Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey

A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. (p 162)

desert20solitaireI very rarely review books here before I’ve finished them. A couple of years ago, I read a few novels and posted multi-day reviews of them, but in general, I make it a practice to read first, review later. This isn’t particularly difficult to accomplish because I derive an almost obscene pleasure out of completing tasks before the deadline. It satisfies a part of me that is just on the edge of obsessive compulsive to do so, and writing about Desert Solitaire before I’ve finished it has the opposite effect. I’m antsy, frustrated, distracted by the fact that I don’t have time to finish one item on my agenda before moving on to the next.

Occasionally when this happens, I choose to post about a poem. However, given that I’m neck deep in edits for my own novel, as well as editing a resource book for Pilgrim Press that has seventy contributors, I foresee a few poem Thursdays on the horizon strictly by necessity, and I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to talk about this glorious book. Written in the sixties, Abbey spent a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah, and this is his luxurious memoir about those months.

I visited Arches with my husband a year and a half ago, and when I heard about this book over Christmas break, I asked for a copy from my father-in-law (my Southwest wilderness expert). He obliged, and then life got busy, and I forgot all about it until I was back east in March and saw that my brother also owned the book. I borrowed his, brought it all the way home, and then remembered I had the book on my kindle, which is where I’ve been reading it every night as I wait for my son to fall asleep.

Once inside the trailer my senses adjust to the new situation and soon enough, writing the letter, I lose awareness of the lights and the whine of the motor. But I have cut myself off completely from the greater world which surrounds the man-made shell. The desert and the night are pushed back—I can no longer participate in them or observe; I have exchanged a great and unbounded world for a small, comparatively meager one. By choice, certainly; the exchange is temporarily convenient and can be reversed whenever I wish.

Finishing the letter I go outside and close the switch on the generator. The light bulbs dim and disappear, the furious gnashing of pistons whimpers to a halt. Standing by the inert and helpless engine, I hear its last vibrations die like ripples on a pool somewhere far out on the tranquil sea of desert, somewhere beyond Delicate Arch, beyond the Yellow Cat badlands, beyond the shadow line.

I wait. Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation. (p 16)

Having grown up in the northeast, I was completely unprepared for how much I would love the west, the southwest, the northeast. Friends are always asking when I’ll move “home” to the quaint steepled towns of New England, and although a part of me will always treasure the years I spent exploring streams that flowed beneath covered bridges and forests broken up by old stone walls, my heart found its home under the huge wild skies of California and Colorado and Oregon. The canyon lands of Utah, the sacred responsibility that comes of making camp deep in the Grand Canyon, the rivers and rapids and stone of our country’s backyard – those are the haunts that beckon to me now.

Reading Abbey’s book – its blend of journal and myth – reminds me of how alive I feel just knowing that a place like Arches exists. His opinions and mine don’t always overlap, but it is a privilege to see the land through his eyes. I cannot rush through his journey any more than he could slow or speed up time that year, and I wouldn’t want to. Half a chapter at a time is as sweet to savor as water in his desert. I only hope I can make it last until my own thirst for the out of doors can be quenched with a beautiful adventure.

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless. (p 158)


This week, my better half is on the other side of the world for work, and my mother has come to keep us company. That hasn’t left much time for reading, but it did remind me of this poem. I’ve loved it for years, but I understand it now in a way I never imagined. It just burns at my heart.

To a daughter leaving home, Linda Pastan

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving


(I’ll be back in two weeks with a proper review, but for now, time must be spent with a few of my favorite people.)