Will Byrnes's Reviews > Desert Solitaire

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
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May 03, 15

bookshelves: non-fiction, biography-autobiography-memoir, nature
Read in October, 2009

Desert Solitaire seemed the right book to take along on a trip to the southwest in September 2009.

Abbey writes of the beauty of the southwest. As a ranger at Arches National Park he had a close relationship with some of our country’s most exquisite scenery. In the 18 essays that make up the book, he offers not only his appreciation for the sometimes harsh environment of Utah and Arizona, but his notions on things political. Those are not so compelling. He tells tales of people he has known and in doing so enhances an image of his southwest as at once a beautiful and terrible place.

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North Window in Arches National Park

However, I have concluded, with apologies to Ernest Thompson, that Edward Abbey is an old poop. It is one thing to have a deep and abiding appreciation for a place, a thing, an experience, an environment, but Abbey seems determined that only certain sorts should be allowed to share that joy. And while he may wish for us as readers to appreciate what he appreciates, he seems uninterested in allowing for other joys by other people. While he offers detail and poetry about the desert and about untouched places, he sneers at the urban, at those he sees as lesser than himself. As such he taps into some tried and true American themes such as the romantic myth of self-sufficiency and our persistent national history of anti-city bias. Toss in some other dark impulses when he suggests that perhaps birth control for some poor people should be mandatory. Add a dose of survivalist paranoia as he sees one strong reason to support National Parks to be preserving a staging area for rebel militias after big government comes after us all. But don’t forget a gift for language, for description, for story-telling, and a strong poetic sensibility.

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Park Avenue - in Arches National Park

For those of us who, for whatever reasons, may not be able to manage ten-mile hikes, or who cannot rappel down canyon walls to experience the full range of experience available at our national parks, for those who may not have dedicated our existences to living as closely to the land as possible, we also are Americans, we also are people, and it is possible to take joy in natural wonder without the benefit of Abbey’s athleticism. He clearly winces at the possibility of roads being built that allow the non-hikers among us a chance to see at all, up close, or, at least closer, some of the parts of our parks that are currently inaccessible and he decries as abominations the possibility of mechanisms being constructed that provide an enhanced experience to those in wheelchairs, as if that were somehow shameful. Having just returned from several of the national parks mentioned in this book, I can safely report that I saw much stunning beauty, felt my appreciation of my country’s natural wonders swell, and believe that it is my entitlement as an American, no less than 20-something backpackers, to take joy in this common heritage. My inability to manage a back-country hike should not prevent me and others like me from sharing in our nation’s natural wonders. Surely there is a happy medium between the paving over of everything that Abbey fears and allowing reasonable access to our nation’s natural treasures to those of us who are not outdoorsmen.

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Balanced Rock - at Arches National Park

Beyond my gripes about his notions concerning who should be allowed into our parks, and other dark political impulses, Abbey is a very gifted writer. He has many stories to tell both about his personal experiences and about other characters he has encountered in his southwest existence. His love of the land comes through like a cactus barb into an unshod foot. You will get a feel for the lands he portrays, the land he loves. In addition, he seasons his narrative with references to more refined culture that one might find a bit surprising in a guy who presents as a mountain man.

I have not read Abbey’s later writings so will keep an open mind on where he wound up regarding his politics. I may not harbor particularly warm feelings for the guy overall, but I do share his love of our national parks, his visceral appreciation for natural beauty and appreciate his great skill as a writer. Hold your nose over some of the darker parts of this book, but it is a special read when he is not ranting.


(The shots in the review are mine from that trip.)
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Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

My husband calls these people like Edward Abbey "elitist" and says they are very common in their thinking that these things are only for a few. He discourages me from donating to many environmental groups for this reason. I did enjoy reading about his journey down the canyon and wish that I could go but I never could do that. Have you been to the super deep canyon here in Colorado? (its terrifying) When my husband took me down to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison a couple of years ago I was horrified and wanted to leave right away. There is an even scarier one in Idaho I hear and I don't want to go there.


Will Byrnes I agree that Abbey is "elitist," but in a very specific way. He would merrily keep all non-athletes or non-purists out of the parks. I think there is room for both mountain-man types and folks like myself who have a visceral appreciation for natural beauty but not the physical capacity to do serious trekking or climbing.

I think there are many environmental organizations that are much more benign in their notions of how we can go about hanging on to our national natural heritage for future generations. The Nature Conservancy, for example, saves nature the old-fashioned way. They buy it. I have been a member for many years. AS a child I used to walk halfway across the borough to go to the Bronx zoo. Now renamed the Wildlife Conservation Society, they not only run several zoos within the city, but sponsor significant research on wildlife, with an eye to saving from extinction what can be saved. The Bronx Zoo, in the early 20th century played a major role in preserving the American bison.

