Desert Solitaire seemed the right book to take along on a trip to the southwest in September 2009
Abbey writes of the beauty of the southwest. As a ranger at Arches National Park he had a close relationship with some of our country’s most exquisite scenery. In the 18 essays that make up the book, he offers not only his appreciation for the sometimes harsh environment of Utah and Arizona, but his notions on things political. Those are not so compelling. He tells tales of people he has known and in doing so enhances an image of his southwest as at once a beautiful and terrible place.
However, I have concluded, with apologies to Ernest Thompson, that Edward Abbey is an old poop. It is one thing to have a deep and abiding appreciation for a place, a thing, an experience, an environment, but Abbey seems determined that only certain sorts should be allowed to share that joy. And while he may wish for us as readers to appreciate what he appreciates, he seems uninterested in allowing for other joys by other people. While he offers detail and poetry about the desert and about untouched places, he sneers at the urban, at those he sees as lesser than himself. As such he taps into some tried and true American themes such as the romantic myth of self-sufficiency and our persistent national history of anti-city bias. Toss in some other dark impulses when he suggests that perhaps birth control for some poor people should be mandatory. Add a dose of survivalist paranoia as he sees one strong reason to support National Parks to be preserving a staging area for rebel militias after big government comes after us all. But don’t forget a gift for language, for description, for story-telling, and a strong poetic sensibility.
For those of us who, for whatever reasons, may not be able to manage ten-mile hikes, or who cannot rappel down canyon walls to experience the full range of experience available at our national parks, for those who may not have dedicated our existences to living as closely to the land as possible, we also are Americans, we also are people, and it is possible to take joy in natural wonder without the benefit of Abbey’s athleticism. He clearly winces at the possibility of roads being built that allow the non-hikers among us a chance to see at all, up close, or, at least closer, some of the parts of our parks that are currently inaccessible and he decries as abominations the possibility of mechanisms being constructed that provide an enhanced experience to those in wheelchairs, as if that were somehow shameful. Having just returned from several of the national parks mentioned in this book, I can safely report that I saw much stunning beauty, felt my appreciation of my country’s natural wonders swell, and believe that it is my entitlement as an American, no less than 20-something backpackers, to take joy in this common heritage. My inability to manage a back-country hike should not prevent me and others like me from sharing in our nation’s natural wonders. Surely there is a happy medium between the paving over of everything that Abbey fears and allowing reasonable access to our nation’s natural treasures to those of us who are not outdoorsmen.
Beyond my gripes about his notions concerning who should be allowed into our parks, and other dark political impulses, Abbey is a very gifted writer. He has many stories to tell both about his personal experiences and about other characters he has encountered in his southwest existence. His love of the land comes through like a cactus barb into an unshod foot. You will get a feel for the lands he portrays, the land he loves. In addition, he seasons his narrative with references to more refined culture that one might find a bit surprising in a guy who presents as a mountain man.
I have not read Abbey’s later writings so will keep an open mind on where he wound up regarding his politics. I may not harbor particularly warm feelings for the guy overall, but I do share his love of our national parks, his visceral appreciation for natural beauty and appreciate his great skill as a writer. Hold your nose over some of the darker parts of this book, but it is a special read when he is not ranting.