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Down the River

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"Be of good cheer," the war-horse Edward Abbey advises, "the military-industrial state will soon collapse." This sparkling book, which takes us up and down rivers and across mountains and deserts, is the perfect antidote to despair.

Along the way, Abbey makes time for Thoreau while he takes a hard look at the MX missile system, slated for the American West. "For 23 years now I've been floating rivers. Always downstream, the easy and natural way. The way Huck Finn and Jim did it, LaSalle and Marquette, the mountain men, and Major Powell."

242 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1982

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About the author

Edward Abbey

80 books1,558 followers
Edward Paul Abbey (1927–1989) was an American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues, criticism of public land policies, and anarchist political views.

Abbey attended college in New Mexico and then worked as a park ranger and fire lookout for the National Park Service in the Southwest. It was during this time that he developed the relationship with the area’s environment that influenced his writing. During his service, he was in close proximity to the ruins of ancient Native American cultures and saw the expansion and destruction of modern civilization.

His love for nature and extreme distrust of the industrial world influenced much of his work and helped garner a cult following.

Abbey died on March 14, 1989, due to complications from surgery. He was buried as he had requested: in a sleeping bag—no embalming fluid, no casket. His body was secretly interred in an unmarked grave in southern Arizona.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 123 reviews
Profile Image for Kurt.
563 reviews53 followers
November 21, 2021
I was a little hesitant to read something else by Edward Abbey. I had read his masterpiece, Desert Solitaire, and I consider it perhaps my all-time favorite non-fiction book. Wouldn't anything else by the same author prove to be only a let down? Fortunately, this one was great -- not as good as Desert Solitaire, but certainly not a disappointment.

A collection of essays on travel, adventure, and nature -- with copious spatterings of his personal musings on civilization, politics, and life -- Down the River is classic Edward Abbey. I'll just let him speak for himself in these few passages that I found especially inspiring. The first is actually re-quoted directly from Henry David Thoreau's Walden:
By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, [the mass of men] are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before. . . . I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous. . . . As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

We hear the demand by conventional economists for increased "productivity." Productivity of what? for whose benefit? to what end? by what means and at what cost? Those questions are not considered. We are belabored by the insistence on the part of our politicians, businessmen and military leaders, and the claque of scriveners who serve them, that "growth" and "power" are intrinsic goods, of which we can never have enough, or even too much. As if gigantism were an end in itself. As if a commendable rat were a rat twelve hands high at the shoulders -- and still growing. As if we could never have peace on this planet until one state dominates all others.

How much wilderness is enough? And what is it good for anyway? Who needs it? We might answer these questions with counter questions. How many cities are enough? How large a human population do we really need? How much industrial development must we have to be content?

Consider our politics, for example: the right to choose once every two or four years between Party A and Party B, Candidate C and Candidate D is a pitiful gesture in the exercise of freedom, hardly deserving of the name of citizenship.

I would have loved to meet Edward Abbey even though I am sure I would not have liked him in person. I am even more sure that he would not have liked me. The word cantankerous seems to aptly fit him, perhaps arrogant also. But despite that, I find him interesting. I truly admire his wit and intellect, and I envy his ability to put into clever and succinct words so many of the same thoughts and descriptions that float around so disorganized in my own head.
Profile Image for Jack Waters.
259 reviews93 followers
July 16, 2013
“The wilderness needs no defense--only more defenders.” Quite so, Ed. Abbey’s essays survey the wide territory of his loves and hates -- from rafting trips down the river to things being ‘sold down the river’ -- armed with his brashness and wit.

Abbey first delves into the work of renowned naturalist Henry David Thoreau, “he learned to know his world as few ever know any world.”

On West Desert Missile Experiments: “One lunatic armed with a rusty ax can create a respectable amount of terror on any decent community. But for real lunacy on the grand scale you need a committee(better yet, an institution), staffed with hundreds and thousands of well-trained technicians, economists, intellectuals, engineers, and administrators.”

