The Mill Creek Trail on the south side of Moab is a popular hike for tourists and locals alike. Longtime Moab local, 92-year-old Jean McDowell, has regularly hiked this trail for the past 30 years.
Just above the trail, McDowell lives in a house with a façade of river rocks the size of cinder blocks. There are no river rocks this size anywhere near Moab. When Jean built her house in 1987, she hauled every one of the
rocks with her own hands— 15 at a time—to her house. That patience is the first thing you’d discern if you encountered Jean hiking Mill Creek Trail. Just after her 80th birthday Jean slipped on the Mill Creek trail. Since then she’s used hiking poles and her pace has slowed a lot.
As a University of Colorado freshman in 1941, Jean began hiking with the university’s club. “It was a choice between photography or the hiking club. Well I could walk, so I decided I could hike with the hiking club.” Hiking was just the beginning of her life-long attraction to outdoor recreation. Soon after she graduated and got married in 1945, she and her husband bought a huge, heavy, black navy surplus raft and hauled it all over the Western US and Alaska, wherever her husband worked building roads as a civil engineer. They ran the Colorado River through Glen Canyon and the Green in northwest Utah long before any permits were required or dams were built.
When Jean and her husband split up in the 1980s, Jean got the raft. That raft connected Jean with other adventurous men and women half her age, active folk who were capable of keeping up with her river and hiking trail pursuits. Jean retired the navy surplus raft when she moved to Moab in 1986, but kept on hiking.
Even after her accident more than a decade ago, Jean can’t keep off the trails. “My daughter says I shouldn’t go so far, but I think she’s about given up.” Not a lot of 92-year-olds can still hike but Jean takes it all in stride. “I’m not the adventurous type. I’m really sort of a chicken. I know some adventuresome people. They climb all those 14er’s,” she says, “I keep walking because that’s what I know to do. I like the red rocks.”