Cantankerous and contradictory: Remembering Ed Abbey

  • Cartoon of Edward Abbey and symbols of canyon country

    Jim Stiles

Edward Abbey changed my life. He saved me from becoming a Republican. Twenty-five years after a friend of my father's handed me a worn-out copy of Desert Solitaire and a decade after his death, Ed Abbey is, to me, an honest hero in a time and a world where we don't allow heroes. He'd throw a beer bottle at me right now (an empty) if he were here to read these words of praise.

I still remember the first time I met him. I'd read Desert Solitaire a few years earlier and had abandoned my family's perverse dedication to Richard Nixon and the GOP. Now I was an Abbey groupster, one of those annoying young eco-freaks who drove a VW microbus covered with inflammatory bumper stickers. I had come West from Kentucky to live in Moab, Utah, and I had come to give Abbey a present. Carefully rolled up in a cardboard tube was a drawing of mine, a cartoon extravaganza of Glen Canyon Dam blown to smithereens.

I wanted to give my pen and ink doodle to my favorite author and had read on the jacket cover of The Monkey Wrench Gang that Abbey lived in a remote corner of the Southwest called Wolf Hole, Ariz. After long hours eyeballing road maps, I found Wolf Hole, a tiny speck on the Arizona Strip, south of St. George, Utah, and north of the Grand Canyon. So I made the long pilgrimage over rough and corrugated dirt roads to Wolf Hole.

There was nothing there.

Not even a fence post. If Abbey was out here, I decided, he had concealed himself far more skillfully than I could track him. I abandoned the quest, but months later I found myself back in Moab, hired as a $3/day volunteer at Arches National Park, and discovered that Abbey lived just outside of town.

A mutual Park Service friend introduced me to Ed at a poker game, and I finally gave him the Glen Canyon Dam(n) cartoon. He was as gracious and kind as I could have hoped.

"It's Floyd Dominy Falls!" he crowed. But when I told him I'd gone all the way to Wolf Hole to give him the drawing, Abbey's grin broadened.

"Yes ... Wolf Hole," he chuckled. "What's it like down there?"

It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until his death in March 1989. As I got to know Abbey over the years, I only came to admire him more, in spite of, or perhaps even because of his faults and contradictions.

Abbey reveled in confusing his adversaries and followers alike. He was contrary, but he was so damned honest about it. He was once expounding on population control, and the young feminist interviewer thought she had Ed in her crosshairs.

"But Mr. Abbey, don't you have five children of your own?"

You could see Ed's eyes grow brighter. "Yes, I do," he answered with a hint of pure joy, "but they're by five wives. That's only one per wife."

No one saw more clearly than Abbey what we as a species need to do to keep this planet of ours from sinking into a sea of sludge. But he never claimed to be the vision of perfection himself. He detested the various crowns and titles we all attempted to bestow on him.

"I'm not a guru," he often groused, "and I'm not an 'environmental leader.' I just like to throw words around."

No one threw them better. He lit fires under people. Before Abbey, writers who came to the defense of Planet Earth, like John Muir and Henry Thoreau, spoke with gentle voices. Their message was clear, but it was usually lyrical. Abbey spoke with a clenched fist and a heart full of anger.

He said: This is our land. It's all we have. It's being ripped to pieces before our very eyes. And I'm not going to just sit here and lament its passing. I'm mad. What about you?

It was that kind of passion that ignited so many of us, and I'd like to think that Abbey's life made a difference in the West. I still live in Moab after all these years, and recently someone asked me how Moab and the canyon country would be different had Abbey never lived. I had to think about that.

On the one hand, even here in dead-from-the-neck-up Utah, setting aside wilderness is a concept that most residents believe is vital to our future and an effort that we should be proud to pursue. Someday, perhaps not in my lifetime, the Utah congressional delegation will introduce a decent wilderness bill.

Nearby Canyonlands National Park was once destined to become another windshield-tourist playground with paved roads and scenic loops and huge industrial-strength campgrounds and hotels and snack bars. But it didn't happen, at least not on the scale promised when the park was created in 1964.

Ed Abbey's hand can be seen in this. Abbey always ran a decade or two ahead of the curve, and most Americans have come to appreciate and embrace the ideas he first proposed 30 and 40 years ago.

On the other hand, I cringe when I look at Moab, Utah, in 1999, at the ever-growing assortment of fast-food restaurants and pre-fab motels along Main Street, and the fake adobe condos that are consuming the alfalfa fields and horse pastures, and the hordes of adrenaline junkies who swarm over these precious rocks looking for cheap thrills.

I say to myself: Not enough people have read Desert Solitaire.

I know Abbey would shake his head, squeeze my shoulder and say, "Never mind all that. Our only hope is catastrophe anyway. Get out those cigars you brought and let's go for a ride."

He was so proud of that last car. It was a 1972 red Cadillac convertible. It got eight miles to the gallon.

Jim Stiles publishes the bi-monthly Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.

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