Edward Abbey's account of two summers spent in southeastern Utah's canyonlands is surely one of the most enduring works of contemporary American nature writing. In it he tells of his stint as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, of his love for the natural beauty that surrounded him, and of his distaste for the modernizing improvements designed to increase visitation to the park.
I'm left at the end of this feeling distinctly unsure whether I would have liked Abbey the person. He feels, like many of the desert plants he writes about, a little too prickly for comfort. But his writing is lovely, thought-provoking, and evocative, and he clearly loves the desert with a soul-deep yet unsentimental kind of love.
I spent several days in the back country of Utah's canyonlands once, what seems like a lifetime ago, and reading this has left me with a poignant longing to go back.
It reminded me so much of Thoreau’s Walden. Both men live on their own, apart from society for the majority of each day. They write about their reflections of both the nature that surrounds them and the structure of the world in which they live. It’s hard not to sound a bit pious when you’re in that position, but some of his descriptions are beautiful.
BOTTOM LINE: A good travel memoir and reflection on society, but I have a feeling I would have enjoyed this one much more if I’d been traveling in the West or even planning a trip there. It’s hard to appreciate the incredible nature of the west when you’re just reading about it.
Arches National Monument as Abbey found it was not wilderness, either. It was adequately developed to permit access to the slightly adventurous visitor willing to drive an unpaved road. Development to support "industrial tourism" just creams whatever bit of magic was once found.
For me "Desert Solitaire" is a lament for all of the once magical places that now seem like part of an homogeneous affluent suburb. It mourns the loss of the need for adventurism, knowledge, or skill once the wild places are tamed.
There's surely elitism here - and it favors those willing and able to endure the discomfort that keeps the riffraff out. There's humor and rightful anger here - and resignation to witnessing the loss of treasures.
It is interesting to read something that you love and empathize with half of and strongly disagree with the other half. I love the desert, I always have. I love the red rock, the sun (though I burn horribly), the lack of people. When I was in college we came down all the time. It is one of the reasons I love living here. Just walking out my door is beautiful.
But I also think that a human presence in the desert doesn't automatically ruin it. And though Abbey tries very hard to refute the inspirational feelings the landscape inspires, I welcome and cherish those thoughts. I once read something, can't remember where, that there is a reason the world's great religions came from the desert. The solitude, the clarity of the desert gives your mind an opportunity to hear all that is to faint to hear through the radio, kids, bills and worries of the indoors.
Abbey was a ranger in Arches before the paved road comes through. He is unhappy about the change and equates one road into Arches with the eventual paving over of all the beauty in the west. He also wrote this book as Glen Canyon Dam was being built and Glen Canyon being drowned. I think he would be appalled about a lot of the changes, but perhaps relieved that Canyonlands, at least is still mostly accessible only on foot. The book is a lament for what he thought would soon be gone forever. It is still here, perhaps harder to find, but solitude is still possible in the desert and I love it.
yes, he definitely does get "sanctimonious about wilderness" but I found the majority of what he said meaningful but mostly hilarious, because he admits how outlandish some of his claims are. you gotta remember, this guy was out their living it.