“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.


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