“Not a travel guide but an elegy” – Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock.

I recently finished reading Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. First published in 1968, it’s a memoir of his time spent working as a ranger in Arches National Park, Utah, in the 1950s and ’60s.

By all accounts, Abbey had a bone to pick with the development of public land in the United States, and the annual onslaught of the American public on its own National Parks.

In Desert Solitaire, he describes, in a series of enjoyably lengthy vignettes, the kinds of work he undertook as a park ranger, what life was like in that vast wilderness, and describes with masterful prose several excursions he underwent while living in this remarkable place.

Photo: National Park Service
Photo: National Park Service

We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there.

His writing includes many rants, for example about America’s beautiful scenery being wrecked by those who wish to ‘experience’ it while never leaving their gas-guzzling cars.

But he will just as quickly turn his pen to describing the subtle majesty of the world around him with a beautiful elegance I’ve rarely found in other writing. Whole paragraphs float past you like Country Diary entries from the Guardian, bordering on romantic poetry.

But while Abbey’s words could be read as romantic, he is very much a realist; his words merely do justice to the unique environment they portray.

I’ve loved reading Desert Solitaire. I’ve spent the past six months or so dipping in and out of it: I caught up with old crotchety Edward as he cleared up after another wave of irresponsible tourists; headed into the big, alien city with him to stock up on food; or trotted off with him on a multi-day hike through unnamed canyons with only pinyon nuts and raisins in our pockets.

The tourists have gone home. Most of them. A few still rumble in and ramble around in their sand-pitted dust-choked iron dinosaurs but the great majority, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park. They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place. (Sunset and moonrise, moaning winds and stillness, cloud transformations, the metamorphosis of sunlight, yellowing leaf and the indolent, soaring vulture.…)

Desert Solitaire is rather like Thoreau‘s Walden in many ways. But one of the more palpable themes of the book is a sense of change. The scenery Abbey describes is of an America coming to terms with easier access to its beautiful National Parks and the perceived need to exploit the same natural features that make them so unique. He writes about exploring Glen Canyon before the dam, and everywhere his writing is littered with a subtle sense of foreboding, of great change, just around the corner.

But at the same time, his descriptions are of an America set in stone, where change takes millennia to be affected by the elements, and eventually understood and valued by its inhabitants. And that’s what makes the ever-present threat of change so heartbreaking. But Abbey can only explore, observe, reflect, and report.

Everything is packed, all my camping gear stored away, even my whiskers shaved off. Bald-faced as a bank clerk, I stood in front of a mirror this morning and tried on my only white shirt, recently starched. Like putting on chain mail. I even knotted a tie around my neck and tightened it in the proper style—adjusting the garrote for fit. A grim business, returning to civilization. But duty calls.

Further memoirs and autobiographical writing of Abbey’s seem hard to come by, so I’m branching out into his more prolific fiction work. The Monkey Wrench Gang opens with a rather wonderful depiction of the sabotage of a new bridge being ceremonially opened over Glen Canyon…

Below is a list of my out-of-context, largely useless Kindle highlights from Desert Solitaire. They’re mostly passages that left me tingling, filled with wanderlust, laughing, daydreaming or mournful. If nothing else, they ought to give you a flavour of some of Abbey’s best turns of phrase.


There was time enough for once to do nothing, or next to nothing, and most of the substance of this book is drawn, sometimes direct and unchanged, from the pages of the journals I kept and filled through the undivided, seamless days of those marvelous summers.
LOCATION: 35

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.LOCATION: 69

This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock.LOCATION: 72

This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.LOCATION: 79

The datura is sacred (to certain cultists) because of its content of atropine, a powerful narcotic of the alkaloid group capable of inducing visionary hallucinations, as the Indians discovered long before the psychedelic craze began. How they could have made such a discovery without poisoning themselves to death nobody knows; but then nobody knows how so-called primitive man made his many other discoveries. We must concede that science is nothing new, that research, empirical logic, the courage to experiment are as old as humanity.LOCATION: 506

So much for the inventory. After such a lengthy listing of plant life the reader may now be visualizing Arches National Monument as more a jungle than a desert. Be reassured, it is not so.LOCATION: 517

I idle away hours dreaming of the wonderful winter to come, of the chocolate-colored mistress I’ll have to rub my back, the journal spread open between two tall candles in massive silver candlesticks, the scrambled eggs with green chile, the crock of homebrew fermenting quietly in the corner, etc., the nights of desperate laughter with brave young comrades, burning billboards, and defacing public institutions.… Romantic dreams, romantic dreams.LOCATION: 724

by the simple expedient of requiring all visitors, at the park entrance, to lock up their automobiles and continue their tour on the seats of good workable bicycles supplied free of charge by the United States Government.LOCATION: 914

