Desert Solitaire
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Desert Solitaire

Edward Abbey

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eBook - ePub

Desert Solitaire

Edward Abbey

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About This Book

This memoir of life in the American desert by the author of The Monkey Wrench Gang is a nature writing classic on par with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey recounts his many escapades, adventures, and epiphanies as an Arches National Park ranger outside Moab, Utah. Brimming with arresting insights, impassioned arguments for wilderness conservation, and a raconteur's wit, it is one of Abbey's most critically acclaimed works. Through stories and philosophical musings, Abbey reflects on the condition of our remaining wilderness, the future of a civilization, and his own internal struggle with morality. As the world continues its rapid development, Abbey's cry to maintain the natural beauty of the West remains just as relevant today as when this book first appeared in 1968.

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The beavers had to go and build another goddamned dam on the Colorado. Not satisfied with the enormous silt trap and evaporation tank called Lake Mead (back of Boulder Dam) they have created another even bigger, even more destructive, in Glen Canyon. This reservoir of stagnant water will not irrigate a single square foot of land or supply water for a single village; its only justification is the generation of cash through electricity for the indirect subsidy of various real estate speculators, cottongrowers and sugarbeet magnates in Arizona, Utah and Colorado; also, of course, to keep the engineers and managers of the Reclamation Bureau off the streets and out of trouble.
The impounded waters form an artificial lake named Powell, supposedly to honor but actually to dishonor the memory, spirit and vision of Major John Wesley Powell, first American to make a systematic exploration of the Colorado River and its environs. Where he and his brave men once lined the rapids and glided through silent canyons two thousand feet deep the motorboats now smoke and whine, scumming the water with cigarette butts, beer cans and oil, dragging the water skiers on their endless rounds, clockwise.
PLAY SAFE, read the official signboards; SKI ONLY IN CLOCKWISE DIRECTION; LET’S ALL HAVE FUN TOGETHER! With regulations enforced by water cops in government uniforms. Sold. Down the river.
Once it was different there. I know, for I was one of the lucky few (there could have been thousands more) who saw Glen Canyon before it was drowned. In fact I saw only a part of it but enough to realize that here was an Eden, a portion of the earth’s original paradise. To grasp the nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible. With this difference: those man-made celebrations of human aspiration could conceivably be reconstructed while Glen Canyon was a living thing, irreplaceable, which can never be recovered through any human agency.
(Now, as I write these words, the very same coalition of persons and avarice which destroyed Glen Canyon is preparing a like fate for parts of the Grand Canyon.)
What follows is the record of a last voyage through a place we knew, even then, was doomed.
One day in late June Ralph Newcomb and I arrive on the shore of the Colorado River at a site known variously as Hite, White Canyon or Dandy Crossing, about one hundred and fifty miles upriver from the new dam already under construction. In my pickup truck, badly shaken by a long drive down one of the roughest roads in Utah, we carry camping gear, enough grub for two weeks, and two little rubber boats folded up in suitcase-size cartons.
We spend half a day on the shore, preparing our boats and ourselves for the journey. The river looks terribly immense and powerful, swollen with snow-melt from the western slope of the Rockies and from the Wind River Range in Wyoming, a veritable Mississippi of a river rolling between redrock walls. Our rubber boats, after we inflate them, seem gaudy, flimsy and much too small. Inevitably we’ve forgotten a few things, among them life jackets, and I can’t help thinking that maybe we should make the trip some other time. One of the things that worries me, besides the missing life jackets and the obvious fragility of our Made-in-Japan vessels, is the fact that Ralph has only one good leg. He can walk but not hike; he can swim but not very far.
However, I keep my cowardly doubts to myself, waiting for Ralph to speak of them first. But he doesn’t. Imperturbable as the river itself, tranquil as the sky overhead, he puffs on his corncob pipe, limping back and forth between the truck and the launching point with canned goods and bedrolls.
We divide our supplies, mostly bacon and beans, into equal parts, bind them in canvas and rope, and stow them under the bow seats; in case one boat is lost we will still have survival rations left in the other. Ralph has also had sense enough to bring along a bit of line and a few fishhooks—the river is lively with catfish, as we’ll soon discover. We expect to spend about ten days on the river and will not see any human habitation, after Hite, until we reach the dam site a hundred and fifty miles downstream.
At last we’re ready. I push my boat onto the water of an inlet and climb aboard. The floor of the boat is nothing but a single layer of rubberized canvas and sags like jelly beneath my weight. Sitting there I can feel the coolness of the water through the canvas and my blue jeans. But it floats, this toy boat, and I can find no more excuses for delay. Since Ralph has a camera and wants pictures of the launching I am obliged to go first. I paddle out of the quiet inlet and onto the brown silt-rich bosom of the Colorado.
