Another book I read as part of my Unschooled Master of Theology Program was Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.
It was a recommendation by a coworker when he found out about the property I was working on, how I paddle an hour and a half each way to get out there, and currently when there I live in basically a tent.
I didn’t have very high expectations. I’d never heard of Abbey before. But, I found a copy online and gave it a go anyway, despite my reservations. To my surprise, it turned out to be quite an interesting story.
So, let’s find out what exactly it is we’ve lost…
Edward Abbey’s book, Desert Solitaire, is a timeless treatise on what once was, of nature and desolate and wild places, which have been trampled by progress, by human habitation, greed – mostly, though, by that ever schizophrenic nature of man.
It is a look inward, while immersed in a dead place, devoid, for the most part, of human habitation, and often of any habitation of beast or bird or even insect in the heat of the pounding, berating sun.
But, throughout the text, Abbey captures the simple joy of wandering while also addressing the profound and severe implications of being close to nature, of being consumed by it.
Let’s look at several insights that can be gleaned.
Most Beautiful Place on Earth
Abbey starts out the book with the opening line, “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” And, although highly subjective, based entirely upon personal experience, it is a central theme among naturalists, adventurers and nature lovers alike, without restraints for time or space – the earth and all it’s beauty is the greatest to behold.
As he quickly goes on to say, there are many such places as these. All of us hold some place as beautiful, as sacred, as empowering to the restoration of the spirit that stirs within us. That place could manifest any number of ways. Typically, it is a stretch of forest, or, as in Abbey’s case, an expanse of desert. But, it could also be a cityscape, a particular subway, or even the bustling marketplace.
But, unlike those, the natural space, unencumbered by artificial systems of mans’ inventions, devoid of signs of material progress – these spaces are imbued with a kind of profounder sorcery, a God-like thaumaturgy that invokes the stillness and intensity of the heart, enticing us to draw yet deeper still, to commune with all that is unknowable by intellect or cunning.
To walk, as Abbey did, in canyons bereft of human presence for thousands upon thousands of years, maybe never having experienced the steps of man since the upheaval that brought forth the seas and the mountains and the voids in between.
These places are sacrosanct, inviolable – for in their presence, when so rarely stumbled upon by explorer or wanderer or the haphazardly lost, they arouse such splendid and astounding awe within the fortunate, there are most often no words to adequately describe.
Religion of Stone and Death
It is in this state, of longing, of experiencing the profundities of the natural world, that we are struck, rendered minuscule, impotent, and incapable of appreciating the megalithic archetype of creation, of existence, of life and being and essence.
Abbey states: “….Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not—at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.”
He, as with all those who venture out from home and the many armchair comforts afforded us by modernity, Abbey can experience first-hand the mysterious, the apocalyptic, the intuition and sense of the mad mystic monk of the past.
On seeing the Arches for the first time, he equates them to the enigmas found in the world, “Leading away from me the narrow dirt road, an alluring and primitive track into nowhere, meanders down the slope and toward the heart of the labyrinth of naked stone. Near the first group of arches, looming over a bend in the road, is a balanced rock about fifty feet high, mounted on a pedestal of equal height; it looks like a head from Easter Island, a stone god or a petrified ogre. Like a god, like an ogre? The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself, to eliminate for good. I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also 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 at and 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, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.”
For, it is in encroaching upon nature, upon exercising this “brutal mysticism,” exposing the “naked self” that we do come to the truth of all that is and has been and still yet what will be. It is a paradox, the meeting of God on the pinnacle spire of mountaintop or within the depths of the inaccessible gorge. We each carry within us and so pumps with every heart beat, the common, irreducible, fundamental question of: who are we? and why are we here?
Yet, Abbey is not without a humorous side. Not long after arriving at the Arches, he is handed a uniform and a badge, and, in his words: “….this silver badge I’m supposed to pin to the shirt. The badge gives me the authority to arrest malefactors and evildoers, Floyd explains. Or anyone at all, for that matter. So, I place both Floyd and Merle under arrest at once…..”
Of Juniper on Fire
I was not aware of the aromatic nature of burning juniper until Abbey describes it here. I know of typical wood: Pine, Douglas Fir, Birch, even a bracken type woody brush on Eden that serves as an excellent kindling when dry.
It does, smoke in general, illicit a mystical state in which one is drawn inward, toward childhood, sitting around the campfire until late into the night, not to others speaking much at all, but simply enjoying the flames, the aroma, the cool, crisp air. It is, as he describes, “like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.”
In it, within the flame, possesses all that is potential, all that is civilized, all that is wild. It is a watch of the night hours, whether by intention or intuition, drawn by tradition and discipline or habit and a harken to the old ways.
