As Desert Solitaire opens, Edward Abbey has just arrived at Arches National Monument in Utah for an isolated six month stint as a park ranger. He worked as a seasonal ranger in the 1950s, although the book was not published until 1968.
In the first couple of chapters, Abbey arrives at his outpost, which is at the end of a long drive on a rough dirt road far from any towns or habitations, and sets up camp in a trailer under primitive conditions. It is springtime, and the park has few visitors. For the most part, Abbey completes his few duties easily and has plenty of time to enjoy the primeval landscape, flora, and fauna around him. He is obviously in love with his surroundings and laments the inevitable modernizing and paving of the roads that will bring many more visitors to this lovely land.
These first two chapters are contemplative, and we glimpse a hint of the type of spiritual and philosophical depth found in the nature writings of, say, Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard. Unfortunately, however, the promise of such depth is not subsequently realized. Don’t get me wrong: Abbey is a good writer and this is an absorbing book. But it is not a masterpiece in the class of Walden or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Having said that, it’s important for me to emphasize that you have to take this book on its own terms. Unlike other nature writers, Abbey approaches his subject with a cynical, acerbic, and condemnatory tone. He rightly points out that to properly experience the desert, one has to climb out of a vehicle and engage the senses firsthand. However, the impression I get as a reader is that he’s fine with everyone else going to hell as long as he can appreciate the land he loves without distraction.
If you can get past Abbey’s sometimes obnoxious distain for anyone that doesn’t share his specific point of view, he offers absorbing descriptions of his explorations of the primeval desert. He writes of the panorama of the landscape, the value of water, the volatility of the elements, and the fascinating array of plants and animals that manage to survive in this harsh environment. He recounts some of his desert adventures, such as assisting a rancher in rounding up stray cattle, joining a search party attempting to locate a missing tourist, climbing a mountain peak, rafting down the Colorado River in the Glen Canyon area before it became permanently flooded by a dam, and exploring a complex labyrinth of canyons known as “The Maze.” On these various excursions he comes across as very macho, competent, and self-sufficient, either traveling alone or with one other male like-minded companion.
Is Desert Solitaire a classic, as some of the internet hype I read proclaims it? I would say no. Certainly not when weighed against certain other books (as those mentioned above) with which it has been compared. Still, as a memoir of Abbey’s journey in a desert landscape that is no longer as isolated and empty as it once was, it is an interesting, even a fascinating read.