Balancing the pulls of domesticity and wilderness

How I take inspiration, and cautionary advice, from Ed Abbey’s family misadventures.


In a moment of contentment, Edward Abbey reads with his fourth wife, Renee Downing, at a Forest Service fire lookout on Aztec Peak, Arizona, in the Sierra Ancha Mountains in 1978.
Buddy Mays

The birth of my daughter has me thinking about Ed Abbey.

Not the Abbey of legend — Ol’ Cactus Ed, shooter of televisions, defender of wolves and wild rivers. Not the Abbey whose books first spoke to me as I raged against the confines of Los Angeles as a teenager; not the Abbey who convinced me to work seasonal jobs in state and national parks for 10 years; and not the Abbey whose exhortations to “explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers” I received as scripture from a desert prophet.

No, I’ve been thinking of a different Abbey. The melancholic, often deeply unhappy Abbey who struggled to balance the opposing pulls of domesticity and wilderness. The Abbey who fled one marriage only to immerse himself in the troubles of another, then another, then another, then another. The Abbey who drifted from one seasonal park job to the next in large part because, as his biographer Jack Loeffler remarked, “in his endless oscillation between solitude and society … he was rarely totally happy in either set of circumstances. Always longing, forever turbulent, never at peace.”

This is the Abbey who speaks to me now.

For a decade, I worked in some of the most beautiful and remote places in the world: Kachemak Bay State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park. Living apart from what Abbey dubbed the “clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus,” I was responsible only for myself and what fit into my car. Each spring I’d throw myself into a new place, and spend the summer building trail. When the long days shortened to wintery nubs, I’d travel or work in some sunny elsewhere.

The nomadic life has its drawbacks: constantly applying for new jobs, making friends only to leave them, rarely earning much money or receiving benefits. It’s a life predominantly enjoyed by 18- to 25-year-olds, but it’s one that a 29-year-old Abbey entered with a wife and two children. He’d convinced himself that sustaining both a family and a seasonal, wilderness-based life was “within the realm of concrete actuality.” Three marriages later, he admitted, with characteristic candor, “My wives got sick and tired of the constant moving around and the poverty-level income.”

For a decade, my girlfriend, Kelly, and I both gloried in the independence of the seasonal life. We worked in different parks and places, apart almost as often as we were together. But eventually we accepted that our biggest regret would be to let our rambling detract from what the distance and the desert had taught us to truly value. So we married. And so I left my beloved Southwest and followed Kelly to the Pacific Northwest, where we have remained for an unprecedented four years, and where we recently welcomed our daughter.

Here, too, my life mirrors Abbey’s. When Abbey was 34 — the same age I am now — he followed his second wife and two children from Albuquerque to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he worked, miserably, in a welfare office cubicle. Like Abbey in Hoboken, I now sit inside most of the day, switching my gaze between the glow of a computer screen and the rain dripping from the eaves outside my home office. Like Abbey, I long for simple days on naked rock under desert sun. For Abbey, those simple days became, like the “black sun” in his 1971 novel of that name, “a blinding and terrible beauty which obliterated everything but the image of itself.”

Here, then, the biography of the man whom I’ve consciously or unconsciously emulated for 20 years becomes a cautionary tale. For Abbey abandoned his second wife and two children and headed off, in his words, to “exile in the desert.” Like the desert prophets before him, Abbey was willing to sacrifice — repeatedly — his children, his wife, and even what he admitted was significant happiness to his uncompromising love of place, his idea of how life should be lived. Even in this, I find something to emulate: the belief that one should not — one cannot — compromise what one holds most dear. This is exactly why, no matter how often I secretly admire or perversely envy Abbey’s life, no matter how often I scheme and dream of ways my family can live in what remains of our nation’s wild areas, I will follow Abbey no further down his particular rough and lonesome road.

Instead, at the end of a long day, Kelly brings our daughter into my office, and we three stand and look out at the rising moon. I sound a low howl, Kelly adds her coyote yips, and my daughter looks from one of us to the other, beaming bright, and I’m as happy as I ever was alone and free on a desert trail.

Nathaniel Brodie’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction,, The Humanist and other publications.

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