The flames call to us, the fire molests from us so sweet the affection of a child, so innocent the longing of a forgotten wish and long abandoned dreams.
Of Creatures Great and Small
In Abbey’s meandering attention, he spends some time on the animal world, on their volition, on their conservation, on their beauty and terror.
He recognizes man’s propensity to anthropomorphize the animal world, to extend to creatures that lurk about in the darkness human traits and emotions, though they spend much of their days and lives in distinct patterns of instinct, obsessed by fear and hunger and sheer survival to exist.
Why do we do this?
For one, it is incomprehensible that there are other kinds of reality in the world – realities that we cannot fathom, that we cannot categorize. For, the conscious nature of the bear does not concern itself with paying taxes or being happy or sad or clinically depressed. It is possible that it feels many of these things. But, unlike humans, it has neither the capacity or desire to dwell.
As Abbey explains, when animals serve our purposes, they do so for selfish reasons. Survival. A brutal act of existence. Of perpetuation. And, this is for the singular purpose of the continuance of the species. Of what mechanism instills this inate drive is still unknown.
Yet, Abbey contends, “….it’s a foolish, simple-minded rationalism which denies any form of emotion to all animals but man and his dog…”
To this, I would argue the opposite. It is a delusion to project onto the animal world the same noesis for thought, reasoning, logic, emotion, self-actualization or self-contemplation (or, really any contemplation of abstract ideas). Any behavior that appears similar to thoughts or emotions in animals is our pernicious desire to care for something, to behold it, to posess it, and feign the care of it. How could a dog’s life be “better” in confinement than out in the wild as it was intended? Because we love it and it loves us in return? Nonsense. The animal is a brute beast, operating on the last few threads remaining of its animal instinct. It seems excited when you come through the door and sad when you leave, only because it equates you with food or some other comfort through repetitive conditioning. The relationship between a man and its pet is a mirage.
Abbey is correct. Wild animals, “do not sweat and whine about their condition…..They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.…”
He stumbled onto a fundamental truth his first few days at the Arches, in the experience of the two gopher snakes. By crawling after them, he enters into a void, and unknown and unknowable place, of the sacred and mundane and the beautifully brutal. Incalculable. He asks, “Precisely what did those two enraptured gopher snakes have in mind when they came gliding toward my eyes over the naked sandstone? If I had been as capable of trust as I am susceptible to fear I might have learned something new or some truth so very old we have all forgotten it.” Instead of waiting to see, he scrambles to his feet.
While adrift downriver in a rubber boat, alongside his companion, Newcomb, Abbey begins to reflect on nature and the Grand Canyon and human endeavor, as the surreal tapestry laid out before him invokes a kind of melancholy for the future of man and his relation to the natural world. He quotes Wesley Powell: “You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths. It is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or the Himalayas, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task, by a year’s toil a concept of sublimity can be obtained never again to be equaled on the hither side of Paradise.”
In his explorations at each stop along the way, Abbey details for us what he questioned to be the Locus Dei….the place of God. Truly, nature is a befitting cathedral for the worship of many a god. But, for him, there is no utility in the invocation of deity or saint or supernatural. What he half expected to see, “—the leafy god, the desert’s liquid eye—but also a rainbow-colored corona of blazing light, pure spirit, pure being, pure disembodied intelligence, about to speak my name…” he critiques.
Rather, Abbey protests, we should abandon our fantasies, the ethereal, the mystical, and instead worship the water, the leaves, the silence…these being more true, more sufficient, more absolute.
His walk up the side canyons, he describes a surrealist corridor, with 200 foot curving walls, all with a multitude of benches and ledges, fashioned to fit by erosion and wind and exposure….and time.
Immense amounts of time.
On the surfaces of the rock cliffs, in places that have not seen human presence in hundreds of years, he sees petroglyphs from the natives that had once lived there. Further on, he finds a dripping spring, the water moving through a cut in the rock that someone had made – Mormon, 50 years ago? Maybe an Indian 800 years ago?
He turns and is stunned by the ruins behind him, 100 feet up, with no access – the stairs having been worn away by natural processes. It is here that he ruminates on the life of those people. How they must have lived in daily fear – fear of the unknown, fear of their neighbor, fear of each other.
Here, now (or then, as he writes), those people are no more. They have long perished, returned to dust. Typically to make room for the young, but their descendants left under mysterious circumstances. If asked, their posterity will simply say, “It was time to go.”
