“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)
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.”
Desert 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.”