Nestled between Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and handy to all the other national forests, monuments, parks and recreational areas of southern Utah, Moab and southern Utah long have been America's four-wheeling mecca. With many back-to-nature Gen Z and Gen Alpha also choosing to develop manual driving skills to vex their parents, once-tiny Moab has grown to 20,000 — mostly tourist trade workers — catering to 20- and 30-somethings wanting to disconnect devices, helmet up, buckle in and head off-road into wilderness. As Moab's updated marketing slogan puts it: Unlink and Live.
At the crack of dawn, we take turns through Spring Canyon Bottom as a warmup, our Jeep's yellow manual-mode warning lights aglow in solidarity with others on the trail. After a boxed lunch along the banks of the Colorado, we manual through Long Canyon and Pucker Pass, scenic but hardly challenging to a Trail Rated Jeep.
Over the next few days, we rest our Jeep (and its paint and fenders) and rent vehicles appropriate for more rugged trails and tracks. The utility terrain vehicles — lightweight side-by-side off-roaders that have mostly replaced saddle-style all-terrain vehicles — are delightful for individual stunts and rock crawling on tight trails. To my surprise, most UTV rental spots have electrics rather than the buzzy 500 to 700cc gasoline versions. It's amazing to hear birdcall while rock crawling.
We run some of the dozens of trails operated by the Bureau of Land Management on Moab's iconic slickrock terrain, first named by pioneers. The weathered sandstone may have confounded the iron-covered wheels of their wagons, but it's ideal for off-road rubber tires.
And we can all fit into the ubiquitous Jeep Wrangler rentals outfitted for Utah's more challenging trails: bigger wheels, knobby tires, lifted for more wheel travel and winches. In a nod to our aging rib cages and kidneys, we pick trails with technical ratings of 7 or less, such as Fins and Things in the Sand Flats Recreation Area.
Sorry, Metal Masher Trail. Maybe another time.
As we leave Moab, Brandon is clearly the family's king of the hill. We're all content to let the Jeep take us to the Grand Canyon in Arizona while we enjoy the scenery. As long as we stick to designated federal routes — U.S. 191, 163, 160 and 89 — we're on full AV, but on vast stretches just a mile or two left or right, we'd be forced to take the wheel like it was last century.
Even in the fourth decade of the 21st century, there's still an east-west U.S. motoring dichotomy. East of the Mississippi, most vehicles run on full automatic. Many metro areas require it in congested city centers.
But in Alaska and noncoastal areas of the 11 states of the continental West, economics delayed adaptation of fully autonomous vehicles. Besides the lower population density, there's also the issue of federal land. The East is 3 percent federal land. Out West, 47 percent is split among the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. Nevada is the most extreme: Still just 15 percent of the state is privately owned.
Except on paved roads in national parks and major roadways, most federal land still isn't accurately mapped enough for full auto mode. The best most modern vehicles can offer there is guardian mode.
It's also why we enjoy living in the West. We can still often drive manually if we want, but we don't have to. And pardon me if I don't admit it to the kids, but on New Mexico Route 4 east of Sulphur Springs, I like to toggle onto auto and watch the mountains go by.