It is a peculiar and fascinating proposition, an abandoned dwelling. For humans, there is deliberate intension in where and how we live. It is no longer (may never have been) about simple survival as it is for animals. Faunae have no sentimental attachment, no emotional connection to where they lay their head at night. Most animal adventures are done at night, and sleeping is done during the day, where they bed down wherever it is most convenient and safe.
And looters or “collectors” would have worked tirelessly to scale that sheer rock wall to get at whatever treasures therein lay, and certainly, since Abbey’s writing, that specific dwelling up that cliff face has been looted more times than can be counted.
At Eden – my personal paradise – there is little remaining from those who came before. There are legends, there are histories, most too bleak to consider for too long. For, as with most natives, the inhabitants that lived on the land I know consider my own all died horribly from disease before Europeans ever stepped foot on nearby shores.
But these cave dwellers of the desert, they farmed and built homes and hunted and made pottery, and baskets and all kinds of art. Countless generations came and went, vanishing as quickly as they arose, yet Abbey points out, they lived in fear just as much as modern man does today.
In his journeys beyond the desolate remains, he finds yet another trail and is tempted to follow it. But, as is the reality of most adventures, he is tired, hungry, his feet hurt. His food stores are depleted, and the sun is setting behind the western rim.
There is never enough time, enough provision. Yet, there is always another canyon to be explored, another trail to follow to its termination. What mystery lies just behind the next ridge, or within that deep ravine? Most often, there is nothing but the mundane, the trivial, the typical.
Occasionally, though, one sometimes stumbles onto a genuine treasure of nature, a brook or pond or clearing deep within a dark forest, that hints, insinuates along the edges, but for the briefest of moments, toward a magical world of mystery and truth and awakening and unknown and unknowable expressions of life and existence and possibility.
Usually, though, this place remains only within our minds, as we, all the more reluctantly, turn back, and head for home, for shelter, for civilization.
Away from the churches of God.
As Abbey writes, “A predawn wind comes sifting and sighing through the cottonwood trees; the sound of their dry, papery leaves is like the murmur of distant water, or like the whispering of ghosts in an ancient, sacrosanct, condemned cathedral.”
It is truly to what I belong, “the cult of the wild.”
What of Havasu and Dying?
I was shocked to discover from this book an entire Native American village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. One that you have to hike in 10 miles to access, that has no roads, where mail and supplies are brought in and out by mule trains.
Abbey talks at length about his journey down to the bottom of the canyon, and spending a month in an old miner’s cabin, in near complete solitude, “save the ghosts.”
It is here one day that Abbey gets in over his head, finding himself stuck in a ravine, a twenty foot solid rock face he had just slid down, and a seventy foot drop before him. He had nothing but pants, shoes, t-shirt and a stick. No food. No way of lighting a fire and nothing to burn if he did. Darkness was on the horizon and there was no one for miles around in every direction.
His fate was, as he put it, “…Fatal. Death by starvation, slow and tedious.” Realizing he wasn’t going to die immediately, he sat and thought about his situation. There was water, so he could survive at least three days. No food meant he would probably die of starvation within two to four weeks.
Abbey envisioned his “sun-bleached bones” at the bottom of the chasm for future explores to see as a warning. It was possible, though, that no one would ever venture to this out of the way place again in what would become human history.
It’s a fantastic idea that there are still places in the world that have not seen human presence in a hundred years or more. The Eden property is surrounded by such wild places, yet so close to civilization, still abandoned and avoided. The valley has no drivable access. It is possible hunters have ventured down into her depths, but I have seen first hand the treacherous trek from the old woods at the top of the ridge to the valley floor, full of vines and bracken and almost impassible underbrush.
Behind the tracks is yet another pocket of land that may not have seem human presence since it was logged 30 years ago.
But, Abbey’s land – his desert – is so vast and so desolate, there were places then that man had not stepped foot on possibly ever. There was potential for his bones remaining undiscovered for all of eternity.
As the story goes (since he must have escaped this predicament in order to write about it later), Abbey purports to have scaled the slide behind him by stacking stray rocks up and then placing his walking stick and climbing it until he could reach the ledge.
It amazes me the number of people who’ve gone missing in the American Wilderness (1600+), though the Parks System will not admit as much. Even more surprising is the ingenuity that is born out of desperation (example: Autumn Veatch, who walked out of the woods after surviving a plane crash).1
Yet, through it all, Abbey discovers the indescribable euphoria that one often finds (rarely) in those abandoned, wild places. There are many risks associated, yet, as he describes himself after being trapped in a downpour and having to sleep out in the elements all night, without fire, without food, “…..I stretched out in the coyote den, pillowed my head on my arm and suffered through the long long night, wet, cold, aching, hungry, wretched, dreaming claustrophobic nightmares. It was one of the happiest nights of my life….”
