Book Review — Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Author: Edward Abbey
Format: Paperback
Published: 1968

arches

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paxson Woelber. Creative Commons licensed.

A colleague at work was shocked that I’d never heard of Edward Abbey, so she gave me a copy of Desert Solitaire. I read all but the last few pages and wrote most of a draft of this review before I looked him up in Wikipedia and discovered that Desert Solitaire is, “regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature.” So now I feel ignorant, but at least this review is a genuine reaction to the book, not influenced by its reputation.

Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in 1956-1957. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” That’s the opening sentence of the first chapter, and Abbey spends the rest of the book showing the reader that beauty. His prose is as poetic and vivid as John Muir’s but with more snark and bite. Abbey was a philosopher, an environmental activist, and an anarchist; all three of those identities are on display here. He blends rhapsodic odes to the beauty of Utah’s canyonlands with misanthropic rants about the evils of cities, cars, development, tourists–and especially the Glen Canyon Dam, which was being built during his time at Arches and which he considered an abomination.

Even if you don’t share Abbey’s environmental views, Desert Solitaire is worth reading if you have any interest in the stark, stunning landscape of the Four Corners region (Confession: I live near there, so I’m biased. This region is breathtaking. You need to see it. Start packing.) Whether describing a cattle drive or the Colorado River rushing through narrow red rock canyons, Abbey immerses you in the otherworldly beauty of the canyonlands. He’s also one heck of a storyteller, regaling you with hair-raising tales of him doing extreme (and occasionally really stupid) things like sliding down waterfalls or hiking into The Maze (now part of Canyonlands National Park) with little more than a bottle of water and some trail mix.  My favorite chapter is also the longest: Abbey’s tale of rafting Glen Canyon, which was later flooded after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. I’ll never see Glen Canyon as he did, because much of it is at the bottom of Lake Powell, but at least I got to see it through his eyes and prose.

I’ll leave you with two passages from the book, which, taken together, will give you a sense of Abbey’s writing style. The first is from near the end of the book, as his time at Arches is coming to a close:

October. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom. The tumbleweeds on the move (that longing to be elsewhere, elsewhere), thousands of them rolling across the plains before the wind. Something like a yellow rash has broken out upon the mountainsides–the aspen forests in their autumn splendor. Sunsets each evening that test a man’s credulity–great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold that remind me of nothing so much as God’s own celestial pizza pies.

Now whenever I look at the aspens on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks in fall, I’ll think of a yellow rash. Thanks, Mr. Abbey.

The second passage is from the end of the introduction:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

I disagree with Abbey on at least one point: I think you should hop in your car and get out here, and seeing this area from a car is better than not seeing it at all. But if you can’t get here–or you’ve been here and want to relive the experience–pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire and let Abbey be your cranky, crotchety, yet oh-so poetic guide.

Rating: 5/5 for people who enjoy nature writing; 3/5 for everyone else.

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