Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

"A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourist can in a hundred miles."

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


Desert Solitaire by Edward AbbeyYou can’t understand the American West without reading Edward Abbey and you can’t understand Edward Abbey without understanding the American West. This is a Catch-22 and the prescription for getting around it is to first read Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, then head west to Moab, Utah (hopefully with ExperiencePlus! on a walking tour of Arches and Canyonlands National Park), then read everything else Abbey wrote.


Leave the mountain bike and take your hiking boots. Mountain biking leaves you no time for quiet contemplation, no opportunity to comb the desert floor for rock chippings of chert made by Indian hunters two thousand years ago. Hiking Abbey’s canyon country will give you time to think and process the experience; to lag behind and dawdle on the trail; to listen to the canyon wren. We all need to find more time for this sort of thing anyway.


It is not just by chance that the subtitle of Abbey’s book reminds of Walden’s subtitle, "my life in the woods." Abbey was desperate for a literary success after a decade as a struggling writer in the mid 1960s and surely his publishers, too, saw the link with Thoreau. Little did they dream that Desert Solitaire would become the icon that it is, since Abbey has not only become the patron saint of eco-environmentalists (to not use the term eco-terrorists) but also of the National Park Service, the agency he actually vilifies in his classic work AND the agency, yes, which made the book possible (another Catch-22!) Indeed, today, Abbey is a hero of the National Park Service; one visit to the Arches National Park Visitor’s Center will confirm that for those who doubt it.


Rick contemplates the scale of Edward Abbey's Utah wildernessWhat is this "season in the wilderness" of Edward Abbey? Desert Solitaire will explain this to you and help you to sort out the essence of the American west in the process, including the big western issues at stake a century ago and today. Abbey captures the "best of the west" as well as anyone I’ve read. If you become addicted to Abbey you’ll have couple year’s worth of reading and then you will grab your hiking boots, perhaps again and again. Join me for a quick tour.


Abbey’s west is not Canyon Country, it’s not Indian Country, and it’s not Utah. It is the Colorado Plateau, comprised of about 130,000 square miles of ancient plateaus (bigger than Colorado but smaller than California) astride the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. (see a National Geographic Map here). This plateau consists of 300 million years worth of sedimentary rocks, mostly sandstone, mudstone, and siltstone deposits now crossed in a southwesterly direction by the Colorado River and its tributaries, including the Green River, the Escalante, and the San Juan to name a few.


Abbey’s west is more than just geology laid bare, however, more than just ". . . this land of unclothed rock," as Abbey describes it. It is the story of water and drought (Moab averages 9 inches rainfall per year and while rainfall on the plateau can be double that in Sedona or Flagstaff, Arizona, it isn’t much more across most of the plateau), of uranium mining, and cattle ranching. It’s the story of desert vegetation, wildflowers (Chapter IV, "Cliffrose and Bayonets") and "critters" (Chapter III, "The Serpents of Paradise,"), namely mice, rattlesnakes and bull snakes among others. And it is the story of the people of the west, among them uranium miners, cowboys, Basque shepherds (or, in this case a cowpoke), and lost tourists who succumb to the elements at Grandview Point at Island in the Sky, now a part of Canyonlands National Park.


Desert Solitaire is a collection of Abbey’s reflections about life at Arches National Park over the three summer seasons he spent there as a park ranger, 1956, ’57 and ’65. He does a great job of introducing the neophyte to issues in the west. So you can use it as a primer to understanding what concerns us out here on the edge of the Great Plains, in the Rocky Mountains and across the Colorado Plateau, since the issues Abbey describes are germane to most of what goes on from central Colorado to Lake Tahoe, from Phoenix to Boise.


Abbey is best with descriptive prose. I’m not sure anyone captures the west in words as well as he does:


"I have stood in the middle of a broad sandy wash with not a trickle of moisture to be seen anywhere, sunlight pouring down on me and on the flies and ants and lizards, the sky above perfectly clear, listening to a queer vibration in the air and in the ground under my feet – – and looked up to see a wall of water tumble around a bend and surge toward me."

Then he reconsiders:

"A wall of water. A poor image. For the flash flood of the desert poorly resembles water. It looks rather like a loose pudding or a thick dense soup, thick as gravy, dense with mud and sand, lathered with scuds of bloody froth, loaded on its crest with a tangle of weeds and shrubs and small trees ripped from their roots."

Add to this Abbey’s imagination and his stories of the people in the desert (the prospectors, cowboys, tourists, and more) and you see the roots of his famous fiction work, The Monkey Wrench Gang, coming just a few years later.

I led a hiking tour in Moab last month and had occasion to meet a couple people who had known Abbey and who had hiked with him or floated rivers with him. Both, independently of each other, observed that he was a "quiet person." He was also opinionated, controversial, disrespectful of authority, and generally a solitary person. But he could write like few others, capturing the essence of the west in a way few others have done. Spend a little time with Abbey and you’ll have to visit the west, namely the Colorado Plateau; if you don’t do either you’ll have trouble understanding both.

Further reading: