Marking the loss of a great and generous friend, and an outdoorsman of deep wisdom
In the fall of 1969, just as the larch were turning golden in the mountains of western Montana, a twenty-four-year-old reporter was wrapping up his notes from a meeting on the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula. It was a roundtable discussion on forest management issues, always a contentious topic in the western part of the Treasure State. The reporter was on deadline, but he also had to hit the books, for he was taking a full load of classes at the university. His name was Dale Burk.
The young scribe already had a full plate as an outdoor columnist for the Missoulian and state wire editor for its parent company, Lee Enterprises, but he was about to take on a much larger assignment. As the meeting broke up, one of the speakers, a tall, solidly built man with a close crop of white hair, approached him. He was G. M. “Brandy” Brandborg, the former supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest and ringleader of a group of dissident ex-foresters, ranchers, and loggers in the Bitterroot Valley south of town who were raising questions about the management of national forest timber lands surrounding this exceptionally scenic valley.
These days it’s not unusual for a reporter to get calls from disgruntled agency employees, but in 1969, it was unheard of for a retired national forest supervisor such as Brandborg to openly criticize his former employer. Burk listened to the old fellow and promised to come down to the Bitterroot and have a look. Then he wrapped up his notes and went off to write his story.
Dale Burk taking notes on a Bitterroot Forest field trip, 1971. Courtesy Burk family.
Dale A. Burk died last week at the age of eighty-three at his home in Stevensville, Montana, following a long and distinguished career as a reporter, editor, and book publisher. His was a voice of conscience for wild creatures and wild places, and his passing is being mourned by a great many Montanans who love the outdoors. Coming so close to the death of Jim Posewitz last July, I cannot help but think that we are seeing the conclusion to a great chapter in the conservation history of the Treasure State.
Burk’s byline was a fixture of environmental journalism in Montana in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I didn't really get to know him until fairly recently, when I began researching material for my book on G. M. Brandborg. I had heard him speak at meetings and conferences shortly after beginning my graduate studies at the University of Montana in Missoula in 1974, and the following year he left Montana for Harvard to study under a prestigious Nieman Fellowship. He continued to work at the Missoulian for a brief time after his return to Montana, but soon left to pursue work in outdoor education, and then book publishing through his firm, Stoneydale Press.
What we did have in the 1970s was a friend in common, and therein lies a story I would like to tell. Burk was the fishing buddy of Kenneth Bohlig, an independent-minded outdoorsman from upstate New York, who had settled with his wife in a high, remote valley in southwestern Montana called the Big Hole. Dale became fast friends with Ken and Clara Bohlig, as would I, for these friendly and outgoing folks often invited me to stay at their remote outpost on the far side of the Continental Divide. Ken's conservation ethic made him a person of suspicion in the conservative Big Hole valley, and he and Clara paid for his views with the loss of their teaching jobs in the valley's small high school. Dale, for his part, would often take Ken out on the Big Hole River to fish from his drift boat and swap stories. Most of these, I suspect, were from Dale's inexhaustible trove of hunting and fishing tales.
When Ken was killed a few years later in a backcountry accident, we both lost a dear friend. Dale’s eulogy, delivered that fall at the annual meeting of the Montana Wilderness Association, has stayed with me all these years. Dale was an eloquent and entertaining speaker, but his remembrance of Ken Bohlig was brief, somber, and directly from the heart. He noted that after his last float trip with Ken that summer, they parted with a promise to get together again. Referring to Dale’s drive over the mountains separating the Big Hole from the Bitterroot, Ken said, “I’ll see you soon--on the other side of the Great Divide.” A few months later he was dead. Dale choked up as he spoke those words to us, as did I. I thanked him afterward, but we had no further communication until much more recently.
Dale Burk now lies on the far side of that unbreachable divide. Many Montanans, and former residents such as I, are bereft of a generous, outgoing man who lived life with a robust capacity for enjoyment. Dale also had a conscience that wouldn’t quit. There are many places in his home state that are still wild and beautiful, thanks in part to his journalistic efforts, most notably the Great Bear Wilderness and its lifeblood stream, the Middle Fork of the Flathead, which he wrote about with great passion and deep understanding. But it was his nine-part investigation of clearcutting practices on the Bitterroot National Forest, which grew out of his meeting with G. M. Brandborg in the fall of 1969, that established Burk as a reporter of high rank.
Burk's series, which ran in the Missoulian in November 1969, touched off a firestorm of controversy in western Montana. It was his first major investigative job, an assignment he sold to his editor, Ed Coyle, after his initial discussions with Brandborg. Spaced in installments to maximize reader interest, the series exposed what appeared to Burk to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the U.S. Forest Service to hide its mismanagement of federal forests from public scrutiny.
Terraced clearcut, Took Creek, Montana, 1960s. USFS photo.
