Anyone who drives from the north into Moab first sees the entrance to Arches and then the town beyond the river. My childhood memories driving into the valley, especially at night and seeing the twinkling lights of Moab after miles of darkness, are still vivid with images of the mill. After making the turn through the Moab Fault and passing the great sand hill, there was the silvery water tower at Atlas, with a little red light glowing from atop a mushroom-shaped tank. My memories also see gray metal industrial buildings scattered about the property.
Though I never set foot inside the plant, I thought it curious that a number of my friend’s parents worked inside those corrugated metal structures. Years later, in the early ‘80s, I went onto the property with a friend who was hauling ore in a big Kenworth semi. I saw a variety of walled areas where trucks could dump different grades of ore, all in a neatly organized hardhat area that was seeing the last of its days.
My mind’s eye strains to see the old mill site, where there now is a diminishing tailings pile and lots of loose desert sand that has been churned up and flattened down by heavy equipment that is working to restore the area to some semblance of what it looked like before the Cold War. The radioactivity — the dangers that have sifted through those soils — is as impossible to see as the intangible tensions that created that war. But the danger is there, experts tell us, and that’s why it’s all getting moved.
It turns out that those metal buildings are still on the old mill site, and in the late ‘80s were cut up and buried when the facility was torn down. Even the old water tank was entombed there, which I wish could have been left standing as a relic of our commercial, economic and even social history.
But around here, even the natural structures in my mind’s eye are known to topple. In Arches National Park I remember Wall Arch, now collapsed. Prior to that, the miniature version of Balanced Rock, which used to sit like a puppy at the base of that popular feature, also fell down. And just last week, the capstone of the Cobra spire in Fisher Towers succumbed to the elements of water and wear. A number of rock slides have also occurred this summer, leaving pink, fresh sandstone rubble in places that had been coated in desert varnish.
Everything changes, and at the old tailings pile 44 percent of the waste has been moved from the 130-acre site. It has gone north by train to be buried in long-term cells under nine feet of dirt, to be capped with Mancos shale. Crescent Junction is its cemetery. That once bustling intersection decades ago was the home of a busy gas station, mechanic shop, cafe, justice of the peace and a number of residents, including my best friend’s family. It was my weekend playground, and I would often ride the school bus home with my buddy on Friday afternoons, not to return to my own home until Monday after school. We rode horses, drove old jeeps and explored the alkali desert. There are ghosts from my life there. And the ghosts of Atlas are going there too.
The lonely desert seems forsaken by the passage of time. The high-speed interstate passed Crescent Junction in the late ‘70s. The little hamlet faded, as did the uranium industry. And now, the semi-barren landscape has to receive the material remains of our imperfect history.
My mind seeks pictures of the old days and sights, but they are fading. It’s a good thing that the old tailings pile is being cleaned up and restored. Given a long, long amount of time, the impacts on the riverbank, where Atlas once stood, will fade too.