Let our people travel light and free on their bicycles—nothing on the back but a shirt, nothing tied to the bike but a slicker, in case of rain.LOCATION: 916

The motorized tourists, reluctant to give up the old ways, will complain that they can’t see enough without their automobiles to bear them swiftly (traffic permitting) through the parks. But this is nonsense. A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. Better to idle through one park in two weeks than try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time.LOCATION: 934

A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches—that is the right and privilege of any free American.LOCATION: 964

Money saved by not constructing more paved highways into the parks should be sufficient to finance the cost of bicycles and horses for the entire park system.LOCATION: 980

My thoughts were on the road and the crowds that would pour upon it as inevitably as water under pressure follows every channel which is opened to it.LOCATION: 1003

Any cow without a brand—”slick”—belonged to the finder. (Many a famous cattle outfit had been started with no more than a rope and a good horse.) Cooperation is necessary because in this part of Utah there are not many fences. The cattle wander far over the open range, driven by hunger and thirst, and forget who they belong to. Why no fences? Because in much of the canyon country there is no ground to dig postholes in—nothing but solid rock.LOCATION: 1408

How can you exploit a man who enjoys his work?LOCATION: 1435

The sun climbed noon-high, the heat grew thick and heavy on our brains, the dust clouded our eyes and mixed with our sweat—Viviano’sLOCATION: 1450

The refrigerator, too, is a useful machine. Not indispensable but useful. It is in fact one of the few positive contributions of scientific technology to civilization and I am grateful for it.LOCATION: 1612

For there are the bad moments, or were, especially at the beginning of my life here, when I would sit down at the table for supper inside the housetrailer and discover with a sudden shock that I was alone. There was nobody, nobody at all, on the other side of the table.LOCATION: 1621

But taking my meal outside by the burning juniper in the fireplace with more desert and mountains than I could explore in a lifetime open to view, I was invited to contemplate a far larger world, one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to the human kind.LOCATION: 1628

By taking off my shoes and digging my toes in the sand I made contact with that larger world—anLOCATION: 1630

a man can never find or need better companionship than that of himself.LOCATION: 1634

The great horned owl calls again, once or twice every few minutes, concerned but not anxious. Supper will come. A few bats flicker through the air near the ramada making tiny clicking noises—sonar. There is no moon tonight. Stars appear one by one, forming incomplete constellations: Scorpio, Cassiopeia, Draco, Sagittarius and the Big Dipper. Like a solitary diamond Venus glows on the soft flare in the west, following the sun.LOCATION: 1659

Twilight is over, night is here, the sky is rich with frosty, burning, glittering stars. I become aware that the great horned owl near Balanced Rock has stopped calling; presumably he has found a satisfactory dinner. Bon appetit, mon frère. My little fire is now completely dead, too cold to rekindle, and I must decide whether to rebuild it or unroll the sleeping bag on the cot and turn in. Not an easy decision. The air is still and cool and I am glad that the heat of the day is finally gone. Tomorrow—or is it the day after?—will be the first of July. I have come to the midpoint of my season in the desert.LOCATION: 1877

If this resource is not available and water cannot be found in the rocks or under the sand and you find yourself too tired and discouraged to go on, crawl into the shade and wait for help to find you. If no one is looking for you write your will in the sand and let the wind carry your last words and signature east to the borders of Colorado and south to the pillars of Monument Valley—someday, never fear, your bare elegant bones will be discovered and wondered and marveled at.LOCATION: 1933NOTE: Survival tips from Edward Abbey.

No matter, it’s of slight importance. Time and the winds will sooner or later bury the Seven Cities of Cibola—Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, all of them—under dunes of glowing sand, over which blue-eyed Navajo bedouin will herd their sheep and horses, following the river in winter, the mountains in summer, and sometimes striking off across the desert toward the red canyons of Utah where great waterfalls plunge over silt-filled, ancient, mysterious dams.LOCATION: 2136

July. Though all the windows are wide open and the blinds rattle in a breeze the heat is terrific. The inside of the trailer is like the inside of a kiln, a fierce dry heat that warps the loose linoleum on the floor, turns an exposed slice of bread into something like toast within half an hour, makes my papers crackle like parchment.LOCATION: 2148

