What Abbey’s ‘Desert Solitaire’ means in these trying times

The book turns 50 this year, and is more relevant now than ever.

 

John Buckley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a Washington novelist and CEO of Subject Matter, a creative advocacy firm.


Fifty years ago, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was published to decent reviews but little fanfare. “Another book dropped down the bottomless well. Into oblivion,” wrote a disheartened Abbey in his journal Feb. 6, 1968.

Yet it has remained in print for a half-century and created a devoted following. As President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke carved 2 million acres out of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, both in the heart of “Abbey Country,” Desert Solitaire remains more relevant today than ever.

An account of Abbey’s time as a ranger in what is now Arches National Park, Desert Solitaire is both memoir and a passionate defense of our nation’s last unspoiled land. In spirit, though, his book resembles a 1960s nonfiction novel. Sometimes howlingly funny, it compresses the two postwar decades Abbey spent in Utah and Arizona into a single “season in the wilderness.” 

A view from the Kayenta Trail in Zion National Park.
Al_HikesAZ/Flickr

“Do not jump in your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages,” he famously wrote. “In the first place, you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy.”

By the time Abbey wrote that, his beloved Glen Canyon was “going under fast,” gurgling beneath Lake Powell as the Glen Canyon Dam plugged the Colorado River’s flow. The fact that Arches and Canyonlands national monuments would later become national parks was of little comfort to Abbey, who in Desert Solitaire bemoans what he termed the “industrial tourism” that revolves around the automobile.

Compared to Abbey’s fierce opposition to modern capitalism, Bernie Sanders comes off as comparatively milquetoast. Above all, Abbey was an opponent of “that cloud on my horizon” he defined as progress. This wasn’t Luddism so much as a deep need to preserve a small portion of America as wilderness, kept forever free from development, beginning with precisely those areas of southern Utah attacked by Trump and Zinke. 

Desert Solitaire was published four years after the Wilderness Act was signed into law. Even as the United States’ economy boomed, in 1964 Congress sanctified areas where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Abbey fought to preserve such land for the rest of his life.

“Wilderness complements and completes civilization,” he wrote in the 1980s. “I might say that the existence of wilderness is a compliment to civilization. Any society that feels itself too poor to afford the preservation of wilderness is not worthy of the name of civilization.” 

As Trump and Zinke reclaim for extractive industry much of the land that had been protected through the Antiquities Act by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Abbey’s spirit infuses the opposition. More than a few dog-eared and well-thumbed paperback copies of his book were probably in the backpacks of the thousands protesting Trump on Dec. 4, when he arrived in Salt Lake City to announce his land grab.

But Abbey, who died in 1989, wouldn’t be surprised by Trump and Zinke’s attitudes. He’d instantly spot them as more of the know-nothing exploiters he’d always railed against. It also wouldn’t surprise him that drilling in the Alaska National Wilderness Refuge was the price the GOP paid to secure Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s vote for tax reform. Having called the cattlemen whose herds graze on public land “welfare queens,” he’d appreciate being vindicated by Cliven Bundy, recently on trial in Nevada for crimes that began with his refusal to pay his federal grazing fees.

He’d probably also say, “What else did you expect?” after learning that so many tourists in cars are entering Arches, Grand Teton, Bryce and Zion national parks that buses and reservation systems have begun or are in the works. And I think he’d be saddened that, 50 years after the publication of Desert Solitaire, the assault on public lands — our lands — remains such a fact of American life.

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