Delicate Arch, early March 2018, 3 p.m. My wife and oldest daughter are resting with their backs to a boulder of reddish-pink Entrada sandstone, a few yards from the east pillar of the rock formation known to early residents of Grand County, Utah, as the Ladies’ Bloomers. Standing next to the arch is a woman differently attired in a tasteful, full-length wedding dress. She sheds the flipflops she walked in with and dons black pumps, while her fiancée gets the rings ready. A photographer hovers nearby, trying out camera angles around the arch. In a few minutes they will tie the knot underneath the iconic span, to the applause of us and several dozen other onlookers, none of whom they know. It’s just another afternoon at Arches National Park’s best-known attraction.
Not wanting to be caught up in the festivities, I’ve taken a seat against the north wall of the slickrock amphitheater which frames the arch. In front of me a half-dozen college students on spring break are lounging and chatting, while out on the bare expanse of sandstone an Asian mom and dad encourage their young and obviously fearful child to make his way across the slope. Two ravens perch on the arch, also surveying the crowd. Perhaps they expect to clean up after we humans leave, but that will be quite a while yet; already photographers are assembling along the stone parapet beside me, setting up their equipment and waiting for the setting sun to cast its carmine glow on the whole scene.
As many as two thousand people make the hike to Delicate Arch on a nice spring day. My adult daughter is seeing it for the first time; a flatlander, she was pretty nervous as we walked the last bit of trail, which is an exposed catwalk above a sheer dropoff. But she was determined to see the arch, and now she can savor memories of this amazing piece of natural sculpture. Meanwhile I relax and enjoy the laughter and amazement of the others around me, many of whom also appear to be seeing the arch for the first time. Parks are for people, the saying goes, and I, like the ravens, contemplate the curious admixture of geologic and human spectacle on display here.
My own introduction to Arches came more than forty years ago at the Devils Garden campground, a few miles northwest of Delicate Arch. It was a cold evening in December and few others were around. After making dinner I watched, enthralled, as a full moon rose over the distant Uncompahgre Plateau, illuminating a strange territory of mesas, canyons and sandstone fins. I remember the excited feeling of having discovered a special place. Do others experience that today? Perhaps, but they’re sharing their find with a mass of humanity. Some may prefer it that way. Crowds lend a kind of safety to strange places such as this. Being with others reassures us that if something happens, we’re not alone.
One who didn’t relish the crowds was the writer Edward Abbey, who served as seasonal park ranger here in 1956 and 1957, when the only road access was a sandy, often impassable track leading in from the west to Balanced Rock. His ranger residence was a drafty government trailer close by the rock; the site has become a place of pilgrimage for Abbey’s legion of admirers. Abbey drew from the extensive journals he kept during his two seasons at the monument (it didn’t become a national park until 1971) to craft his best-known work, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, which appeared in print fifty years ago--“on a dark night in the dead of winter,” the author recalled in the preface to the 1988 edition. The book took time to catch on, but after Earth Day 1970 many young seekers of the wild were drawn to this unusual work with its provocative message, distilled in an oft-cited chapter titled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks.” In it Abbey presented his argument against letting the automobile roam freely within the national parks.
Abbey’s opposition to “windshield tourism” stemmed from two concerns: that paved roads diminished the national park environment, and that seeing the parks from behind a wheel impoverished the viewer. During Abbey’s time at Arches, the National Park Service, under its Mission 66 program, was laying ribbons of asphalt into formerly wild reaches of Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Capitol Reef and other national parks and monuments in the Southwest, shrinking distances and displacing the solitude that so entranced him. But the chief victims of this modernization program, according to Abbey, were the tourists themselves. No one could see, hear, or learn anything through a car window, he argued, and the sheer numbers of people that would stream into Arches on its new access road appalled him. “Why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate that other crowd, the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?” he fumed.
Always one to take an argument to its extreme, Abbey favored banning autos entirely in the national parks. Let people enjoy the scenery on foot, he insisted; let them “rediscover the pleasure of actually operating their own limbs and senses in a varied, spontaneous, voluntary style.” Besides putting tourists in closer contact with nature, it would jolt them out of their middle-class suburban torpor and possibly kindle “the fires of revolt . . . which means hope for us all.” Here Abbey is touching on another favorite theme: the wilderness as refuge of the rebel against society. But despite Abbey’s frequent anarchistic rantings, and he issued many, Desert Solitaire is in many ways a romance of the Old West--or what remained of it in 1950s Utah. He spins stories of uranium prospectors and grizzled cowhands, searches for a lost horse and a dead hiker, climbs a nearby mountain peak, and takes us down the Colorado River in soon-to-be-drowned Glen Canyon.