Burk began his series with a feature on a third-generation Bitterroot logger named Ernie Townsend, who had become disillusioned with the intensive clearcut logging sponsored by the Forest Service. Townsend believed the Bitterroot National Forest was being cut too fast and that workers like him would soon be out of a job. Burk also interviewed Bitterroot Valley ranchers who felt that logging in the headwaters streams was depriving them of late-season irrigation flows. For another installment, he flew over clearcut forests in a small plane with a Sierra Club attorney, who told him the Forest Service was destroying the ability of the land to regenerate itself. He devoted three more installments to a rebuttal of these claims by Forest Service officials, who pointed out that trees regrew quickly on the cleared and terraced hillsides.
His final articles focused on G. M. Brandborg, who for decades had generated controversy in the Bitterroot Valley as well as attracting devoted supporters. Burk described Brandy as “a man with who speaks with the authority of an experienced forester” and depicted him walking among young ponderosa pine that foresters had planted decades ago when the forest was under his watch. The new clearcutting methods, Brandborg felt, were symptomatic of an agency-wide betrayal of its historic commitment to sustained-yield, low-impact forestry. When Brandy had been in charge of the Bitterroot Forest from 1935 to 1955, he had favored a program of harvesting only selected mature trees on an even, regular basis—part of his aim to maintain small, independent mills in the Bitterroot Valley.
Burk’s Bitterroot series set off an acrimonious debate in western Montana, with pro- and anti- timber industry players squaring off over who would control the public’s forest resources. Some industry lobbyists demanded that Burk be fired, but Missoulian publisher Lloyd Schermer and editor Ed Coyle back their young reporter down the line. Still, Burk professed some fear for his job—after all, he was barely in his mid-twenties, and had just stirred up a controversy that would soon reach the front pages of newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post. “At first I felt intimidated,” he told me in one of our first telephone conversations. “Then I was angry.” He credited Ruth Brandborg for counseling him not to back down from his reporting.
Over the next few months the clearcutting controversy spread to other national forests in West Virginia, Wyoming, and Alaska. The story was much the same in each place: rather than being fomented by paid environmentalists, it was local people, often sportsmen and women, who decried the sacrifice of the woods they had known all their lives for the assumed wonders of modern, scientific forestry. Their clamoring led to a special Senate committee chaired by Frank Church of Idaho to hold hearings on the issue in 1971. Burk was a key witness at the hearings, which resulted in nationwide USFS guidelines limiting the practice of clearcutting.
Dale Burk was a key source and guiding inspiration for my book on G. M. Brandborg and the Bitterroot National Forest clearcutting controversy. In 2010 Dale drove all the way down to SLC to attend a talk I gave at the University of Utah.
When I met Dale in the summer of 2007, his Bitterroot series was nearly forgotten, discussed mostly in texts on environmental history. He had long since left his journalism career to start Stoneydale Press, a joint venture with his brother, Stoney Burk, which publishes homespun books about big game, fishing, Montana history, and the sporting life. The outdoors had been part of Dale since his boyhood in the deep forests of northwestern Montana. He continued to go on wilderness hunting trips well into his seventies, even after a nasty fall on one of those hunts left him nearly crippled for a time.
In long telephone conversations and on field trips in his creaky old Chevy Suburban, Dale recounted the varied cast of characters in the Bitterroot clearcutting controversy. He singled out G. M. Brandborg, with whom he formed another of his fast friendships. He termed him a“Renaissance man” whose influence on Montana’s progressive causes, especially education, was “profound.”
Brandborg's opposition to the modern-day Forest Service was based not on the aesthetic intrusiveness of clearcutting, but on how the agency favored large, well-capitalized timber companies with few ties to local communities. Dale had grown up in several such timber towns in northwest Montana, where a logger’s or sawmill worker’s paycheck could sustain a family. His father had been an independent “gyppo” logger, and he eventually admitted to his son that the mill bosses had cut themselves and his fellow workers out of their jobs.
On one of my field trips with Dale, we passed the site of a lumber mill which had been active in Brandy’s time. It had closed, but before this happened the owners had plastered a huge sign on it that read “This Mill Closed By Burk and Brandborg.” The accusation was untrue, for mill closures were the inevitable result of too many decades of overcutting, as well as manipulations by junk bond holders with no interest in permanent forestry. But I think Dale was a little proud of that sign, although he believed that woods work was an honorable profession that ought to continue.
This was a realization that came too late in western Montana. Good journalism can raise flags and spur action, but it cannot buck great societal and economic trends, among which is capital’s relentless quest for fresh, cheap raw materials and compliant workers to exploit. Dale knew the score on that, but neither he nor his many compatriots in Montana’s conservation movement had enough power to resist it. The state’s residents live today with the scraps of a once-powerful logging- and mining-based economy, and not even the influx of large numbers of wealthy recreationists is going to bring back the old jobs or the old, close-knit communities.
