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.

Book Review – My Orange Duffel Bag

Title: My Orange Duffle Bag: a journey to radical change

Author: Sam Bracken (With help from Echo Garrett)

Written/Published: 2008-2010

Format: Hardback

 

My Orange Duffle Bag is the story of a man named Sam, who was kicked out into the world by his mother at the age of 15 with nothing more than his orange duffle bag and a few clothes.  It deals mostly with his journey to not be another statistic, and to instead succeed at football and academics and later religion.

Here’s the thing.  I’ve been excited to actually sit down with a copy of this book since the original self published version of it appeared at a booth I was part of during a book festival.  The self-published version was orange canvas, complete with a white zipper and full color pages and it was as beautiful and incredible as it possibly could be.

The version I finally got to review is the copy my library had; professionally published by Crown Publishing and missing the awesome zipper, but still awesome looking.

 

So, I popped a movie in and sat down with this book (ever the multi-tasker) and eventually turned off the movie and just finished this.  The book is about 200 pages long, but there’s a lot of white space and a lot of pretty layout, but it’s short on content so I finished it in just under two hours.

The book is divided into three parts – the first is a short history of his life.  Just a paragraph or so about a year in his life, boiled down to the most generic of story lines.  “Age 10 – I win my first track meet and my step-brother uses me as a human dart board”  Onto the next age.  And key points of his life – Age 18, I am baptized – are glossed over so quickly that you almost miss them.

The second part of the book talks about his time through college.  How he succeeded at football but doubly succeeded at academics because he set huge goals.

The third is over half the book and includes his “7 rules for the road.”

 

I was hoping for a little more, actually.  I think that Sam was trying to hard to be positive and uplifting that he forgot to tell us about himself.  I didn’t need a full memoir, but I wanted some sort of connection.  What I didn’t get anywhere in this book was EMOTION.

And what I didn’t get was what drew me to this book in the first place.  You see, after Echo got the book to my booth, I kept in touch with her and her brother Kevin Montgomery, who does a 50 states in 50 days concert tour to raise money for Echo and Sam’s Orange Duffle Bag Foundation.  So through them in other venues I’ve heard the stats.  Only about half manage to get a HS diploma, 2% get a four-year degree.  Over a quarter end up homeless.

And while Sam wasn’t formally in the system (he stayed with friends for random periods of time and bounced from house to house), the fact that this WASN’T him is a story that I wanted to hear along with the tips and tricks for being awesome.  Especially since a lot of these are common sense.  (The gist is want it and do what it takes to get there.)

 

Granted, the book is beautiful in any form.  Several of the pages could be really awesome motivational posters, and I wish they were.  And I think it’s a book worth sharing.

It’s not a top rating, but I’m confident putting it solidly in as a four out of five.

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