Dying a Stranger’s Death
The risks are real. They can be deadly. Within a fleeting, breathless moment, the wrong step, a mistaken direction, an overestimation or oversimplification, can spell an untimely yet unequivocal end to someone who ventures out into the wilds of the unknown spaces. Geraldine Largay knows this all too well, who took over a month to finally succumb to the severity of the wilderness.
But, Abbey takes a chapter to describe the day he was called up to assist authorities in a search for a missing person in the desert, what quickly turns into a search for what remains.
Death is a sincere and insatiable fascination of mine. How do we die? Why do we die? Am I dying now? When will I die? Will by death be painful, drawn out, and bloody? Will I breathe my last, haggard breath after a tree falls on me in a great and tragic storm, or will I meet the end by entering the food chain of the wilderness and becoming a cougar’s next meal? Or, will I grow old, to my surprise, become sick (don’t need to grow old to do that), unable to care for myself, unable to remain independent, be forced out of my home or off my land, into a nursing home or some such other squalor?
Only time will tell. For whatever reason, God decided to make death a mystery for each of us.
The same must have been true for the man Abbey went in search for. Combing the desert in the heat, the impossibility of someone surviving out in that environment for any real length of time, only to find his brother had discovered the body.
It was laid out on a rock, the man having found the only patch of shade in the desert where-in-which he ultimately (and unnecessarily) acceded to thirst and exposure. His footprints not far away described the events leading to his ultimate demise. He’d gone far enough out, gotten turned around, then started to panic, stumbling and stutter-stepping toward inevitable expiry; the rock under the juniper tree.
It is said that lost people behavior is predictable, at least, to a certain extent.2 It is inevitable, I suppose, those who seek out nature should and do die in it – most often unexpectedly. Some simply vanish in it, are never seen or heard from again.
Abbey invokes the memory of Everett Ruess, yet, there are countless others. Some who killed themselves after running out of supplies, others who board plans or ships and simply vanish from the world.
In Leaving the Desert
Toward the end of the book, Abbey spins an anti-climatic tale of the Maze, an all but unexplored region of the canyon lands, where he and a friend rappel down into pristine habitat. It is cut short, with a jilted segue into Abbey’s imminent departure from the desert.
He speaks of his destination, New York, as if it is something to behold, a trip he is excited to get underway. He states he is, “….tired of being alone…”
He talks about how the tourists have heeded the, “…mystical summons, having returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park. They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place. (Sunset and moonrise, moaning winds and stillness, cloud transformations, the metamorphosis of sunlight, yellowing leaf and the indolent, soaring vulture.…”
Yet, he acknowledges, his time, too, has come to an end. He must leave the canyon country, must rejoin, “the rat race,” if but for a winter season. He already had his ticket for a plane ride to Denver, then to New York.
But, we do find from other accounts, Abbey’s reflections are often a mix of recollection and outright fiction. After all, he did not stay at the trail in the Arches alone, as stated. No. He was there with his wife and child.
So much for the draw and sustainability of solitary life.
He claims his time now, “….a grim business, returning to civilization. But duty calls. Yes, I hate it so much that I’m spending the best part of a paycheck on airplane tickets….” Citing balance as his secret weapon, I have to argue against his conclusion. The desert monks sought no balance between the hermitic vocation and the secular city life of civilization.
But, Thoreau, too, faltered in his application. He, likewise, having been well tested in two years, two months, two days of stay out on the pond, sought to return to civilization rather than continue on the land.
Abbey, if to be believed, left the isolation of the desert to be some kind of caseworker, claiming, “…..after weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken. I long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue. Enough of Land’s End, Dead Horse Point, Tukuhnikivats and other high resolves; I want to see somebody jump out of a window or off a roof. I grow weary of nobody’s company but my own—let me hear the wit and wisdom of the subway crowds again, the cabdriver’s shrewd aphorisms, the genial chuckle of a Jersey City cop, the happy laughter of Greater New York’s one million illegitimate children….”
Of this, I understand none of it. It will be curious in my own endeavor if I will, like Abbey, grow tired of my own company, or the lack thereof the company of others.
The desert, he says, has driven him madd. Though, he doesn’t particularly mind.
He warns the reader (from a bar in Hoboken of all places), “……Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot—throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?…”
He is the harbinger of a somewhat self-created truth, despite being correct. For, Abbey, in all his attempts to dissuade development in the wild places, served as the clarion call to all would-be naturalist and explorers, drawing them ever into the desert in increasing droves.