Yes, July. The mountains are almost bare of snow except for patches within the couloirs on the northern slopes. Consoling nevertheless, those shrunken snowfields, despite the fact that they’re twenty miles away by line of sight and six to seven thousand feet higher than where I sit. They comfort me with the promise that if the heat down here becomes less endurable I can escape for at least two days each week to the refuge of the mountains—those islands in the sky surrounded by a sea of desert. The knowledge that refuge is available, when and if needed, makes the silent inferno of the desert more easily bearable. Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.LOCATION: 2159

A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces.LOCATION: 2164

We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there.LOCATION: 2165

Technology adds a new dimension to the process by providing modern despots with instruments far more efficient than any available to their classical counterparts. Surely it is no accident that the most thorough of tyrannies appeared in Europe’s most thoroughly scientific and industrialized nation. If we allow our own country to become as densely populated, overdeveloped and technically unified as modern Germany we may face a similar fate.LOCATION: 2175

The sun reigns, I am drowned in light. At this hour, sitting alone at the focal point of the universe, surrounded by a thousand square miles of largely uninhabited no-man’s-land—or all-men’s-land—I cannot seriously be disturbed by any premonitions of danger to my vulnerable wilderness or my all-too-perishable republic. All dangers seem equally remote.LOCATION: 2204

Insect life, sparse to begin with on the open desert, diminishes to near total invisibility and inaudibility during the heat of the day, although at times, during the very hottest and stillest hour, you may hear the eerie ticking noise of a sun-demented cricket or locust, a small sad music that seems to have—like a Bach partita—a touch of something ageless, out of time, eternal in its primeval vibrations.LOCATION: 2228

We paddle our double craft into the current, ship paddles, lean back against the stern seats, which make good backrests and nothing much else, and smoke and talk. My anxieties have vanished and I feel instead a sense of cradlelike security, of achievement and joy, a pleasure almost equivalent to that first entrance—from the outside—into the neck of the womb.LOCATION: 2558

(My God! I’m thinking, what incredible shit we put up with most of our lives—the domestic routine (same old wife every night), the stupid and useless and degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the businessmen, the tedious wars in which we kill our buddies instead of our real enemies back home in the capital, the foul, diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephones—! ah Christ!, I’m thinking, at the same time that I’m waving goodby to that hollering idiot on the shore, what intolerable garbage and what utterly useless crap we bury ourselves in day by day, while patiently enduring at the same time the creeping strangulation of the clean white collar and the rich but modest four-in-hand garrote!)LOCATION: 2582

“White water ahead,” says Ralph quietly, with a sort of complacent satisfaction, as if he had invented the phenomenon all by himself. And instead of doing anything about it he reloads his cheap pipe.LOCATION: 2599

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free. We build a small fire of dead willow branches and propitiate the gods of river and canyon with the incense of woodsmoke, an offering with which, being intangible beings, they are content; we the worshipers, of baser stuff, fry and eat the actual beans, corned beef and eggs. A crude meal, no doubt, but the best of all sauces is hunger.LOCATION: 2648

For entertainment we have the murmur of the river, the drone of cicada and amphibians, the show of nighthawks plunging through the evening gulping bugs. Afterwards we sit by the fire until the fire gives out, listening, smoking, analyzing socioeconomic problems:LOCATION: 2653

I rebuild the fire and drape my sleeping bag above it on a willow bough, smoking it good and proper. When it’s ready I scoop two shallow holes in the sand, one for the hipbones and one for the shoulder blades, lay out the sleeping bag and turn in. Ralph, peaceful as a hanging judge, is already sound asleep. For myself I choose to listen to the river for a while, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars.LOCATION: 2659

Then breakfast: bacon and eggs, fried potatoes, coffee. The unknown birds continue to creak and chirrup. Some I begin to recognize—a mockingbird, killdeer, Mexican finches. Also the usual and prevalent canyon wrens and a few magpies and ravens. Ralph awakes, stirred to life by the aroma of food, takes a bath in the river, combs and pomades his hair, his long black evil sheepherder’s beard. We eat.LOCATION: 2665

If necessary, we agree, a man could live out his life in this place, once he had adjusted his nervous system to the awful quietude, the fearful tranquillity. The silence—meaning here not the total absence of sound, for the river and its canyons are bright with a native music—but rather the total absence of confusion and clamor, that would be the problem.LOCATION: 2679

