Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness


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Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey, Peter Parnall

Abbey calls this "the absolutely terminal edition, the definitive edition" of Desert Solitaire.

"Abbey is one of our very best writers about wilderness country, especially the desert," observes Wallace Stegner in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and also states, "he is a gadfly with a stinger like a scorpion."

Said Larry McMurtry in the Washington Post, "Edward Abbey is the Thoreau of the American West."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671695880
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 01/28/1990
Series: Literature of the American Wilderness Series
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 179,481
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Edward Abbey, a self-proclaimed “agrarian anarchist,” was hailed as the “Thoreau of the American West.” Known nationally as a champion of the individual and one of America’s foremost defenders of the natural environment, he was the author of twenty books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and The Journey Home. In 1989, at the age of sixty-two, Edward Abbey died in Oracle, Arizona.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the fight place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome -- there's no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of intersteller space.

For myself I'll take Moab, Utah. I don't mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it -- the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky -- all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.

The choice became apparent to me this morning when I stepped out of a Park Service housetrailer -- my caravan -- to watch for the first time in my life the sun come up over the hoodoo stone of Arches National Monument.

I wasn't able to see much of it last night. After driving all day from Albuquerque -- 450 miles -- I reached Moab after dark in cold, windy, clouded weather. At park headquarters north of town I met the superintendent and the chief ranger, the only permanent employees, except for one maintenance man, in this particular unit of America's national park system. After coffee they gave me a key to the housetrailer and directions on how to reach it; I am required to live and work not at headquarters but at this one-man station some twenty miles back in the interior, on my own. The way I wanted it, naturally, or I'd never have asked for the Job.

Leaving the headquarters area and the lights of Moab, I drove twelve miles farther north on the highway until I came to a dirt road on the right, where a small wooden sign pointed the way: Arches National Monument Eight Miles. I left the pavement, turned cast into the howling wilderness. Wind roaring out of the northwest, black clouds across the stars -- all I could see were clumps of brush and scattered junipers along the roadside. Then another modest signboard:


The wash looked perfectly dry in my headlights. I drove down, across, up the other side and on into the night. Glimpses of weird humps of pale rock on either side, like petrified elephants, dinosaurs, stone-age hobgoblins. Now and then something alive scurried across the road: kangaroo mice, a jackrabbit, an animal that looked like a cross between a raccoon and a squirrel -- the ringtail cat. Farther on a pair of mule deer started from the brush and bounded obliquely through the beams of my lights, raising puffs of dust which the wind, moving faster than my pickup truck, ought and carried ahead of me out of sight into the dark. The road, narrow and rocky, twisted sharply left and right, dipped in and out of tight ravines, climbing by degrees toward a summit which I would see only in the light of the coming day.

Snow was swirling through the air when I crossed the unfenced line and passed the boundary marker of the park. A quarter-mile beyond I found the ranger station -- a wide place in the road, an informational display under a lean-to shelter, and fifty yards away the little tin government housetrailer where I would be living for the next six months.

A cold night, a cold wind, the snow falling like confetti. In the lights of the truck I unlocked the housetrailer, got out bedroll and baggage and moved in. By flashlight I found the bed, unrolled my sleeping bag, pulled off my boots and crawled in and went to sleep at once. The last I knew was the shaking of the trailer in the wind and the sound, from inside, of hungry mice scampering around with the good news that their long lean lonesome winter was over -- their friend and provider had finally arrived.

This morning I awake before sunrise, stick my head out of the sack, peer through a frosty window at a scene dim and vague with flowing mists, dark fantastic shapes looming beyond. An unlikely landscape.

I get up, moving about in long underwear and socks, stooping carefully under the low ceiling and lower doorways of the housetrailer, a machine for living built so efficiently and compactly there's hardly room for a man to breathe. An iron lung it is, with windows and venetian blinds.

The mice are silent, watching me from their hiding places, but the wind is still blowing and outside the ground is covered with snow. Cold as a tomb, a jail, a cave; I lie down on the dusty floor, on the cold linoleum sprinkled with mouse turds, and light the pilot on the butane heater. Once this thing gets going the place warms up fast, in a dense unhealthy way, with a layer of heat under the ceiling where my head is and nothing but frigid air from the knees down. But we've got all the indispensable conveniences: gas cookstove, gas refrigerator, hot water heater, sink with running water (if the pipes aren't frozen), storage cabinets and shelves, everything within ann's reach of everything else. The gas comes from two steel bottles in a shed outside; the water comes by gravity flow from a tank buried in a hill close by. Quite luxurious for the wilds. There's even a shower stall and a flush toilet with a dead rat in the bowl. Pretty soft. My poor mother raised five children without any of these luxuries and might be doing without them yet if it hadn't been for Hitler, war and general prosperity.