Each of these accounts conforms to conventions of the Western novel, in which a lone, upright American male seeks salvation in the arid wastes. Abbey’s tropes are almost identical to Zane Grey’s, though expressed in a modern idiom: the honest, hardworking yet deluded ranchers and settlers who try to wrest a living from the overgrazed range, the avaricious proto-capitalist who exploits the work of others, the Easterner who arrives in the desert to search for his destiny and find redemption through bold action.
Abbey even dreams of finding that fabled refuge in the red rocks which so captivated Grey--some Edenic spot behind a wall of red rock where a hero and heroine could spend the rest of their days, living a life untainted by the common cares of the world. For him Glen Canyon was such a place. “A man could live out his life in this place, once he had adjusted his nervous system to the awful quietude, the fearful tranquility,” he muses while floating down the Colorado with his companion Ralph Newcomb.
In Abbey’s imagining, humans in their ideal state would live in small bands close to the land, independent of each other and with plenty of space between them. He had only contempt for modern mass culture. “Man is a gregarious creature, we are told, a social being,” he wrote in Desert Solitaire. “Does it mean he is also a herd animal? I don’t believe it.” Given Abbey’s desire for solitude, it was no surprise that the National Park Service’s plan to modernize Arches with a paved road, a new campground, comfort stations and parking lots enraged him and motivated his rant against industrial tourism.
The road was built, however, despite Abbey supposedly going out at night and pulling up the road surveyor’s stakes, which had been planted clear from Balanced Rock to park headquarters. By 1958 the paved road was extended to the Windows section of the park and tourists were arriving en masse--forty thousand of them that year, more than a hundred thousand just four years later--a “serpentine stream of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer,” Abbey lamented. Arches was now on the family vacation map, no more a forgotten holdover from the West of the 1930s.
Every time I drive the main park road in Arches, I think about Ed Abbey and his rage against the machine, in this case the “big and glassy” automobiles that he urged visitors to dispatch with a rock through the windshield. (Never mind that he liked to drive big old trucks and even owned a Cadillac--just another contradiction in this paradoxical writer’s life.) Ed died in 1989, when the annual visitation to Arches exceeded half a million; last year three times that many people entered the park, clogging parking lots and backing up traffic onto Highway 191. Only in the depths of winter is there any promise of solitude on the park’s main trails.
Cactus Ed was fighting the inevitable when it came to cars in the national parks. From their beginnings in Yellowstone and Yosemite, our parks were meant to be refuges for people to enjoy. The 1872 law establishing Yellowstone defined it as "a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Large parts of the parks would remain free of roads, but park advocates and leaders such as Stephen Mather and Horace Albright understood that without a strong constituency, national parks would wither under a parsimonious Congress. That constituency is now stronger than ever, as congressmen keep discovering whenever they try to choke off funding for these popular vacation sites. Americans want to see their land heritage, and they’ve been joined in recent years by unprecedented numbers of international visitors. In a time when much that our government does is hated or feared worldwide, the national parks remain our best ambassadors.
It’s true that Ed Abbey’s detested pavement has brought unseemly throngs to our national parks. Too many people crowd into places that once breathed silence and solitude. But the roads are there and the parks are incredibly popular. Sitting in my little sandstone nook next to Delicate Arch, I watch as kids, parents, college students, the elderly, the desert-wise and the excited newbie all enjoy the scene. While they’re not exactly out in the boonies--at least by the standards of modern adventurers--they have gotten away from their cars, as Abbey urged us to do. These happy folks are out in the sunlight and wind, experiencing a mild degree of freedom, self-reliance, and perhaps even a little fear. For some, Delicate Arch may bring about feelings of wonder--at least in between shutter clicks. Although most will go home with little more than another mark on their bucket list, perhaps their perspective will have been subtly changed, and they will be a little more open to the idea of leaving a few bits of the earth alone. They may become more aware that there is, indeed, an Earth out there beyond their screens and windshields.