Some of those alcoves are like great amphitheatres, large as the Hollywood Bowl, big enough for God’s own symphony orchestra.LOCATION: 2701

Newcomb and I meditate upon the red coals of the fire before turning in. Watching the sky I see shooting stars, blue-green and vivid, course across the narrow band of sky between the canyon walls. From downriver, as I fall asleep, comes the deep dull roar of the rapids, a sound which haunts the background of my dreams all night long.LOCATION: 2734

Wilderness. The word itself is music.LOCATION: 2783

The wind has freshened the air and cooled it. Naked in the moonlight, I enjoy the change, and listen for a time to the hoodoo voice of a great horned owl up on the rim somewhere. Then I go back to sleep and this time sleep well, lullabied by wind and water.LOCATION: 2921

Others have been here before. On a mural wall I find petroglyphs—the images of bighorn sheep, snakes, mule deer, sun and raincloud symbols, men with lances. The old people, the Anasazi.LOCATION: 2976

I come to a second dripping spring, water seeping from a fissure far above, falling in spray upon a massive slab of rock at the foot of the wall. On the flat surface of this tilted slab somebody, maybe a Mormon cowboy fifty years ago, maybe an Indian eight hundred years ago, has chiseled two converging grooves which catch some of the falling water and conduct it to a carved spout at the lower edge. The grooves are well worn, smooth as a pebble to the touch.LOCATION: 2978

As I sit there drinking water from cupped hands, I happen to look up and see on the opposite wall, a hundred feet above the floor of the canyon, the ruins of three tiny stone houses in a shallow cave. As is the case with many cliff dwellings, the erosion of eight centuries has removed whole blocks of rock which formerly must have supported ladders and handholds, making the ghost village now inaccessible.LOCATION: 2981

Late in the morning, close to noon, the sun comes glowering over the wall in a burst of fire and we are driven out of our sacks. Into the green lagoon for a bath and a swim and then Ralph baits a hook with the reliable rotten salami, I build a campfire in the shade and fill the skillet with grease, and once again we dine on channel cat—delicious fish! After this combined breakfast and dinner we retire to the water again and deeper shade, evading the worst of the midday heat. Naked as savages, we float on our backs in the still water, squat on the cool sand under the sheltering cottonwood and smoke like sachems. We may not have brought enough food but at least we’ve got plenty of Bull Durham.LOCATION: 3028

God? I think, quibbling with Balzac; in New-comb’s terms, who the hell is He? There is nothing here, at the moment, but me and the desert. And that’s the truth. Why confuse the issue by dragging in a superfluous entity? Occam’s razor. Beyond atheism, nontheism. I am not an atheist but an earthiest. Be true to the earth.LOCATION: 3101

The next morning I bought a slab of bacon and six cans of beans at the village post office, rented a large comfortable horse and proceeded farther down the canyon past miniature cornfields, green pastures, swimming pools and waterfalls to the ruins of an old mining camp five miles below the village. There I lived, mostly alone except for the ghosts, for the next thirty-five days.LOCATION: 3320

So I lived alone. The first thing I did was take off my pants. Naturally. Next I unloaded the horse, smacked her on the rump and sent her back to the village. I carried my food and gear into the best-preserved of the old cabins and spread my bedroll on a rusty steel cot. After that came a swim in the pool beneath a great waterfall nearby, 120 feet high, which rolled in mist and thunder over caverns and canopies of solidified travertine.LOCATION: 3327

In the evening of that first day below the falls I lay down to sleep in the cabin. A dark night. The door of the cabin, unlatched, creaked slowly open, although there was no perceptible movement of the air. One firefly flickered in and circled my bacon, suspended from the roofbeam on a length of baling wire. Slowly, without visible physical aid, the door groaned shut. And opened again. A bat came through one window and went out another, followed by a second firefly (the first scooped up by the bat) and a host of mosquitoes, which did not leave. I had no netting, of course, and the air was much too humid and hot for sleeping inside a bag. I got up and wandered around outside for a while, slapping at mosquitoes, and thinking. From the distance came the softened roar of the waterfall, that “white noise” as soothing as hypnosis. I rolled up my sleeping bag and in the filtered light of the stars followed the trail that wound through thickets of cactus and up around ledges to the terrace above the mining camp. The mosquitoes stayed close but in lessening numbers, it seemed, as I climbed over humps of travertine toward the head of the waterfall. Near the brink of it, six feet from the drop-off and the plunge, I found a sandy cove just big enough for my bed. The racing creek as it soared free over the edge created a continuous turbulence in the air sufficient to keep away all flying insects. I slept well that night and the next day carried the cot to the place and made it my permanent bedroom for the rest of July and all of August.LOCATION: 3331

