Rants from the Hill: What would Edward Abbey do?

 

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.

One crisp, blue day late last fall I dodged work in order to climb my home mountain with three friends who were also shirking their adult responsibilities that day. My Silver Hills buddy Steve was with us, a guy who has not only a huge heart and a thousand skills but, more importantly, a farting donkey named Flapjack. "Flappy," who also goes by "Flatchy" (as in "flatulence"), has the unique ability to fart loudly, be spooked by it, which in turn causes him to fart, and…well, if you sit on Steve's corral fence on a sunny day with a beer you'll discover the true meaning of the term "quality entertainment." Also with us was a French visitor to the Great Basin, a scholar of environmental literature whom I'll call "Francois," not only because that's the ideal name for a Frenchman but also because, by happy accident, that's also his real name. My friend Rick, who lives in Montana, was also passing through, sneaking in a trip to the tropics of the high desert before another long winter up in the Yaak Valley.

The four of us had enjoyed a perfect day atop the mountain, 8,000 feet up in the cobalt Nevada sky. We had seen pronghorn in flight, and some nice late-blooming wildflowers, and had even found a few chipped, obsidian arrowheads when we stopped for lunch in a high meadow ringed by aspen and mountain mahogany. On our way back down the mountain in the afternoon we paused to drink at a small seep on a very steep face. While resting there Rick noticed a hip-high boulder that he observed was perched very precariously on the slope. "I bet a couple guys could roll that thing," Steve said. Everyone was quiet for a moment. "Maybe," I replied, "but even if a couple guys could roll it, they wouldn't roll it. Would they?"

"Good question," Rick said. "If a couple guys--let's say four guys--could roll that monster boulder, would they?" I suggested that it might be helpful if we each imagined reasons why a few hypothetical guys should not roll a giant boulder down a mountain. "Could hit somebody?" Steve asked. I explained that was impossible; I had just scanned the canyon below through my binocs, and it was entirely free of humanoids. Rick then suggested, with a straight face, that moving the boulder could represent an interference with the perfection of the natural order, and might thus disrupt some divine plan as yet beyond human ken. "But what if moving the boulder is part of the divine plan?" Steve responded. Everyone nodded in agreement. "And you guys know what they say about gravity," I added. Rick finished my thought: "'It's not just a good idea, it's the law.' Would the divine natural order be guided by the law of gravity if huge rocks weren't supposed to tumble down mountains? Besides, the uplift in the Sierra is raising this mountain two or three inches a year, so whatever a couple guys might do would be fixed pretty soon anyhow." Once again everyone nodded their assent.

"On the other hand," I said, "that old coyote Sisyphus was tortured by the gods for messing with their order, so a few guys might meditate on his terrible punishment before doing anything rash." "Good point," Rick said, "but speaking as the guest here I should remind y'all that Sisyphus killed his guests. Y'all don't plan to kill me, do you?" "Not unless I run out of gorp," I answered. "Besides, Donner Pass is thirty miles south of here." Steve now noted that "a couple guys don't know for sure if they could move that thing. Look at the size of it." We all gazed again at the immense rock. "Yeah, but it's incredibly round," Rick observed. Yes, we all agreed, the boulder Sisyphus had left on the pitch of my home mountain appeared uncannily round. It seemed made to roll. "Ok," I said, "but my main concern is that if a few guys rolled this boulder off this mountain one of them might say something like 'Let's rock and roll,' or 'That's just how we roll'." "We absolutely can't have that," Rick said sternly. "No way," Steve agreed. Francois didn't say a word, but the expression on his face made clear that he was perfectly disgusted by the idea that anyone would contemplate saying any such thing.

We all sat in silence for a very long time, and we were all staring at that boulder, and I suspect we were all thinking the same thing: grown men--responsible grown men, men with jobs and families and mortgages--don't roll giant boulders down mountains. Yet there we were, all staring at that immense rock. "Well, gentlemen," I said at last, "we've reached an impasse. I suggest we consult an international expert. Francois, with the notable exception of wine and cheese your people have done nothing for our people since the battle of Yorktown. What do you have to offer us now?" "Whenever I am uncertain," replied Francois in a thick French accent so utterly authentic that it sounded hilariously fake, "I abide by this principle: WWEAD." When he had finished pronouncing each letter with meticulous emphasis, the three of us looked at him quizzically. "What would Edward Abbey do?" he explained coolly.

It was a beautiful moment, one in which absolute clarity had come to all of us at once. Without saying a word the four of us stood up, walked over to the boulder, dug the toes of our boots into the mountainside, and began to push with all our might. The giant stone budged slightly, rocked a bit in its socket, and then, incredibly, began to roll very slowly. It soon picked up speed, however, and within seconds we realized that we had unleashed something more powerful than we could have imagined. As the giant rock sped down the mountain it soon began to leapfrog, launching itself off ledges, ramming and blasting apart other rocks, striking sandy slopes and snowfields on its unstoppable, half-mile-long, 1,700-vertical-foot plunge to the valley below. I raised the binocs to get a better view of the spectacle, and only then did I truly appreciate the scale and force of what was happening. The boulder was racing now, each impact causing it to leap a great distance before landing again, and with every touchdown a cannonball explosion of rock and sand and snow blasted high into the air. Each impact elicited a collective gasp or cheer, and I can't begin to explain how cathartic it was to watch that boulder fly. I felt as if I had been rolling a boulder up a mountain my whole adult life, and had only now decided to simply step aside and just let it go. I was Sisyphus unbound, and I had a Frenchman's love of Cactus Ed to thank for it.

It took a long time before the boulder came to rest in the valley, its magnificent, explosive kinetic energy expended. We then tracked its route down the mountainside, following the footprints of a stony giant that had raged through snow and sand and sage. To our amazement we found that some of the impact craters were several feet deep, and they were sometimes as far as forty feet apart. The boulder had not rolled down the mountain at all, but rather had bounced and flown down it. After an hour of picking our way along the boulder's path we at last came to the rock itself, resting serenely and all alone in a sagebrush flat out beyond the mouth of the canyon. Here we all sat together around the rock, looking at it as if it might still go somewhere. "Well," Steve said at last, "a couple guys could roll that boulder."

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Image of a highly-rollable boulder courtesy Flickr user Jason & Molly Kehrer.

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