As popular as they have become, our national parks and monuments have become a prime venue for some much-needed education in responsible outdoor behavior. This includes promoting better awareness of the natural values of our parks, something that the Park Service does well and should do more of. As Congress considers whether to allot more money to the agency for needed infrastructure improvements, it should also fund a healthy increase in the number of interpretive rangers the Park Service employs. These women and men are the parks’ best face. Every one I’ve met is deeply committed to sharing scientific knowledge with visitors. They are a front line in the most desperate battle of all, the struggle to educate Americans about the worth of the planet they live on.
The national parks of today may be a long way from Cactus Ed’s notion of a free, leaderless society of independent, upright and capable dwellers in the land, but they offer a better vision than much of what we see in the modern West, especially here in the land of Moab. The Arches that this ornery, intransigent author fell in love with a half century ago is gone for good, but his sandstone monuments still stand, open for all to visit, marvel at, and take away whatever lessons they hold.
Delicate Arch (photo by Bessann Swanson)
If we want to understand the impact that Desert Solitaire had on readers of my generation, we have to consider the times: 1968, the year of its publication, and those that followed were a period of unprecedented social upheaval and overriding angst in America. It wasn’t only young radicals who wondered if our country was going to get through it all without major damage to our ideals. Abbey’s book gave us both a confirmation of our anxiety and an escape from it. We could read about a place in the desert that appeared to exist out of time, virtually untouched by war, racial unrest, venal politicians and pervasive pollution. Although Abbey warned us in his preface to Desert Solitaire that the Arches he knew no longer existed, this seemed not to diminish our pleasure in reading his book and imagining that somewhere in southern Utah, a place like it must surely still exist.
Even by the early 1970s, when sales of Desert Solitaire began to pick up, Arches National Park (it gained this status in 1971) remained a little-known destination, and the greater Utah canyon lands had yet to attract big-time attention. Canyonlands National Park, created in 1964, was beginning to draw visitors, but few ventured into The Maze or boated the Green River down to the Confluence. A small but determined band of hikers and canyoneers in Salt Lake City were battling to protect the Escalante Canyons from a tourist highway that Utah politicians wanted to build, but other than in Coyote Gulch, you could still find plenty of solitude (and not a few cows) within its amazing sandstone gorges.
I first visited Arches in 1976, on a cold, cloudy day in late December. My wife and drove down from Montana to find some sun and warmth, but as we reached the mostly deserted campground at Devils Garden, the overcast sky promised snow. Off to the east a full moon rose above the Uncompahgre Plateau, its light showing from behind the clouds and illuminating a mysterious world of river canyons, mesas, and open slickrock. I had read Desert Solitaire by that point and as we stood by our tent I felt a little of the thrill that must have filled Ed Abbey when he arrived at Balanced Rock in April 1956. True, the road was now paved, but it still seemed like an adventurous destination.
I didn’t make all that many trips to southern Utah during the ensuing years, but each time I went I seemed to be comparing my experience to Abbey’s, looking at how wild the landscape remained, how touristed it was becoming, where new roads and highways were being built. In 1985 I moved to Salt Lake City to work with a conservation group, the Utah Wilderness Coalition, which was developing a wilderness proposal for the state’s portion of the Colorado Plateau Province as well as for the Great Basin desert. Abbey’s message had become real, and urgent: threats to the integrity of the canyon country landscape were cropping up all the time, each one contested by a small but amazingly dedicated band of canyon aficionados. These were the early days of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an organization Abbey supported and for which I worked briefly. Canyon country was starting to attract nationwide notice, and none too soon, for the drilling, scraping, dust-raising fraternity, allied with most of Utah’s congressional delegation, wanted no part of preserving these lands—at least outside of the state’s national parks, which were generally regarded as cash registers for the tourism industry.
I would venture that nearly all of those who joined SUWA, the Sierra Club, and other such organizations in Utah had read Desert Solitaire and regarded it as something of a bible, as I did. It became a prophetic work, which enshrined the Utah canyon country in our minds and gave us the intellectual and philosophical rationale for preserving it. Not that there weren’t other writers who made similar points—Wallace Stegner eminent among them—but Abbey laid the foundation and egged us on to preserve the red rock country.