Dale was rarely pessimistic, to my knowledge. There were always issues that needed attention, from shutting down game farms to ensuring the public’s right to stream access, and he played key roles in each of them. There were always the woods and the fields, where he made sure his children enjoyed some of the same experiences he had known. He was one of those Montanans who knew, as his old forester friend put it, that all wealth comes from the land.
Knowing Dale Burk has left me more determined than ever to ground my values deep in the land--in the mountains, the forests, the still-undammed waters, and the wild creatures that live in or on them. In all things that flow free and wave in the wind, forever.
Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society
We all love a campfire, don’t we? To pull a log close to the flames, share some food or a drink, and swap a few stories—there’s no better way to end a day outdoors. Later on, when the fire has burned down to coals, one begins to dream a little. Perhaps that’s what the three figures in this photograph were doing on this October evening in 1919, as they sat at the foot of the huge sandstone wall known as the Temple of Sinawava in Zion Canyon. That November, Zion would become Utah’s first national park. These three surely realized (as millions of visitors do today) that they were in the midst of a truly unique and magnificent place.
There’s little documentation to go with this historical image, beyond the names of the three individuals and their photographer. But that’s enough to flesh out the story, for each of these folks played a role in bringing Zion to the attention of the outside world. On the left, dressed as though for a New York salon, is Robert Sterling Yard, executive secretary of the National Parks Association and a prolific publicist for the recently formed National Park Service. Yard was paying a visit to Zion along with his daughter, Margaret, who is seen here tending the skillet. Between them, gazing solemnly at something or someone beyond the campfire, is William W. Wylie, founder of the famous “Wylie Way” camps in Yellowstone National Park.
The photographer was a press man named Eyrie Powell, who recorded this campfire gathering for the Union Pacific Railroad. UP officials were taking a keen interest in Zion as a potential tourist attraction, and two years earlier they had offered to help Wylie and his wife, Mary Ann, to open a tent camp in Zion Canyon, then a 15,200-acre national monument. The camp was located in a shady cottonwood grove just north of today’s Zion Lodge, and that’s probably where these four individuals retired for the night, there being no hotels in the vicinity.
For now, though, they seem to be enjoying the warmth of the flickering flames. This campfire never became the stuff of legend, as did the historic fireside gathering of the Washburn party by the Madison River in the fall of 1872, which supposedly gave birth to the idea of Yellowstone National Park. That story is likely apocryphal, but it helped lend a certain mythos to America’s first national park.
Yellowstone established the idea of setting aside outstanding examples of the nation’s scenery, and by 1919 America could boast of sixteen national parks and a slew of national monuments. For this we can thank the scores of writers, photographers, artists, travelers, and scientists who depicted the wonders found in places such as Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainier and Mesa Verde. Robert Sterling Yard played a central role in this publicity barrage. After he and Margaret returned home to Washington, D.C., filled with impressions of Zion, he put together a 32-page booklet titled The New Zion National Park: Rainbow of the Desert, which the National Parks Association published the following January.
Yard takes the would-be visitor on the long road trip from Cedar City, Utah, up the valley of the Virgin River to Springdale and the entrance to the new park. (Nearly all
visitors to Zion followed this route before the National Park Service opened the East Rim tunnel in 1929.) Upon reaching the canyon itself, Yard unleashes a torrent of imagery that certainly must have piqued interest in this little-visited new park on the North Fork of the Virgin River:
Several miles northward, up a winding brook, two lofty white pyramids gleam theatrically against the sky. The name Guardian Angels seems appropriate, though what they guard is not apparent unless it be the deep canyon between them. The picture holds the eye. It is one of strange beauty, a prophecy of the great canyon . . . . A few miles further, and another spectacle provokes a shout of astonishment, for the vast edifice which swings into view ahead upon the left of the road suggests nothing seen before in fact or dream. It is the West Temple of the Virgin at the Gates of Zion.
And on he goes up the canyon, past the Court of the Patriarchs, the Great White Throne, Organ Rock, Raspberry Bend, to the “mystic Temple of Sinawava . . . curiously Egyptian and idol-like.” Then come the Narrows of the North Fork, whose “crimson walls leap sheer from the water on both sides.” This was a “valley of enchantment,” Yard concludes, and most travelers who sought out this remote destination probably agreed.
Temple of Sinawava. Courtesy Zion National Park, Museum Catalog Number ZION 15933
Yard's language appears a little old-fashioned to us today, but this was how word was spread of these wonders in the desert. Besides his National Parks Association, there was well-funded advertising by Union Pacific Railroad, which had set up a touring operation that took visitors to the Wylie camps at Zion and at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Numerous newspaper articles appeared during Zion’s first years, including one featuring Margaret Yard's adventures in the canyon which was published shortly after their visit.
