“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”
~Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Forty years ago Arches was anisolated and infrequently visited spot. There was only a simple dirt track when Edward Abbey was a ranger here and wrote his seminal work, Desert Solitaire. Today is a different story. The park has been ‘discovered’ and unless it’s the dead of winter you’re practically assured of being part of a crowd that rivals those of the Grand Canyon. By mid-morning on this particular October week, the line of cars entering the park stretched well over a fourth of a mile. Fortunately I was departing, having arrived in the pre-dawn darkness, with no intention of returning until late in the afternoon. Still, I was hoping to find the essence, the true nature, of Arches National Park, despite the crowds of people.
If he were alive, Edward Abbey would probably be apoplectic by such a scene. As it is now, he could be turning over in his grave if he knew these circumstances existed. Having spent a few years of his life here at Arches, he forged a strong connection to this land which he so vividly illustrates in Desert Solitaire. Anyone who reads this book won’t have trouble understanding Abbey’s attraction to this rugged desert landscape as well as his feelings as to how people should experience it.
I intend to put a different slant on this blog. Rather than providing our personal experiences and descriptions of the park, I’ll let the written words and biographical information of Edward Abbey take you through. My photos, his thoughts. Between the two, perhaps your interest will be piqued . . . maybe enough to inspire a trip of your own, or to read his book, seeing the park through his words. All of the quotations have been taken from Desert Solitaire. And, let me add, those words don’t necessarily reflect my thoughts or opinions, at least to their fullest extent. Nevertheless, they certainly illustrate his personality and beliefs.
~ Author’s Note
In the late 1950s Edward Abbey spent a couple of summers as a ranger in what was then Arches National Monument. His experiences during those summers living in a park trailer in the interior of the monument became the basis for his first nonfiction book, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. The book is filled with beautiful descriptions of the raw desert. He also includes some of his adventures while there, as well as his views on development in the Southwest.
In 1929, newly-inaugurated President Herbert Hoover declared two separate areas as Arches National Monument, both near Moab, Utah. The area was enlarged and opened to tourist development by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. It was designated as a national park in 1971, and although Abbey might disagree, the raw beauty of the landscape is still on display, as the one million visitors each year will come to see.
“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.”
For Abbey, the desert and stark canyon lands of the American Southwest, beyond the end of the roads, became his ideal place. Passing the visitor center, the park road winds steeply up the side of the canyon formed by the Moab Fault, past the Penguins and along the Great Wall until the full splendor of the park comes in to view at the top. With its towering monoliths and spires, the aptly named Park Avenue is a grand introduction.
Based on his activities as a park ranger, Desert Solitaire is often compared to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Published in 1968, Abbey’s classic reveals his fierce devotion to the desert’s wild landscapes and equally fierce opposition to something he called “industrial tourism” where development, including visitor centers and roads, is the center of people’s “nature” experiences rather than nature itself.
“Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”
To call Edward Abbey simply an “environmentalist” would be inaccurate. Although his writing focused primarily on environmental issues, Abbey seemed to be constantly critiquing the culture that surrounded him. His works ranged from fiction writing to blunt, and sometimes harsh, essays. Much of his writing was so controversial that even some groups of environmentalists rebuked his stance. Abbey was known to throw beer cans from his car because the highway he was traveling had already ruined the landscape surrounding it.
“No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs–anything–but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.”
” Let the people walk . . . What about children? What about the aged and infirm? Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups. Children too small to ride bicycles and too heavy to be borne on their parents’ backs need only wait a few years–if they are not run over by automobiles they will grow up into a lifetime of joyous adventure. . . . The aged merit even less sympathy: after all they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled.”
You can’t help but feel his passion in this deeply poetic book. It has philosophy. It has humor. It has sincerity and conviction. His words are often blunt and even callous in their fervor.
“So I lived alone.
The first thing I did was take off my pants. Naturally.”
He finds a supreme irony in the fact that our national parks originated with a two-fold purpose: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. Two principle goals which he perceives as destined to collide as the public’s enjoyment today implicitly involves the automobile and the roads they require.
“Wilderness and motors are incompatible and the former can best be experienced, understood and enjoyed when the machines are left behind where they belong — on the superhighways and in the parking lots . . . “
“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.”
The book is interspersed with observations and discussions about the various tensions, be they physical, social or existential, between humans and the desert environment. Many of the chapters also contain lengthy critiques of modern Western civilization, our country’s politics, and the decline of America’s environment. At times it becomes a polemic against development and excessive tourism in our national parks.
And, from my experience in the days we were there, Abbey does have a point. For all its grandeur, unless one is willing to walk several miles or at least out of sight of the roads and popular locations, you’ll be hard pressed to find a spot where you can create a personal relationship with this unique landscape.
“Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. not so much from choice as from necessity – I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”
In his own unique and provocative style, Abbey describes his experiences as a park ranger in Arches National Park (it was a National Monument back then) before it became more “civilized”. Abbey is blunt, at times testy, a bit irascible, and certainly rough around the edges. He is, as one writer put it, an “eloquent loner”.
Abbey was able to create a synthesis between the redrock landscape and his words, as rough and stark as the scenery itself, compelling the reader to feel and see his world.
Desert Solitaire is moving, passionate, and controversial. His words are heartfelt. You won’t always agree with Abbey, but you will think. And you will be grateful Abbey took you along for the wild ride and let you in on some of his adventures.
“Wilderness. The word itself is music.”
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
“A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins.”
Another sight that I’m sure would distress Abbey in no small measure would be to witness the throngs that gather almost every evening at one of the park’s most noteworthy places. Delicate Arch is where the action happens. The Mecca of Arches, the end of the rainbow, simply the iconic image of the park. A thicket of tripods manned by photographers of every caliber line the sloping sandstone shelf overlooking that magnificent arch. All are waiting for that special moment, hoping for “the glow”—the magic moment when the setting sun, on clear evenings, turns Delicate Arch a fiery red.
“If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful – that which is full of wonder.”
Perched precariously on the edge of a sandstone basin, this lone arching ribbon of stone well deserves its reputation. You earn the privilege to behold it in all its glory as the hike is a steady uphill climb across slickrock, ending with a narrow catwalk of a trail carved into the face of a sheer cliff. Delicate Arch, standing 45 feet tall and framing the distant La Sal Mountains, justifiably earns the right to be the most photographed feature in a most photogenic national park.
Edward Abbey’s life ended in much the same way as he had lived . . . with his unique style and personal choices. Not wanting to be embalmed, he made a request that his friends transport his body in the bed of a pickup truck to his grave, wrapped only in a sleeping bag, and buried without attention to the laws concerning burial. His final wish was to fertilize the growth of a tree, bush or other desert plant. He also made the request that a marker would include his final words . . . “No Comment.” A group of his closest friends fulfilled those wishes. Then celebrated his life with one loud and boisterous wake.
A person is fortunate, extremely so, when his words far outlive his life. So it is with Edward Abbey. You might find his views somewhat untenable, but some thoughts are worth giving credence to. Keeping with the theme of this post, he should have the final words.
“ So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.”
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.
May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”
Melinda & Chris
If Abbey’s words have touched a chord in you, perhaps you’d like to give the following book by David Gessner a once over: All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West; or read a short synopsis here.