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.