I spent a few evenings in the past week reading Desert Solitaire, which I did with pleasure. The book is hardly perfect but then again, neither are we. A popular book such as this must be flawed. It does not have the polish of a book like Walden and will not last as long, but it is definitely a contribution to American wilderness writing.
Reading the first forty or so pages I was surprised that the book was as well-regarded as it is (it has been recommended to me many times): after promising to strive “above all for accuracy,” what follows is breezy, metaphorical, disorganized, undisciplined writing about his time as a park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1960s. As a writer he is not without skill, though he saves almost all of his best writing for later in the book, and some of it is positively adolescent and self-congratulatory: “The sun is rising through a yellow, howling wind. Time for breakfast.” Look! I’m tough! I’m in the wilderness and you’re not! I suspect he had a great deal of trouble starting the book, and in general, since his time as a park ranger had no particular purpose, and ended for no discernible reason, it resists all his efforts at shaping it into a coherent narrative.
But the book improves as soon as he gives up all his efforts to describe his “experience” or describe the desert (which he does poorly; he has a chapter on the plants of the desert, with which he is obviously familiar, but it reads like a laundry list, even to someone like myself who knows the plants and is fascinated to hear more about them). What works best are his individual experiences: driving cattle for a rancher, searching for a lost hiker, rafting down the Colorado, living in Havasu Canyon (many of his best narratives have to do with his outdoor experiences in the region and not necessarily with his experiences at Arches specifically).
His other great strength is argument, with rant flavor. The book actually becomes good in its fifth chapter, “Industrial Tourism and the National Parks” (where he probably should have begun the book). I had never read the chapter before, but its content was entirely familiar to me, because he so perfectly frames the debate about our national parks which continues under precisely the same terms to this day:
The Park Service, established by Congress in 1916, was directed not only to administer the parks but also to “provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” This appropriately ambiguous language, employed long before the onslaught of the automobile, has been understood in various and often opposing ways ever since. The Park Service, like any other big organization, includes factions and factions. The Developers, the dominant faction, place their emphasis on the words “provide for the enjoyment.” The Preservers, a minority but also strong, emphasize the words “leave them unimpaired.” It is apparent, then, that we cannot decide the question of development versus preservation by a simple referral to holy writ or an attempt to guess the intention of the founding fathers; we must make up our own minds and decide for ourselves what the national parks should be and what purpose they should serve.
He is a Preserver; he vehemently upholds the position that the parks should be preserved wild, left unimproved, and in particular should be sanctuaries from everything motorized. Part of his argument is that this is truly the only way to fulfill the “enjoyment” clause in the Park Service’s mission. He mixes his contempt for vehicular American tourism with a dash of pity:
They work hard, these people. They roll up incredible mileages on their odometers, rack up state after state in two-week transcontinental motor marathons, knock off one national park after another, take millions of square yards of photographs, and endure patiently the most prolonged discomforts: the tedious traffic jams, the awful food of park cafeterias and roadside eateries, the nocturnal search for a place to sleep or camp, the dreary routine of One-Stop Service, the endless lines of creeping traffic, the smell of exhaust fumes, the ever-proliferating Rules & Regulations, the fees and the bills and the service charges, the boiling radiator and the flat tire and the vapor lock, the surly retorts of room clerks and traffic cops, the incessant jostling of the anxious crowds, the irritation and restlessness of their children, the worry of their wives, and the long drive home at night in a stream of racing cars against the lights of another stream racing in the opposite direction, passing now and then the obscure tangle, the shattered glass, the patrolman’s lurid blinker light, of one more wreck.
Hard work. And risky. Too much for some, who have given up the struggle on the highways in exchange for an entirely different kind of vacation – out in the open, on their own feet, following the quiet trail through forest and mountains, bedding down at evening under the stars, when and where they feel like it, at a time when the Industrial Tourists are still hunting for a place to park their automobiles.
Industrial Tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while. (58-9)
I must confess that I have little to say about this issue, because I have never encountered this problem. Being an East Coaster, I have little experience with National Parks to begin with, and every experience I have had has been pleasant. I biked through Glacier National Park, and the Badlands, and my most memorable encounters with creatures were not with tourists but with a marmot that nibbled on my shoelaces and a buffalo that would not budge from the road. I spent a week almost alone in Giant Sequoia National Park during the summer, and there were even fewer people in King’s Canyon. There was absolutely no one in Grand Teton, but I was there in April. May in the Smokies was also very quiet. I was not overwhelmed in Yosemite or Death Valley or anywhere else in California, though the “natural wonders tour” I did of California was in October.