On my feet again, I explored the abandoned silver mines in the canyon walls, found a few sticks of dynamite but no caps or fuses. Disappointing; but there was nothing in that area anyway that required blowing up. I climbed through the caves that led down to the foot of Mooney Falls, 200 feet high. What did I do? There was nothing that had to be done. I listened to the voices, the many voices, vague, distant but astonishingly human, of Havasu Creek. I heard the doors creak open, the doors creak shut, of the old forgotten cabins where no one with tangible substance or the property of reflecting light ever entered, ever returned. I went native and dreamed away days on the shore of the pool under the waterfall, wandered naked as Adam under the cottonwoods, inspecting my cactus gardens. The days became wild, strange, ambiguous—a sinister element pervaded the flow of time. I lived narcotic hours in which like the Taoist Chuang-tse I worried about butterflies and who was dreaming what. There was a serpent, a red racer, living in the rocks of the spring where I filled my canteens; he was always there, slipping among the stones or pausing to mesmerize me with his suggestive tongue and cloudy haunted primeval eyes. Damn his eyes. We got to know each other rather too well I think. I agonized over the girls I had known and over those I hoped were yet to come. I slipped by degrees into lunacy, me and the moon, and lost to a certain extent the power to distinguish between what was and what was not myself: looking at my hand I would see a leaf trembling on a branch. A green leaf. I thought of Debussy, of Keats and Blake and Andrew Marvell. I remembered Tom o’Bedlam. And all those lost and never remembered. Who would return? To be lost again? I went for walks. I went for walks. I went for walks and on one of these, the last I took in Havasu, regained everything that seemed to be ebbing away.LOCATION: 3361

My second thought was to scream for help, although I knew very well there could be no other human being within miles. I even tried it but the sound of that anxious shout, cut short in the dead air within the canyon walls, was so inhuman, so detached as it seemed from myself, that it terrified me and I didn’t attempt it again.LOCATION: 3406

Each day begins clean and promising in the sweet cool clear green light of dawn. And then the sun appears, its hydrogen cauldrons brimming—so to speak—with plasmic fires, and the tyranny of its day begins.LOCATION: 3469

Another kind of music sometimes fills the early hours. Almost every morning for a week I have been honored by the serenade of a den of coyotes—a family perhaps—somewhere about a mile to the west of my camp. Weird, unearthly song—like the legendary wail of banshees, or more precisely, like the sounds produced by new electronic instruments such as the cithare and Onde Martinote. Occult music is but a part of the coyotes’ repertoire: they vary the program with more conventional howls, yelps and barks when it pleases them to do so. Usually they stop their singing and retire into the rocks, out of caution, soon after the sun comes up. I’m not going to look for their lair, for that might frighten them away, and we need coyotes, need them badly, in Arches National Monument. As does the nation as a whole, for that matter. We need coyotes more than we need, let us say, more people, of whom we have already an extravagant surplus, or more domesticated dogs, which in all fairness could and should be ground up into hamburger and used as emergency coyote food, to raise their spirits and perhaps improve the tenor of their predawn howling.LOCATION: 3497

In the light of the stars I walk through tall, dewy grass past a stone fireplace which I remember well, for I am the one who built it, to the edge of a brook.LOCATION: 3693

The fire is right. I set a light grill over the flames and on the grill roll out a big thin tough beefsteak, which happens to be the kind of beefsteak I prefer. I reach for the bottle. Very quietly and selfishly, all by my lonesome, I cook and drink and eat my supper, smoke a cigar for dessert, finish the wine. The stars look kindly down. Drunk as a Navajo I pull off my boots and crawl into the snug warm down-filled womblike mummy bag. The night is cold, perhaps freezing—should I drain the radiator? To hell with it. High on the lap of Tukuhnikivats the King, wrapped in the sack in my home away from home, I close my eyes and go to sleep.LOCATION: 3700

Hunger stirs within me like a great music.LOCATION: 3711

I stand on broken rock, slabs of granite veined with feldspar and quartz, colored with patches of green and auburn lichens. I am on the north face of Tukuhnikivats; blocking the view to the east and northeast are Mounts Peale and Mellenthin but north and west and southwest the world is open and I can see the knobs and domes of the Arches, the gray-blue Roan Cliffs beyond, the town and valley of Moab 7000 feet below, the looming headlands of Hatch Point, Dead Horse Point and Grandview Point, and farther away, farthest of all, wonderfully remote, the Orange Cliffs, Land’s End and The Maze, an exhilarating vastness bathed in morning light, room enough for a lifetime of exploration.LOCATION: 3735

