The photo above is literally the title of a book that was pivotal to me 21 years ago (the photo was for today’s @dailyshoot photo assignment). And just reflecting back jolted me to how powerful the words were of Edward Abbey, ripping my gut out from a paperback book i picked up on a whim heading out to the california desert for field work I was doing for my Geology masters research.
Desert Solitaire spoke to me in a time (late 20s) when I was free, idealistic, poor, on my own, but also embittered by the norms of society. This Abbey guy wrote these long, flowing sentences that ramble across my landscape like an arroyo flood. At the same time his words cut the establishment to shreds he painted the harsh stark beauty I was just discovering just having moved to Arizona.
The wind will not stop. Gusts of sand swirl around me, stinging my face. But there is still too much to see and marvel at, the world very much alive in the bright light and wind, exultant with the fever of spring, the delight of morning. Scrolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of experience are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of flora and fauna; life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.
Even reading that last sentence again has my head ringing.
Like his classic lines that matched my feeling of living in the urban carpet of Phoenix:
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
But he wasn’t a tree hugger and hated being labeled an environmentalist, hence his philosophy of tossing beer cans on the highways as highways themselves are trash in the desert,
Abbey’s tales of his time being a ranger at Arches National Park at a time when it was barely known just shook me alive, me reading it while camping alone in the valley sandwiched between the 14000 peaks of the Sierra Nevada on my left and the White Mountains of Nevada on my right.
After reading Desert Solitaire I devoured more of his works:
- The Brave Cowboy one in many of Abbey’s outsiders, eventually made into a movie with Kirk Douglas (I have yet to see)
- Fire on the Mountain touching in a boy’s relationship to his grandfather taking a stand against the government (read while I was living in New Mexico).
- Black Sun who’s anti-hero is just dark dark dark
- Monkey Wrench Gang just a fun romp, perhaps aimed at being movie material, but more than the characters feel real (and I think are rather based on people Abbey knew). Walking in the desert I tried sometimes to do the masking of my tracks like Hayduke did. I don’t begrudge Abbey doing the sequel of Hayduke Lives! (a writer has to eat), but it hardly seemed necessary to revive the gang,
- Good News was a twist in being a tale placed in the future, but it sure did feel like what Phoenix was becoming.
- The Fools Progress was clearly (well, i thought so) heavily autobiographical– and it was reading that I got to thinking about this notion that we expect the author in real life to be like the characters he writes about. My gut says that Abbey played with the grayness a lot; I dont know anything more about him that what I have read, but ti sure seems like he danced in and out of being a character in his own works.
- Then there was the whole list of short stories or non-fictions pieces:
Heck, I totally forgot, his writings compelled me to write! I lost track of a web page I wrote sometime in the early web years, it is blog like form, but there were no blogs then, no boxes to type in and click publish, it was cranking out HTML by hand for your message. But here is “walking with/without Abbey”.
The bit it starts with describing a hike in Fish Creek Canyon out in the Superstition WIlderness area- my buddy Gary really was prone to kicking trail cairns over as he felt everyone should be able to find their way without markers. And as I got more familiar with the Arizona outback, I first was pissed at Abbey because he would have his characters travel through regions I knew were not near each other:
Yes, what ever did happen to walking? It was all of the fad before Honda Scooters, moving sidewalks, Isuzu Troopers (4-wheel drive to survive the perils of mondo-mall parking lots), car fax/phones. Abbey wrote a walking journal across the Arizona desert, full of scalpel sharpened wit and survival (tall?) tales. In my first reading of it I was frustrated in trying to follow his route- he mentioned a starting point in western Arizona, with mid-journey pass around a mountain range at the Mexican Border. That sly old dog- he mixed it all up! Intentionally. Names and places don’t matter anyhow (like Nothing, Arizona population 4. Once, Nothing burnt down, and Nothing was rebuilt. From nothing came Nothing…). All that matters is the trip. The walking. Alone. With a friend. Without hurry. No rigid itinerary. It just ain’t done like that anymore. Abbey is dead, although in the public library card catalog he is still listed as “Abbey, Edward (1929 – _____). How did he manage the double edge of being a society rebel (“Society is like a stew. If you don’t keep it stirred up, all of the scum rises to the top.”) and being so, er, “fashionable” among the hip, for whom environmentalism is the latest string of fads, following protesting, jogging, disco, cocaine, and preceding ____________??. He probably did not care- it was a living. And he certainly doesn’t care now, being among the deceased (card catalogs notwithstanding).
And yes, I did take his line about society being a stew that needs stirring to be the motto on CogDogBlog (no one has ever asked me about it, oddly).
It is with lovely serendipity that today’s photo project led me to pull Desert Solitaire off my shelf, noting my handwritten record inside noting every time I read it, starting in may 1989. It’s been a while since we talked, Ed, I think its time for another trip down the canyon.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.
I hear you, Ed, your echoes still vibrate down canyon.
The post "Echoes of Cactus Ed" was originally zapped with 10,000 volts and declared "It's ALIVE" by Dr. Frankenstein at CogDogBlog (http://cogdogblog.com/2010/02/cactus-ed/) on February 12, 2010.