Book Review: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

“Until a few years ago a simple, quiet, primitive place on the shores of the Colorado, Lee’s Ferry has now fallen under the protection of the Park Service. And who can protect it against the Park Service? Powerlines now bisect the scene; a 100-foot pink water tower looms against the red cliffs; tract-style houses are built to house the “protectors”; natural campsites along the river are closed off while all campers are now herded into an artificial steel-and-asphalt “campground” in the hottest, windiest spot in the area; historic buildings are razed by bulldozers to save the expense of maintaining them while at the same time hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on an unneeded paved entrance road. And the administrators complain of vandalism.

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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I found Desert Solitaire to be a thoroughly maddening book. I suppose it is the author who makes me crazy. His depictions of the desert, arresting and fantastic and spiritual, alongside musings on civilization, or culture, or whatever he wants to call it, boggle the mind. But although his casual contempt of modern man, vague misanthropy and less vague misogyny do rankle, I cannot pretend that they are foreign to me. I have railed uselessly against cities and then returned to them, eagerly and willingly, just as he describes doing at the end of his season as a Park Ranger in the book. I have been vaguely dissatisfied with people in general and men in particular, even as I hold human life and humanity in the highest regard. But in my sympathetic irritation, I am disinclined to excuse all that I know is flawed and contradictory in those sentiments, even as I recognize them in myself.

But perhaps I do excuse them, regardless. I doubt that I would hate the man if I could have met him before he passed. I hear in his sarcastic tone a rueful, self-deprecating humor. His exchanges with others – admittedly self-reported – are witty and endearingly self-conscious. I underlined many of his musings just moments after my eyes rolled so far at his arrogance that they nearly fell right out of my head, leaving me quite unable to continue reading this story made up by this self-satisfied, casually misanthropic, anarchistic atheist. And yet continue I did.

Indeed, his paradoxes resonated most, his penitence for how he treated his fellow man and their works. Unapologetically flawed and yet…apologetic, too. The smallness and insignificance deeply felt within a city, after all, is sharper and more painful than the smallness and insignificance that one feels at the base of the towering, uncaring mountain, the empty desert, or the roiling, mindless furor of the ocean. The city presents an intensity and eminence of caring – none of which is directed at oneself. No staggering mass of stars is quite so alienating. It is instantly recognizable, the frustration and misanthropy inspired by a seething mass of humanity and tourism, even as he appreciates individual humans and tourists.

In short, I hated this book for making me love it. I am both annoyed and entertained by the hypocritical savant who wrote it, above all, perhaps, for being a pain in the ass in the same ways that I am a pain in the ass, and worst of all, for making me aware of it.

“A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.”  -E.A.

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