Speaking of rockets, Abbey waxes on clearly influenced by a favorite writer of his, Thomas Pynchon: “There is no passenger compartment for the scientists, generals, and corporation executives who should be allowed--should be honored-- should be compelled, at gunpoint if necessary, to ride this thing to its designated destination.”

He joins his daughter Susie in a marathon in the desert, the Louis Tewanima Memorial Footrace, named after the great Hopi runner who attended school with and participated in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm with Jim Thorpe. Susie finished the race, Ed quit about halfway.
He writes a love letter to the Grand Canyon, pleading for the banning of motorized crafts over and within the canyon, preferably a sign on a barricade reading: “HUMAN BEINGS WELCOME; MACHINES KEEP OUT”

Abbey enters Bodie, a boomtown/ghost town(which always interest me -- my friends have made an award-winning documentary on a Utah Boomtown ): “it is impossible to recapture the past--even Proust failed at that. The past, as he showed, can be evoked; it cannot be recreated. We can imagine and remember; we cannot relive. Difficult enough, it seems to me, to fully experience the present.”

“Environmental journalism is not a cheerful field of work. The opposition is severely well-funded, and becoming more brutal each year,” writes Abbey, but he finds joy whether he is being opposed by industrialists or rapids.
Profile Image for Kerri Anne.
471 reviews37 followers
February 6, 2016
This is my first-ever Abbey. Even I find that hard to believe, save for knowing myself well enough to know I typically steer clear of any author (or book/series) that's too overly hyped, and so I was hesitant to dive into Abbey, wondering where he'd fit on my beloved outdoor lit spectrum of Annie (Dillard) to Wendell (Berry). This is one of those books I wish I would have found so many years ago, but the timing, as it seems to be with me and books as of late, is stunningly perfect. First published the year I was born (1982), I can picture my dad reading this book, and my grandfather before him, the two of them pouring over passages and discussing the more controversial pieces, themes, and ideas with mugs of coffee in their hands and plates of homemade huckleberry pie beside them. There might even be a raised voice or two, for Abbey doesn't tend pull any punches, and while I understand I'm on the side of the river that would tend to agree with him, that wanted to underline myriad passages (and did, via photos snapped with my phone, and lines etched into nearby journals and into my head), I can see how many would refuse to ride his (admittedly sometimes meandering) rivers of thought to their (logical to him, and to me) conclusions.

Regardless of how you feel about Abbey the human and/or Abbey the writer, this is one of those books that makes you think. That makes you feel all your feelings about how much is too much - growth, population, culture, cityscapes, wilderness, commercialization of wild spaces - and what we ought to start planning to do about it if and when we reach critical mass.

Spoiler alert: We're already there. There are already too many of us on this planet (and we continue to have children without thinking about the implications; we continue to add to the pre-existing, burgeoning population as if it's an inherent right), and while I will forever hope individual reverence and wide-spread conservation efforts can change and maybe even someday undo the damage we've already done (and continue to do) to our beloved (and over-loved, in so many instances) wild spaces, I'm weary to trust us as a collective population. Our track record with being good stewards of what we've been given (or what we've seen fit to take from someone else) isn't reassuring as much as it is terrifying.

You should read this book, is my overall point. And I would love to hear what you think about it, and the tenets Abbey proclaims, the pots he stirs, the memories he evokes - for you.

For me, Abbey makes me want to get up and cheer, to rise up and fight the dams, and the destruction of our natural world. Abbey also makes me miss my dad. And my grandfather. And my aunt Anne. All of whom loved wild spaces more than civilized ones. All of whom sought to be at peace with the natural world, and cherished it the way a muskrat cherishes a river, the way an eagle cherishes fish: As life-sustaining. As game-changing.

