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Rants from the Hill: What would Edward Abbey do?

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Michael Branch | Apr 15, 2011 06:00 AM

“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.

BoulderThe 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.

Christine Petersen
Christine Petersen
Apr 16, 2011 08:11 PM
Do you really think Abbey would be proud of you for choosing that particular act to commit--and write about--in his name? Sorry, but this piece just sounds self-indulgent.
Shelley McEuen
Shelley McEuen
Apr 18, 2011 09:45 AM
I think even Abbey had a sense of humor. Wish I could have seen the boulder cascade down the hill.
Bruce  Bussing Hudson
Bruce Bussing Hudson
Apr 18, 2011 05:38 PM
Y'all need to put my rock back where you found it!
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Apr 19, 2011 10:21 AM
Thanks for the entertaining “rant”. We need to be reminded occasionally to keep a sense of humor as we move through this world; that we can’t take everything so seriously. Ed Abbey was good for that. It’s easy to get caught up in the fight to protect habitat and forget that it’s not just “their” habitat we’re trying to protect; it’s ours too. It’s vital to get out in it and play in it and have fun in it. Ed Abbey was good for that too.
Jerome Miller
Jerome Miller
Apr 19, 2011 11:45 AM
My friend. You were right to roll that rock. What more pure way is there to express your existence? I only wish one of you made a video with the same temper as your writing.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Apr 19, 2011 04:06 PM
And that's why Ed Abbey, as he said of himself, was no environmentalist.
Robert M Copeland
Robert M Copeland Subscriber
Apr 19, 2011 04:09 PM
I once asked Ed Abbey after a lecture, "Is the real Ed Abbey the man who preaches environmentalism or the one who writes about how he rolled tires off the cliffs into the Grand Canyon and carved the initials of himself and his girlfriend into aspen in the La Sal National Forest?" Ed said not a word, just smiled impishly and enigmatically, and moved on to the next question.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Apr 19, 2011 04:20 PM
The real Ed Abbey also, which neither of his bios nor the video bio of him mention, was probably also, sadly, an alcoholic drinker. I suspect there's a connection with his self-proclaimed anarchic tendencies.
Crista Worthy
Crista Worthy Subscriber
Apr 19, 2011 08:03 PM
I love seeing giant boulders like that, perched precariously. No one will ever see that one up there like that again. I think rolling it was very bad karma.
glades
glades Subscriber
Apr 20, 2011 02:20 PM
yep, i bet it was fun. but so is taking artifacts and arrowheads. take 'em, and no one else can see them. roll it, and no one else can contemplate that particular pleasure. a bit selfish, boys.
Tunny Pattison
Tunny Pattison
Apr 21, 2011 03:51 AM
Can you imagine - just for a second - how that rock must have felt; I mean, after millions of years just sitting there bored to tears, that someone had the kindness and generosity to contemplate the thought of being freed from the chains of life. Truly, I know that rock had been waiting for that group of gentlemen for hundreds, if not thousands of years, to experience life - to roll free. Take a moment and envision those leaps and bounds as it plummeted down the hill; imagine for one small moment the exhilaration as it leapt into the air only to gain even more momentum as it returned to earth. In that very instant, I know that Cactus Ed would have applauded both sides of the event; that of the rollers and of the rollee...! May the explorers of distant hillsides take note - find a rock and give 'er a nudge...
J Stephen Hartsfield
J Stephen Hartsfield
Apr 22, 2011 11:46 AM
Evidently, due to censorship we can't actually say what we think/feel Mr. Abbey would do to you if he was alive in 2011 and witnessed such an act.
Lynn M Emerick
Lynn M Emerick Subscriber
Apr 22, 2011 07:39 PM
Agree with Harsfield...my reaction was that you boys had a lot of fun discussing and then carrying out the "act" but you changed the viewscape for all who follow, and the landscape of delicate soils, erosion gullies, etc etc. I choose the "unlike" button for this one.
paul hoornbeek
paul hoornbeek Subscriber
Apr 22, 2011 11:52 PM
evidently people create their own version of Abbey to suit their own sets of values. Abbey defended throwing beer cans out of car window, and definitely was into rolling rocks to hear the sound. He writes about the delights of pushing giant tractors full of oil and diesel fuel off canyon rims to see them tumble to the bottom. Abbey purist or leave--: his first day on the job in Arches he killed a rabbit with a rock just to see i he could. So If you're going to speculate on what Abbey would have said, be sure you've actually paid attention to what he did say.
paul hoornbeek
paul hoornbeek Subscriber
Apr 22, 2011 11:54 PM
well, half the words seem not to have made it, but you get the idea . . .
Eric Nagle
Eric Nagle Subscriber
Apr 27, 2011 10:13 AM
I believe that, according to established international standards (see Wikipedia, "Trundling") this episode qualifies as a Class 4 trundle:

A Class 1 trundle is not worth your time. It's akin to skipping rocks or flicking a cigarette butt down a staircase.
A Class 2 trundle is an individually-trundleable bowling ball-sized rock traveling for less than 6 seconds at a pitch of less than 45 degrees.
A Class 3 trundle is a gateway trundle: most addicts and practitioners point to a trundle of this magnitude as the launching point in their career. Imagine a pillow-sized boulder gaining momentum as it goes end over end, free falls, and then explodes upon impact. A class 3.5 trundle includes tangential trundles that result from such an explosion. Teamwork and fulcrumization are requisites for such a trundle.
A Class 4 trundle is most easily recognizable by the earth-shaking impact of an end-over-end trajectory. Three trundlers are often required to initiate such a trundle, due to the sheer size of the boulder, although accomplished or certified trundlers often undertake such an endeavor in pairs.
A Class 5 trundle separates most weekend warriors from die-hard trundlers. The trundle may include underwater work, the application of tools, snow, proximate lightning strikes, savagery (centipedes, scorpions, rattlesnakes and bears have all been known to impede trundles) and inhuman obstinacy as the undedicated will likely falter after an hour of problem solving.
A Class 6 trundle has never been accomplished. This mythical feat is why one trundles, as it drives us all towards bigger cliffs, bigger rocks, bigger explosions and bigger destruction.


