Sandpoint’s secret sister: Moab, Utah

By Tim Henney
Reader Contributor

Not every Reader reader knows that Nelson, B.C., is Sandpoint’s sister city. Or that Yalta, Crimea, where FDR, Churchill and Stalin divided up the post-war world in 1945, is the sister city of Santa Barbara, Calif.

Sandpoint native Sammy McCabe, among others, lives there. In Santa Barbara, not Yalta. Hardly anyone knows that Glendale, Calif., in a display of linguistic gamesmanship, chose Higashiosaka, Japan as its sister city. Even fewer probably know that Boring, Oregon has a sister city in Scotland named Dull. Both towns celebrate “Boring And Dull Day” every Aug. 9. Tourists are few. And no one, until now, knows about Sandpoint’s secret sister city.

My 1957 bride and I sometimes spend winters in the high desert of Moab, Utah. A four-hour drive south from Salt Lake City, Moab has about the same number of citizens as Sandpoint. In their abundance of music, art, community spirit, friendliness and singular beauty, the towns share DNA. Add cactus, sagebrush and orange Navajo sandstone mountains to Sandpoint and you’ve got Moab. Add evergreen forests and a ski mountain to Moab and eureka! Twin towns! Unlike such posh western watering holes as Aspen, Park City, Sun Valley, Santa Fe, Vail or Jackson Hole, Sandpoint and Moab are workingman and workingwoman towns. Both have sprinklings of financial heavy hitters, celebs and comfortable retirees. However, even though it might insult some inflated egos to say so, both feel more like Fords than Ferraris. That’s good.

Whereas we have stunning Lake Pend Orielle, Moab has Arches National Park and the Colorado River. Whereas we have the Panida Theater, Moab has Star Hall, presenting Panida-style entertainment to the same interchangeable, casually-clothed crowds. Both towns have popular organic food specialty stores and recycling programs. Moab has an active Sierra Club chapter. I hiked with them once. They walked so fast I had to lie down, gasping, right on the trail. Resolute club members leaped over me, one after the other, and marched on. They thought I was road kill. Sandpoint lacks a Sierra Club but we have hikers like Susan and John Harbuck, Mary Franzel, Jill Trick, Jim and Sandy Mellen and Celeste and Eric Grace. They don’t even huff and puff when they climb to the top of Scotchman or Savage. Conquering high peaks is a walk in the park.

The towns do differ, though. Sandpoint has more dump trucks and more pickups. Probably more pickups than anywhere on the planet. And we are more obsessed with guns. This is especially obvious in the growing number of clearly insecure scaredycats carrying pistols, cowpoke-style, on their hips. What’s that all about? “I’m a mean, tough, frightened, creepy dude, so watch it.” Really? To the rest of us these Bonnie and Clyde wannabes inspire curiosity and pity, not fear.

Sandpoint has more people grousing in our newspapers about big government lousing up our lives (but keep those subsidies, government pensions, Medicare and Social Security checks coming). Moab has at least as many dogs as people. The Barkery is a busy, venerable downtown Moab store devoted to dogs and their owners. Sandpoint has dog beach and water bowls on our sidewalks. But our dog park is tucked away in Ponderay off Kootanai cutoff, and to this observer, usually empty. Moab’s version occupies half a city block on a popular trail along a creek right through the heart of town. It’s a social hub. Our no-kill Ponderay animal shelter is vastly bigger and busier than Moab’s (thanks, volunteers and financiers). Moab is an authentic dog town. Sandpoint is making progress in that direction (thanks, Drake).

Moab has a multi-story youth center. And an indoor/outdoor public swimming complex with Olympic-size pools. Adjoining it is a modern gymnasium loaded with exercise equipment. All free to residents. Sandpoint has picture-perfect City Beach and the welcoming Long Bridge. Our library is undoubtedly the world’s finest, although Moab’s is no slouch. And our school system is better, if less diversified in its student body. Many Moab students are native American. The great Navajo Nation is 100 miles south, across the shallow San Juan River. When tribal members leave “the rez” to seek their fortunes in the big city, they head north to Moab.

The muddy Colorado, locally famed for whitewater rafting, is that desert town’s equivalent to our boating and swimming in clear, clean lake water. Mineral Point. Whiskey Rock. Bayview’s secluded Buttonhook Bay. Moab boosters call their river The Mighty Colorado, but it isn’t anymore. Compared to the Mississippi, Missouri or Columbia, it’s a tributary. A dammed up shell of its former self. Our Pack River on steroids.

Both Moab and Sandpoint are bicycle towns. But Moab wouldn’t dream of sponsoring a 150-mile bike race over dangerous highways no matter how much it earns for charity. Years ago Moab started building hundreds of miles of off-highway and slickrock mountain hiking and biking trails. No motors. Today bikers from all over the world ride and race in Moab’s scenic safety. Seldom is there a need to “share the road” with speeding trucks and sometimes pissed-off “brush by” drivers who consider bike riders sissies in spandex.

Sandpoint has almost as many thrift stores as speedboats. Moab has three thrift stores, two named Wabi Sabi. Why the founders wanted to sound like a sushi restaurant I haven’t a clue. National name motels are everywhere, but the finest, the Gonzo Inn, is locally owned and operated. Years ago Moab voted not to allow Walmart to pollute its soul. No big box stores. Family-owned and managed downtown businesses give an old-fashioned, less frenzied feeling to browsing and shopping. The city’s small-store environment is more comfortable than Ponderay’s Southern California-mimicked urban sprawl.

Politically, Sandpoint and Moab are kissin’ cousins, if not official sisters. Grand County, of which Moab is the heart, was one of two Utah counties that voted for Obama over Mitt Romney for President. The other was Summit County, of which well-heeled Park City is the core (one of Mitt’s mansions is  there). Like Park City, Moab is in Utah but not of Utah. Both are culturally far ahead of that pedantic, insular and geographically dazzling state.

Some fans flock to Moab for an annual gathering of gearheads called Jeep Safari. This is a 10-day soiree of monster, rock-climbing vehicles. Belching, snarling and stinking of gas and oil, they crawl about the pristine mountains and valleys like an army of giant centipedes. This is the noisiest of Moab’s countless athletic outings.

When Safari starts in April, many locals hide in their houses. Some head south to Arizona or over to Telluride or Durango, Colo. They emerge again in downtown Moab’s cozy restaurants and along stream-side trails only after the oily revelers have roared away. Chamber of Commerce cheerleaders embrace Jeep Safari because it brings big bucks. Less entrepreneurial guests prefer our waterfalls, pinon pines and petroglyphs undisturbed, rather than swarming with groaning veterans of a truck demolition derby. Moreover, thousands of hikers and bikers spend way more than the jeep revelers do.

On the downside (the upside for Schweitzer-ites), Sandpoint has much more winter snow and many more gray skies than Moab. Ah, but Moab has sweltering, Phoenix-type summer heat. Both towns are addictive and exhilarating. Nothing at all like Boring, Ore., or Dull, Scotland. Both of which are probably outstanding places—but whose names are anti-magnetic at best.

My 1957 bride and I love living here. But when the frost is on the pumpkin, Moab’s bright skies beckon. Like so much of life, the trick is in the timing. And being retired.

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