Abbey's stories about running rivers (and so much more) makes me miss them, surely, tangibly, while simultaneously making me feel so damn grateful for them, and everything they taught and continue to teach me, from so many miles and rivers and lifetimes away. Because of them I have wild rivers running in my blood, alpine lake-water in my eyes, north Idaho fir trees in my bones. And going to the river - swimming these lakes, running those trails, getting lost in those woods - always feels like coming home.

[Five hundred stars for teaching me so many things about so many rivers I haven't yet seen, and for helping me remember my own rivers. For helping me remember where I came from, and why being a Northwest native, born and raised, is one of the best of all gifts.]
Profile Image for Matt.
526 reviews10 followers
February 27, 2016
2016 review:

So, Abbey. I'd read Down the River before, and I'd read Desert Solitaire, and I'd read Black Sun, and my impression had always been roughly the same: A great deal of shouting, a great deal of telling, and not nearly enough showing. He's an angry man, a sad man, a broken man, and that's what's reflected in his words - not the scenes as much as how he wants you to feel - how he feels - about those scenes.

Kerr very much enjoyed Down the River when she recently read it, regularly reading me long passages, and so I wondered if I was misremembering Abbey, if I ought give his words another go. And then I picked up Down the River again, and was immediately back to being frustrated, annoyed, irritated by Abbey. I've been to so many of those places Abbey describes, and they're quite capable of speaking for themselves - but Abbey doesn't trust his readers as a better writer would. He assumes they're stupid, and need to be told exactly what to think. He's a second-rate preacher, when what the world needs most isn't more loud voices but more illustrators. I think of David James Duncan and Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson and Annie Dillard and others, and how in their best works they merely draw the images, and trust the reader will do the work of connecting the dots. Abbey is incapable of such trust, curmudgeonly crackpot asshole that he is.

In short? I couldn't finish Down the River my second time through. Life is short, and I'd rather read things that illuminate the world around me.

[2 stars, still. He's still a self-important ass, but there's good writing that was influenced by him, and I can at least respect that.]

2012 Review:

Miss the Canyon, would've drank with Abbey... but he's still mostly a crotchety ass.

[2.5 stars for influencing others?]
(Also, yes, I'm over a month behind in logging books. Whatever.]
Profile Image for Mike.
102 reviews7 followers
January 11, 2010
Number 2 in the river reading series for me. I was expecting this to be better than it was, particularly given how much I enjoyed Desert Solitaire. The book is a collection of essays, most of which have to do with rivers (but not all). It's the kind of compendium that seems like those albums rock stars used to release when they were just trying to run out their record contract: cobble together some b-sides or phone in the performance and then hand the tapes over to the record company to fulfill the contractual obligation. That said, there are a couple of gems: "Down the River with Henry Thoreau," "Meeting the Bear," "Notes from a Cold River," "Running the San Juan," "In the Canyon," "My Friend Debris," and "Floating" being the highlights.

Sometimes Abbey went out of his way and tried a little too hard to make fun of vegetarians and their food. Those kinds of jokes (and there's usually a kind of desperation to them) typically become tiresome while the person is telling the joke; what makes it worse is if the person keeps making the jokes, as if you're not laughing because you just didn't hear the joke the first time. Abbey also admitted to liking Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Perhaps there is a connection?

This is definitely a library book: quite beautiful in some moments, but tedious in others.
Profile Image for Thomas O'Malley.
33 reviews11 followers
October 28, 2017
Read this book. Read Desert Solitaire. Read Edward Abbey. It's like coming home. You'll find what you're looking for. I promise.
Profile Image for Kenneth Sutherland.
130 reviews3 followers
November 25, 2021
love to read about the majesty of the great outdoors in between day long halo binges, recommending abbey to all my homies missing outside as we head into hell (winter)
Profile Image for Eric North.
51 reviews7 followers
August 29, 2013
I wrote a long, well-thoughtout review of this book, but pressed the wrong infernal key on my keyboard and switched webpages (curse ye computational device!). Instead of weakly replicating the former paragraphs of prodigious intelligence and eloquence, I'll just put this quote here:

"It seems clear at last that our love for the natural world--Nature--is the only means by which we can requite God's obvious love for it. Else why create Nature? Is God immune to the pangs of unreciprocated love? I doubt it."

