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Desert Solitaire Review

Author : Edward Abbey
Published : 1971

Wow, I did enjoy this book! Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was written by Edward Abbey, and first published in 1968. The book is autobiographical and follows Abbey through one summer as a seasonal Park Ranger in Arches National Monument (years before its status was changed to a National Park). The book is a collection of 18 independent short stories. Each story is a progression through the summer: chapter 1 is day one on the job in April, chapter 18 is his departure in October, and the rest fall somewhere in between.

Taken as a whole, the book documents Abbey's love affair with the desert country near Moab, Utah. Through his words we see the whole landscape, from the very small (birds, snakes, rabbits and mice that live in and near his trailer), to the very large (mountain tops, mesas, and canyons). But, for as beautiful a picture as he paints, he cautions the reader in the book's introduction:
most of what I write about in this book is gone or going fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You're holding a tombstone in your hands.
Abbey, a self described "desert rat", worked at Arches when the park's main road was still dirt, and Moab was a tiny community in the middle of nowhere. It was a wide open desert wilderness. Abbey imagined a future when paved roads would turn Arches into a National Parking Lot. I wonder what he'd think of the place now, I wonder if he'd find his Desert Solitaire today.

The solitary desert experience is something that you need to discover for yourself. By definition, it cannot be found with a group of people, and it cannot be found within a car. At times Abbey is angry at these travelers who do not understand this:
You sir, squinting at the map with your radiator boiling over and your fuel pump vapor-locked, crawl out of that shiny hunk of GM junk and take a walk--yes, leave the old lady and those squawling brats behind for a while, turn your back on them and take a long quiet walk straight into the canyons, get lost for a while, come back when you damn well feel like it, it'll do you and her and them a world of good.
 Jeremy Sullivan PhotographerAbbey follows his own advice, tramping to the top of mountains, dropping into unknown canyons to explore, and spending weeks floating down the Colorado River. The chapter I enjoyed the most was "Down the River", his trip through Glen Canyon. It is a river float that is not possible anymore. That particular stretch of river is now called Lake Powell. Abbey becomes among the last to witness the cliffs, beaches, hidden slot canyons, cottonwoods, and other wildlife doomed to destruction from the rising flood waters behind Glen Canyon Dam. Abbey writes with fire. There is no filter on his pen. He is angry that our government would choose to destroy this place, taming the wildness. Without wildness, our minds are destined for conformity, which as Abbey argues may be the reason the government damned the water in the first place: to keep the citizens in line, to prevent free thought.

Whether you agree with Abbey or not, I am glad for his words and his style. I have only had the opportunity to visit Canyon Country once. As I read the book, I wanted to be back, to watch a desert sunset, to feel lost among high canyon walls, to hear the breeze blow through a giant cottonwood, to see wide open spaces stretch for miles and miles, to explore, to lose sense of time, to feel unbound and free among the red rocks. Paradise.

It wouldn't surprise me to know that this book is already on your bookshelf. It is a classic and a favorite of many wilderness explorers. I would love to hear what you thought of this book.


Re: "Desert Solitaire" review: I too have been touched by the beauty of canyon country and desert lands, but I won't be leaving the old lady and the brats behind on my upcoming trip; I'll be taking my husband and the kids to experience God's earth together.

Darn, where did I leave that Monkey- wrench? Edward Abbey is one of the great misanthropic icons of The American West. I was particularly entertained by his notions of feeling cramped by the closeness of the living things in the woods of the Northwest. Truly 'The Desert Rat'.

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