Not least in importance were first-hand accounts from happy travelers returning from a restful stay in this amazing canyon. Here the Wylies’ contribution was evident, for before 1917 a visit to Zion meant camping out—something many tourists were unwilling to do. But by 1920, with a decent road constructed and a well-run tent camp awaiting travelers, the canyon could be enjoyed in relative comfort. Zion was ready to take its place among western America’s most popular destinations.
Next: William Wylie and the National Parks Transportation and Camping Company
With Utah’s national parks starting to reopen this spring, I thought it might be fun to take a look at what was going on in these marvelous places a hundred years ago.
February 2020--A stroll on the Fairyland Loop trail, shortly before the park closed.
In 1920 Utah was celebrating the opening of its first national park, Zion, which Congress had established the previous November. Stephen Mather, director of the recently formed National Park Service, visited the new park that same month, making a detour from a staff meeting in Denver along with a photographer and a representative of the Salt Lake Commercial Club. After visiting Zion, the party drove out to the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, where they took in the stupendous views of the colorful spires and pinnacles below the rim.
Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, visited Zion National Park often and was one of its biggest proponents. He and his successor, Horace Albright, went on to establish Bryce Canyon National Park and put Utah on the road to being a tourism powerhouse.
NPS photo from Zion National Park Museum Archives, ZION 1134-02-40206-01-02.
“Bryce’s Canyon,” as it was known to local folks, was just beginning to attract attention outside of Utah. This "fairy wonderland," as many newspaper accounts called it, was featured for the first time in the national press in 1918, when a mountaineer and world traveler named Le Roy Jeffers contributed an article titled “The Temple of the Gods in Utah,” in the October 5 issue of Scientific American. Jeffers extolled the amazing views from the Paunsaugunt Plateau's rim, reaching deep into his bag of metaphors to describe the strange pinnacles, colonnades and other erosional forms on display. These formed “a vast city of prehistoric ruins,” he wrote, a veritable “stage setting for a fairy opera.”
The stupendous view from the eastern rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau inspired many early visitors to what would become Bryce Canyon National Park. This early silver nitrate photo was taken by Maurice Cope, Bryce's first park ranger. NPS photo from Bryce Canyon NP Museum, BRCA 532 001-206.
Bryce Canyon was not an easy place to find: it appeared on few maps and a traveler had to navigate a maze of roads leading across the plateau. J. W. Humphrey, the local forest supervisor, worked tirelessly to improve access and gain publicity for the area. The Forest Service was trying to enhance its recreational offerings on the national forests and Humphrey foresaw Bryce as a wonder likely to attract much attention. But Steven Mather’s visit in the late fall of 1919 foretold a different future for the area. Back in Salt Lake City, he announced to members of the city’s Commercial Club that Bryce Canyon was a good candidate for designation as a national monument. Such action required only the signature of the President and was widely considered a first step toward achieving national park status.
When it came to expanding and developing the National Park System, Mather, who had made his millions promoting California mining properties, was thinking big. He envisioned Zion and Bryce Canyon becoming key links in a highway tour circuit of the western national parks. Enroute to Zion’s formal dedication ceremony in September 1920, he stopped by Salt Lake City once again to promote the idea of roads linking Zion with the as-yet undesignated scenic wonders at Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks. Nowhere in the world, he told members of the Commercial Club, were there so many “strange and wonderfully beautiful forms of grandeur” within such a comparatively small radius. (Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 16, 1920.)
"Tourists' Rest," the homey lodge built by Reuben and Minnie Syrett in 1920 to accommodate guests arriving at the rim of Bryce Canyon. Note the pine tree growing through the porch roof. NPS photo.
As word of the wonders at Bryce Canyon slowly spread among the traveling public, an enterprising couple from Panguitch, Utah, opened a rustic lodge at the edge of Bryce’s spectacular rim, just north of Sunrise Point. Reuben and Minnie Syrett welcomed a trickle of visitors to their “Tourists’ Rest,” which featured a pine tree growing through the porch and a door on which guests could carve their initials. Overnight accommodations were in a cluster of nearby cabins. Homecooked meals added to the cozy atmosphere. The Syrett’s simple hospitality was typical of early tourist operations in the West, which attracted individual travelers and families with a sense of adventure.
The Syretts had asked the State of Utah for permission to build their lodge on a section of state-owned land, but they failed to get the agreement in writing, much to their detriment. Soon the Union Pacific Railroad--the big player in Utah tourism in those days--set its sights on this prime property. By 1924 the railroad, having obtained the proper lease, forced the Syretts to sell, and the couple moved their operation to some land they had homesteaded earlier, located just to the north of the future national park. This, of course, became the start of Ruby’s Inn, which today is the largest tourist operation in all of Garfield County.