Then why climb Tukuhnikivats? Because I prefer to. Because no one else will if I don’t—and somebody has to do it. Because it is the most dramatic in form of the La Sals, the most conspicuous and beautiful as seen from my terrace in the Arches. Because, finally, I like the name. Tukuhnikivats—in the language of the Utes “where the sun lingers.”LOCATION: 3778

A cairn of stones over the brass-headed benchmark of the Geodetic Survey marks the highest point and there I sit to eat my lunch, shielded from the wind by the cairn and drenched in warmth from a sun that has never seemed so close, so dazzling, in such a dark and violet sky.LOCATION: 3787

The climb up from timberline had taken about two hours. Looking down at the graceful curve of the thousand-foot snowfield it seems to me that the descent should not require more than five minutes. I put on my clothes, shoulder the rucksack and work down over the rock to the couloir and the upper end of the slide.LOCATION: 3820

Everything seems to be in good shape except my hands, which are bruised and numb, and the heels and soles of my boots, which are hanging to the uppers by a few threads and a couple of bent nails. I hammer them back together with a stone and continue my descent the hard way, crawling over the rubble until I reach the scrub spruce and the fringe of the forest.LOCATION: 3843

So much for the stars. Why, a man could lose his mind in those incomprehensible distances. Is there intelligent life on other worlds? Ask rather, is there intelligent life on earth? There are mysteries enough right here in America, in Utah, in the canyons.LOCATION: 4182

Munching pinyon nuts fresh from the trees nearby, we fill the fuel tank and cache the empty jerrycan, also a full one, in the bushes. Pine nuts are delicious, sweeter than hazelnuts but difficult to eat; you have to crack the shells in your teeth and then, because they are smaller than peanut kernels, you have to separate the meat from the shell with your tongue. If one had to spend a winter in Frenchy’s cabin, let us say, with nothing to eat but pinyon nuts, it is an interesting question whether or not you could eat them fast enough to keep from starving to death. Have to ask the Indians about this.LOCATION: 4237

A few drops of rain sprinkle the sandstone at my feet and patter gently on Waterman in his bag. He makes no move. Breakfast, I tell him; let’s eat! He comes to life.LOCATION: 4384

The tourists have gone home. Most of them. A few still rumble in and ramble around in their sand-pitted dust-choked iron dinosaurs but the great majority, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park. They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place. (Sunset and moonrise, moaning winds and stillness, cloud transformations, the metamorphosis of sunlight, yellowing leaf and the indolent, soaring vulture.…)LOCATION: 4409

Everything is packed, all my camping gear stored away, even my whiskers shaved off. Bald-faced as a bank clerk, I stood in front of a mirror this morning and tried on my only white shirt, recently starched. Like putting on chain mail. I even knotted a tie around my neck and tightened it in the proper style—adjusting the garrote for fit. A grim business, returning to civilization. But duty calls. Yes, I hate it so much that I’m spending the best part of a paycheck on airplane tickets.LOCATION: 4420

In the government truck I make a final tour of the park. East past the Balanced Rock to Double Arch and the Windows; back again and north and east to Turnbow Cabin and up the trail to Delicate Arch; back again and northwest beyond the Fiery Furnace into the Devil’s Garden, where I walk for the last time this year out the trail past Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, and Wall Arch, all the way out to Double-O Arch at the end of the path. My own, my children, mine by right of possession, possession by right of love, by divine right, I now surrender them all to the winds of winter and the snow and the starving deer and the pinyon jays and the emptiness and the silence unbroken by even a thought.LOCATION: 4449

“Ferris, stop this car. Let’s go back.” But he only steps harder on the gas. “No,” he says, “you’ve got a train to catch.” He sees me craning my neck to stare backward. “Don’t worry,” he adds, “it’ll all still be here next spring.” The sun goes down, I face the road again, we light up our afterdinner cigars. Keeping the flame alive. The car races forward through a world dissolving into snow and night. Yes, I agree, that’s a good thought and it better be so. Or by God there might be trouble. The desert will still be here in the spring. And then comes another thought. When I return will it be the same? Will I be the same? Will anything ever be quite the same again? If I return.LOCATION: 4493

 

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