This is my first experience with a rubber boat and I discover at once that a single canoe-type paddle is not appropriate. The shallow-drafted almost weightless boat tends to turn in circles, pivoting beneath my seat; in order to make any headway I have to shift the paddle quickly from side to side, an awkward and tiring procedure. Staying clear of the main current, drifting slowly past the shore, I paddle in circles and wait for Ralph to catch up.
He comes alongside. We lash the boats together, side by side, which makes not only for better companionship and ease of conversation but also improves the maneuverability: Ralph paddles on one side, I on the other, giving us some control over our direction.
We paddle our double craft into the current, ship paddles, lean back against the stern seats, which make good backrests and nothing much else, and smoke and talk. My anxieties have vanished and I feel instead a sense of cradlelike security, of achievement and joy, a pleasure almost equivalent to that first entrance—from the outside—into the neck of the womb.
We are indeed enjoying a very intimate relation with the river: only a layer of fabric between our bodies and the water. I let my arm dangle over the side and trail my hand in the flow. Something dreamlike and remembered, that sensation called déjà vu—when was I here before? A moment of groping back through the maze, following the thread of a unique emotion, and then I discover the beginning. I am fulfilling at last a dream of childhood and one as powerful as the erotic dreams of adolescence—floating down the river. Mark Twain, Major Powell, every man that has ever put forth on flowing water knows what I mean.
A human shout reaches our ears from the west shore. A man is waving at us from the landing of old Hite’s ferry. A warning? A farewell? He shouts once more but his words are unintelligible. Cheerfully waving back, we drift past him and beyond his ken without the faintest intimation of regret. We shall not see another of the tool-making breed for a long time and we could not care less.
Misanthropy? Shakespeare could say
Man delights not me,
No, nor woman neither.…
And Raleigh, too,
I wish I loved the human race,
I wish I loved its silly face.
And Jeffers:
Be in nothing so moderate
as in love of man.
But no, this is not at all what we feel at this moment, not at all what I mean. In these hours and days of dual solitude on the river we hope to discover something quite different, to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass. And in what other way is it possible for those not saints? And who wants to be a saint? Are saints human?
Cutting the bloody cord, that’s what we feel, the delirious exhilaration of independence, a rebirth backward in time and into primeval liberty, into freedom in the most simple, literal, primitive meaning of the word, the only meaning that really counts. The freedom, for example, to commit murder and get away with it scot-free, with no other burden than the jaunty halo of conscience. I look at my old comrade Newcomb in a new light and feel a wave of love for him; I am not going to kill him and he—I trust—is not going to kill me.
(My God! I’m thinking, what incredible shit we put up with most of our lives—the domestic routine (same old wife every night), the stupid and useless and degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the businessmen, the tedious wars in which we kill our buddies instead of our real enemies back home in the capital, the foul, diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephones—! ah Christ!, I’m thinking, at the same time that I’m waving goodby to that hollering idiot on the shore, what intolerable garbage and what utterly useless crap we bury ourselves in day by day, while patiently enduring at the same time the creeping strangulation of the clean white collar and the rich but modest four-in-hand garrote!)
Such are my—you wouldn’t call them thoughts, would you?— such are my feelings, a mixture of revulsion and delight, as we float away on the river, leaving behind for a while all that we most heartily and joyfully detest. That’s what the first taste of the wild does to a man, after having been too long penned up in the city. No wonder the Authorities are so anxious to smother the wilderness under asphalt and reservoirs. They know what they’re doing; their lives depend on it, and all their rotten institutions. Play safe. Ski only in clockwise direction. Let’s all have fun together.
We drift on; the current seems to accelerate a bit as the mighty river squeezes between great red walls of sandstone rising on either side to heights of a thousand feet or more, cliffs so sheer and smooth even a bird could find no perch there. One little white cloud of dubious substantiality hovers above in the strip of blue between the canyon walls. Gazing up at it I think I hear, as in a dream, a confused rumble and roar, the sound of a freight train highballing down a mountain grade. Rapids.
Actually there are not supposed to be true rapids in Glen Canyon—only “riffles.” But it’s been a dry winter, the river is low, the rocks high. To us these foamy waves look like rapids.
“White water ahead,” says Ralph quietly, with a sort of complacent satisfaction, as if he had invented the phenomenon all by himself. And instead of doing anything about it he reloads his cheap pipe.
We’re rounding the first major bend in the canyon. From ahead comes the sound of the rapids—toneless vibrations growing stronger, what acoustical specialists call “white noise.” Like the sound of a waterfall. Supposedly a blissful and sleep-inducing impression on edgy nerves.
