I discovered Edward Abbey long after I ought to have. A native of Utah, and someone who traveled to Moab, and other desert locations, since I was a child, I grew up with a deep love for that improbable landscape. And yet I had never heard of Edward Abbey until only a few years ago.
Within the first pages of Desert Solitaire I realized that I was reading the words of a kindred spirit. At least in our love of the desert. His writing is both realistic, and mythical. Capturing the essence of the landscape, while paying homage to the ancient presence of those who have come before. That is, he understood that the canyon country was home to the Ancient Ones, and that they still linger within the deep recesses of both imagination and reality. Or, as he described it, “For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same.”
Abbey is remembered for being an environmental anarchist, a defender of the wild, a fierce critic of government, industrialism and technology. There is a bite to his words, a cruel truth that cuts deep. But there is also an idealism that I think even he knew was impractical, impossible. Perhaps that is why he was as critical as he was. He knew that he was fighting against the inevitability of growth, progress, and the American notion of manifest destiny.
As I type these words, several years after the little episode of the gray jeep and the thirsty engineers, all that was foretold has come to pass. Arches National Monument has been developed…you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles… The little campgrounds where I used to putter around…have now been consolidated into one master campground that looks…like a suburban village: elaborate house trailers of quilted aluminum crowd upon gigantic camper-trucks of Fiberglas and molded plastic; through their windows you will see the blue glow of television and hear the studio laughter of Los Angeles; knobby-kneed oldsters in plaid Bermudas buzz up and down the quaintly curving asphalt road on motorbikes…the rangers are going quietly nuts answering the same three basic questions five hundred times a day: (1) Where’s the john? (2) How long’s it take to see this place? (3) Where’s the Coke machine?
Progress has come at last to the Arches, after a million years of neglect. Industrial Tourism has arrived.
And yet, there are still wild places in the world. And thankfully they are generally difficult to arrive at. The softness of the American way of life frowns upon the physical effort needed to see, and be in the wilderness. Paved roads have sneaked into the mountains and the deserts, but they only go so far. And not many are willing in this age of air conditioned adventuring to get out and feel the heat or the wind. The pain of an elevated heartbeat and coursing lactic acid are picking up where Abbey left off. The new saboteur of industrial tourism is physical discomfort.
I read Abbey with mixed reactions. I like to think I am a practical person. I like to think that dams and roads and that “small dark cloud of progress” are making life better, easier, and more productive. But I also see the beauty and simplicity in the slow paced, hard earned existence of his idyllic vision. Can there be both? Can man be at once solitary, and societal? “The only thing better than solitude”, he realized, “is society.”
Man is a gregarious creature, we are told, a social being. Does that mean he is also a herd animal? I don’t believe it, despite the character of modern life. The herd is for ungulates, not for men and women and their children. Are men no better than sheep or cattle, that they must live always in view of one another in order to feel a sense of safety? I can’t believe it.
We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.
And so that paradox that he lived in, is the same paradox I read him with. The machine of urbanization is simply to powerful to stop. But it feels good to oppose it. To slow it down a little. To escape into the mountains and live for a time as those Ancient Ones. At least as they would have lived had they had gas stoves, lightweight tents, water filters, LED headlamps and dehydrated beef stew.
Teamwork, that’s what made America what it is today. Teamwork and initiative. The survey crew had done their job; I would do mine. For about five miles I followed the course of their survey back toward headquarters, and as I went I pulled up each little wooden stake and threw it away, and cut all the bright ribbons from the bushes and hid them under a rock. A futile effort, in the long run, but it made me feel good. Then I went home to the trailer, taking a shortcut over the bluffs.
The sun continues to rise and fall. Wind and rain and time whip away at the sandstone of the Arches, and the peaks of the Wasatch. Life rambles onward into the distance. And despite the best efforts of progress to tame wild places, those wild places still remain. And they always will. They stand on their own, defiant against the audacity of man and the sneer of growth. In many instances the only defense these wild places need is their own rugged inaccessibility. Let man try and conquer them. Chances are his heart will give out, exploding in a bloody mess, leaving him sprawled across a wooded ridge, destined to become fodder for the cougar and bear, the vulture and maggot.