In 1925 the Union Pacific Railroad opened the rustic but elegant Bryce Canyon Lodge close to the rim, on land leased from the State of Utah. NPS photo.
Within a year of obtaining the rights to the state land inholding, the Union Pacific erected the elegant Bryce Canyon Lodge, located among towering ponderosa pines a short distance back from the rim. By 1925 the railroad was ready to receive visitors to Utah’s newest national park, which was designated in 1924 under an unusual two-stage agreement. The year before, President Warren designated Bryce as a national monument, with the proviso that it would become a national park once the federal government obtained the section of State land close to the rim. The Union Pacific agreed to relinquish its lease in 1928, whereupon Bryce gained its official status as Utah’s second national park. The railroad continued to operate its lodge, which still stands today, under an agreement with the National Park Service. Bryce Canyon was now ready to receive visitors in much greater numbers, pleasing business people in Garfield County and Salt Lake City. The Syrett family would go on to develop and operate Ruby's Inn at the northern boundary of the park, ultimately eclipsing the Union Pacific lodge as the hub of tourism to Bryce Canyon.
Sources: Utah Digital Newspapers, https://digitalnewspapers.org/; Nicholas Scrattish, “Historic Resource Study, Bryce Canyon National Park,” National Park Service, 1985.
Thursday, April 10. Good Friday in the Christian calendar. My spouse is worshiping alone, her church being locked up, a sign of these pandemic times. I go for my usual walk in the foothills. Spring blooms, mostly fritillaries and glacier lilies, dot the north slope of the hill in back of our home, which stays moist into May. Yellow petals hang above rich, lily-like leaves, all surrounded by the emerging shoots of meadow grasses. Even the ubiquitous cheatgrass, which will turn brown in a matter of weeks, is a lively green. Life is bursting forth from newly warmed soil. I think of Goethe’s lines from the first part of Faust, where his protagonist observes the scene outside the city gate at Easter:
Released from the ice are river and creek,
Warmed by the spring’s fair quickening eye;
The valley is green with hope and joy;
The hoary winter has grown so weak
He has withdrawn to the rugged mountains.
From there he sends, but only in flight,
Impotent showers of icy hail
That streak across the greening vale;
But the sun will not suffer the white;
Everywhere stirs what develops and grows . . .
(trans. Walter Kaufmann)
How can one’s thoughts not be elevated in such surroundings, even in a time of world crisis? How can one not think of renewal, or meditate upon the idea of resurrection? I turn to the original German in this famous passage, and note that the last line I’ve quoted—the words Kaufmann translates as “develops and grows”—are actually Bildung und Streben, two terms which I’m sure Goethe did not choose lightly. Bildung in its simplest sense means “education,” but it carries much deeper connotations. Wikipedia calls it “the process of harmonization of mind, heart, selfhood and identity,” a term for how the individual learns to take on a constructive role within society, typically by undergoing a period of adventure and travail during one’s youth. It is exemplified by the Bildungsroman, the German literary form which Goethe himself employed in his early novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Streben, or “striving,” is another of those meaning-laden words Germans use so often, and can denote a person questing for power, moving with determination toward some goal, or (as in this usage) a plant reaching for the light. Clearly Goethe is not using these words to mean only that flowers and plants are pushing up from the earth in spring; they are stand-ins for the greater human quest toward knowledge and power, which obsesses Faust and leads him into mortal difficulty. Goethe is framing the human struggle as if we arose out of the Earth itself--which of course we did. We see this made explicit at the very beginning of the tragedy, where we witness Faust contemplating the symbol of the macrocosmos, which “with mysterious potency/Make nature’s hidden powers around me, manifest.”
Faust then turns the pages of the old tome he has pulled from his shelf to the symbol of the Earth spirit, which fills him with a strange sense of power:
As if I’d drunk new wine I’m glowing,
I feel a sudden courage, and should dare
To plunge into the world . . .
But, when he pronounces the name of the spirit, a red flame appears and a voice quickly puts the old doctor in his place, telling him he is “Peer of the spirit you comprehend/Not mine!” With this the earth spirit vanishes, leaving poor Faust to search anew for the powers and understandings he seeks.
I leave the meadow and walk back down the street toward home, scanning the open hillsides, listening for birds, trying to relish this moment as much as I can. It is noticeably quieter than usual, and even the dull roar of the city, five miles distant, seems to have lessened. There are fewer cars and trucks on the canyon road and the intervals of quiet are longer. “Quiet” is a poor term, of course, for an atmosphere filled with small sounds—leaves rustling in the wind, a robin’s call, a hawk’s cry, the whole movement of air through the oaks and pines.
