Sometimes I imagine getting a verbal ass-whoopin’ from Edward Abbey. I find it best to picture him half-naked and sunburned, next to some beat-up pick-up truck parked precariously halfway off the side of a gravel road. There’s not a single tree in sight. His beard is dusty and his thick hair snarled from a days-long sojourn down by some unnamed creek in a copse of cottonwoods. I detect the faint smells of bacon and tobacco, with a touch of permeating campfire smokiness.
As I sit there in my shiny black Jetta, prescription sunglasses on my face and REI gear in the trunk and backseat, I listen attentively to the tirade. Maybe I get one like this, from near the end of Abbey’s most famous work, Desert Solitaire (1968):
Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ… roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it…. Turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs!
Despite the fact that I don’t have “dugs” or varicose veins (yet), and even though I like to consider myself just a smidge closer to nature than most of the folks Abbey rails about in Desert Solitaire, I need this kind of dressing down from time to time. I may not agree completely with everything Abbey wrote, but he was mostly right—abrasive, but mostly right. That delicate, tenuous, and sometimes counterproductive balance is the hallmark of Abbey’s life and writings.
Desert Solitaire centers on Abbey’s several summers as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument. When it was published in 1968, Abbey had already written three novels, but this was his first foray into nonfiction. It firmly established him as a cult figure among environmentalists with a radical streak, and was followed by more than fifteen other works, including, most notably, the 1975 novel The Monkeywrench Gang. His writing is often credited with inspiring a new wave of 1980s environmental groups that took the battle for nature from the courtroom and hearing room (a la the Sierra Club) to the treetops and logging roads and dams (a la Earth First!).
Desert Solitaire is an early hint at this kind of activism. One evening, after being visited at his dilapidated ranger’s trailer by a survey crew marking a new paved road into Arches, Abbey walks out into the desert and removes all the surveying stakes and flags. But that is the single act of civil disobedience he performs in the book. Of course he dreams of blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam when he reaches the end of his rafting trip down the then-unimpounded Colorado River, but most often Abbey focuses on the simple pleasures of being outside.
In many passages his rants become paeans. Pieces of petrified wood are “agatized rainbows in rock.” Rainstorms come down “not softly not gently, with no quality of mercy but like heavy water in buckets…drumming on my hat like hailstones and running in a waterfall off the brim.” Ample praise is reserved for the humble campfire:
One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West.
And the noontime sun is:
like a drug. The light is psychadelic, the dry electric air narcotic.
The book as a whole dances in a point-counterpoint between the beauty of nature and the threats brought by humans, specifically by the United States Government and the National Park Service. In the chapter entitled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” Abbey rails against improvements—roads, visitor centers, etc.—being made in what he feels should be mostly inaccessible, immersion-in-nature sanctuaries.
Why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate…the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?
These improvements, underway during Abbey’s Arches summers in the late 1950s, were collectively known as Mission 66, a massive National Parks infrastructure program spearheaded by landscape architect and Park Service Director Conrad Wirth. The goal was to improve visitor knowledge of and access to the parks in time for the 50th anniversary of the service, in 1966. Mission 66 did change the face of the parks, from the mostly rustic, dirt-road, wood-and-stone character which Abbey experienced at Arches to the full-service, restrooms-and-vending machines vibe at the main visitor centers today. The Park Service’s chief landscape architect Thomas Chalmers Vint pushed for contemporary design in the parks—a legacy that includes the spiraling, concrete, seemingly Jetsons-inspired Clingman’s Dome observation tower in Smoky Mountain National Park and the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Studio and sporting an abstract bas-relief metal skin.
Abbey was dead-on prophetic with some of his specific fears, as listed in Desert Solitaire. The geological formation called the Waterpocket Fold was incorporated into Capitol Reef National Park in 1970 (though it remains roadless, so whether its incorporation is a bad thing can be debated). Glen Canyon Dam did flood Cataract Canyon, create the rapidly silting Lake Powell, and make Rainbow Arch easily accessible to the motorboating masses. And yes, the surveyors did reset their stakes and pave the road into Arches National Monument (which became a full-fledged National Park in 1971).
I once took an Abbey-lite but still slightly ill-advised hike off the end of that paved Arches road, in the heat of midday with very little water. I was there from Indiana with college landscape architecture classmates. We parked at the Devils Garden Trailhead and hiked out to Landscape Arch. Stunned by the impossibility of the rock vaulting through the hot air, my friend Mark and I decided to head farther out along the trail. Our colleagues returned to the vans to relax. It was about 3 miles one way to Double O Arch and we had a few hours. On that quick hike we experienced the complete isolation and stillness and thirst and sun-scorch that Abbey describes throughout Desert Solitaire.
