Desert Solitaire is about Abbey's experiences in the deserts of Utah, mostly centered around his time working at Arches National Monument (now designated a National Park), but extending into memories of other relevant experiences in the southwest.
Throughout the book, Abbey alternates between reverence for the sublime qualities of the desert wilderness and disgust at any form of development. Abbey discusses his amusement of having mice in his cabin, then of the companionship of a snake that ends up eating all the mice before disappearing. He writes stories about people who have come before him, of those he meets, and of his oft-foolish pursuits including getting trapped in a slot canyon and risking heat stroke to catch a one-eyed feral horse. Most precious is his story of rafting down the Colorado River before it was submerged with the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. One of the most poignant remarks he makes is nearer the end of the book as he talks about how the dust infiltrates everything in his skin, hair, and clothes; he himself had become part of the desert.
At the same time, he expresses alarm for how the parks are being developed; he talks about the "National Parking Lot" taking over. Nothing alarms Abbey more than people in automobiles. He uses one, too, but enjoys driving through the washes, fishtailing and sliding down the rugged dirt roads. He despises pavement anywhere and rails against lazy tourists and the National Park Service alike. One of my favorite moments in the book was while one night he was contemplating his aloneness in the vast desert, a jeep of civil engineers pulled up. They were surveying to build a road right to his remote ranger station. After an extended rant - the chapter is, after all, called "Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks" - Abbey finishes off the chapter with the aftermath of the survey crew:
"Teamwork, that's what made America what it is today. Teamwork and initiative. The survey crew had done their job; I would do mine. For about five miles I followed the course of their survey back toward headquarters, and as I went I pulled up each little wooden stake and threw it away, and cut all the bright ribbons from the bushes and hid them under a rock. A futile effort in the long run, but it made me feel good. "
Abbey picks up his disdain for automotive tourism later in the book, saying of automobile tourists:
"Sealed in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels, how can I pry them free?"
Part of his frustration, no doubt, is a product of his time in history. The book was published in 1968. This helps explain his comment, "Civilization is a youth with a molotov cocktail in his hand." He wrote the book at a time when the NPS was undergoing its most serious effort to date to provide facilities to make the parks pleasant and accessible for all people. While it can be fairly argued that opening up parks to vehicle traffic has caused as much harm as good (more harm, for Abbey), his thoughts encapsulate a sense of disappointment that something irreplacable was being taken away: truly wild areas.
The book is enjoyable, and I found myself laughing out loud many times. I don't always agree with Abbey, though. Abbey wrestles with the positive aspects of the wild and the city, and recognizes that man needs both, but he never connects the fact that the reason he has a job in the park he loves so much is because of the people he so often dislikes who he is meant to serve. He also interacts with the land in a way we discourage today - probably because we see so many people that the impact would be ugly - carving a message into a tree, accidentally starting a brush fire, and clobbering a rabbit with a thrown rock just because he wondered if he could.
There were many points where I really identified with what Abbey wrote. Many times, I have written very similar things in one place or another. Most significant for me was the last page of the book, as he is leaving the desert and on his way home. He cranes his neck to get a last look, wanting to go back. In the last paragraph, he says almost exactly what I said the first time I left Glacier:
"The desert will still be here in the spring. And then comes another
thought. When I return will it be the same? Will I be the
same? Will anything ever be quite the same again? If I return."
Abbey is the same as me in many ways. I understand exactly what he means, even though I have never been to the desert he writes about. The same ideas could apply to any person in any place. Places can do that to a person.
In local news, I've been at the North Unit over the weekend. Pretty easy work for a little extra money because of the travel time. I can hear meadowlarks singing outside. The bison were right by the front door this morning, rubbing on the benches, trees, and fire hydrant. Alas, it was raining, and no one else saw them. I saw a turkey walk by this morning, too. Yesterday, I saw a grouse sitting on a telephone wire, a red fox by a farmhouse, and a pair of northern harriers close up.
One month from today, I'll be working at Pipestone. I read through the pile of brochures they sent me, detailing the significance of the site and how the pipestone is collected and then fashioned into a pipe. It sounds tedious and laborious to produce, and because of the geology, it becomes more tedious and laborious to quarry the stone every year as the quarriers have to dig through an increasingly thick layer of quartzite to reach the sacred stone.
I found another interp ranger headed there who was interested in splitting the bill for a two-bedroom apartment. The park has no housing, a big drawback. After a pretty long phone conversation, it sounded like we'd get along just fine. He's going to check out the housing situation in Pipestone this week, which relieves some of the mystery for me.