Have you ever gone somewhere, and upon departure, realized that you were leaving cleaner than when you came? Have you ever felt like you had your soul scoured out by sun and wind? That the elements were stripping you of your pre-disposed human-ness?
That you were honestly communing with the Divine? An encompasingly holy, sacred, cathedral of place? Have you ever discovered the raw, barren, lonely alive all around you? Have you ever seen a landscape, and upon return, realized that you were seeing it again for the first time?
And with further realization recognized that this same spot, this exact place in the natural world, would be different, new, first-time, every time you saw it throughout every day for the rest of your life (if you were in a position to sit and watch Siddhartha-like for time next to eternity), as this place, this landscape changed by the sun, by the seasons, by the clouds, by a lizard track, by the growth and death of foliage, by the wind, by the water, by what was in your heart– ever changing, always beautiful. Where is this place for you? Home? Wilderness? Sea? Mountain? Forrest? Desert– for me, the desert is that place.
When we talk of desert, that place certainly isn’t singular, so I’ll be more specific– Southern Utah’s red rock desert in and around Moab, Utah, is a place that will always hold my clean heart. I think Edward Abbey found a similar salve, maybe even salvation in that same desert. His book, Desert Solitaire, centered on Abbey’s time spent as a ranger in Arches National Park, is the jewel in Abbey’s writing crown, in my humble opinion.
At this point, meaning the point at which Desert Solitaire’s timeline begins in 1956, Abbey has signed on for two six-month posts in a little government trailer house with Balanced Rock his only neighbor, and Delicate Arch in his local group. To think of the truly solitary existence Abbey led on those long summer days, helps me to understand his horror at the changes he witness in Arches National Park.
Who doesn’t love a dirt track more than a paved highway? Who doesn’t like to gaze upon unbroken wild more than a once-pristine nature reserve chock-full of tourists and sightseers and people who would otherwise die in the desert environment were their 50 ft. recreational vehicle parked not two-stones throw from the paved concourse that leads to the dusty mound that somehow miraculously holds up Balanced Rock’s base? Well, the truth is, some love the cement path more.
To be honest, though old Ed is turning in his grave as I type this (and I may retract this as we venture back into the desert this April to become one of the ever growing masses going to get our red rock fix), I am glad for the increased accessibility to most National Parks. “This here Park, really is FOR PEOPLE!” Ed! I think it makes for a better people, a better public, a better nation, a better society, to have places where the great and the small can commune with Nature. But on that point, Ed and I disagree.
No, Edward Abbey doesn’t see it that way. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t lend a democratizing voice to this text. Instead, I would argue that in the pages of Desert Solitaire he opens the desert for all to see! More than so many texts I’ve read, Abbey is truly inviting YOU along for the ride. Not in third person, but really opening the door to his beat-up government-issue pickup truck. Offering you the dusty passenger’s seat, inviting you to experience the desert WITH HIM.
I think it’s fair to say, however, that Abbey’s writing, his descriptions of the desert itself, his record of sweeping stratified amaranthine sunsets breathtaking, fierce, majestic with golden-bellied clouds nearly exploding until day’s last breath sucks the last light from them, his scrutiny of the animals and shrubs, the rivers and winds, the contrast of heat and cold in this barren landscape, Abbey paints it all for you on the page with an agenda. Stunning as his descriptions are, he has a purpose.
So please don’t assume that because Abbey can so deftly stroke the desert onto the page he is simply satisfied to soothe you with his stories, leave you pacified and self-smiling at his intimate memoir, let you wonder and awe with him at the desert’s beauty from his passenger’s seat.
No, like most prolific writers, Abbey has a mission, and there is intention in everything he writes. Intention that will quickly lead you, the reader, to realize that this sinewed, narcissistic, sharp-witted, iconoclast, is going to take you along for the ride, and then send you out the door with a boot in your metaphorical butt– a boot aimed at Environmental Preservation, a boot squared up to real rather than imagined wilderness (the kind where you don’t find yourself hiking up the fin of a sandstone slab behind someone who you’re pretty sure hasn’t gotten up from a television any time in the last decade), a boot ready for Eco Terrorism (and how to execute said acts, see other of Abbey’s writings).
While you sit, bouncing and jolted at each dry wash, pot-hole, and errant rock, just know that Edward Abbey has opinions and it won’t take you long to find them. Whether or not your agree with Abbey is a personal matter. But it isn’t an argument that should keep your from reading Desert Solitaire. That would be a grave mistake. Because no matter where you fall in the Environmental Debate, no matter what you think about Dam Building, or Global Warming, or Industrial Tourism, or Strip Mining, or Nuclear Energy, or Native American Land Rights, you can have your opinion, and Abbey will have his. The ride-along with Abbey is worth every word. Above all Abbey is true to one thing, he is true to the desert.
Enjoy your Monday!
P.S. Desert outfit post below 😉 With appropriate Abbeyisms. “I wait. Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.” “Southeast, twenty miles by line of sight, stand the peaks of the Sierra La Sal, twelve to thirteen thousand feet above sea level, all covered with snow and rosy in the morning sunlight. The air is dry and clear as well as cold; the last fog banks left over from last night’s storm are scudding away like ghosts, fading into nothing before the wind and the sunrise.” “The very names are lovely– chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, chysoprase and agate. Onyx and sardonyx. Cryptocrystalline quartz-Quartzite. Flint, chert and sard… And the basic rocks– basalt, granite, gneiss, limestone, sandstone, marble, slate, gabro, shale. Most of them can be found in this area. If you look hard enough and long enough.” “When a new national park, national monument, national seashore, or whatever it may be called is set up, the various forces of Industrial Tourism, on all levels immediately expect action… On the local level, for example, the first thing that the superintendent of a new park an anticipate being asked is not “Will roads be built?” but rather “When does construction begin?” and ‘Why the delay?'” “What are the Arches? From my place in front of the house trailer I can see several of the hundred or more of them which have been discovered in the park. These are natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike, as varied in form as in dimension. They range in size from holes just big enough to all through to openings large enough to contain the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Some resemble jug handles or flying buttresses, others natural bridges but with this technical distinction: a natural bridge spans a watercourse– a natural arch does not.” “The desert is different. Not so hostile as the snowy peaks, nor so broad and bland as the ocean’s surface, it lies open– given adequate preparation– to leisurely exploration, to extended periods of habitation. Yet it can hardly be called a humane environment… The desert waits outside, desolate and still and strange, unfamiliar and often grotesque in its forms and colors, inhabited by rare, furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning, sparingly colonized by weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious.” “Light. Space. Light and space without time, I think, for this is a country with only the slightest traces of human history. In the doctrine of the geologists with their scheme of ages, eons and epochs all is flux, as Heraclitus taught, but from the mortally human point of view the landscape of the Colorado is like a section of eternity– timeless.”