Howling at the Moon is an adult adventure set in the Escalante wilderness area in southwestern Utah. The novel format cuts across several genres (literary/contemporary fiction, regional history, action/thriller, self-discovery) as it stitches together Mormon extremism and natural history, and includes some stunning photos (88 photos, 5 maps) and graphics (2 images) that enrich and deepen the narrative. The novel is in the literary tradition of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Barry Lopez’s Artic Dreams, and a distant relative to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, but without the anger and rudeness.
This contemporary story takes place in a remote section of Utah, some of the most beautiful but inhospitable landscape anywhere in the U.S. While on a brief camping trip with his dog, Randy encounters an odd mix of characters and challenges, including a hitchhiker who connects to cosmic energy through prayer, an angry butcher with a loaded shotgun who murders two fundamentalist Mormons in a revenge killing, an illegal Mormon posse mistakenly hunting for Randy in the Escalante wilderness, two young women caught in the same plural marriage who are confused and running away, a late summer flash flood in a narrow canyon that sweeps away Randy’s dog, and the discovery of the 1934 journal of famed adventurer Everett Ruess that reveals the final days of his brief but compelling life. As the tale unfolds, three major themes emerge: the remarkable history of the Mormon Church along with its surviving pockets of irrational devotion and violence, the awe inspiring wilderness of the Utah canyon lands that are now set aside as a U.S. national monument, and the personal journeys of two young California men separated by eighty years. Admittedly, there are some other things tossed in for good measure—Midget faded rattlers, a reliable ’53 Chevy, single malts, iterations of love, Cuban cigars, and Italian Spinones.
Randy is a typical young adult in the 21st Century economy, frozen in a job he dislikes and wanting more but not sure what that might be. He is single but has a girlfriend who can be a bit overpowering and pushy at times. He decides to take a brief vacation into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southwestern Utah, the finest canyon lands anywhere in the world. Randy and his dog climb into an old, yellow, ’53 Chevy pick-up truck and begin the adventure of a lifetime.
As the pair drive through Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, and finally down to the small town of Escalante, Utah the incredible beauty of the region slowly sinks in, resulting in a much-needed break from work and a shift in consciousness. Memories from Randy’s past resurface, particularly the happy times he spent with his grandfather. He also begins a recurring dream about an alien race of lizard people, vegetarian air-breathers, who offer him a way out of his current life situation–a new job with a remarkable salary and benefits, but some strange conditions.
Stopping in Escalante for supplies before heading into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Randy ends up in the wrong place and the wrong time. As he approaches the meat counter in Griffin’s Store, the butcher unloads a 12-guage shotgun into two fundamentalist Mormons. This was a revenge killing for their role in the rape and death of a young Mormon boy at the Red Rock Youth Camp several weeks earlier. As the butcher points the shotgun at Randy, unaware who he is, Randy throws a can of fruit in heavy syrup at the butcher and runs out of the store. The shotgun discharges a second time, seriously injuring the butcher.
With the consent of the local sheriff, the Mormon community in the Escalante area form a volunteer posse that begins searching for Randy, his dog, and the yellow pick-up truck. As Randy heads further down into the Monument, he encounters two young Mormon women walking along Hole-in-the-Rock Road in the August heat. He offers them a ride and they spend the next two days camping together, talking about religious faith and other personal topics. Little did he know at the time they were married to the same man, and are wives number three and five in an oppressive plural marriage. As they become better acquainted Randy learns about their runaway status and quickly realizes that he cannot be found camping with two young Mormon women, given his single status and connection with the Escalante shooting.
Randy and his dog leave the women and head down into Davis Gulch for a canyon hiking adventure and further isolation from the Mormon posse. The weather changes quickly resulting in a flash flood that strands the pair in a wind cave. While stranded, Randy finds a hand written journal in an old leather boot. It is the 1934 journal of famed adventurer Everett Reuss who writes about all manner of things—the raw beauty of the canyon lands, life in urban areas, the purpose of his wanderings, death in the desert, and his encounter with a rattlesnake in that very same wind cave. As the flash flood continues the dog slips off a ledge and is swept downstream. Randy is overwhelmed with grief, kicks at some rubble arousing a Faded midget rattlesnake, and his himself bitten on the leg.
Fortunately, the sheriff and posse find Randy in the wind cave a couple of hours later, semi-conscious but still alive. Already showing the signs of neurotoxin poisoning, Randy is airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in St. George, Utah for emergency medical treatment. The posse also finds the dog, wet and hungry, but in good health.
Recovering from the snake bit in St. George, Randy is reunited with his mother, girlfriend, and dog. In an unanticipated but moving speech, Randy’s girlfriend asks him to marry her and start a formal and normal life together. The adventure ends some months later with the couple happily married and expecting their first child, to be named after one of the young Mormon women Randy encountered in the wilderness, Sariah.