“I didn’t know we’d hit rapids so soon,” I say to Ralph. I open up my map, the only one we’ve brought with us, a Texaco road map of the state of Utah, and study the tributaries of the Colorado. “That must be where Trachyte Creek comes in,” I explain; “if we had life jackets with us it might be a good idea to put them on now.”
Actually our ignorance and carelessness are more deliberate than accidental; we are entering Glen Canyon without having learned much about it beforehand because we wish to see it as Powell and his party had seen it, not knowing what to expect, making anew the discoveries of others. If the first rapids are a surprise to us it is simply because we had never inquired if there were any on this stretch of the river.
Anyway, there’s no turning back now. After the entrance, the inescapable spasm. Between narrowing walls the river rushes at increasing speed. Our little boats bounce over choppy waves toward the whitecaps that now are visible, churning to foam around glistening wet boulders strewn across our course, boulders which seem to rise and fall as we race toward them on the bounding current.
There is no longer time enough to be frightened. I have a glimpse of the willows on the shore sweeping past, the only available gauge of our velocity, before we grab the paddles, settle deep into the boats and go to work trying to keep our bows headed into the waves.
Not that it makes much difference. The spray hits our faces and closes vision, the waves come aboard, in a moment we are soaking wet and spinning through the heart of the turmoil, bouncing off one rock and into the next. A great shining boulder looms before us, unavoidable; Ralph’s boat slams upon it and hangs there for a second or two until my boat, still roped to his, swings round in the spillway and pulls his free. Paddling furiously we right the boats and face the next obstacle, skin past it safely, bounce in and out of a few more troughs and suddenly find ourselves in the clear.
The waves smooth off as the river broadens through a wider channel, resuming its serene and steady flow. We’ve run our first rapids and are still alive. The boats are drifting along half full of water and we are drenched but the pipe in Ralph’s teeth is still burning, so quickly did it all happen.
Happy, exultant, we rest for a while in the loggy boats before bailing them out. If this is the worst Glen Canyon has to offer, we agree, give us more of the same.
In a few minutes the river obliges; a second group of rapids appears, wild as the first. Forewarned and overcautious this time, despite ourselves, we paddle too far out of the main current and end up aground in the shallows. We have to climb out of the boats and drag them over a pebble-covered bar until we again reach deep water. Hard work for game-legged Newcomb but he makes no complaint.
Back in the boats, sprawled out comfortably on our baggage, nothing lost but the road map—and there are no gas stations in Glen Canyon anyhow—we drift onward without further effort, paddles inboard and at rest. The surface of the river is wide and gleaming, slick as glass; an immaculate stillness pervades the canyon, pointed up deftly now and then by a gurgling eddy near the shore, the call of a bird.
Smoking peacefully, we watch the golden light of afternoon climb the eastern wall as the sun goes down beyond the rim to the west. An early evening breeze rustles through the willows ashore and we hear again the tinkling music of canyon wrens—like little silver bells falling across a glockenspiel—no, like wilderness lorelei—calling down to us from the rimrock, sweetest of all bird songs in the canyon country.
Other voices also speak: queer squawks and honkings from the thickets, sounds we cannot identify until we see, a little later, a great blue heron flap its wings among the lavender plumes of a tamarisk tree.
“Ralph Newcomb,” I say, “do you believe in God?”
“Who?” he says.
“You said it,” I say.
An owl. Ravens. More canyon wrens. The splash of fish breaking the surface. Lizards palpitating on the rocks. And once we see, between us and the far shore, something sleek and dark following its nose upstream—a beaver. The same that lured the mountain men—Robidoux, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith—into these parts more than a century ago.
The river bears us quietly along, the canyon fills with shadow and coolness. The sky above turns a deeper darker blue as the last of the sunlight glows on the domes and turrets and elephant-backs of the Navajo sandstone above the Wingate cliffs. We begin to think about food and a camp for the night.
When a beach of white sand comes in sight, backed with a stand of green young willows, we get out the paddles and work toward it, paddling strenuously across the current. As will usually happen, we are on the wrong side of the river when we want to make a landing. And it’s a wide river this time of the year. And with Ralph on the upstream side of our double boat, I have to paddle twice as hard as he does just to keep even.
Closing in on the beach, I jump out and wade ashore, towing the boats onto the sand. We tether them to a clump of willows, unload and prepare to camp. My bedroll is a little wet but everything else, well wrapped in tarpaulins, is dry, and our feelings of pleasure and satisfaction are as great as our appetite for supper.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free. We build a small fire of dead willow branches and propitiate the gods of river and canyon with the incense of woodsmoke, an offering with which, being intangible b...

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