Later today, with the warm weather, the figurative gates of our city will open and hundreds of its citizens will stream out and head up into our canyon: bicyclists, runners, people going for a drive or a ride on their Harley. The sounds they make range from the slap of runners’ shoes on pavement, the conversation of cyclists riding alongside each other, the usual car noise, and the loud rumble of the motorcyclists. The latter sound can be heard from a mile off, and will increase throughout the day until by late afternoon it becomes a more or less continual roar. By then all peacefulness will have vanished from our canyon, and I will shelter in my home office with the radio on.
I think about those two words from the German: Bildung--to become educated in the larger, most useful sense; to realize one’s place in the world; to find one’s own way to contribute. Streben—the striving that is so much a part of our western civilization and is both our highest aspiration and our ultimate downfall. Faust, the epitome of the learned man, looks back on a life of pursuing knowledge and finds that the encompassing, universal comprehension he seeks has eluded him, so he turns to darker forces for help. This is a very old theme—a mortal human seeks godlike powers and cuts his ties with the Earth to obtain them. Tragedy inevitably follows.
Goethe set these opening scenes at Eastertide, a time of enormous significance for Christians as well as for pagan mystics, as represented in the ancient book of wisdom with which Faust summons various spirits. Faust observes the citizens of the city streaming out into the open air, singing, dancing, and flirting with each other, while a column of soldiers marches off toward a far-off war with the Ottoman Turks. He tells his assistant, Wagner, who accompanies him, of his ineffectual attempts to treat victims of the plague many years earlier, for which the peasants still thank him, though he believes his remedies poisoned more than were saved. “I must live/To hear the shameless killers blessed,” he laments. Could Dr. Faust’s times be more like ours than we have imagined?
My mind is not really on spiritual matters this morning, just trying to take in the sights and sounds of this little piece of the planet on which I walk. My personal Bildung story has for the past six decades led me to places like this, where some force or spirit has had its way with me, cleansing ill thoughts, filling me with joys I cannot name, and awakening a better nature in me. Just to step outside the door on a morning such as this is to realize that the world out there is the only real one. This puts me at odds with my Christian neighbors, but there I stand. Though I read many old texts, I feel no need to summon spirits from their dusty pages, nor do I seek them in sacred groves; the sight and sound of green and growing things (striving upward, the eternal Streben nach Licht) is enough.
So much of modern life, on the other hand, is made up of the striving toward power, exemplified above all by the quest for speed and control. The kind of education which might moderate and direct this quest is often lacking—the sense of proportion, the correct place, the knowledge of where certain things belong. This applies to the sonic environment as well, a realm to which I seem to be peculiarly attuned. To me, race cars and motorcycles belong on a track, but if one desires to exercise these machines in the free and open air, a certain respect for other ears is called for. But the point seems to be to make one’s mark through some kind of sonic shock wave, to impress others with one’s power. The noise coming from the road is representative of the entire way we handle power in this culture. It brings to mind the conquistadors and friars who displayed the military and spiritual might of western civilization (sixteenth-century shock and awe, as Jared Diamond points out) in these heathen lands many centuries ago.
Maybe I’m wrong about this, and these folks who surround themselves with cylinder explosions are just seeking an escape, and they find it most easily by immersing themselves in in a sea of sound, no different than at a rock concert. The generous view is that we each choose our own means of getting away from the city and the life it represents. Many powersport advertisements employ the word “freedom,” as though a motorcycle or snow machine were a magic carpet, and perhaps in a weird way they are. I know that when I head for the desert in my truck I feel that lure of open spaces, although it doesn’t really begin to sink in until I switch off the engine, hoist my pack, and begin to walk.
There’s also a sense of freedom to be found in strolling quietly among these foothills, where one can observe, smell, feel, touch, and hear as much of the life that lives here as our senses allow. To set aside striving for a while and simply listen. To me this is a form of reciprocity, somewhat akin to what Robin Wall Kimmerer describes as the indigenous relationship with the land, which calls for giving something in return for what we so bountifully receive. I don’t carry a pouch of corn pollen with me to sprinkle on the glacier lilies, nor do I believe they need a physical offering, so my gift, poor as it may be, is to look and listen.
At heart (and this is as close as I’ll come to spiritual matters here) I do not even think that the plants and animals blossoming and growing all around me need or want my gratitude. Mostly they need to be left alone. They will do fine without my strewing benedictions on them this morning. What seems to be called for is to absorb the lessons they offer, without getting too anthropomorphic. To understand that beauty is, or should be, paramount in our lives, that it is something we must cultivate and celebrate in all its forms, but especially those which spring out of the Earth. To not destroy that which grows free—without our aid or direction--not unless we first sit down and think for a good long while. To realize that the Earth is a living provider to all forms of existence, not a storehouse to raid as we see fit.