And here we come back to the almost-right-ness—for me—of Edward Abbey. The Mission 66 version of the National Parks is the one I grew up with. For five summers in high school and college, I would arrive with my church youth group at the Wrightian Beaver Creek Visitor Center to plan our hikes for the week. In college, I climbed the Clingman’s Dome tower with a few close friends escaping the flatness of Indiana. In every case (including my Arches hike), I watched people sort themselves by desire and ability. Some, yes, would stay in their cars, as Abbey says, “like sardines in a can,” while others would venture a few miles on the well-trodden paths, while still others would heft their packs and disappear for a week, or more.
In fact, I studied landscape architecture, initially, because I wanted to design National Parks. Though now I design different things, I still feel strongly that everyone should be able to access nature. So, though I agree with Abbey that we shouldn’t pave over the parks and wilderness areas, I also believe that giving people encounters with nature is important to the eventual preservation of wilderness. If Thoreau said, famously, and if Abbey echoes that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” then I say: in education and experience is the preservation of wildness.
And Abbey would be happy to know that the Park Service has begun managing even larger crowds by (gasp!) restricting automobile access. Most of the Grand Canyon’s south rim road is closed to private vehicles, and portions of Yosemite Valley are also bike and bus only. Abbey suggests these specific ideas in his “Polemic” chapter.
As to Abbey’s context in the mid-century environmental movement (and the other writers profiled in this series of essays), Desert Solitaire came out the same year the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed, and four years after the Wilderness Act. Both of these laws preserve, as roadless and undeveloped, certain American land- and water-scapes, including many of the rivers Abbey lists in his book as under threat. Abbey arrived on the heels of Loren Eiseley (from whom he could not be more different—in demeanor and prose style), Rachel Carson, and Joseph Wood Krutch (whom Abbey admired greatly and was the last person to formally interview). Abbey is regularly referred to as the “desert Thoreau,” but comparisons to John Muir are more apt. Both men are associated closely with the National Parks (Muir with their inception in the late 1800s and Abbey with their ongoing preservation in the face of development in the 1950s and 1960s) and both were profoundly affected by their failures to stave off dam construction (Muir with Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Abbey with Glen Canyon). This latter similarity is brought to light in the recent essay collection Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, a slightly later, along with Wendell Berry, contemporary of Abbey’s.
Perhaps most notable in this context is Abbey’s activism, or rather his tacit support of extreme environmentalism. He associated with Earth First!, the group that pioneered the tree-sit and once unrolled a massive image of a crack down the face of the Glen Canyon Dam. This direct-action aspect of the environmental movement still makes occasional headlines today, as activists harass whaling boats and blockade logging roads. In fact, Abbey’s very prose reinforces this in-your-face stance. Desert Solitaire, like Muir’s writings but unlike Thoreau’s and Eiseley’s, speaks directly to the reader (see the example at the top of this essay), often with provocative language deliberately designed to incite feelings of some kind.
As I write this, a long Minnesota winter—the longest winter I can remember—is (hopefully) melting into the rivers. In addition to reading Desert Solitaire, I recently watched, thanks to Oscar buzz, the movie 127 Hours, which traces Aron Ralston’s famous desert ordeal (days spent trapped in a canyon; amputation of his arm with a pocketknife), a story more intense but remarkably similar to Abbey’s experience in the chapter called “Havasu.” I also watched, thanks to my toddler son’s tastes, the animated movie Cars, about a sleek modern racecar stuck in a small Route 66 desert town bypassed by Interstate 40 (“see how the old road moves with the land,” says Sally Carrera, the lady Porsche soured on big-city life, “while the interstate cuts right through”). These three stories juxtaposed evocatively with each other and contrasted with the horrid weather outside.
I realized I was in a rut. Previously so diligent about getting my son Ethan outside no matter the weather, I had begun hustling him to the car in the morning for the drive to day care, then into the house at the end of the day. I had initiated Friday night movie night instead of moonlight walks around the lake. I was moving into my “sardine can” and taking my son with me.
On the whole, Abbey is farther into the wilderness world (and the extremist world) than I am. Nevertheless, I like to be lectured by him, from time to time, in my mind’s-eye, as it is always beneficial to be ranted at by someone who doesn’t exactly share your beliefs—someone who can catch your interest with some common feeling, then challenge you.
Desert Solitaire is entertaining and beautiful front to back, both during the natural history descriptions and during the rants. It gives me the inspiration to get outside, right along with the requisite kick in the pants. From now on, when I find myself driving too much, sitting inside too much, or standing by while commercial interests encroach on the limited wilderness we have left, I’ll conjure Desert Ed. I’ll picture myself at the side of some nowhere road, with Ethan strapped into his expensive car seat and Edward Abbey boring his eyes into mine, saying something like:
How dare you imprison your little children in your goddamned upholstered horseless hearse? Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! Like women! Like human beings! And walk—walk—WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!
Proceed to the next essay, Edward Hoagland, who, 40 years after his seminal The Courage of Turtles, has just published his 21st book: a melancholy essay collection called Sex and the River Styx), or return to the Table of Contents.
—Adam Regn Arvidson