Simon & Schuster, 1968, 268 pages
When Desert Solitaire was first published in 1968, it became the focus of a nationwide cult. Rude and sensitive. Thought-provoking and mystical. Angry and loving. Both Abbey and this book are all of these and more. Here, the legendary author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey's Road and many other critically acclaimed books vividly captures the essence of his life during three seasons as a park ranger in southeastern Utah. This is a rare view of a quest to experience nature in its purest form -- the silence, the struggle, the overwhelming beauty. But this is also the gripping, anguished cry of a man of character who challenges the growing exploitation of the wilderness by oil and mining interests, as well as by the tourist industry.
Abbey's observations and challenges remain as relevant now as the day he wrote them. Today, Desert Solitaire asks if any of our incalculable natural treasures can be saved before the bulldozers strike again.
'Twas in the town of Tuscon, it was 1983
A man named Edward Abbey came walking up to me,
Pulled his Seagull from his mouth, said I smell lawyers here
The politician running dogs, they crawled away in fear
Sing a doo rah doo, Sing a doo rah dey
Ed walked across the desert at least ten thousand times
He spoke with javelinas and he slept 'neath pinon pines,
And if Ed saw a billboard there, he'd chop that bastard down
Ed said if a man can't piss in his own front yard, he's living too close to town
Sing a doo rah doo, Sing a doo rah dey
I only picked up this book because I have Tom Russel's album, which includes The Ballad of Edward Abbey, excerpted above. Abbey was a cantankerous anarchistic environmentalist writer back before environmentalism was what all the cool kids were into.
Desert Solitaire is a memoir of his time spent at a park ranger at Arches National Park and other areas around Moab, Utah. His writing, when he describes mornings in the desert, and the beauty of the lonesome desert, unspoiled by human traffic, is beautiful and evocative.
He has little good to say about the park service, or tourists, or modern civilization. He enjoyed his time alone in the wilderness, but also enjoyed some of his time with his fellow rangers, and even occasionally has some compassion for the park visitors who want to see nature but want a road paved all the way through it so they can see it from the comfort of their automobiles and then enjoy a Starbucks latte at the gift shop.
Actually, this was written in the 60s, before Starbucks was really a thing, but Abbey would certainly see the proliferation of Starbucks as the inevitable progression of what he warned of all the way back in the 60s. He'd expect there to be Starbucks in Yosemite and Arches and Death Valley by now.
Abbey's stories apparently spoke to a segment of the counter-culture in 1968, mostly young men who fancied themselves would-be hearty wilderness men who'd trek through the desert communing with nature. Abbey didn't want to encourage more trekkers in his beloved deserts - he wanted to abolish highways, put a moratorium on automobiles, and suggested strict population control. Of course he wasn't expecting his suggestions to be taken seriously, but he did hope someone would listen.
Abbey's writing is poignant at times, and besides his own personal anecdotes, he tells a few stories, like the uranium prospector who wound up in a fatal love triangle between himself, his wife, and the land owner who conned him into prospecting that led to three deaths. But his cautions have of course been ignored, and this book is dated - even at the time he wrote it, he thought there were too many roads, too much development, and that was 50 years ago. So it's also a depressing book about an old man yelling at clouds before he was really old.
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