A brilliant moon rises over the La Sal Mountains. An owl hoots somewhere nearby; in the distance a coyote calls. A fire crackles.
Ken Sleight leans back, pushes his black-rimmed glasses back on his nose and spins a tale laced indiscriminately with truth and fiction.It's a scene repeated dozens of times every year for hundreds of visitors who travel from near and far to share a Utah wilderness experience with Sleight and listen to his unique desert folklore.
In fact, some folks claim Sleight may be southern Utah's best storyteller, an honor Sleight disclaims. But he doesn't deny a burning fondness for a good yarn.
"There are so many experiences happening all the time," he said. "I have a thousand stories once I get wound up."
With the glow of an evening campfire, Sleight can keep visitors spellbound for hours.
"Of course, the easiest place to talk is around the fire," said Sleight, who owns and operates the Pack Creek Ranch in Moab. "It's a kind of magic. I can't just sit down and tell a story, but around a campfire my mind goes and goes. Anybody can tell a story around a campfire."
Those stories range from the mysterious to the humorous, from Old West rustlers to modern-day "monkey-wrenchers" - those radical environmentalists who sabotage attempts to build roads and dams.
In fact, the environment is a topic of keen interest to Sleight. He loves the canyons and rivers of southern Utah with a passion that exceeds life itself. And he admits he's willing to go to almost any measure to protect the land from destruction.
Some people in southern Utah accuse Sleight of using illegal monkey-wrenching to impede development. It's not a well-kept secret that Sleight is the Seldom Seen Smith character in Edward Abbey's "The Monkey Wrench Gang."
Sleight chuckles at such accusations, but his denials aren't too convincing. "The further adventures of monkey-wrenching make great campfire stories," he laughs.
"When I take people on trips, we'll talk around the campfire for long hours about the environment," Sleight said. "They see the damage themselves and they want to know what can be done to stop it."
That leads to "wild speculation" about how the environment could be restored to what it once was, or how to stop the mining and drilling, or how to stop road construction through the heart of the wilderness.
"Like what if the Glen Canyon Dam wasn't there anymore?" he smiles mischievously, running his fingers through his gray hair. "It's fun once you get into a story of how to get rid of it."
Sleight, a Paris, Idaho, farm boy who first wandered into the Utah deserts in the late 1940s, sees himself as an anti-establishment rebel, a dyed-in-the-wool political conservative who just happened to be adopted into the liberal environmental cause. He's also a man who practices what he believes.
"I'm a very conservative individual," said Sleight, who used to attend John Birch meetings and even supported the Central Utah Project water development - the arch-enemy of Utah environmentalists.
"It's a very conservative approach not to want to see the lands changed and destroyed. Isn't it funny how liberals now espouse conservative philosophy? Maybe there's a story there."
Sleight also sees himself as a man who has never made a lot of money but wouldn't give up his campfire lifestyle for the world. Besides, guiding those who come to run the rivers or ride horses into the slickrock canyons is the only life he knows.
"When you enjoy interpreting things for people like I do, it's hard not to be a guide," he said. "When you're a guide, it's hard not to tell stories."
His favorite story is the mystery of Everett Ruess, a restless young California artist who disappeared into the Utah desert decades ago never to be seen again. "It's a great story," he said. "I can identify with him and his dreams."
Those who know Sleight say they won't be too surprised if someday Sleight simply takes a few belongings and disappears into his beloved canyons never to be heard from again.
"That would make an interesting story, wouldn't it?" he laughs.