Mileposts Episode 1: Celebrate with a Milkshake

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“Sometimes, when I’m hiking somewhere near Moab and chatting with other people, I think about saying something like, ‘You know what’s great about this hike? In about 75-minutes, you can be at Milt’s Stop & Eat’,” says Brendan Leonard. “Milt’s is a 19-mile drive from Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, it’s 55-miles from Indian Creek and 75-miles to Canyonlands’ towering red and white striped sandstone needles. I mean, when you think about it, it’s kind of the nucleus of all that rad stuff.”

In the first episode of our Mileposts series, we explore the National Parks around Moab, Utah–and celebrate with a milkshake.

Transcript

Intro By: Fitz Cahall

Hey there. We’re going to start with a little word association game today. I’ll say something, and then think of the first few things that pop in your mind. Okay, ready, set, go.

Yosemite. Okay, what did you think of? I thought of a few things. First I thought of the view of El Cap as you enter the park. I always do. If you’re coming from the south, you pop out of the tunnel, and boom, it’s right there in front of you. You blink because it’s been dark in the tunnel, and then all of a sudden, it’s light, and then poof, El Cap is right there in all its glory, and I remember that so clearly when I was 19 years old, so clearly, and it’s pretty cool. A lot of people have had that exact same experience, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a climber, you feel something, and we all share that across our community, which is rad.

Maybe you said something else. Maybe you thought of Camp 4, the legendary climbers campground, or the mobile station and its fish tacos just outside the park. I bet when it comes to national parks and road trips, we all have the places we know others should visit or experience, and also that we need to go visit these places if we haven’t already.

We thought we’d do a series called Mileposts about these key nodes of dirtbagdom that exist like mileposts in our journeys both across our country and through our lives. Could we find stories about places, parks, and peoples, and could they intersect to create really cool stories, so we did. This year, along with our regular episodes and shorts, we are going to add in a new series we called simply Mileposts, all about these places and the people that momentarily inhabit them, and we thought, who better to start off with contributing editor Brendan Leonard.

Welcome to Mileposts. Let’s celebrate with a milkshake. You are listening to the Dirtbag Diaries.

Story by Brendan Leonard

My foodie friends sometimes talk about banh mi or the kale salad at the new trendy place in town, or exquisitely crafted sushi rolls somewhere. I nod like I’m listening to them, and I think about tater tots, a huge basket, the kind you’re supposed to split with one to three other people, but I unashamedly take down myself with fry sauce. Keep your hands away from my mouth, please.

In 2013, I put 29,000 miles on my van traveling the American West. I had this problem. I couldn’t drive by a diner anywhere without stopping to try it. Admittedly, I’ve eaten at a lot of not so wonderful diners, places where things haven’t changed at all since 1950 in a bad way. I’ve eaten at ’50s diners with uninspired milkshakes, places whose chief attribute is massive portions of bland food. I’m slightly ashamed to say I’ve patronized at least one alien-themed diner in Arizona.

I’ve also eaten at many wonderful diners, pieces of American road trip lore, throwbacks in a good way, counter service, sometimes juke boxes, waitresses who call you Hon, squeezable ketchup bottles that emit that thin laser beam stream onto your hash browns, crinkle-cut French fries, milkshakes, guys who have sat at the counter to drink coffee every morning five days a week for the last decade, people who order the usual, but there’s only one diner I’ve detoured 32 miles out of my way off the freeway to patronize. Milt’s.

Moab, Utah sits in the middle of two national parks, 31 miles northeast of Canyonlands, 6 miles south of Arches. This is Edward Abbey country, a landscape where you half expect to see Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner dart in front of your car. Both parks are wildly popular, and once you wander off the beaten path, wildly remote, and right in the center of it all is Milt’s. That’s what really makes Milt’s so special. No other place has solitude and fry sauce so close together.

In the spring of 1954, Milt Galbraith drove out from Moab, Utah with a friend from Burlington, Iowa to camp along the Colorado River. The next day, he woke up, saw the now famous Canyon country, and he called his wife, Audrey, to tell her he’d found their new home. It was the early days of Moab’s uranium boom, high times in the desert. Ed Abbey hadn’t yet moved to town to take a ranger job at what was then Arches National Monument. Castleton Tower had never been climbed, “Desert Solitaire” hadn’t been published, and no climber had ever heard of Indian Creek.

Milt opened the doors of Milt’s Stop & Eat on Moab’s Main Street on Labor Day, 1954, six months after he had first visited Moab. He built a loyal local customer base and weathered changes. In 1961, Main Street, Highway 160, moved four blocks east. Milt’s stayed right where it was. The potash mill construction northwest of town stopped, and Milt’s hung on. Milt’s survived the eventual bust after the uranium boom.

The current owner of Milt’s, B.C. Laprade, is a former executive chef with Alfalfa’s and Whole Foods, and has taken the food up a notch without messing with the classic menu. Grass fed hormone-free burgers and natural buffalo burgers, hand-cut French fries, homemade ice cream using milk from Swiss brown cows from a local dairy, and locally grown vegetables in season. I know this because I flipped through the scrapbook on the counter and reveled in the six decades of history in it. I’ve interviewed the owner, B.C., about the business. I own a Milt’s T-shirt.

Plenty of restaurants serve good food, but not many have character and the kind of credibility a place gets from lasting sixty years in the same spot serving pretty much the same food. Over six decades, a place like that develops a soul, and some people get that. One time during a winter visit, my girlfriend and I snagged a couple of the eight counter seats at Milt’s. The waitress and I got to talking, and she said, “I think it’s all in your attitude. You travel the world to find beauty, but you’re not going to find any unless you’ve got it in your heart.” I typed it into my phone with one hand while I shoved a veggie patty melt into my mouth with the other hand.

In the 1980s, mountain bikers discovered a trail that had been built for motocross bikes and started to flock to it. The slick rock trail became legendary, and Milt’s was conveniently located on the road back into town from the trail head. I figure there’s no other American diner in such close proximity to so many outdoor icons. Milt’s is a 19 mile drive from Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, it’s 55 miles from Indian Creek and 75 miles to Canyonland’s towering red and white-striped sandstone needles. When you eat at Milt’s, you’re usually hungry from doing something awesome. You finish, hop in your car, and something tells you you don’t want to go cook camp stove pasta or eat anything less than awesome, so you drive to Milt’s.

Sometimes when I’m hiking somewhere near Moab and chatting with other people, I think about saying something like, “You know what’s great about this hike? In about 75 minutes, you can be at Milt’s Stop & Eat.” I mean, when you think about it, all that other stuff really became famous after Milt’s became famous. In a way, it’s kind of the nucleus of all that rad stuff.

I’ve probably eaten several hundred Milt’s tater tots over the past ten years since I first discovered Moab, and every time I look around the parking lot at the vans with curtains in the windows, the Tacomas plastered in stickers from climbing destinations around the states, Subarus with mountain bikes hanging off their bike racks, and I look around the countertop at all the sunburnt forearms and faces, rigs and hands all coated in a layer of red desert, and I wonder what corner they spent the day exploring and by what means.

It’s sort of like a watering hole for our community, the perfect end to a day spent mountain biking slick rock, hiking through orange arches, floating a lazy green river through red sandstone, exploring some delicate slot canyon, or jamming up splitter cracks. So much awesome, all celebrated with a milkshake.

Listen to more Mileposts episodes