-Ed Abbey, "Floating"
October 15, 2022
One of Ed's best works.

A poetic lament for natural beauty expropriated (stolen) and destroyed by American corporate greed. A memorial to the beauty and wonder--the "natural" property of all inhabitants of the earth. Who could possibly claim to have individual ownership of earth's bounties--it's life and resources? At some point, someone who had no right to sell them sold them to someone else who had no right to buy them.
Profile Image for April.
52 reviews3 followers
January 29, 2015
a great read, it's been a while since reading Abbey and he is so great! I can always count on him to make me feel like a hypocrite though, really feeling like I need to step up and take more action for this earth, also I would like to float all those rivers.........
Profile Image for Damian.
108 reviews1 follower
November 21, 2022
"Despair leads to boredom, electronic games, computer hacking, poetry, and other bad habits."

"Thoreau described happiness as 'simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.'"

"That which today calls itself science gives us more and more information, an indigestible glut of information, and less and less understanding." (this is my evidence of his viewpoint of the world - he's an un-appreciative type - views those that don't like what he likes as inferior, and judges them, and wants fewer people on earth given more people seem to cause the problems.

"Goodness is the only investment that never fails."

"I would give ten years off the beginning of my life to see, only once, Tyrannosaurus rex..."

Golden eagles: "uncommon and elitist birds"

"Like the American Legion and the American Medical Association, I am pleased to report that my mind has not been violated by an original thought since the end of WWII."

"...when I thought about it, it troubled me. Then I stopped thinking about it and it troubled me no more."

lifespan: "3 score and ten, now as in biblical times, remains the norm."

"What's there to do in Haines? Well, there's the Pioneer Club, where you can get clubbed by a pioneer. And there's the Rip Tide Bar, where you can get ripped and tied."

Tewanima: "Shown the wonders of Manhattan from atop the Empire State Building, the old man said, 'Not enough land for sheep.'"
40 reviews1 follower
June 26, 2018
Quintessential Abbey. I think this is my 5th book of his now, and after every one I feel like I need to step away from him and his desert sermons. But then after a break, I am always drawn back to his writing. I appreciate his blunt, condescending, cynical style, and there is no doubt about his love of the west. I smile just thinking about how he would describe our current administration and the state of our public lands.
Profile Image for Naia.
28 reviews9 followers
July 19, 2017
"There will always be one more river, not to cross but to follow. The journey goes on forever, and we are fellow voyagers on our little living ship of stone and soil and water and vapor, this delicate planet circling round the sun, which humankind call Earth"
Profile Image for Lou.
252 reviews3 followers
November 23, 2017
"How much Wilderness is enough? And what is it good for anyway? Who needs it? As they say in Moab, Utah. We might answer these questions with counter questions. How many cities are enough? How large a human population do we really need? How much Industrial Development must we have to be content? " these questions and more are addressed in a well-written Style about a topic that is dear to my heart and anyone else who is concerned about the environment. After finishing I gave it 5 stars: well written, intelligent, funny, sarcastic, and reminds me of one or more roads not taken at the fork.
1,084 reviews
August 16, 2020
I have read a few Edward Abbey books. Helped me understand more about environmental concerns. He is definately not a fan of the military. He is an environmentalist who made an impact.
94 reviews
August 9, 2022
A great essay collection by my favorite non-fiction author. Edward Abbey's style of interspersing vivid descriptions of natural environments, such as rivers, mountains, and deserts, with pointed political criticisms of the degradation of the environment, makes a powerful argument for the protection of these spaces. In the 30 years since the publication of this book, the urgency and need for a well protected natural Earth has only grown. I particularly enjoyed Abbey's commentary on the life and philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, one of my other favorite authors.
Profile Image for Ryan Lawson.
65 reviews5 followers
October 8, 2008
I always enjoy reading multiple works by the same author. I think one of the most gratifying things about doing this is being able to see the author mature as well as having the pleasure to bear witness to their improving writing style. There is nothing better than evolution when it comes to writing.

