Ron's Reviews > Desert Solitaire

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
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Apr 21, 12

bookshelves: nonfiction

Edward Abbey was an outspoken wilderness advocate, and his nonfiction writing falls somewhere between Thoreau and Hunter Thompson. "Desert Solitaire" is classic Abbey, written in the latter 1960s, when he was about 30, and it recounts a handful of summers spent ten years earlier in and around Arches National Monument in southeastern Utah. Here he was a park ranger, when the park was still mostly undeveloped. Living in a small trailer, keeping an eye on the campers and tourists, he mostly relishes the quiet, beauty, and indifference of the desert under its hot sun.

The book begins with his arrival in April and concludes with his departure at season's end in September. In between are chapters devoted to descriptions of his rambles across the terrain, helping a local cattleman round up cows in the side canyons, trying to capture a one-eyed feral horse, camping on a 13,000-foot local mountain, hiking with a friend into an uncharted wilderness call the Maze, and retrieving the body of a dead tourist. There's also a dark story concerning the unfortunate fate of some uranium prospectors. The longest chapter is a rapturous account of a week spent rafting down the Colorado River, he and a friend among the last to see the canyons about to be inundated by the Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of Lake Powell.

Along the way, there are ruminations on the meaning of it all and diatribes against urbanization, intrusive government, the tourist industry, and the destruction of wilderness. The word "solitaire" in the title is an apt choice, as much of the time Abbey is alone, thinking his thoughts and observing this desert world, its plants and wild life, geological formations, and the big sky with its turns of weather. Even when paired up with a companion, he is often off alone, on a walkabout of his own, like as not shedding his clothes.

His thoughts, meanwhile, are informed by wide reading in philosophy, history, natural sciences, and literature. As a writer, he's frequently quotable: "Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless." "It's a great country: you can say whatever you like so long as it is strictly true -- nobody will ever take you seriously."

The vistas he describes so eloquently are not hard to picture in the imagination, but I recommend an accompanying volume of photography, such as Eliot Porter's "The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado." Unless you're familiar with borage, paintbrush, globemallow, and dozens of other desert species, a picture guidebook to the flora of the region would also be helpful. I thoroughly enjoyed Abbey's book, shared the excitement of his adventures, found his cranky, ornery, sometimes self-indulgent perspective refreshing, and felt saddened by the end-of-season farewell with which it closes. In any list of nonfiction books about the West, it should be near the top.
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