I. The First Morning
“The canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky – all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.”
I picked up the book on my first morning in Utah, in a small Bureau of Lands Management visitors center on the side of Highway 89. I’d arrived late on the previous afternoon, driving up I-15 from Las Vegas before spending the night in a faded Kanab motel room with a dusty Spanish Book of Mormon in the drawer of the nightstand.
The BLM office was my last stop before I disappeared into southern Utah’s parks for five days of camping and hiking. The place was nearly bare – posters on the wall of Seussian rock formations, a shelf of paperbacks, and little else. I checked with the woman at the desk to be sure that the rough 4×4 road I wanted to take was dry for the time being, and paid cash for the book: a purse-sized edition of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I threw it on the passenger seat, got back on 89 for a short stretch, and then turned onto the dirt road that would take me across the width of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
I already knew that the trip was too short – the briefest of Utah flirtations. A friend in LA who knew every back road from Zion to Arches had helped me out, marked up a AAA map of the area with the trailheads for short canyon hikes and empty gravel drives. It was mid-July, the burning height of the tourism season, and the national parks were studded with more visitors than hoodoos, European families in rented RVs making their way from one booked-out campground to the next. But Eli had designed a route that would give me a semblance of privacy, a fleeting, Jeep-supported taste of the Utah wilds.
The highway disappeared behind me, and after a couple of twists and turns the vast, empty interior of the park opened up on the horizon. Dirt, dust and rock, scattered with tenacious dull green plant life. I wouldn’t see asphalt again for hours.
“Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally.”
I started the book that evening, in a quiet corner of the campground at Kodachrome Basin State Park, sitting on a picnic table while a pot of water on my camp stove inched towards boiling. The cliffs around me were striped with three fat swaths of color – brown, pale tan, and pink, the world’s biggest bucket of neopolitan ice cream – that faded to shadows as twilight set in.
I liked Abbey immediately. It felt like he was speaking directly to me, offering me a set of instructions as I made my way through his country, inviting me into his private club. I liked his fury and his patient sentry duty, watching and chronicling, each evening, as the dying sun leached the color out of the rock. When my dinner was eaten and darkness had arrived, I retreated to my tent and kept reading, caught up in his careful cataloguing of flora, his lyrical outrage at the arrival of industry and industrial tourism, his enthusiasm for every stretch of dry bare rock and every gamey juniper bush, every dawn and dusk.
I wanted to know it all, have it all, too, I realized as I read his confession of greed. My day on the Cottonwood Road had felt more like a reconnaissance mission than a trip on its own terms – I’d driven slowly with the windows down, ogling the bonsai sandstone and the iron-stained red dirt. I’d pulled over and parked and scouted trailheads, noted landmarks and distances, but I’d never stayed out in the sun for more than an hour at a shot. My Jeep’s thermometer had marked the temperature at 40 degrees Celsius – 104 Fahrenreit – and it was so steady all day, so reasonable while the air around me soared towards unreasonable, that I’d wondered if it simply couldn’t go any higher. My fingers swelled like sausages and four big bottles of soupy water sloshed in the backseat and the air conditioning crapped out and I kept thinking, I have to come back here and see it right. I have to come back here when it isn’t so damn hot. I have to come back.
“A fine morning—a sweet cool stark sunlit silent desert morning—before the heat moved in and the deerflies, the sweat, the dust and the thirst came down on us.”
The next morning I was up before dawn had reached into the basin. I ate and packed up my camp and, as the sun peered over the horizon, I climbed up to a rim trail and paced high above the campground. Bryce Canyon was a thin orange-pink line in the distance, and the air was blessedly cool.
When it was time to go I followed Highway 12 to Escalante, then turned down another one of Eli’s dirt side roads to the Devil’s Garden. A family of five had beaten me there – the only other people I saw outside of their vehicles in my two days in Grand Staircase-Escalante – and the kids ran and climbed while their parents rested in the shade of a sandstone mushroom.
The “garden” was an organic sculpture park, a maze of arches and toadstools and rock windows. I explored until I got hungry, then sat on a burning metal picnic bench to eat lunch, granola bars and dried fruit and water. I read a few pages of the book while I ate – even while surrounded, myself, by this alien rock world, I wanted Abbey as medium, as guide.
I arrived at Capitol Reef National Park in the middle of the afternoon. It was a red stone eruption, smooth-walled islands of polished rock rising straight up out of the dust. I set up for the night at leafy Fruita campground, with its apricot orchards and grazing, cautious deer, and stood at attention with a line of visitors, all of us in identical pose, necks cranked back and staring up at the petroglyphs on the red cliffs above our heads. Later I hauled myself to the top of one of those rock islands, coaxing myself up the trail step by step, and turned around on the summit, triumphant, in time to see lightning bolts marching towards me, black storm clouds hovering in the far-too-near distance. I made it down to the trailhead in record time, and headed back to camp.