So, in comparison to Desert Solitaire, Down the River is an improvement. I hesitate, though, to say a major improvement.

Abbey's emotions are not as high in this book. He actually uses tact in his arguments and rants. Down the River works more as a collection of essays (journal entries, actually) than anything else, which is where I run into some contention.

There isn't any connectivity among the chapters. The manuscript is split into sections and each section is split again into chapters, but I didn't get a sense of fluidity. It jumped all around. That's not to say that there isn't a theme because there is: going down the river (or, more accurately, rivers).

This isn't bad, of course. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters covering Thoreau. They were absolutely informative, and it did Abbey a great deal of good to show his audience how fundamentally different he was from Thoreau. Thoreau was so much more pious than Abbey would ever want to be or ever could be. I believe Abbey might not have enjoyed being compared so much to Thoreau. I hear in Abbey's voice a longing to be separated from Thoreau.

The book, however, doesn't really stay together. At the beginning, Abbey attempts to give the title some kind of special meaning by saying that his father (or was it grandfather?) once said that, "Everyone must go down the river."

But, he never really touches back on that or gives an explanation for the importance of such a proverb. Perhaps, Abbey wanted to leave that sort of decision to the reader, but even with that excuse I'd still like to know what he believes going down the river means. What does it mean to Abbey?

Down the River stands most as a testament that this man knows what he is talking about when it comes to his beliefs. His experiences cannot be challenged. Some may disagree with him, some may hate his style, and others might even hate the man; but Abbey knows the wilderness and, more so, he knows how to write. I was filled with a quiet jealousy while reading about he and his wife living in a national park being paid to look out for forest fires from their cabin. Equally, my wanderlust was inflamed with every mentioning of floating down a river and challenging rapids. Most of all, though, I was inspired by the civil disobedience he covered that was performed by many native american groups and young college students. Especially interesting was one of the chapters near the end that covered an annual Hopi desert race.

The talent therein is Abbey's ability to teach while he writes. He presents his views and beliefs but also covers a great deal of history (American West history to be precise). He is a credible author well worth delving into, especially if you consider yourself an environmental activist or, dare I say, anarchist.
Profile Image for Mark.
86 reviews12 followers
July 17, 2012
A collection of essays, mostly about rivers and Abbey's experiences with them. Other topics of his essays involve western ghost towns, tribal sponsored foot-races in Hopi land, meeting a bear in the mountains of Arizona. The underlying themes however are all about embracing wildness, rejecting the wholesale development of our wild places for "paper profits" and the true home of the human spirit - wilderness! The human race has been tilling the soil and stacking bricks on top of one another to build cities for only 5 thousand years and yet for nearly a million years before that we lived the leisurely, free, and adventurous life as hunter gatherers..."How can we pluck that deep root of feeling from the racial consciousness? Impossible. When in doubt, jump out!" Threading through all of these essays is the theme of journeying down life's rivers and the myriad issues we face using river journey's as his analogy. Brings to mind a rough edged, grubby westerners version of the old ferry man in Hesse's Sidhartha with his riverine wisdom and philosophy of life as learned from the river. Abbey's voice is a clear and compelling call to remember the adventurous spirit within ourselves, get outside, and live! Beautiful, lyrical, oftentimes irreverent, and always insightful, Abbey's writing is nourishment for my soul and I'm thrilled to have finally picked up his work and more than a little dismayed that it's taken me this long to discover.
99 reviews1 follower
June 7, 2011
This was an interesting book of essays by abbey. I have previously read "The Monkey Wrench Gang" which was a cool fiction about a group of people who become radical environmental activists in the desert southwest and thoroughly enjoyed it. I just got back from a Grand Canyon rafting trip and figured who better than Abbey to read while on the river. It was interesting reading Abbey's non fiction. He writes very well and describes nature quite beautifully. He is fervently anti big business, big agri-business, and the military-industrial complex from the standpoint that they destroy not only nature and wilderness, but also because they destroy personal liberty and freedom. Abbey admires people who are independent and more at home in the country than the city, and sees modern capitalism as slowly eroding these traits. While not necessarily agreeing with everything Abbey writes, his views tend to the extreme in some cases, he still writes well, has well thought out arguments, and is quite humorous.
Profile Image for Grace.
203 reviews5 followers
May 4, 2020
I like Edward Abbey the more I read him. this is only the third book I’ve read of his, but I want more. and more after that. his love of the desert southwest and his disdain for authority and progress at the expense of wild places are sentiments I appreciate and share. I really didn’t have too much interest in the desert before reading Abbey but I’m becoming obsessed, though I’ve never seen these places. his passion for and defense of wild places are incredibly infectious. while I didn’t love every essay in this book, as a whole it just evoked so much mystery, awe, wonder, anger, and hopefulness in me that I’m eagerly awaiting my next Abbey read.

