Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Not only was this a great book to take with me to Utah, it’s also one of the books from my TBR list! The TBR List Declutter is working!


Shortly after my daughter was born, my in-laws came to visit us in California. While there, they drove to Yosemite National Park for a few days. When they got back, my spouse asked them what they’d seen while they were there.

Everything,” his dad replied.

What he meant, of course, was everything they could see within a fifty-yard walk from their car.

On that trip, my in-laws were just the kind of national park tourists Abbey pities and despises. “So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of those urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.” (52)

Abbey opines in 1968 that automobiles are ruining the parks by necessitating the construction of roads and parking lots and ruining the experience for the visitors by keeping them encapsulated in steel and separated from the very experiences they’ve come to experience. He proposes a solution: ban automobiles from the parks. He has it all planned out. At the park entrance, people will park their cars and be equipped with bicycles, free of charge, for their use while in the park. All of their camping supplies will be waiting for them at their campsite, brought out by the Park Service while the visitors explore the park on their bicycles. There, too, will be “concessioners waiting, ready to supply whatever needs might have been overlooked, or to furnish rooms and meals for those who don’t want to camp out.” (53) As someone who has both envied and feared for the safety of bicyclists on park roads, this sounds like an excellent idea to me. Biking is much safer when one isn’t sharing the road with cars.

Abbey anticipates problems with his plan (and is especially uninterested in finding ways to accommodate the elderly, those with mobility issues, and children), but his confidence in the adventurous spirit of the average American allows him to dismiss these concerns quickly:

“Critics of my program will argue that it is too late for such a radical reformation of a people’s approach to the out-of-doors, that the pattern is too deeply set, and that the majority of Americans would not be willing to emerge from the familiar luxury of their automobiles, even briefly, to try the little known and problematic advantages of the bicycle, the saddle horse, and the footpath. This might be so; but how can we be sure unless we attempt the experiment? I, for one, suspect that millions of our citizens, especially the young, are yearning for adventure, difficulty, challenge—they will respond with enthusiasm.” (56)

I look at the interest of GenXers and Millennials in homemade bread and home-fermented foods, LPs, manual typewriters, instant cameras, and dragging logs and running obstacle courses through the mud for exercise, and I suspect Abbey’s right. There’s something tactile we’re missing in our touch-screen, climate-controlled, supermarket lives that we’re trying to recapture by going back to a pre-digital time. Things are too easy here, and yet so full of stress and artificiality, and I suspect that a “yearning for adventure, difficulty, challenge”—for things that are real—is part of this trend for the retro.

And even my Boomer in-laws have changed over the twelve years since that Yosemite visit. They began bicycling, and with a cyclist’s eyes, they began to see their condo complex for what it is: an island accessible only by automobile. Once they’d experienced the freedom and slower pace and satisfying physical challenge of getting about by bicycle, this arrangement was no longer tenable; they sold their condo and moved to a more bikeable location. If after more than six decades of life they can discover the wonders of the world outside of their cars, perhaps most of the population of the U.S. could do the same, if given a chance.

But the chips are stacked against this kind of change. Our country is set up for cars. We have interstates rather than bike lanes, strip malls instead of sidewalks. Those of us who wish to get around without our cars risk our lives; I don’t blame those who choose not to take this risk at the same time that I resent them for not pushing for changes that would make biking and walking—outside of a gym—less risky.

There’s also the difficulty of time. Our jobs and our need for possessions and housing and health insurance and college tuition for our children puts our employers in a position of power. We can’t even get paid time off to care for our newborns; how could we take the time necessary to explore without our cars? To cycle through even a smaller park like Joshua Tree National Park would take far longer than exploring the park by car, driving to a trailhead and hiking for the day and then driving back out to stay at a hotel or Airbnb.

Abbey writes, “We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men” (emphasis in the original). (58) This is probably true, but it’s also easier said than done. Even those of us lucky enough to have paid vacation don’t often have enough of it—or the freedom to untether ourselves from our jobs even while on vacation—to take the time to travel slower and experience the places we’re visiting without the steel shell surrounding us. We get the Instagram post and then it’s time to leave so we can get back to the suburbs and continue our lives of quiet desperation.

This is a book of pull and push. Abbey loves the desert, but even he feels the pull of civilization, the company of people, the bustle of the metropolis. Even with all of his rhetoric, Abbey recognizes that the lure of the desert, the lure of the wild is something that’s not necessarily for the desert itself:

“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 go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, but I am grateful that it’s there. 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.” (129)

Knowing the wilderness is out there may be enough to keep us going, even in our constructed world. But, as Abbey worries again and again throughout this book, there’s a real danger of these wild spaces being lost to development. Areas of wilderness face continuous dangers, including both the road- and dam-building against which Abbey primarily rails and the current dangers of development for the purposes of resource extraction in places like Bears Ears National Monument and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We as a culture keep pushing for growth in the form of an ever-increasing GDP, but what happens to us if this growth is at the expense of those wild spaces that provide us with the possibility of escape (even putting aside the ecological impacts that are already affecting us)?

About the developers’ plan to put in dams and divert water from desert waterways to population centers:

“What for? ‘In anticipation of future needs, in order to provide for the continued industrial and population growth of the Southwest.’ And in such an answer we see that it’s only the old numbers game again, the monomania of small and very simple minds in the grip of an obsession. They cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is cancerous madness, that Phoenix and Albuquerque will not be better cities to live in when their populations are doubled again and again. They would never understand that an economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human.” (127)

This is something I’ve never quite understood. What’s wrong with leaving areas to develop only as the resources in that area allow? If an area can only grow to a point of homeostasis with the environment, what’s the problem if those who live there are healthy and happy, fulfilled and living their best lives? Why the need for constant growth? What would happen if we chose to define “growth” as spiritual growth, intellectual growth, emotional growth rather than only in terms of population and finance? Finance is constructed, abstract. It will not feed our souls or our bodies. It won’t protect us from our own mortality; it will only distract us from life.

It comes back to that need for the real that’s pulling at hipsters and housewives (and hipster housewives) of the post-Boomer generations. And if we’re seeking reality, Abbey asserts, the desert has what we’re looking for.

“Under the desert sun, in that dogmatic clarity, the fables of theology and the myths of classical philosophy dissolve like mist. The air is clean, the rock cuts cruelly into flesh; shatter the rock and the odor of flint rises to your nostrils, bitter and sharp. Whirlwinds dance across the salt flats, a pillar of dust by day; the thorn bush breaks into flame at night. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is as it is and has no need for meaning. The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible human qualification. Therefore, sublime.” (194)

This book is a love letter to the desert and a preemptive farewell to a wilderness that is not-so-slowly being consumed. I read it and I want to get in my car and drive to the desert, park my car and walk until night then camp under the stars (perhaps on a cot because scorpions and snakes and tarantulas are a little too real for me). This book gives me a bittersweet sort of hope that our culture might find a balance before all of the wild places are lost and there’s nowhere left for escape.

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