Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness is the work for which Abbey is best known and by which he is most frequently defined. It contains his views on a variety of subjects, from the problems of the United States Park Service to an angry indictment of the evils of technology masquerading under the guise of progress. No voice is more eloquent in the praise of America’s remaining wilderness nor more vitriolic in attacking those who would exploit and destroy it for profit.
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In the introduction to Desert Solitaire, Abbey informs his readers that he has combined the experiences of three summers spent as a park ranger at Arches National Monument into one for the sake of narrative consistency. He writes that the first two summers were good but that the last summer was marred by the introduction of industrial tourism. For Abbey, the tourist in the automobile (worse yet, in the huge recreational vehicle) spells the end of the wilderness spirit.
Abbey’s ambivalent stance toward the tourists, ostensibly fellow lovers of the outback, reflects the work’s central dichotomy. Abbey’s eloquent voice describes the beauty of the desert landscape, only to pause on the intrusion of industry and commerce into one of the last remaining wilderness areas in the United States. The first sentence of Desert Solitaire declares, “ This is the most beautiful place on earth. ” Although Abbey believes that the wilderness is as close as one can come to something sacred, his view is not simplistic.
He sees wilderness as essential to the quality of human life. His quarrel is not with civilization itself but with civilization made manifest as industrial technology thrust on the physical and spiritual landscape of the human condition: “ A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself. ” Although Abbey is not a naturalist, Desert Solitaire is filled with the observations of the trained eye.
He makes scientific observation serve the eloquence of his prose. The sureness of the scientific landscape lends validity to the thrust of his ideas. Nowhere in the book is the power of his prose or the sureness of his eye more apparent than in the chapter titled “ Down the River. ” For Abbey, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam was one of the great sins of American society. In a discussion of human failings, he suggests that “ original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us—if only we were orthy of it. ” The rafting trip he and his friend Ralph Newcomb take down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon just before it is flooded under the waters of Lake Powell becomes a song of lamentation for a lost Eden. Abbey intersperses the tale of their journey with excerpts from the journals of Major John Wesley Powell, who was the first white man to explore the Colorado River through Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon. Despite the deprivation and hardships he experienced, Powell filled his journals with wonder.
Abbey’s voice joins Powell’s, as he, too, pauses on the untouched beauty of the place: the shimmering waterfalls, whose mists create rainbows across the red sandstone sides of the canyon, the changing sounds of the river on its journey to the Sea of Cortez, the shifting patterns of the sky, and the voices of the wildlife soon to be displaced by rising waters. The landscape of the canyon becomes a part of the landscape of the mind. As Abbey and Newcomb are swept past side canyons beckoning for exploration, they are aware that the canyons will remain unexplored—at least by them, their children, or their children’s children.
Abbey and Newcomb camp at the mouth of the Escalante River, where it joins the Colorado. Newcomb remains behind to fish for catfish while the adventurous Abbey explores upstream. He wanders up the labyrinthine canyon past untouched cliff dwellings of the Anasazi, the ancient people who inhabited the land before the Navajo. He realizes that these, too, will be submerged under the flooding water of the Colorado. Moreover, Abbey points out that the waters of Lake Powell will irrigate no land, will grow no crops.
Instead, the trapped water will produce power—power to make possible the continued urban sprawl of Phoenix and Albuquerque—and provide an aquatic playground for well-to-do suburbanites, whose noisy powerboats will drown out the cry of the red-tailed hawk, the calls of the killdeer and sandpiper. When Abbey returns down the canyon at nightfall to rejoin his fellow adventurer Newcomb, he is greeted by the smell of cooking catfish and the night sounds of the river. He reflects that this is all the paradise that is needed. The beauty of the place is heartbreaking, as is the tragedy of its imminent disappearance under mud and water.
As Abbey and Newcomb approach the construction zone of the dam, a large sign that Abbey derisively dubs “ first billboard erected in Glen Canyon” reminds them that government, in the service of greed, is willing to prosecute those who would trespass on the march of progress. The lyricism of Abbey’s prose captures the mind and imagination; the force of his passion invites the reader to share his outrage. The temple has been profaned by the money changers, and one is invited to help drive them out. Abbey’s journey is spiritual as well as physical. He probes the boundaries of his beliefs.
He searches for divinity among the rocks and canyons and finds it lacking. He muses that he suspects that the surface of reality is also its essence. Yet he resists the temptation to remake nature into a more comforting pattern. He refuses to succumb to the idea that human nature is special and separate from the natural environment, from the earth itself. Thus the desert, the wilderness, becomes a part of the temple of existence—an Edenic landscape and a part of that primeval source from which humans spring and to which they return. Abbey discovers the nature of his belief in his love of the land.
He proclaims, “ I am not an atheist, but an earthiest. Be true to the earth. ” Near the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers there is a labyrinthine landscape called the Maze. It held a particular place of affection in Abbey’s heart, for he considered it one of the last places that was truly terra incognita—a place un-mapped, untrodden by the foot of the casual tourist. Much like Abbey, it resists the domestication of being fully known, preserving its integrity and the mystery of its spirit; it is part of the voice that cries in the wilderness.