Literature: Abbey’s Desert Solitaire

“I prefer the desert. Why? Because—there’s something about the desert. Not much of an answer. There are mountain men, there are men of the sea, and there are desert rats. I am a desert rat.” –Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire (1968)

Desert Solitaire Rd.If you’re in Utah—particularly in southeast Utah—Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire should be required reading. If you’re anywhere else besides southeast Utah, this book will take you there. In it, Abbey tells of his adventures as a seasonal park ranger in Arches National Park, just outside of Moab. The author—who comes off a bit on the cantankerous side—befriends snakes, hassles tourists, runs rivers, and explores canyons. But he’s not all action. Sometimes Abbey just likes to sit around in his trailer and go off about the cloud on his horizon. “It’s a small dark cloud no bigger than my hand,” he says, “Its name is Progress.”

Arches CountryDesert Solitaire is not a perfect book (I could have gone for a summary version of the polemic on industrial tourism, and I sometimes felt annoyed by the author’s smugness). But I appreciated the fact that Abbey acknowledges his work’s limitations in the introduction—and then justifies them by saying, “there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.” Abbey laid out this kind of edgy honesty from beginning to end, and I liked it, just as much as I liked turning the last page and feeling as if I had touched the sandstone with Abbey’s hands and seen the desert through his eyes.

A few gems—

“It’s a great country: you can say whatever you like so long as it is strictly true—nobody will ever take you seriously.”

“So much for the stars. Why, a man could lose his mind in those incomprehensible distances. Is there intelligent life on other worlds? Ask rather, is there intelligent life on earth? There are mysteries enough right here in America, in Utah, in the canyons.”


4 responses to “Literature: Abbey’s Desert Solitaire

  1. Thanks for sharing the beautiful places you visit and including beautiful editorial comments.

  2. I’m currently reading this. I wish it were longer. There are some books that truly should be neverending.

  3. Mountainman at Heart

    After stumbling upon this web page, I retrieved from the bookshelf my old, dog-eared, stained, faded, missing-its-cover paperback copy of Desert Solitaire and began reading all over again. Been many years since I turned its pages. In this era of government run amok, Cactus Ed’s message rings louder and truer that it did five decades ago. Should be required reading for anyone wishing to call themselves enlightened.

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