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The Good Parts of...
Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Collected by Scott Teresi
Quoted material copyright 1968 by Edward Abbey


This book is a must-read for anyone who might get excited wandering alone along the rocky cliffs or dusty trails of the Grand Canyon, for instance. It’s filled with brilliant imagery and a resonating philosophy of nature. I’ve collected my favorite quotes below for the spare-time-challenged.
       In the 1950’s, Edward Abbey spent a few summers as the park ranger living in a remote house trailer in Arches National Park. Desert Solitaire is about his repeated day hikes and longer ventures into the canyonlands as well as his philosophy on the nature of the desert and on humanity.
       Abbey offers vivid descriptions of wandering around isolated southeastern Utah canyons by himself, making observations and connections. I was reminded of wandering around woods and hills and exploring places when I was little, looking with wonder at the world I was discovering.
       He tells great stories. He regularly waxes philosophical on his place in nature. He explains the essential dangers of life and the reality of death in the desert: thirst, hunger, heat, remoteness. The only parts of the book I wasn’t riveted by were the descriptions of the varieties of plants, birds, sometimes rock formations, and the explanations of exact locations, all of which were difficult to picture or relate to without knowing more about biology or southeastern Utah itself. Every now and then Abbey will appear self-righteous, but I didn’t let this bother me too much because he had so much philosophy to offer, and I generally agreed with him in wanting to reverse population growth or get people out of their cars and keep the cars out of national parks, places he might call “holier than our churches.” This is especially true if I look at it from the perspective of my younger days when nature was an especially great source of wonderment for me.
       Following are my favorite of Abbey’s thoughts and stories quoted from the book. I don’t know how these will come across without the backdrop of having read the book’s innumerable descriptions of the expansive red Utah desert, but maybe you’ll still find them as inspiring as I did!

Nature and Nothingness

“Hot and tired I stop in the shade of an overhanging ledge and take a drink from my canteen. Resting, I listen to the deep dead stillness of the canyon. No wind or breeze, no birds, no running water, no sound of any kind but the stir of my own breathing.
       “Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse—its implacable indifference.” [91]

“How difficult to imagine this place without a human presence; how necessary. I am almost prepared to believe that this sweet virginal primitive land will be grateful for my departure and the absence of the tourists, will breathe metaphorically a collective sigh of relief—like a whisper of wind—when we are all and finally gone and the place and its creations can return to their ancient procedures unobserved and undisturbed by the busy, anxious, brooding consciousness of man.
       “Grateful for our departure? One more expression of human vanity. The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert.” [267]

The desert can appear timeless, to span eternity.
       “Now I am in the open again, out of the underworld. From up here Rainbow Bridge, a thousand feet below, is only a curving ridge of sandstone of no undue importance, a tiny object lost in the vastness and intricacy of the canyon systems which radiate from the base of Navajo Mountain…. Off in the east an isolated storm is boiling over the desert, a mass of lavender clouds bombarding the earth with lightning and trailing curtains of rain. The distance is so great that I cannot hear the thunder. Between here and there and me and the mountains it’s the canyon wilderness, the hoodoo land of spire and pillar and pinnacle where no man lives, and where the river flows, unseen, through the blue-black trenches in the rock.
       “Light. Space. Light and space without time, I think, for this is a country with only the slightest traces of human history. In the doctrine of the geologists with their scheme of ages, eons and epochs all is flux, as Heraclitus taught, but from the mortally human point of view the landscape of the Colorado is like a section of eternity—timeless. In all my years in the canyon country I have yet to see a rock fall, of its own volition, so to speak, aside from floods.” [193]

Spirituality of Nature

“I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.” [6]

Delicate Arch, in Arches National Park.
       “There are several ways of looking at Delicate Arch. Depending on your preconceptions you may see the eroded remnant of a sandstone fin, a giant engagement ring cemented in rock, a bow-legged pair of petrified cowboy chaps, a triumphal arch for a procession of angels, an illogical geologic freak, a happening—a something that happened and will never happen quite that way again, a frame more significant than its picture, a simple monolith eaten away by weather and time and soon to disintegrate into a chaos of falling rock. …
       “Much of the same could be said of the tamarisk down in the canyon, or of the blue-black raven croaking on the cliff, or your own body. The beauty of Delicate Arch explains nothing, for each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful. … If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful—that which is full of wonder.
       “A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.” [36-7]

Hiking up the gorge of the Escalante, a tiny river gorge amid five-hundred-foot canyon walls.
       “There are enough cathedrals and temples and altars here for a Hindu pantheon of divinities. Each time I look up one of the secretive little side canyons I half expect to see not only the cottonwood tree rising over its tiny spring—the leafy god, the desert’s liquid eye—but also a rainbow-colored corona of blazing light, pure spirit, pure being, pure disembodied intelligence, about to speak my name.
       “If a man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited, he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernal. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than enough to console him for the loss of the ancient dreams.” [176-77]

“I walk out onto a point from which I can look down at the river, nearly straight below…. From up here the sound of the river, until now a permanent part of my auditory background, is no longer perceptible, and the desert silence takes on a deeper dimension. The sound of nothingness? ‘In the desert,’ wrote Balzac, somewhere, ‘there is all and there is nothing. God is there and man is not.’
       “God? … There is nothing here, at the moment, but me and the desert. And that’s the truth. Why confuse the issue by dragging in a superfluous entity? Occam’s razor. Beyond atheism, nontheism. I am not an atheist but an earthiest. Be true to the earth.” [184]

Poetic Descriptions of Nature

“The old moon, like a worn and ancient coin, is still hanging in the west when I awake.” [257]

“[After supper] I put on hat and coat and go outside again, sit on the table, and watch the sky and the desert dissolve slowly into mystery under the chemistry of twilight.” [12]

“The sun is touching the fretted tablelands on the west. It seems to bulge a little, to expand for a moment, and then it drops—abruptly—over the edge. I listen for a long time.” [194]

The desert holds a perfect and natural balance between lifelessness and living vibrancy.
       “Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” [26]
       “Water, water, water…. There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” [126]
       “There are no vacant lots in nature.” [166]

Two incidents with gopher snakes. Abbey releases one inside his trailer to eat the mice that live there.
       “The gopher snake and I get along nicely. During the day he curls up like a cat in the warm corner behind the heater and at night he goes about his business. The mice, singularly quiet for a change, make themselves scarce. The snake is passive, apparently contented, and makes no resistance when I pick him up with my hands and drape him over an arm or around my neck. When I take him outside into the wind and sunshine his favorite place seems to be inside my shirt, where he wraps himself around my waist and rests on my belt. In this position he sometimes sticks his head out between shirt buttons for a survey of the weather, astonishing and delighting any tourists who may happen to be with me at the time. The scales of a snake are dry and smooth, quite pleasant to the touch. Being a cold-blooded creature, of course, he takes his temperature from that of the immediate environment—in this case my body. We are compatible. From my point of view, friends.” [19]
       He lets him go near the trailer to fend off the rattlesnakes (their natural enemies) which have visited him twice before. He comes back and the snake has gone. A month later he witnesses two gopher snakes in a mesmerizing ritual dance. “Like a living caduceus they wind and unwind about each other in undulant, graceful, perpetual motion, moving slowly across a dome of sandstone. Invisible but tangible as music is the passion which joins them—sexual? combative? both? ...
       “They intertwine and separate, glide side by side in perfect congruence, turn like mirror images of each other and glide back again, wind and unwind again. This is the basic pattern but there is a variation: at regular intervals the snakes elevate their heads, facing one another, as high as they can go, as if each is trying to outreach or overawe the other. Their heads and bodies rise, higher and higher, then topple together and the rite goes on.
       “I crawl after them, determined to see the whole thing. Suddenly and simultaneously they discover me, prone on my belly a few feet away. The dance stops. After a moment’s pause the two snakes come straight toward me, still in flawless unison, straight toward my face, the forked tongues flickering, their intense wild yellow eyes staring directly into my eyes. For an instant I am paralyzed by wonder; then, stung by a fear too ancient and powerful to overcome I scramble back, rising to my knees. The snakes veer and turn and race away from me in parallel motion, their lean elegant bodies making a soft hissing noise as they slide over the sand and stone.” [20] He follows them out of curiosity but then lets them go in peace.
       “In the long hot days and cool evenings to come I will not see the gopher snakes again. Nevertheless I will feel their presence watching over me like totemic deities, keeping the rattlesnakes far back in the brush where I like them best, cropping off the surplus mouse population, maintaining useful connections with the primeval. Sympathy, mutual aid, symbiosis, continuity.
       “How can I descend to such anthropomorphism? Easily—but is it, in this case, entirely false? Perhaps not. I am attributing human motives to my snake and bird acquaintances. I recognize that when and where they serve purposes of mine they do so for beautifully selfish reasons of their own. Which is exactly the way it should be. I suggest, however, that it’s a foolish, simple-minded rationalism which denies any form of emotion to all animals but man and his dog. ... It seems to me possible, even probable, that many of the nonhuman undomesticated animals experience emotions unknown to us. What do the coyotes mean when they yodel at the moon? What are the dolphins trying so patiently to tell us?” [21]

“My favorite juniper stands before me glittering shaggily in the sunrise, ragged roots clutching at the rock on which it feeds, rough dark boughs bedecked with a rash, with a shower of turquoise-colored berries. A female, this ancient grandmother of a tree may be three hundred years old; growing very slowly, the juniper seldom attains a height greater than fifteen or twenty feet even in favorable locations. My juniper, though still fruitful and full of vigor, is at the same time partly dead: one half of the divided trunk holds skyward a sapless claw, a branch without leaf or bark, baked by the sun and scoured by the wind to a silver finish, where magpies and ravens like to roost when I am not too close.
       “I’ve had this tree under surveillance ever since my arrival at Arches, hoping to learn something from it, to discover the significance in its form, to make a connection through its life with whatever falls beyond. Have failed. The essence of the juniper continues to elude me unless, as I presently suspect, its surface is also the essence. Two living things on the same earth, respiring in a common medium, we contact one another but without direct communication. Intuition, sympathy, empathy, all fail to guide me into the heart of this being—if it has a heart.
       “At times I am exasperated by the juniper’s static pose; something in its stylized gesture of appeal, that dead claw against the sky, suggests catalepsy. Perhaps the tree is mad. The dull, painful creaking of the branches in the wind indicates, however, an internal effort at liberation.” [27]

Exploitation of Nature

He rafted Glen Canyon before it was drowned by a dam which created Lake Powell. He constantly laments the tourist who spoils the natural lands, made overly accessible by the National Park Service or destroyed by the government or industry.
       “I climb to the foot of the east buttress and sign for Ralph and myself in the visitors’ register. He is the 14,467th and I the next to enter our names in this book since the first white men came to Rainbow Bridge in 1909. Not many, for a period of more than half a century, in the age above all of publicity. But then it’s never been an easy journey. Until now.
       “The new dam, of course will improve things. If ever filled it will back water to within sight of the Bridge, transforming what was formerly an adventure into a routine motorboat excursion. Those who see it then will not understand that half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it was an integral part. When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.” [192]

“The refrigerator… is a useful machine. Not indispensable but useful. It is in fact one of the few positive contributions of scientific technology to civilization and I am grateful for it. Raised in the backwoods of the Allegheny Mountains, I remember clearly how we used to chop blocks of ice out of Crooked Creek, haul them with team and wagon about a mile up the hill to the farmhouse and store them away in sawdust for use in the summer. Every time I drop a couple of ice cubes into a glass I think with favor of all the iron and coal miners, bargemen, railroaders, steelworkers, technicians, designers, factory assemblers, wholesalers, truck drivers and retailers who have combined their labors (often quite taxing) to provide me with this simple but pleasant convenience, without which the highball or the Cuba libre would be poor things indeed.
       “Once the drink is mixed, however, I always go outside, out in the light and the air and the space and the breeze, to enjoy it. Making the best of both worlds, that’s the thing.” [96]

Mindless, capitalistic American society drives him nuts. “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… 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!” [155]