But I suspect my experiences are atypical, because almost everyone I have spoken with frames the situation in precisely the terms Abbey uses: the current use of the parks is in conflict with their integrity as wild areas. This may be due to the fact that many Western parks are really scenic vistas rather than ecosystems, i.e. at Arches everyone who visits the park wants to see the arches, not the desert, and everyone presumably wants to see the biggest arch, which like most scenic wonders probably looks best from one angle. Hence almost every single person who visits probably at some point wants to stand in one particular spot. This is the problem with mountain climbing as well: it’s not that the mountain isn’t big enough for all the hikers, it’s that they all want to get to one tiny place, the summit.
Accepting this as a problem, Abbey’s paternalism still feels, to me, like a bit of a pose; I doubt most of these tourists consider the popularity of these parks something that makes their trips there “hard work” and “risky.” In fact, the opposite is the case: it is the ease which appeals. My father used the phrase “the lame and the lazy” as a slightly more descriptive substitute for the collective noun “people.” Abbey is right that Industrial Tourists do not go quite as far, do not get as deep, do not see as much, as those who go on foot – but on the other hand, they see quite a bit, and they do it in half the time with a tenth of the effort.
Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to Abbey’s general concern, which is that people are alienated from nature, and thus constitute a real threat to it. Nature gets converted to suburbia because people prefer suburbia. Given the choice between watching television on a couch within shouting distance of a microwave and camping in the wilderness, people consistently choose the couch. This to me is degeneracy. And it is dangerous degeneracy, because people really are armed enough with technology to get what they want. Not that far away from me a developer bulldozed ten acres of woods – nature – scraped all the topsoil away, and built a whole bunch of $99,000 homes connected by curvy driveways – suburbia. Now that he has done this, more people will spend more hours there than they did when it was woods. This is happening on a colossal scale all over the world, and it is only just begun.
Paternalism and pity is part of Abbey’s approach, but contempt is its more native expression. Contempt is something that most artists are good at, and Abbey is no exception. I find him generally entertaining when he is at his most contemptuous.
Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines, take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? Eh? Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ, lady, roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it. Dusty? Of course it’s dusty – this is Utah! But it’s good dust, good red Utahn dust, rich in iron, rich in irony. Turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs! You sir, squinting at the map with your radiator boiling over and your fuel pump vapor-locked, crawl out of that shiny hunk of GM junk and take a walk – yes, leave the old lady and those squawling brats behind for a while, turn your back on them and take a long quiet walk straight into the canyons, get lost for awhile, come back when you damn well feel like it, it’ll do you and her and them a world of good. Give the kids a break too, let them out of the car, let them go scrambling over the rocks hunting for rattlesnakes and scorpions and anthills – yes sir, let them out, turn them loose; how dare you imprison little children in your goddamned upholstered horseless hearse? Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! Like women! Like human beings! And walk – walk – WALK upon our sweet and blessed land! (261-2)
Abbey’s spiritual grandfather in all this is Thoreau, of course, but his prose occasionally shows, as above, a decided debt to Kerouac. From the one he gets his priggish and sermonizing resistance to speed and mechanization, from the other a lively appreciation of the sensuous moment as opposed to bourgeois externality. All three of them show a passionate desire to evangelize Americans to live. But what can you do, for most people the last time they were naked in the wild was when they were about three: someone yelled at them to get back in the tent, and that was it, their career as an actual human being was over, from then on they were resigned to being timorous cogs in the machine: they were no longer to be persons, as Abbey puts it: they were to be personnel.
Abbey has another spiritual ancestor, and that is Huck Finn, who is of course related to both Thoreau and Kerouac. With Finn Abbey shares a resistance to “syphilization,” as the book calls it, with its “multinefarious delights,” and a persistent commitment to irresponsibility. To complete the resemblance some of the book’s best writing is his description of rafting down Glen Canyon on the Colorado, a canyon which is now Lake Powell. He meant to explore the area thoroughly, as he knew it was marked for destruction, but that ends up being a little too much work and he had nothing but “a Texaco road map of the state of Utah” to help him figure out which side canyons to explore. In the end he mostly just drifts downstream. I don’t object to this but there is something unsatisfying about the chapter because it ends up being neither a memorial of something humans managed to alter out of existence, nor a thoroughgoing meditation on drifting. It feels a bit like the record of a confused adolescent who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.