In its focus and outlook, Desert Solitaire was, and remains, unique. Other writers, from Mary Austin and John Van Dyke to Joseph Wood Krutch, had written glowingly about desert environments, but they focused on the far Southwest—the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, the ultimate arid spaces. No one else seemed to capture the Utah canyon country in quite the same irreverent, ironic way, writing in an idiom we could understand. John Wesley Powell wrote memorably about the region’s great rivers, and Clarence Dutton about its geology, but their words came out of a different century. Abbey managed to combine accurate observations of nature (despite his continual protestations that he was not a naturalist) with an alternative vision of America. His anti-establishment invective, as well as his peculiar brand of late-Beat generation anarchism and wild living, suited me and my peers—and not a few of us set out to emulate him. (I didn’t try, for I was never attracted to his free-and-easy demeanor, his Cactus Ed routine, which I learned much later was to some extent a deliberate bit of image-making).
At the same time, certain chapters in Desert Solitaire seem to belong more to a 1940s and 1950s style of desert writing, the kind that sometimes showed up in True West magazine. In a chapter titled simply “Rocks,” Abbey fictionally portrayed a uranium prospector who ran afoul of his scheming stakeholder. In “Cowboys and Indians,” he joins hard-bitten, impoverished rancher Roy Scobie (a fictionalized name) to round up cattle in Courthouse Wash. He even engages in a search for a lost horse, an episode which some Abbey biographers speculate may itself be fictional (Abbey was known to draw on experiences from many places and conflate them in his writing). In this sense Desert Solitaire straddles the Old West and the New West, much as Abbey did in his first work of western fiction, The Brave Cowboy, wherein the mysterious cowhand Jack Burns runs headlong into the awful regimentation of the modern world. (Abbey made fun of True West and its kind, even though he sometimes placed articles and fiction pieces in similar magazines.)
Desert Solitaire gave us a vision of a strange, beautiful and possibly dangerous land, but it also laid out a challenge to complacent, self-satisfied Americans: to grow out of our consumerist, fat-lazy-and-contented suburban lives and examine what was happening to our land, to our system of government, and to our own psyches. It dared us to stand up, like Abbey’s mythical cowboy loners, and seek a free life in the wilderness, beholden to no government or institution but only to each other. Some of us took up the challenge, or imagined we did, and tried to create an alternative vision for what the American Southwest could be. If it wasn’t a coherent vision, and if ultimately the economic imperatives that lay behind tourism overwhelmed our efforts to find a free land in the desert, we at least had fun trying. That’s an old American story, one that just happened to play out a little later in Utah than in other places. But it was all foretold in that subversive book that came out in 1968, which changed how so many of us looked at red rock and sunsets.
Any writer who deals with environmental issues in the arid Southwest must sooner or later confront the enormous influence of Edward Abbey, whose most popular and influential book, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, appeared in print fifty years ago. His account of his two years’ stint at Arches National Monument in southeastern Utah looms as one of the seminal works of Western literature, right up there with Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion.
Notice that I compare Abbey’s nonfiction book with two works of fiction. That’s because Desert Solitaire is, to me, novelistic in form. While it’s true that only one chapter, a tale of a uranium prospector in the 1950s, is purely fictional, others might be termed “enhanced nonfiction”--stories based in fact but reworked and embellished for the purposes of the book. It’s a tradition that goes back to John Wesley Powell’s accounts of his 1869 and 1871 voyages down the Colorado River, which he conjoined into a single narrative. Abbey also collapses his two seasons at Arches into one, which aids the overall structure of the book.
And it is that structure that resembles a novel, in that the protagonist, who is Abbey himself, is on a quest to understand the strange landscape of southern Utah, but in the process must come to terms with the Big Questions: his place in the universe and the struggle to find a purpose in life. Abbey would return to these questions many times in his nonfiction writing, which corroborates James Bishop’s assessment that Abbey’s concern was less for “nature” than for human nature, which [he writes] “becomes increasingly endangered when the land and its wild creatures are devastated.” (Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, 118). We lose not just the wild world, but ourselves.