Time to get dressed, get out and have a look at the lay of the land, fix a breakfast. I try to pull on my boots but they're stiff as iron from the cold. I light a burner on the stove and hold the boots upside down above the flame until they are malleable enough to force my feet into. I put on a coat and step outside. Into the center of the world, God's navel, Abbey's country, the red wasteland.

The, sun is not yet in sight but signs of the advent are plain to see. Lavender clouds sail like a fleet of ships across the pale green dawn; each cloud, planed flat on the wind, has a base of fiery gold. Southeast, twenty miles by line of sight, stand the peaks of the Sierra La Sal, twelve to thirteen thousand feet above sea level, all covered with snow and rosy in the morning sunlight. The air is dry and clear as well as cold; the last fogbanks left over from last night's storm are scudding away like ghosts, fading into nothing before the wind and the sunrise.

The view is open and perfect in all directions except to the west where the ground rises and the skyline is only a few hundred yards away. Looking toward the mountains I can see the dark gorge of the Colorado River five or six miles away, carved through the sandstone mesa, though nothing of the river itself down inside the gorge. Southward, on the far side of the fiver, lies the Moab valley between thousand-foot walls of rock, with the town of Moab somewhere on the valley floor, too small to be seen from here. Beyond the Moab valley is more canyon and tableland stretching away to the Blue Mountains fifty miles south. On the north and northwest I see the Roan Cliffs and the Book Cliffs, the two-level face of the Uinta Plateau. Along the foot of those cliffs, maybe thirty miles off, invisible from where I stand, runs U.S. 6-50, a major east-west artery of commerce, traffic and rubbish, and the main line of the Denver-Rio Grande Railroad. To the east, under the spreading sunrise, are more mesas, more canyons, league on league of red cliff and arid tablelands, extending through purple haze over the bulging curve of the planet to the ranges of Colorado -- a sea of desert.

Within this vast perimeter, in the middle ground and foreground of the picture, a rather personal demesne, are the 33,000 acres of Arches National Monument of which I am now sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian.

What are the Arches? From my place in front of the housetrailer I can see several of the hundred or more of them which have been discovered in the park. These are natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike, as varied in form as in dimension. They range in size from holes just big enough to walk through to openings large enough to contain the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, D.G. Some resemble jug handles or flying buttresses, others natural bridges but with this technical distinction: a natural bridge spans a watercourse -- a natural arch does not. The arches were formed through hundreds of thousands of years by the weathering of the huge sandstone walls, or fins, in which they are found. Not the work of a cosmic hand, nor sculptured by sand-beating winds, as many people prefer to believe, the arches came into being and continue to come into being through the modest wedging action of rainwater, melting snow, frost, and ice, aided by gravity. In color they shade from off-white through buff, pink, brown and red, tones which also change With the time of day and the moods of the light, the weather, the sky.

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not -- at least there's nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.

The snow-covered ground glimmers with a dull blue light, reflecting the sky and the approaching sunrise. Leading away from me the narrow dirt road, an alluring and primitive track into no where, meanders down the slope and toward the heart of the labyrinth of naked stone. Near the first group of arches, looming over a bend in the road, is a balanced rock about fifty feet high, mounted on a pedestal of equal height; it looks like a head from Easter Island, a stone god or a petrified ogre.

Like a god, like an ogre? The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself, to eliminate for good. I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it's possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.

Well -- the sun will be up in a few minutes and I haven't even begun to make coffee. I take more baggage from my pickup, the grub box and cooking gear, go back in the trailer and start breakfast. Simply breathing, in a place like this, arouses the appetite. The orange juice is frozen, the milk slushy with ice. Still chilly enough inside the trailer to turn my breath to vapor, When the first rays of the sun strike the cliffs I fill a mug with steaming coffee and sit in the doorway facing the sunrise, hungry for the warmth.

Suddenly it comes, the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks, on the canyon walls and through the windows in the sandstone fins. We greet each other, sun and I, across the black void of ninety-three million miles. The snow glitters between us, acres of diamonds almost painful to look at. Within an hour all the snow exposed to the sunlight will be gone and the rock will be damp and steaming. Within minutes, even as I watch, melting snow begins to drip from the branches of a juniper nearby; drops of water streak slowly down the side of the trailerhouse.