In fact the faint odor of adolescence never quite leaves Abbey’s writing, and it is evident not only in the details – he just couldn’t resist the dumb “irony” joke quoted above – but in his engagement with his material. Things don’t feel quite thought through. He claims that in literature the desert has been “relatively neglected,” and in particular “none of the works … attack directly the problem to which I wish to address myself here: what is the the peculiar quality or character of the desert that distinguishes it, in spiritual appeal, from other forms of landscape?” His catalogue of works omits the Desert Fathers and St. Jerome’s desert writings; he mentions T.E. Lawrence, but he uses a quotation from the movie and I doubt he actually read Pillars of Wisdom, which is in large part a meditation on precisely this spiritual question. His description of Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta – one of the twenty or so greatest books ever written – makes me utterly certain he never read it (it is, to be honest, exceptionally difficult, but in its strange twisted prose it comes nearer than anything else to being desert). The ample literature about Israel and Palestine, unrelentingly spiritual in flavor, is utterly omitted. It feels like he is just breezing past anything that would involve real effort. There are also some basic contradictions between message and means. In the trail register by “the Maze,” an uninhabited wasteland of labyrinthine canyons, he writes, “For God’s sake leave this country alone. – Abbey.” (His friend wrote under this, “For Abbey’s sake leave this country alone. – God,” which was nicely done.) But his book serves as an Industrial Tourism pamphlet – it was a highly successful mass-market paperback – to visit the Maze and all the other places described in the book. What’s more, it is a highly effective pamphlet: whatever my qualms might be with the man, his writing gives me an appetite to see the American desert. He complains endlessly about the paving of roads in wild and scenic areas, but he seems to drive to all these wild and scenic areas himself. If you are driving, to me there is not much difference between a dirt road and a paved road, except that the latter saves time and gasoline. If you hike in, you are among the saints, this is true, but if you are going to drive in on an established road anyway why not drive on pavement? He makes weekend trips the subject of three or four of his chapters; needless to say, this kind of time pressure simply requires an automobile, which he (therefore) uses. In general, his book is a screed both against the fact that people use wild areas as he does – as quickly accessed vehicular destinations – and also against the fact that they don’t go to these places nearly enough, while also proclaiming his own superiority to others because he does visit these places, in precisely the way that bugs him. Like most hypocrites, the vehemence of his convictions is nourished by his own guilt. The book can be summarized, “Please visit these places, before people start visiting them.” He points us to the desert – while saying “Keep out.”
But we are all in part adolescents, and I have to admit I know this Janus-faced contempt of Abbey’s from having felt it myself: when you are in the wilderness, and surrounded by beauty, you are astonished that you live in a world where people are so indifferent to this beauty as to neglect it; and you want nothing so much as a person to share it with, until you meet someone on the trail, when you fume that you live in a world so domesticated you cannot escape the idiotic society of men. I make an honest effort to see other people as having an equal right to these wilderness areas as myself, and an equal need, given the pressures of mechanized life. But this involves the mastery of certain impulses, impulses which I immediately recognize as the source of Abbey’s diatribes.
I know nothing whatever of Abbey’s life, but Wendell Berry dedicated a book to him, and while Berry can be a contradictory curmudgeon himself, to have earned his esteem speaks highly for Abbey. Abbey certainly was capable of striking writing, and he also learned a great number of life’s details, and if he got discipline in his later years he may well have produced some real literature.
And while he may not have been thorough in any way, I regard his book with gratitude merely because it points to the desert. The desert has some strange and terrible hold on our minds, and a desire to be with it, despite/because of its indifference and hostility, is often with us. Most forms of solitude result in something worth reading, but the desert offers something more, something cosmic and awful. Abbey is aware of this and transmits his wonder, leaving room for others to take up the task themselves.
A nice quotation from Abbey, from elsewhere, but generally apropos:
One final paragraph of advice: [...] It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.