He explains that Native Americans on reservations find it impossible to assimilate into a capitalistic society because of their selflessness, noncompetitiveness, and apparent irresponsibility but still find it impossible to go back to their old customs. Our “solutions” to their problems “fail to take into account what is unique and valuable in the Navajo’s traditional way of life and ignore altogether the possibility that the Navajo may have as much to teach the white man as the white man has to teach the Navajo.” [106]
       He talks about their ancient petroglyphs and pictographs. “The pre-Columbian Indians of the Southwest, whether hunting, making arrowpoints, going on salt-gathering expeditions or otherwise engaged, clearly enjoyed plenty of leisure time. This speaks well of the food-gathering economy and also of its culture, which encouraged the Indians to employ their freedom in the creation and sharing of a durable art. Unburdened by the necessity of devoting most of their lives to the production, distribution, sale and servicing of labor-saving machinery, lacking proper recreational facilities, these primitive savages were free to do that which comes as naturally to men as making love—making graven images.” [101-2]


He has the strong desire and resourceful ability to run off into the canyons and survive rather happily without any supplies or preparation. “One summer I started off to visit for the first time the city of Los Angeles. I was riding with some friends from the University of New Mexico. On the way we stopped off briefly to roll an old tire into the Grand Canyon. While watching the tire bounce over tall pine trees, tear hell out of a mule train and disappear with a final grand leap into the inner gorge, I overheard the park ranger standing nearby say a few words about a place called Havasu, or Havasupai. A branch, it seemed, of the Grand Canyon.
       “What I heard made me think that I should see Havasu immediately, before something went wrong somewhere. My friends said they would wait. So I went down into Havasu—fourteen miles by trail—and looked things over. When I returned five weeks later I discovered that the others had gone on to Los Angeles without me.
       “That was fifteen years ago. And still I have not seen the fabulous city on the Pacific shore. Perhaps I never will. …
       “But Havasu. Once down in there it’s hard to get out. … I bought a slab of bacon and six cans of beans at the village post office, rented a large comfortable horse and proceeded farther down the canyon… to the ruins of an old mining camp five miles below the village. There I lived, mostly alone except for the ghosts, for the next thirty-five days.
       “There was nothing wrong with the Indians. The Supai are a charming cheerful completely relaxed and easygoing bunch, all one hundred or so of them. But I had no desire to live among them unless clearly invited to do so, and I wasn’t. Even if invited I might not have accepted. I’m not sure that I care for the idea of strangers examining my daily habits and folkways, studying my language, inspecting my costume, questioning me about my religion, classifying my artifacts, investigating my sexual rites and evaluating my chances for cultural survival.
       “So I lived alone.” [196-7]

I can empathize with the exciting awareness and connections Abbey feels when exploring uninhabited natural places alone.
       “Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity—I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time. However, there are special hazards in traveling alone. Your chances of dying, in case of sickness or accident, are much improved, simply because there is no one around to go for help.” [200]

“Ordinarily it is possible for a man to walk across quicksand, if he keeps moving. But if he stops, funny things begin to happen. The surface of the quicksand, which may look as firm as the wet sand on an ocean beach, begins to liquefy beneath his feet. He finds himself sinking slowly into a jelly-like substance, soft and quivering, which clasps itself around his ankles with the suction power of any vicsous fluid. Pulling out one foot, the other foot necessarily goes down deeper, and if a man waits too long, or cannot reach something solid beyond the quicksand, he may soon find himself trapped. … Unless a man is extremely talented, he cannot work himself [into the quicksand] more than waist-deep. The quicksand will not pull him down. But it will not let him go either. Therefore the conclusion is that while quicksand cannot drown its captive, it could possibly starve him to death. Whatever finally happens, the immediate effects are always interesting.
       “My friend Newcomb, for instance. He has only one good leg, had an accident with the other, can’t hike very well in rough country, tends to lag behind. We were exploring a deep dungeon-like defile off Glen Canyon one time…” [121-2] You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens!

“Stranger than the storms, though not so grand and symphonic, are the flash floods that follow them, bursting with little warning out of the hills and canyons, sometimes an hour or more after the rain has stopped.
       “I have stood in the middle of a broad sandy wash with not a trickle of moisture to be seen anywhere, sunlight pouring down on me and on the flies and ants and lizards, the sky above perfectly clear, listening to a queer vibration in the air and in the ground under my feet—like a freight train coming down the grade, very fast—and looked up to see a wall of water tumble around a bend and surge toward me.
       “A wall of water. A poor image. For the flash flood of the desert poorly resembles water. It looks rather like a loose pudding or a thick dense soup, thick as gravy, dense with mud and sand, lathered with scuds of bloody froth, loaded on its crest with a tangle of weeds and shrubs and small trees ripped from their roots.
       Surprised by delight, I stood there in the heat, the bright sun, the quiet afternoon, and watched the monster roll and roar toward me. It advanced in a crescent shape with a sort of forelip about a foot high streaming in front, making hissing sucking noises like a giant amoeba, nosing to the right and nosing to the left as if on the spoor of something good to eat. Red as tomato soup or blood it came down on me about as fast as a man could run. I moved aside and watched it go by.” [120-1]

