Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey, illustrated by Peter Parnell. New York: Touchstone, 1968.
Summary: The author’s account of spending six months as a park ranger in the Arches National Monument in southwest Utah.
This book was unlike other environmental or nature writing I’ve encountered. Sure, there are descriptive passages, some powerfully evocative, but nothing of the lyricism of tone of a Rachel Carson or an Aldo Leopold. Perhaps it is the landscape–stark but beautiful wilderness that has so many ways to kill the unprepared, or even those who think they are. Perhaps it is the personality of Abbey, who does not sound like a particularly nice person. My hunch is that it is likely both.
Desert Solitaire is Abbey’s account of six months as a seasonal park ranger in the Arches National Monument, as well as some of his other wanderings in the canyon lands of southwestern Utah. During this time, he basically lives alone in a trailer (or outside of it in warm weather) near the park entrance. His routine duties consist of visiting the different camping areas, replenishing firewood, and looking for tourists in need of help. The account begins with solitary life in the trailer, his immediate environs and extends out to the creatures, the arches and rock formations that make up the park, the mountains and canyons of the region.
His narratives convey the peculiar beauty of this land and Abbey’s desire that it would remain undisturbed. It feels at times that he wants this land for him and his friends alone and that everyone else are unwanted tourists that are the threat, in their “motorized wheelchairs” and “industrial tourism.” Some of this is a legitimate concern over the commercialization that leads to paving over dirt roads and all sorts of tourist facilities that compromise the landscape, turning it into a kind of wilderness Disneyland.
He also helps us grasp how unforgiving the landscape is. He chronicles the search for an older man whose car sat abandoned for a couple days. They assume he is dead, and indeed, that is how they found him, carrying him back with crude jokes and matter of fact comments, even while a relative walks nearby. A fall, too little water, going into an area one can’t get out of, a vehicle breakdown all can be fatal. Particularly in the heat of summer, or winter snow storms, and a journey into the unique beauty of this place might be the last one takes.
One of the most striking parts of the book is Abbey’s description of taking boats through the Glen Canyon before it was dammed to build a reservoir and recreational lake. He describes a landscape soon to be submerged and transformed. He narrates descents into canyons he is not sure he can get out of, a descent from a summit madly sledding down the side on a rock. I honestly was surprised he lived to tell of some of these episodes, and maybe he was as well.
What Abbey does is capture the mysterious draw that wilderness holds for many. He observes:
The desert is different. Not so hostile as the snowy peaks, nor so broad and bland as the ocean’s surface, it lies open–given adequate preparation–to leisurely exploration, to extended periods of habitation. Yet it can hardly be called a humane environment; what little life there is will be clustered about the oases, natural or man-made. The desert waits outside, desolate and still and strange, unfamiliar and often grotesque in its forms and colors, inhabited by rare, furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning, sparingly colonized by weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted, and twisted as they are tenacious.
At the end, all he can do is say there is “something” about the desert, but never can quite find a name for it.
Abbey clearly evokes a sense of the peculiar beauty of this land. But, apart from the description, I found his narrative unsatisfying. Many have gone into the wilderness and come out of it transformed. I’m not convinced this was the case with Abbey. He definitely comes out with descriptions of its character, with a set of experiences, and a passion that it not change. But I wonder if he changed. He does not seem to have greater compassion for either visiting tourists or the clients he will serve as a social worker. It all seems a bit self-absorbed and hedonistic. One wonders how this can be when one glimpses such rugged grandeur…