Re-read - April 2020
Profile Image for Brendan.
1,408 reviews15 followers
September 7, 2015
While not as breathtakingly awesome as Desert Solitaire, this collection of Abbey's nonfiction writing is just as passionate, readable and enjoyable. With the river running through the book as a main theme, these essays flow easily into one another, turning the entire book into one decent river voyage. As with any of Abbey's nature writing, I would highly recommend giving this a read.
Profile Image for Megan.
120 reviews13 followers
March 12, 2016
Abbey is a controversial figure, but no one can deny his place in America's canon of writers. His distinctive voice and personality roll off every page. I didn't agree with all his positions, but that doesn't matter - his life and actions and storytelling don't require it. I look forward to reading more of his work.
Profile Image for Geoff Balme.
198 reviews2 followers
May 30, 2016
More from a favorite American, environmental protection curmudgeon and entertaining story-teller. All I want to do now is float downstream with Thoreau and Abbey quotes going through my head. There's something else here, an inspiration for civil disobedience possibly, but certainly plenty of fuel for getting our own spiritual fires burning.
Profile Image for Rachel.
22 reviews
May 5, 2010
Bought this from Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, which is owned by Larry McMurtry. It seemed fitting to buy one curmudgeon's book from another.
Profile Image for Nicole.
308 reviews
February 13, 2016
Part III: Places and Rivers was the best section of this book. Overall, an enjoyable read. I enjoy Abbey's sarcasm and wit, as well as the descriptions of the west.
34 reviews2 followers
September 2, 2019
“A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”
Profile Image for Skylar.
22 reviews
February 13, 2021
Abbey's plea to protect, enjoy and conserve the wilderness shines throughout every story he writes. His critical analysis of capitalism and the economics of perpetual growth remain ever relevant, as is the loss of the wild waterways.

"But where is home? Surely not the walled-in prisons of the cities, under that low ceiling of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides and acid rain - the leaky malaise of an overdeveloped, overcrowded, self-destroying civilization-where most people are compelled to serve their time and please the wardens if they can. For many, for more and more of us, the out-of-doors is our true ancestral estate. For a mere five thousand years we have grabbed in the soil and laid brick upon brick to build the cities; but for a million years before that we lived the leisurely, free, and adventurous life of hunters and gatherers, warriors and tamers of horses."

Some of this book feels like it was written yesterday, but other parts, such as Abbey's politically incorrect (racist and misogynistic) adjectives and depictions, seem decades old and unfortunately spoil the overall enjoyment and message Abbey is trying to share.
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