He explains a hungry, thirsty, tiring, dirty experience rounding up cattle in the desert: “Side canyons appeared. Viviano took one, I took the other, while Roy stayed with the bunch [of cattle] we already had. The canyon I faced was choked with brush, impossible to ride through; the prickly pear grew knee-high in great clumps hairy with spines, scrub oak obstructed the path, the branches of juniper and pinyon pine struck at my face, knocked my hat off. I had to tie the horse and go in on foot. The heavy air was swarming with flies and the numerous trails in the thickets were well beaten and dusty, strewn with cow droppings. Real cattle country all right. I picked up a club, went on, stooping under the tangle. The canyon was short and boxed in and at the head was a cow and her calf; I drove them out and back to the main canyon. I was glad to get on my horse and rejoin Viviano and Roy.” [84-5]

I was captivated by his description of going into the desert by himself to find old Moon-Eye, an enormous old dusty horse with one good eye. He had been domesticated but escaped into the desert and had been living there for ten years. “Others had attempted the violent method of pursuit and capture and had failed. I was going to use nothing but sympathy and understanding, in direct violation of common sense and all precedent, to bring Moon-Eye home again.” [142]
       He tracked him up a canyon from a stream, and soon they discovered each other and stared at each other in the baking hot sun. His approaches only scared him away, so he tried a passive tactic. “Moon-Eye didn’t move. He stood rigid as stone, conserving every drop of moisture in his body. But he was in the sun now and I was in the shade. Perhaps if I waited long enough he’d be forced to come back to the tree. I made myself comfortable and waited. The silence settled in again.
       “But that horse wouldn’t come, though I waited a full hour by the sun. The horse moved only once in all that time, lowering his head for a sniff at a bush near his foreleg.” Picture two beings, a wily human and a lumbering beast, way out in the middle of an uninhabited desert wasteland, standing near each other but unable to get close enough to do anything. “We waited then, the horse and I, enduring the endless afternoon, the heartbreaking heat, and passed the time as best we could in a one-sided conversation. I’d speak a sentence and wait about ten minutes for the next thought and speak again. Moon-Eye watched me all the time and made no move.” [146-7] The sun eventually defeated Abbey before it did Moon-Eye. He gave one heave of his rope with all his strength, missed, gave up, and started the long hike back to his horse and out of the desert.

During another adventure of his, he was hungry and thirsty and was too far from his camp in Havasu Canyon to get back before dark without finding a shortcut. He went down a narrow side canyon with perpendicular walls and ledges which got steeper and steeper. He came to a ledge with a twelve-foot drop-off into a pool of warm, fetid, murky water. “There was no way to continue except by dropping into the pool. I hesitated. Beyond this point there could hardly be any returning, yet the main canyon was still not visible below. Obviously the only sensible thing to do was to turn back. I edged over the lip of stone and dropped feet first into the water.
       “Deeper than I expected. The warm, thick fluid came up and closed over my head as my feet touched the muck at the bottom. I had to swim to the farther side. And here I found myself on the verge of another drop-off., with one more huge bowl of green soup below. … Beyond the pool lay another edge, another drop-off into an unknown depth. Again I paused, and for a much longer time. But I no longer had the option of turning around and going back. I eased myself [over the ledge] and let go over everything—except my faithful stick.
       “I hit rock bottom hard, but without any physical injury. I swam the stinking pond dog-paddle style, pushing the heavy scum away from my face, and crawled out on the far side to see what my fate was going to be.
       “Fatal. Death by starvation, slow and tedious. For I was looking straight down an overhanging cliff to a rubble pile of broken rocks eighty feet below.” [201-2]
       (You’ll have to read the book to see what happens.)


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