Monday, June 12, 2017

Adventures of the Very Best Kind

Now I understand why this is a classic.

In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey relates the high and low points of his circa 1957 summer spent as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, a fantastically beautiful and remote desert area near Moab, Utah.

Abbey has a reputation as a wild man of nature, as well as a man of letters, and both aspects are clearly on display here. While remaining in awe of the wilderness and its intimately complex relationships, he doesn't sugarcoat its dangers, such as the high-walled dry canyons that a far-away rainstorm can turn into a deathtrap, leaving only minutes for escape once the hiker hears the rumble that means a wall of red, sludgy water is rapidly approaching. Riveting descriptions of scenery and interactions with creatures, weather, and human companions make this so much more than a "nature book." Abbey clearly had plenty of time while in the desert to observe, to ponder, and to develop his voice--and it shows on every page.  

At the same time, Abbey relishes the deprivations of ranger life, including the oppressive heat that requires him to do most of his living outdoors, avoiding the sweatbox interior of his metal trailer, and extrapolates from his experiences the benefit that lack of civilization confers on those who encounter the wilderness on its own terms. Abbey's ideal national park system would be without roads, camping facilities, and comforts of any kind. He believes humans should meet nature where she lives and that ease of access to natural wonders cheapens the experience . . . or perhaps more accurately, makes the experience accessible to the undeserving, who enjoy the privilege without earning it.

In this Abbey is quite prescient. Today we have such phenomena as "glamping," humongous campgrounds with hundreds of sites, swimming pools, wifi, and other comforts of home, and mountain summits that boast gift shops and restaurants.

While I personally enjoy the easy access provided by, say, driving to a trailhead rather than having to walk several miles with my backpack before I start my hike, I largely agree with his point. Of the millions of people who visit the Grand Canyon each year, how many are inspired by their visit to become active in its preservation, or in the preservation of other parks nearer their homes? How many, instead, see it and return to their regular lives with another check mark on their life list, or form the opinion that more development in the area would be an improvement?

Regardless of whether you agree with his answers, the questions Abbey poses remain supremely relevant today.


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. 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. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.    

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