“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.

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Landscape Arch and LaSal Mountain (NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank)

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 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.


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Lyveden New Bield

One of the great things about being a member of the National Trust (oh yes, Lisa and I both very much feel as though we are that far into our twenties now) is the sheer choice of interesting places to visit.

Our first ‘proper’ visit – the one where we decided to take out a membership – was a very much anticipated trip to Snowshill Manor, home to the eccentric and wonderful Charles Paget Wade.

But our most recent came from me scrolling through their excellent app to find locations not too far away which seemed interesting. And so the app led us to Lyveden New Bield, between Northampton and Peterborough.

The building is situated off a minor country road and remains hidden from view until you’ve bumped and rolled your way along a rough path leading to the National Trust car park. But when it appears it looks most peculiar.

A strong, solid outline of a building standing out on its own in beautiful rural scenery, although seeming not to have windows or a roof – surely a ruin? But no – this is a common misconception.

Although this Elizabethan ‘new build’ has the toothless look of a ruined castle or manor house, Lyveden was in fact never completed, after construction began more than 400 years ago.

And what a remarkable thing it is. Beautiful and very telling of the potential for how it could have been – and yet quite empty and heartbreaking. How rare to find not just a building of this age looking so fresh and sharp in places, but also to find one that was started, never finished – and then never demolished either. Just sat there, all lonely and… weird. But still no less beautiful.

Lyveden cuts a lonely figure perched out there in pristine fields, although it is flanked by a nearby cottage and primitive visitor’s centre (quite literally a shed, although the cottage is being converted into a tea room).

Just over the way is its neighbouring manor house; Lyveden was designed by Sir Thomas Tresham to entertain guests. This primary purpose is evident in the building’s layout. Entrance for 21st century visitors is via a low doorway to the rear – originally for servants.

With no interior floors or features – just holes where floorboards and joists would have sat – it takes a bit of imagination to understand the upper areas. But a handy audio guide does its best to explain the situation of various features of the house, while large recognisable features like fireplaces and doorways stand out.

The scale of the construction is also a bit tricky to get your head around. With no roof to close the space in, visitors are left to crane their necks up at the unusual framing of the sky, which is itself a remarkable feature of the place.

Overall, Lyveden is fascinating from a historical perspective just as much as from an architectural one. The remote rural setting is lovely too, and we were treated to seeing it under a slate-grey sky full of cloud as well as in bright sunlight with blue skies in the space of an hour or so. The mind boggles as to how the place must look in other conditions such as snow or fog.

What a wonderful place. I know we will return.

Meanwhile, having driven us from Milton Keynes to pretty Oundle in Northamptonshire, Lisa, the ever-eager driver, decided that we simply must be closer to the sea than usual…

Despite my apprehension that we must surely in fact be about as far inland as it is possible to get in England, we decided to drive out to the Norfolk coast to see the beach at Hunstanton, overlooking the Wash.

But that’s another story for another blog post, I reckon.

A circular stroll from Stony via Passenham, Deanshanger and Beachampton

Beyond the top left-hand corner of the alluring and perplexing grid of Milton Keynes, there lies a scattering of small villages, old coaching towns and farms surrounded by rolling fields. One of the real benefits of living near Milton Keynes, and the flip-side to the convenient transport and amenities, is its proximity to beautiful English countryside.

So it is that it only takes a few minutes’ walk – and, ideally, an OS map – to stumble off the grid, beyond the high street and into lush, green fields and a network of public footpaths both ancient and new.

Fields near Beachampton
An old grave stone at St Guthlac’s, Passenham

 

The pedestrian overpass near Deanshanger – a Milton Keynes public footpath

 

Blown-out skies over Calverton

 

Lisa navigating us home from Calverton