These places he wrote about are truly gone. They have melted before our eyes, drifted out of existence, left now to ruminate in our minds alone. They have been molested and corrupted, just as everything on this earth that has been touched or handled by man. As Abbey puts it, “…There is a man in every secret corner of her, doing damned, wicked deeds…”
Today, a trip to Havasu will cost you a $50 admittance fee. It demands a three day minimum stay, with camping fees starting at $25/night, plus groceries, helicopter ride (if you are so inclined). The trails and pools there are crammed with tourists all through the year.
Nothing is left of the deserted mining cabin Abbey stayed in for a month. Gone is the seclusion and the serenity. Gone are the canyon lands Abbey wrote of. At least there is a record of what once was.
Until my next review….
Please consider supporting my writing, my unschooled studies, and my hermitic lifestyle by purchasing one or more of my books. I’m not supported by academia or have a lucrative corporate job – I’m just a mystical modern-day hermit trying to live out the life I believe God has called me to. So, any support you choose to provide is GREATLY appreciated.
Excerpt from Our Daughter:
“Okay, mom,” Randy said.
“You behave yourself and be nice. You’re lucky to have company while you wait for the doctors.”
The woman turned and started back the way she came.
“The nurse said it would be twenty or thirty more minutes, so we’ll eat quick and be back up here before they take you in, okay?”
“Sorry for him,” the woman said to Katie as she walked by.
As the woman left, Katie noticed the boy moving around again on the bed. Before she realized what was happening, the tiny lump disappeared and she could hear the faint sound of bare hands and feet on the tile floor.
He was low crawling under the beds toward her.
A moment later, Randy popped his head out from under the nearest hospital bed, craning his neck around to look up at her.
“Hello, there,” Katie said.
Randy disappeared back under the bed, the bed sheet draping down almost to the floor. Katie could still see three little fingers pressed to the tile.
“What are you here for?” Katie asked, readjusting her seat in the chair, trying to get the ache in her chest to lessen.
For whatever reason, the wheelchair was really uncomfortable.
“Why are – ”
Randy’s voice trailed off for a moment as he looked around.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m getting my leg fixed,” Katie said. “See?”
Randy poked his head back out from under the bed and looked at the leg she was pointing to.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The doctor said it’s broken,” Katie said. “Shattered.”
“Can you feel it?” Randy asked, able to stay out from his hiding place.
“I can feel it, but it’s not too bad,” Katie said, then tapped the IV in her arm. “This thing is giving me medicine of some kind for the pain. At least that’s what the nurses said.”
“Why are you – ”
Randy stopped mid-sentence.
He scooted out from under the bed entirely and slowly crept over to her on all fours.
“What are you, some kind of spider?” Katie asked, giggling a little.
“What are you?” Randy echoed.
He was now only about a foot away from her chair and sat there, his legs folded up under him, gawking up at her.
“What are you staring at me for?”
“I’ve never – ”
Randy put out a hesitant hand and ever so gently touched her arm.
“Are you some kind of ghost?”
He looked around again.
“Are you – ”
He leaned in, talking in a whisper.
“Are you dead?”
A nurse came around the corner and stopped abruptly, spotting the empty bed in the far corner where Randy should have been.
“Randy Andrews,” the nurse said, her hands now on her hips. “You get right back into the bed and you stop playing around, please. They are ready for you in surgery.”
Katie watched as Randy scrambled on all fours under the beds and back up onto his, pulling the sheet back over top of himself again.
She started to ask him about his question, but couldn’t get the words out before his parents appeared at the door.
Katie sat there quietly, watching Randy stare back at her from under his sheet. She glanced over at his parents and the nurse, noticed Randy’s dad had no hair on the top of his head.
Are you dead?
What kind of question was that?
The snap of the wheel locks being disengaged on Randy’s hospital bed jarred Katie out of the confusion she was in.
The doctor she’d first seen was now at the door, waiting for Randy.
He was his surgeon.
They wheeled Randy out of the room, his parents following right behind, disappearing to the left, heading for his operating room.
The pre-op room was empty again.
Are you dead?
What kind of crazy question was that?
The nurse came back through the double doors.
“It won’t be long now,” she said.
Katie tried not to think about the dull ache growing just behind her sternum.
The nurse disappeared around the corner as Katie watched the double doors to the operating rooms slowly shut.
Buy my book Our Daughter and begin the adventure of a lifetime, as you uncover the mysteries behind Katie Cadora’s new life after the horrible accident that stole her mother away from her. Will she find sure footing again? Will the pain ever stop? Will she discover the secrets her new foster family are keeping from her? Is the boy’s question right? Is Katie Cadora actually dead?
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