I am not alone after all. Three ravens are wheeling near the balanced rock, squawking at each other and at the dawn. I'm sure they're as delighted by the return of the sun as I am and I wish I knew the language, I'd sooner exchange ideas with the birds on earth than learn to carry on intergalactic communications with some obscure race of humanoids on a satellite planet from the world of Betelgeuse. First things first. The ravens cry out in husky voices, blue-black wings flapping against the' golden sky. Over my shoulder comes the sizzle and smell of frying bacon.

That's the way it was this morning.

Copyright © 1968 by Edward Abbey

Table of Contents


Author's Introduction

The First Morning


The Serpents of Paradise

Cliffrose and Bayonets

Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks


Cowboys and Indians

Cowboys and Indians Part II


The Heat of Noon: Rock and Tree and Cloud

The Moon-Eyod Horse

Down the River


The Dead Man at Grandview Point

Tukuhnikivats, the Island in the Desert

Episodes and Visions

Terra Incognita: Into the Maze

Bedrock and Paradox

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Like a ride on a bucking bronco . . . rough, tough, combative. The author is a rebel and an eloquent loner. His is a passionately felt, deeply poetic book . . . set down in a lean, racing prose, in a close-knit style of power and beauty." —-The New York Times Book Review

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Desert Solitaire 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Hack More than 1 year ago
This book should be read to understand the thinking of one of the most important figures in the modern naturalist movement. Edward Abbey is a unique individual with strong opinions. This book allows the reader to understand Abbey's perspective which was gained by personal experience in some of the most remote areas of this country. The reader should try to understand how someone so connected to the land felt about the intrusion of the modern world. Whether you not you agree with Abbey's opinions, try to understand his perspective. This book is insightful to a time and country that no longer exists. I recently went to Arches National Park to learn that the NPS let the trailer that Abbey lived in deteriorate and they disposed of it. There is nothing left to mark the spot unless you read the book and can find it from Abbey's description. Perhaps that is the way that Abbey himself would have wanted it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edward Abbey¿s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, is an autobiographical account of Abbey¿s stint working as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah. At once this book is philosophical and poetic, yet at the same time, sardonic and polemical. Although the author would probably scowl at such pigeonholing, this book is also a significant environmental statement, as well as being a great piece of literature. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey identifies and adeptly defines a common frustration shared by many writers; the annoyance of not being able to adequately express one¿s self through the medium of words. He states, ¿You cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.¿ However, even through his self-styled ¿evocation¿, he successfully and intimately enfolds his readers within his unique experience. A reluctant naturalist, Abbey blames the human inability to discern the true meaning of nature, on a tendency to always project our own expectations on the natural world. These are tendencies that exasperate him, and yet when he does achieve a near-true communion, as he describes in his experiences in isolation in Havasu Creek, he finds the encounter more disturbing than ecstatic. He describes losing the power to distinguish between himself and the natural world, creating in him a fear that his sense of self was ¿ebbing away.¿ In addition, throughout his career as a writer, Abbey refused the label ¿environmentalist.¿ Nevertheless, his books are useful instruments with which to measure our progress, or lack of progress as the case may be, in our relationship to our natural environment. In this book¿s chapter entitled, ¿Industrial Tourism and the National Parks¿, he lays out his philosophy that ¿growth for growth¿s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.¿ Looking today at the corruption of the wilderness areas that he warned readers about three and four decades ago, it is plain to see how correct he was in his estimation and condemnation of policies pertaining to our National Parks. Whether he admitted it or not, Abbey set a tone of uncompromising environmental advocacy. In looking at Edward Abbey, the reader is also confronted by contradiction. He passionately argues for the importance of untamed wilderness and against the danger of industrial tourism. He declares he would rather kill a human than a snake, and then casually bops a rabbit on the head with a rock, just to see what his own reaction will be. He beguiles us with his description of Arches, and then chides us for wanting to go there. These passionate paradoxes are the tools he uses most effectively to lure us away from our complacency. Most importantly, Abbey¿s work his work serves as an inspiration to new generations of Western writers and historians, making us realize that wilderness really is a necessary ingredient of civilization.
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crldsl54 More than 1 year ago