Many of us these days are being forced into a much slower pace of life, which perhaps allows us to see things we might otherwise miss. My own life hasn’t changed a great deal, other than my usual car travel being limited, and that’s probably a good thing. I see people out walking I haven’t seen before. Even the air in town seems clearer. All these improvements are being purchased at great cost, especially for those who can least afford it, which tempers the quiet and the beauty, but the changes are still undeniable. What if we were to make these adjustments deliberately, as a matter of personal choice and public policy? What if growth, power, speed, and control were not the prime motivators for our economy? What if convenience and easy entertainment were not prized above all else? Would there not be more of the natural world around us to enjoy?
What it might take to achieve this, I do not know. I only hope that the path to a quieter and less crowded future does not involve disease, collapse, and social disintegration. It should not be required of us to disappear as a species in order to make room for nature. There is a choice to be made of which direction to follow, and we don’t have very long to make up our minds. We are not Faust, though we too often assume his mantle. Instead, we must set aside for a moment our great, learned wisdom, and turn humbly to the spirit that animates this Earth.
Jan. 1, 2020
On a day when most of us are looking ahead to a new year and a new decade, I’m taking a glance back a hundred years, to when Utahns were proudly pointing to their state’s first national park – Zion – and were already anticipating their second, at Bryce Canyon.
Zion National Park was established on November 19, 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that had been cosponsored by Utah senator Reed Smoot. What had been a small national monument with the unwieldy name of Mukuntuweap would take its place alongside such wonders as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon. Newspapers in the state heralded the move with headlines such as “Utah’s Scenery at Last Recognized” and “Fight for Wonderland Is Won.”
It was a moment of great pride for the Beehive State’s scenery boosters, but foremost on their minds was to build a tourism industry that could compete with neighboring states. Newspaper editors and commercial clubs lost no time in trumpeting the great wonder of Utah’s southlands. “The way is open to you,” exulted the Salt Lake Tribune. “Modern service opened by roads of steel, allied by the distance-defying motor car and the building of good highways, has rendered all this possible.”
The St. George Washington County News, taking a more realistic view of the primitive transportation infrastructure of southwestern Utah, called for building a new rail spur to Cedar City from the distant desert stop at Lund, on the Union Pacific’s Salt Lake-Los Angeles route, and a new hotel to accommodate the thousands of tourists it expected to arrive.
A map of the new Zion National Park, printed in the Salt Lake Tribune (see below), hints at the lack of good access and accommodations. A dirt road, often muddy and rutted, led up from Rockville and Springdale into the canyon as far as Weeping Rock, beyond which a trail continued up into the Narrows of the Virgin River. The Wylie tent camp, located in a shady grove of cottonwood trees just south of the present-day Zion Lodge, offered the only overnight accommodations. To get to the park by car was a real adventure, and tales abounded of motorists getting stuck or suffering breakdowns.
Map of the newly created Zion National Park, from the Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 25, 1919
Road improvements were not long in coming: by 1924 a gravel-surfaced road had been built from the park’s south entrance to the Temple of Sinawava, a mile below the mouth of the Zion Narrows. Funds for the $70,000 project came from the federal government, thanks to the 1921 Federal Aid Highway Act, which provided a fifty percent share of costs for the states’ highway building programs. National parks such as Zion thus became a means for money-starved rural areas to fund transportation improvements, which benefitted everyday commerce as well as tourism. This helped to cement a close association between local business interests, the road construction industry, and the federal government – a so-called “iron triangle” which would persist throughout much of the twentieth century, and help pave the way (almost literally) for new park acquisitions throughout the West. By the 1930s, in fact, auto travel to Utah’s national park units would outstrip the numbers of passengers arriving on railroad-sponsored tours.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, however, the Union Pacific, through its Utah Parks Company subsidiary, held a tight hold on travel to Zion, and later to Bryce Canyon, which was established as a national monument in 1923 and upgraded to a national park the following year. The UPC’s long, powerful touring cars, some equipped with open tops for sightseeing, delivered passengers to the Wylie camp in Zion until 1924, when the railroad completed the rustic-but-elegant Zion Lodge, designed by Los Angeles architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood. Another Underwood-designed lodge opened at Bryce Canyon in 1925. The way was now clear for the thousands of tourists to see these twin wonders of the desert, as part of a five- or six-day auto tour from the newly built railhead in Cedar City. The tour included a two-night stop at another Underwood lodge at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, newly accessible via a long road across the dusty, windswept Arizona Strip. The return leg from Bryce Canyon included a lunch stop at Cedar Breaks, soon to become a national monument.
Utah Parks Company motor coaches line up outside the original Zion Lodge, around 1929.
Library of Congress
Travel to these remote but scenic locations remained arduous, but the UPC's tour guests knew that at the end of the day they would be welcomed by friendly hotel staff, a good meal, and some of the most stupendous vistas on tap anywhere. This long-overlooked corner of the American West was heading into the big time, thanks to the cooperative relationships forged by the National Park Service, the railroads, the road lobby, and the hospitality industry. National parks were for many decades considered “business friendly” and a means to boost local economies. This supportive attitude persisted in Utah until the mid 1970s, when a great change in the management philosophy of the National Park Service began to create dissension over the role that parks would play in southern Utah’s economy.
