory of the past in order to avoid feelings of guilt. Over the years, Stiles has been fearless in his writing, much the way that his late friend and Moab resident Edward Abbey was.

If you were lucky enough in your spring pilgrimage to the slickrock desert a decade ago, you would’ve found one of the last hard copies of the Zephyr available. The February/March 2009 issue featured a rat on the cover.

It was a vestige of lost resistance to change that came, conquered and transformed a town that is a lot like ours.

You must understand, first of all, that Stiles, a transplanted Kentuckian, is a curmudgeon by choice, capitalist by necessity, and an environmental redneck by nature.  He has little use for the term “New West” and considers it a meaningless adjective used to justify changes wrought by newcomers.

Nearly 30 years ago when the Zephyr was born, it coughed in the face of newcomer inundation and was never sheepish about challenging the attitudes of local developers who, in one breath, cursed the arrival of outsiders while offering to sell them empty lots.

Stiles liked to point out how immigrants like to state good intentions but then set out to construct trophy homes on some of the most beloved vistas and then, when the locals doth protest, pretend not to know better.

“It wasn’t that I thought The Zephyr could make a difference—instead, it was that I believed my fellow citizens and I, working toward a common dream, could create a community that did not look like all the other ‘progressive’ New West towns,” Stiles explained in his final editorial on paper. Fortunately, the Zephyr still lives online and is well worth supporting. (http://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com).

“I saw a chance to meld the old and the new. I hoped we could preserve and honor Moab’s history and pioneer culture while maintaining a community that respected all kinds of lifestyles. I wanted Moab to be a community of homes, not property investments. I thought the riches we already possessed were worth more than double digit growth and a booming real estate market.”

Upon reflection, he confesses:  “It was a foolish notion, but what is the point of living without foolish notions? And for a while, Moabites did pursue their visions in ways today’s residents can only…well…dream.”

A former ranger with the National Park Service, Stiles became friends with Abbey, patron saint to many dirtbag environmentalists.  Stiles, however, enjoyed pointing out that what many young greenies fail to recognize is that 1. Abbey himself was no saint and never claimed to be; and 2. Abbey would no doubt be chagrining at the antics of self-styled athletic hedonists who disparage overgrazing by cattle yet see nothing wrong with tearing across the red sandstone landforms outside of Moab, leaving scars on the surface with their studded fat tires.

All Stiles wanted to do was stoke the fires of discontent and make us all squirm once in a while by poking us in the eye of our personal egos.

Some newspapers rise and fall without ever standing for anything.  That will never be the Zephyr’s epitaph.

If there’s coyote irony, it’s that the Zephyr refused to go away, despite its mocking tone about the accoutrements of New West living. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Read it the Zephyr; it will make you think. PJH

Todd Wilkinson, editor of mountainjournal.org, is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek (mangelsen.com/grizzly) about famous Jackson Hole Grizzly, 399 featuring 150 pictures by renowned local wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen.

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About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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