Love to read Edward Abbey.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I seldom read a book twice but I have read this a dozen times. I've loaned it out, I've even read the whole thing out loud to my husband who doesn't read much just so he wouldn't miss it. It's a must read for relaxing, for appreciating nature, for finding yourself, for exploring, and for anyone who ever plans to visit or not visit southern Utah in their lifetime. It will make you love what you¿ve never seen or never expected you would ever want to. Like being eaten by vultures so you could fly over the desert. And the whole time it¿s so subtly and sarcastically funny.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The sun, the sky, a man and the desert dusted rocks of Utah coalesce in prism-like fashion during this autobiographical account of Edward Abbey¿s three seasons as a park ranger. Filled with intensely personal observations and opinions, Abbey takes us on a journey through Arches National Monument, Utah and the surrounding desert countryside as well as through the wilderness of his own mind. Witty and sometimes sardonic accounts of tourists and travelers are disbursed through train-of-thought style recollections along side Abbey¿s own encounters with snakes, scorpions, half-wild horses, and nature itself. Abbey presents his views in paradox his descriptions of the desert wilderness and its seasons seem designed to entice readers to experience it for themselves, even as he urges tourists to stop coming. His story is the foretelling of the loss of our natural heritage, the open and isolated beauty that is the southwest, and the giving over of it to pavement and tourists, dams and housing. Urban sprawl and pollution munching relentlessly in upon nature, overwhelming the beauty of the wilderness as it was in Abbey¿s day. I was informed before reading this novel that I would either love it or hate it, Abbey¿s provoking, rough, crude and often rude observations leave little room for indifferent thoughts. When I first began reading the introduction, I immediately decided that I didn¿t particularly like Abbey or his suggestions, for instance when he urges at the end of his introduction for his readers to not jump into their cars to try to see the places he write about in his book, because there is no view from the inside of a car, and then he suggest that his reader might better experience the desert if they ¿crawl, on hands and knees, over sandstone and through thornbrush and cactus.¿ He then suggests that perhaps when blood begins to mark the reader¿s passage, then they just might have seen something, ¿maybe.¿ (D.S. xii) I heartily disagree, and find that in making such a statement Abbey seems only to be presenting himself as a pontificating jerk, as if only he could possibly walk through the desert and see it for what it is. The fact that he is a transplanted easterner only serves to infuriate me more. This is my back yard, how dare he be offended by the civilized urban sprawl that I grew up in. I have had the desert, my backyard, as my playground to bike and run and play and camp in with my family in unmarked non-touristed locations, for all of my life. It doesn¿t take a scholar or environmentalist or naturalist to understand and appreciate the wilderness of the desert, and how dare he suggest that it does. As a native Arizonian, having grown up amidst the lush desert landscapes and in the harshness of desert heat and dust, I can appreciate Abbey¿s rich descriptions of the desert, while finding his endless list of flora and fauna unnecessary scholarizations designed to take up space between his bouts of demoralizing his readers about the evils of civilization. Mr. Shakespeare could have better critiqued Mr. Abbey¿s work as being, ¿full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.¿ However, as much as he generously laces his book with liberalistic environmental views, I can appreciate his descriptions of Northern Arizona¿s Canyon country before the building of Dams, before Lake Powell and Lake Meade. I can shake my head in sorrow over those places which he has crawled through, that I will never see, buried as they are under the lake waters. I can appreciate him for his descriptions, and I share his hero worship of John Wesley Powell, the first intrepid explorer of the canyons. But, I can also say that I appreciate the things that those Dams have given me, drinking water reservoirs for the years of drought, as well as the electricity they generate which supports my habit of using air conditioning in the summer. So, while I find that I didn¿t particularly like Mr. Abbey¿s book, it was like trying to boat upstream with n
Guest More than 1 year ago
This has opened my eyes to the world that i do not see, i love this book because it paints the picture that a picture cant
Guest More than 1 year ago
the book was good and had alot of funny parts that were real good it waa so nice to read i give it two thumbs up
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have lived in Utah my whole life. I have seen the sunrise at Dead Horse Point and the sunset on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. I have seen the desert at the time of Abby's writing, and I have seen it now. And quite frankly, I am glad it has been made more accessible to all of us. I believe in conserving our beautiful enviroment for future generations to enjoy. I do not believe in preserving it to the exclusion of the public. The enviroment is fragile, but it is also strong. That sounds strange, but it is true. It is not the same as when I was young, nor was the enviroment the same when my pioneer ancestors first came here. But, it is here for our enjoyment and our tender care. I thought Abbey, was a little too radical for my beliefs. It is a good book and it certainly can open our eyes to our surrounding.