Matt's Reviews > Desert Solitaire / A Season in the Wilderness

Desert Solitaire / A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey
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's review
Feb 13, 2009

really liked it
Read in January, 2009

Some people argue that the difference between infatuation and love is your attitude towards the recipients faults. In infatuation, we do our best to pretend the person is faultless; put them on a pedestal and turn a blind eye towards failings. Love, on the other hand, sees the person as a whole - and rather than ignoring the faults, acknowledges them, and loves them, too. If that is true, than Desert Solitaire is Edward Abbey's love poem to the desert of Southwestern Utah.

The book recounts a summer Abbey spent, in his youth, living as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, in Utah. Now, I confess a deep affection for that part of our country - but I feel like my love pales in comparison to Abbey's. He loves the country, warts and all - not just the impressive rock formations, but also the harsh, waterless desert atmosphere. Not just the beautiful desert flowers, but also rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widows, and tarantulas. Not just the colorful desert sunsets, chromatically striated from all the dust in the air, but also the fact that, more often than not, there's no one there to share it with.

But if Desert Solitaire is part love poem, it is also part elegy. Though I was blown away by Arches when we stopped in Moab during the bike trip, Abbey would argue that his Arches was long gone by the time I got there. The desert, as he saw it, was being done in by development, motorized/automotive tourism, and the misdirection of the Park Service. Part of the charm of the desert (built into the very title of the book) is its very inaccessibility and inhospitality. To make Arches easily reachable by thousands of car-enclosed tourists is, to Abbey's mind, to remove part of the soul of the location.

His mourning of the lost parts of the Southwest is not always so abstract. In the chapter "Down the River," he and a friend take a long raft trip down Glen Canyon, soon before a dam down river is built - which, when completed, will submerge the entire canyon. It's a deeply affecting chapter, as they discover hidden nooks and crannies throughout the canyon, all too aware that they may be the last to ever see them. If these are the costs of development, Abbey would argue, then we've made a Faustian bargain.
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