In a series of short pieces I’ll be writing throughout this year, I’ll be considering the question of how Abbey’s greatest work (for I believe that’s what Desert Solitaire was) addresses the issue of the individual’s relationship to that wild world. Can we learn anything at all from the desert--especially if, as Abbey wrote, “I am convinced now that the desert has no heart, that it presents a riddle with no answer, and that the riddle is itself an illusion created by some limitation or exaggeration of the displaced human consciousness.” (DS, 212*). That’s a meaty statement and it deserves a closer look.
For today, I want to go back and look at the first chapter of Desert Solitaire, in which a young, newly minted Ranger Abbey drives up from Albuquerque, through Moab, to his post at a government-issued trailer near Balanced Rock, right in the heart of what was then a little-known, 29,000-acre national monument. It’s a scene that beautifully draws the reader in to the substance of his story, which has to do with the mysteriousness of the Utah high desert landscape and how it weighs on his mind.
The usual way to introduce a reader to a novel landscape is to situate them at a good viewpoint and lay out the scene: the edge of the Grand Canyon, the Teton Range as seen from Jackson Hole, the Pacific Ocean from the cliffs of Big Sur. Abbey inverts this procedure, taking us into Arches on a winding dirt road on a dark night in April. The wind whips snowflakes across his vision and various animals bound and skitter out of headlight range. We get only fleeting glimpses of the landscape itself--“weird humps of pale rock on either side, like petrified elephants, dinosaurs, stone-age hobgoblins” (DS, 2). Abbey deposits us not at some stunning viewpoint, but at a cold, dark, rat-infested housetrailer in the middle of nowhere. It’s a brilliant device which confounds our expectations. Anyone who has driven to a desert trailhead long after sundown knows this--the way in which a new place can hide itself at first, only later becoming more comprehensible.
Even in the next chapter, which takes place early the next morning at the trailer, he continues the same thread: the stony surroundings are revealed slowly, phantasma-gorically, as dawn breaks and the remaining storm clouds scud off over the La Sal Mountains. Only then, after brilliant sun illuminates his surroundings, does Abbey get around to describing the scene. Even then he takes his time, describing the distant view to the Abajo Mountains, the Book Cliffs, and the Uncompahgre Plateau in Colorado, then drawing closer past the deep trench of the Colorado River and the eroded landscape surrounding the monument.
The natural arches for which the monument was created get little mention, here or in the rest of the book. This seems deliberate, Abbey’s way of announcing that this is not to be a routine travelogue or piece of nature writing. “The arches themselves, strange, impressive, grotesque, form but a small and inessential part of the general beauty of this country,” he writes (DS, 9). His mission is to lay out the broader picture, to get beyond the tourist-brochure depiction of the monument’s scenic wonders.
It’s clear from this introduction that Desert Solitaire is no ordinary travelogue of the sort that stock bookstore shelves in the national parks. This is an interior exploration as well as a portrayal of the land and its inhabitants. I think it's significant that Abbey was a contemporary of Ken Kesey, whose place-based novel Sometimes a Great Notion contains some of the finest descriptions of the natural setting that I’ve read anywhere. Kesey presents the towering rainforests of the Oregon Coast Range and its dank, overgrown riverbanks as if they were actors in his story, a palpable presence that sucks at his protagonists’ lives--literally, in one of his final (and terrifying) scenes. Abbey is dealing with the opposite of Kesey’s Oregon, a landscape so harshly lit it hurts the eyes. But it’s always out there, ready to trap the unwary or to enlighten the pilgrim who approaches it with an open mind.
This, I think, is what Abbey means when he writes that he wants to suppress the urge to personify the Arches landscape, and instead to “confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities.” (DS, 6). That’s a pretty tall order--to know Kant’s Ding an sich, the emptiness of the Tao, the black sun at the heart of human existence. But Abbey studied philosophy and took it seriously.
We get a hint of the magnitude of his quest in the final chapter of Desert Solitaire, when Abbey takes his leave from the monument in October as another storm approaches. “The desert has driven me crazy,” he states, somewhat enigmatically, for throughout the book he evinces a great love for the desert while he is out patrolling his monument and exploring the Utah canyon country. Why does he say this? That’s for us to ask as we make our way through what Edwin Way Teale, an accomplished nature writer himself, called “a ride on a bucking bronco.” We’ll see where it leads us.
* References to Desert Solitaire are to the 1988 University of Arizona Press edition, which, interestingly, drops the original subtitle “A Season in the Wilderness.”
photo by Bessann Swanson