IV. Down the River
“My God! I’m thinking, what incredible shit we put up with most of our lives—the domestic routine (same old wife every night), the stupid and useless and degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the businessmen, the tedious wars in which we kill our buddies instead of our real enemies back home in the capital, the foul, diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephones—! ah Christ!”
It happened on that second night. The sky over Capitol Reef had been unleashing fleeting downpours through the late afternoon and evening, quick outbursts that stopped fast and dried out even faster. Thunder in the distance. I was in my tent, reading, reading.
Desert Solitaire comes to a climax in its 12th chapter, “Down the River,” in which Abbey and a pal raft a stretch of the Colorado River before its obliteration by a new dam. The chapter is joyful and furious and it reads like a call to the barricades, a call to arms, a call to climb in a dinghy with a good friend and just go. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading it without being stirred to action – imagined action, at the very least – and I was no exception. But it was also the chapter that broke Abbey’s spell for me, the bouncer that tossed me out of the club.
“Same old wife every night.”
The words punctured my rapture. A few sentences later, Abbey listed women alongside bars, wars, elections and traffic jams – modern contrivances that conspired to keep a man down, submitting to “the creeping strangulation of the clean white collar and the rich but modest four-in-hand garrote!”
Surely, I thought, I was misunderstanding him. We were all in this together, weren’t we? Weren’t we all looking to escape beyond the end of the roads? Surely women were something more, to him, than another daily nuisance, a human variation on rush hour gridlock.
I flipped back through the pages. I’d been so caught up in the book that I hadn’t noticed, but now I realized women were largely invisible in the chapters of Desert Solitaire. There was a reference to an imagined “chocolate-colored mistress” in New Orleans. There was a brief mention of a desirable, sojourn-worthy Nevada town, where prostitution was legal. There was the tale of Mr. Rusk, a double-crossed uranium prospector, and his wife, the unfortunate Mrs. Rusk, who “submitted to his love-making with indifference, sometimes with reluctance.”
Beyond that, they – we, I – were absent. I was no member of the club, no initiate in an enlightened secret society, after all. I was a stowaway in Abbey’s country.
V. Polemic: Nostalgia and a ‘Lost America’
“Suppose we say that wilderness invokes nostalgia, a justified not merely sentimental nostalgia for the lost America our forefathers knew. The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit.”
It’s hard for me to fetishize the past. It’s hard for me to look back with nostalgia on a simpler, pre-urban existence, to rail against the jobs and the politicians and the goddamned machines as Abbey and others do so eloquently. The men I know who brandish Abbey and Thoreau like talismans – and they are men, without exception – can imagine themselves into that past. They can see themselves riding the undammed rivers, ranging the unpaved land, freed and free. But I just can’t wish myself into that scene.
Here are some things I know about the past, before iPhones and Bluetooth headsets, before washing machines with digital consoles like a space shuttle’s, before my time. I know that my paternal grandmother was born in 1925, the youngest of seven children. I know that her mother died soon after her birth, a commonplace fate for poor women. I know that she was raised on a southern Ontario farm during the Depression by a stern grandmother and a semi-transient father and that, since she was the youngest, she earned a higher level of education than anyone else in her family. She made it to the tenth grade.
I know that she spent the war doing factory work. I know that she married my grandfather in 1949, that she left him just weeks later and got a job as a cashier. I know that she went back to him when she realized she was pregnant with my father. I know that she believed she had no other choice.
I know that they lived more than 50 years together, at war more often than not. I know that he spent the years in the basement of their suburban bungalow, his armchair molding itself to him while he watched the Jays game on TV, and that she spent the years upstairs, watching The Young and The Restless on a floral-patterned chesterfield. I know that her only reading material was Reader’s Digest and The Bible. I know that she never managed to quit smoking, and during the long commercial breaks she’d crack open the window in the kitchen, lean forward over the sink and blow smoke out through the screen.
I know that she didn’t live long enough to see me become the first woman in her family to graduate from high school and attend university. And I know that, in part, it’s the cities and the system and the goddamned machines that have helped to save me from a life like hers.
VI. Not at Grandview Point
“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… We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.”
On my second last day in Utah I drove out of Moab and up out of the valley it lies in; I followed a smooth paved road into Canyonlands National Park. The road led right to the rim, funneling visitors in their vehicles to a designated viewing point, giving them an accessible eyeful of the corrugated White Rim below us. But I pulled over halfway there, left my car to stew in the sun, and followed a grassy three-mile path to my own private lookout.
I spent the morning there wandering on the edge of everything, skittering over the slickrock, squinting down at the trails I could see far below me, claiming the whole vast empty horizon of rock and dust and heat haze for myself. In my head, I was chanting again: I have to come back here, I have to come back here, I have to come back.
I finished the book two nights later, in a Boise motel room, the canyonlands already receding behind me. But I knew I’d taken a part of them with me, or left a part of myself behind. I wouldn’t forget the escape that they had promised, and I would carry that promise with me – with or without Abbey’s blessing.