Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
by Edward Abbey
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
When Edward Abbey died in 1989 he left behind a body of work—both fiction and essays—tolling his anarchistic, environmentalist social criticism. Yet his 1968 nonfictional Desert Solitaire remains the book for which, appropriately, he is most remembered.
Based on his seasonal job as park ranger at Arches National Monument during the 1950s, it is an unforgettable book. It makes the reader want to follow Abbey out into the desert, with a parting raspberry for “syphilization,” as he calls it.
Alone and at times lonely, Abbey lived three summers in a tin trailer 20 miles from Moab, Utah—though sleeping under the stars and avoiding his government-supplied home as much as possible. Occasionally he jawed with a smattering of tourists, at times pursued outdoor adventures with likeminded misfits and cowboys, but generally remained solitaire. Just Abbey, the desert and its array of living things—animal, vegetable, and, for him, mineral. The mountains and sand, the rocks and rivers, became for Abbey a living organism, the desert, that would outlive all others.
Taken largely from his desert journals, the book quenches like cool water from an oasis. A first glance, however, would show only scattered essays, polemics, travel adventures, philosophy, science, sarcasm, hearsay, and amateur anthropology (Abbey’s ongoing study of rattus urbanus, which summers in the desert). But dig just a bit and you find issuing forth a steady, sustaining and vivifying narrative: The story of a sensual man (admittedly driven somewhat insane by his hermitage) striving, with great verve and courage, to live fully and, with great wit, intelligence, and heart, to comprehend his world.
Our protagonist, Abbey, holds these disparate musings and adventures together by the force of his character: his iconoclasm, his thoughtfulness, his raw energy. Like Thoreau he sets out “to confront the elemental,” non-human world in the desert—a typically American urge, particularly manifest out West, to seek solace in solitude. And like Thoreau what he finds there is himself.
An admitted sensualist, he relishes sleeping on hard ground and feeling the fluid motion of his own body as he climbs mountains and swims rivers; he cherishes the hardscrabble life of a cowboy (work he performs on his days off) and the smooth feel of good whiskey or a friendly woman. But most of all he loves freedom. And here in the desert he finds it and wonders how Man can keep it.
The question and quest of freedom are never far from his mind, whether waxing poetic or polemical. He muses on the spareness and simplicity of the desert—two qualities he admires in most things—where “the living organism [including Abbey] stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock.”
But then, typically, he adds to his aesthetic judgment his philosophic: “Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” This, like most of Abbey’s judgments here, has the ring of truth and rightness and leaves the reader nodding in agreement and regret.
Despite such occasional philosophic delicacy, Abbey is anything but sweetness and light. His pen pours corrosive acid on modernity, government (namely, the Park Service, dam builders, and Bureau of Indian Affairs), and Industrial Tourism, as he calls it, which works to enrich the auto and hotel industries at nature’s expense.
Yet his unbridled contempt for contemporary culture, mankind, and mechanistic life is leavened by his wit, as when he refers to himself not as an atheist but an “earthiest.” And when he cautions an uncomprehending elderly tourist on the dangers of television: a vacuum tube capable of sucking out her brain.
Though Abbey rises through these pages rough-edged, misanthropic, vitriolic, or vulgar, we never forget that we are in the company of an intelligent, educated writer, Stanford-trained and invoking Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence (both of them), Balzac, and Hegel. But we enjoy his company nonetheless, for his reverence for nature and wilderness, for his risking his life (which he almost loses on a few occasions) in his worship of it, for his humanity and honesty. And for the lessons he teaches us and the poignant journeys he invites us on—like his raft trip down Glen Canyon, now lost to view thanks to the damming of the Colorado.
Along the way he finds God—or some facsimile—in the eternal resiliency of the desert: “Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelope the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas—the canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter through, water will form and warmth shall be upon the land and after sufficient time, no matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course.”
Such is optimism Abbey-style. Yet the reader senses our species’ tenacity and combativeness in Abbey’s informed fierceness, and leaves his desert reassured and reverent.