Bruce  Bussing Hudson
Bruce Bussing Hudson
Apr 27, 2011 10:31 AM
I wonder if the wwead thread is just exactly that...ie to say something just see how people would react!
Perhaps this is EXACTLY a "wwead" scenario and the author is at this time having many "flatchy" experiences. C'mon there, mule ... you not really destroy that sacred native American site, did you?
Don  Darue
Don Darue
Apr 27, 2011 03:36 PM
It was ol' Cactus Ed that said, "Never apologize, never explain."
paul hoornbeek
paul hoornbeek Subscriber
Apr 27, 2011 03:38 PM
Abbey might have said that, but John Wayne said it first ("Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness.")
Beau Peyton
Beau Peyton
Oct 02, 2011 04:34 PM
Are you a grown, responsible man? Doesn't sound like it.
Lynn M Emerick
Lynn M Emerick Subscriber
Oct 02, 2011 06:34 PM
Anyone who has read Ed Abbey's writings or the many writings about him, knows that he seemed to delight in being a contrarian, holding conflicting points of view and positions at various times. So I was amused to find this quote about boulders in a preface Abbey wrote for Joseph Wood Krutch's book The Great Chain of Life. "In some sense of the word, a boulder on a mountainside has a right to be left undisturbed, to enjoy its own metamorphoses in its own way at its own leisurely, nonhuman pace of change."
Angela Percival
Angela Percival
Oct 02, 2011 08:12 PM
"I had just scanned the canyon below through my binocs, and it was entirely free of humanoids." Oh really? I regularly go solo backpacking in the Great Basin and I make a point of being hidden from the view of other humans. There is absolutely no way you could have known there were no humans who may be injured. But even if you could, there were certainly animals in the boulder's path: ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, lizards, snakes, birds. Hope you yahoos were proud of yourselves for being so macho. Who gives a damn what Abbey would have thought--maybe you should try thinking for yourselves.
kent mclemore
kent mclemore
Oct 03, 2011 06:41 AM
This article is a joke, right? If not, it describes and promotes an appalling act of destruction for the sake of sophomoric selfishness. The welcome message to the High Country News reads: "So I hope you enjoy becoming part of the community of people who care about the most fascinating and beautiful region in the world – the American West." How ironic. Trundling is nothing more than vandalism to nature. I liken it to setting a forest fire for thrills or spray painting over hieroglyphics. Hikers have been killed by trundled rocks. In my judgment, such arrogant, dangerous and destructive acts should be criminalized. If Mr. Branch thinks trundling is cool and fun, then he doesn't really care at all about "life in the high country." Pathetic, really.
Craig Rowe
Craig Rowe Subscriber
Oct 03, 2011 03:15 PM
Now we definitely know how those rocks in Death Valley get around.
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Oct 03, 2011 04:06 PM
Judging by all the comments (my own included), it must be that they are blown around by "hot air". Jeez! You'd think somebody had dammed up a river or something...Face it folks; your priveleged North American consumer lifestyle does more harm to the so-called environment than an army of "trundlers" could ever do.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
Oct 03, 2011 05:26 PM
A confession. I too have trundled. It was above tree line in the Salt River range, similar situation, 4 guys, good view of where the rocks would go, we trundled for a few minutes. We were young. I've certainly done worse things, but I trundle no more, nor do I drive far to recreate, or fly in airplanes if I can help it. Trying not to leave footprints, carbon or otherwise.
Greta S Hyland
Greta S Hyland
Oct 30, 2013 04:26 PM
A friend sent me a link to this story in light of our discussion about the three boy scout leaders in Goblin Valley. He was pointing out the hypocrisy of environmentalists decrying the actions of the boy scout leaders but remaining mute on this. I can't help but agree with him and am astonished this piece appeared in HCN. It seems to be that Abbey's name was used to absolve the men of any wrong doing and I am not convinced that Abbey would do what they did. If I recall, he said that if you have a rock to throw, throw it through glass...or in other words, man made things. Yes, Abbey had a sense of humor, but more than that he had a deep respect for the natural world and blatant scorn for humanity...Americans included. This story is equally as repugnant as the current one, only worse because these "academics" should have known better. Yes, we all do stupid and irresponsible things, but do we have to praise it by publishing it?
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Oct 30, 2013 04:54 PM
Greta, this same Ed Abbey rolled a tire off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and into the abyss.
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden
Nov 01, 2013 06:19 AM
It is fun to do things like that, if and when the occasion safely permits. The rock was going to come down eventually, so maybe it was better that it happen when someone was there to scan the horizon for problems. We are part of the cosmic forces, after all, you know. When we do things like this, though, we need to act responsibly. Ed Abbey would just be happy that someone else was out in the wilderness communing responsibly, hopefully, with our Mother Earth/Nature.
Mike Sennett
Mike Sennett Subscriber
Dec 06, 2013 11:29 AM
"Free of humanoids" eh....what about every other living thing in the path of that boulder? All four of you are pathetic examples of the homo-centric behavior of our species that has gotten us to where where today. I'll never waste my time reading this idiot's blog again.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
Dec 06, 2013 02:33 PM
Homo what??!! I am not, and what if I was? It's 2013 Mike.

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