No I have not really been in a deep canyon that I can recall, other than driving through considerable swaths of the southwest and northwest, between mountains. I have walked in some slot canyons which is a much different experience, and have only observed the Grand Canyon from the rims.


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Will wrote: "I agree that Abbey is "elitist," but in a very specific way.

I don't think you can go down into The Black Canyon of the Gunnison as the Effel Tower would fit in there with the Empire State Building stacked on top and something else. They have a map to give a person an idea how deep it is. Its narrow and black not pink, purple and gold like the Grand Canyon. Some men did go down in there long ago by floating down the stream like Abbey did in his book but they barely got out alive. Big boulders stopped their progress. Its very scary to me and reminded me of reading Follow the River for some reason.

I get flyers etc from The Nature Conservancy and some others possibly because I buy cards and clothes from National Wildlife Federation but I am not allowed to donate to others as there is a conflict of interest with groups my husband belongs to. He used to be a park ranger and does love the National Parks like I do. I always like to know about things like The Bronx Zoo which I didn't know about. Victor is fascinated by bison partly as he is from the east (he says Midwest) and gets so excited when we see any here. I can easily buy organic buffalo here from herds that are kept nearby but the meat has too much iron.



Will Byrnes The Black Canyon otG sounds impressive. And it certainly sounds like scared is the proper response, or at least one of them.

It was pretty exciting seeing Bison bison in such numbers in Yellowstone.

My wife and I truly appreciate the National Park Rangers. We typically vacation in national parks and wish the good people working there were paid a decent wage. We have almost universally been impressed with their knowledge, dedication and people skills. My wife thinks most of the rangers, particularly the younger ones are hotties. I roll my eyes, but secretly wish I looked that good.


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Will wrote: "The Black Canyon otG sounds impressive. And it certainly sounds like scared is the proper response, or at least one of them.

It was pretty exciting seeing Bison bison in such numbers in Yellowsto..."


LOL! Its because we like men in uniform probably. I nearly swoon when I see a flight suit. (years of conditioning?) Yes, I do wish that Park Rangers were paid a decent wage also. I believe their numbers are actually being cut at this point.

There is a herd of bison just up the road from us at Hartsell. We also see them sometimes when we into Denver from up at Evergreen.


message 6: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline A wonderful, wonderful review as always. Really helped me make up my mind to try and read this book :)


Will Byrnes Thanks Caroline. Despite my personal disaffection for the author and his leanings, I do admire his talent and love of the land.


message 8: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline Hi Will - yes, that came across very clearly in your review. I suspect I will encounter the same hiccups as you, but still enjoy it for the good stuff (if I can get hold of it.) *rolls eyes*.


message 9: by Mikey B. (new)

Mikey B. Excellent review. I have been to the southwest and have become enamored of the overwhelming scenery. It is really out of this world.
I strongly agree with you and appreciate the efforts made by the National Park Service to make these vistas open to all (or as much possible). For instance I really appreciated the free transit service provided in both Grand Canyon and Zion parks that would bring one to various points of interest throughout. And there was still the opportunity for those willing to do the 10-20 mile hikes that would take a few days. I am a day-hiker at best!
I don't really know if the book is my type as the author sounds a little too much of "snooty outdoorsy guy"!!


message 10: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King Lovely review Will and I especially liked the photos.


message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Arches is spectacular!


message 12: by Joshua (new)

Joshua yeah i like this book


message 13: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov Have Arches on my list for 2015, so I am grateful for this cue, Will


message 14: by Jay (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jay Glad you sent this along. I loved this book, as annoying as Abbey's attitude is every so often. Great review and your pics are first rate.


message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, guys


message 16: by Terry (new) - added it

Terry Everett I love Sonora....


message 17: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes I had the pleasure, but many years ago, so no digital shots. It is stunning.


message 18: by Terry (new) - added it

Terry Everett It is stunning, indeed, especially after a rain in July.


message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes July in the Sonora sounds harsh, temperature-wise. But the visual splendor of rain there, and the after-effects, sounds lovely.


message 20: by Terry (new) - added it

Terry Everett YES! right on all counts, but add that when the desert blooms it is overpowering also for the sense of smell.


message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Must be amazing


message 22: by Terry (new) - added it

Terry Everett It truly is. Creosote is the most overpowering.


message 23: by Joshua (new)

Joshua yeah what u talking about


message 24: by Campbell Latimer (new)

Campbell Latimer turn down for wat


message 25: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue I visited the Southwest about 20 years ago...Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, and more. Spectacular country that I enjoyed simply experiencing. I don't know if I will ever get back but I always hoped to just sit on the edge of the Grand Canyon and muse on life for a spell. I haven't read this book yet; may have it on my kindle. Thanks for the warning about attitude...that helps when reading.


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