More later in this series of “lookbacks” at Utah’s national park system, in advance of my next book, Wonders of Sand and Stone, to be out this spring.
Zion auto decal, 1923. National Park Service
October 9, 2019
Early one fall morning not long ago, having woken as usual before dawn, I gazed out the east window of my bedroom at the last stars which remained in the gathering light. Here at the edge of the Wasatch Range it’s often clear at night, and this morning I could see a lone star perched on horizon. I recognized it as Denebola, the third-brightest in the constellation Leo. I threw on a robe and stepped outside into the chill air. The great lion was climbing out of the eastern sky, leading the sun into a new day.
This bluish-white star, which brings up Leo’s rear quarters, suggested a tufted lion’s tail to European astronomers of the thirteenth century. Its name is derived from the Arabic Al Dhanab Al-Asad, or tail of the lion; in later star atlases it appears as Deneb Alased or Denebalezeth. The great 11th-century Persian astronomer Al Biruni wrote of Denebola that “The heat turns away when it rises, and the cold turns away when it disappears.”*
So it is at this season: the Pleiades are rising at bedtime now, and Orion is well past zenith at dawn. Watching this unfolding tableau from outside my bedroom, it occurred to me that I had not yet heard sandhill cranes making their way south. The hummingbirds have all departed and goldfinches swarm about the wild sunflower stalks. A lone warbler appeared in the aspen by our house; it had better hurry on, for there will soon be frost. I thought of a poem a friend sent me:
as the cold of night
deepens into autumn
are you weakening? your voices
grow farther and farther
These lines are from Saigyo, one of Japan’s best-known classical poets. They gave me shivers as I read them, and not just from cold. In not many more years, winter will overtake my body, too, and I will return my borrowed stardust to its original owner. I hope to see autumn return a good many times yet, but I’m aware that my own season is verging on November.
The starry morning sky also reminded me that I have not had my telescope out for many months; summer has somehow slipped by in a rush of trips and yard work. It is getting harder to load the heavy instrument in my truck for the sixty-mile drive out to where the city lights lessen and the Milky Way reveals its true splendor. Living at the edge of megalopolis, I must be content with stars of third magnitude or greater. Energy from a million lights blots out the photons which have traveled sixty-nine years from Leo’s tail to my eyes.
I built my first telescope fifty years ago as a teenager. It was a small Newtonian reflector with a mirror I ground from a mail-order kit. It came as a revelation that with nothing more than my hands, some grinding powder, and a crude testing apparatus consisting of a pinhole light source and a razor blade, I could create an optical surface accurate to a quarter-wavelength of light. A further revelation came when I took the completed scope outside and trained it on Jupiter. There it stood, halfway up in the east, its disk clearly visible in my field of view. Its four largest moons, known as the Galilean for their discoverer, were arrayed in a plane to either side of the planet’s disk, while its latitudinal bands and the Great Red Spot stood out clearly.
Spend enough time under a starry canopy and questions will form in your head. One is the old, and by now clichéd, matter of the vastness of the universe, the incomprehensible dimensions of the world in which we live. When I was much younger, it thrilled me to gain an inkling of the depths that lay out there, to know that light from the nearest large galaxy, visible to the naked eye in the constellation Andromeda, had spent the last two million years traversing empty space.
These days, viewing the deep sky on a dark night seems more foreboding, bringing the chilly touch of eternity a little too close. This morning, before I arose, I lay awake in bed wondering if I would be able to accept my fated merging back with the consciousless atoms that created this earth. Could I somehow take comfort from knowing that when that time comes, I will be reconstituted once again as a part of the whole? Who knows—although I hope to gain enough perspective to overcome the ego’s hold on my mind.
I think of Galileo, who four hundred years ago trained his primitive little telescope on Jupiter and drew open a curtain on the universe. His observation of those four moons, which he tracked over a period of weeks as they shifted position around the great planet, inaugurated a search that led him to certain novel truths about the universe. Continuing his nightly work, he observed the pockmarked surface of the moon and the individual stars of the Milky Way, which told him that the celestial realm was imperfect; it was not a series of glassy spheres arranged around us, but somehow existed apart from the known world. Suddenly our universe looked very different, and much larger.
By replicating what Galileo saw with my own telescope, I had to accept those same truths—including the inescapable corollary that my individual being held no importance whatever in the scheme of the universe. The time is not far off when I must live that truth.
Constellation Leo: Alexander Jamieson Celestial Atlas (1822), from Wikimedia Commons
Saigyo: Wikimedia Commons
Andromeda Galaxy (M31): NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day, Dec. 17, 2018
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