Rob's Blog Archive

April 15, 2012

Dear Abbey










To: Edward Abbey

 Dear Abbey,

I’ve just finished Desert Solitaire and thought I’d send you a few comments on the book.  Particularly since you’re dead, I’m not planning on waiting for permission.  Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission anyway---something you knew well.

I have to say several sections, particularly at the beginning, are self-indulgently long.  I love the desert too, but I think less words would have been more effective.  That said, your interaction with the desert and your descriptions of these work great.  Stories paint better pictures than poems.  Tales of death and near death from heat and thirst captured the feel of the desert summer better than any straight up description could have.  Your contemplation as to what it is in the desert that draws you to it falls into this class---it is interactive not descriptive.  Next time, more stories, less plain descriptions.   

For me, your sections on Cowboys and Indians, running Glen Canyon before it was dammed, and your stay in the Havasupai reservation were the most compelling.  However, what might interest you most, if you were capable of being interested, is comparing your suggestions regarding the National Parks with what has actually transpired. 

First and foremost, very few roads have been added to the system.  Almost all of the roads in the National Parks today were there in ’68.  Some were improved, but not as many as you had feared. 

People did discover walking.  You may remember that books like Desert Solitaire and Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time stirred the imaginations of baby boomers like me and we hit the trails.  I took the section of the John Muir Trail from Toulomne Meadows to Lake Ediza mid-summer, 1974.  Miles away from any trailhead, anytime I looked up and down the trail I saw at least fifty people. 

As you may also recall, backpacking fell off from its peak in the late seventies.  Many more people backpack now than when you or Fletcher were hitting the trails, but that’s like saying there are more automobiles now than there were during the first decade of the twentieth century.  

Sadly, at this time, most people still fail to stray more than 100 or 200 yards from their cars.  I should qualify that.  I remember hiking, actually in Arches National Park (it got upgraded :-) ).  It was about a two mile hike each way.  What shocked me was that the number of people along the trail was pretty constant, not dropping exponentially as I would have expected.  I pondered if there had been a change in America.  As I got close to one of the clusters of people, I listened closely---and understood not a word.  They were all speaking German.  Americans know walking is the best way to encounter everything that wilderness presents, they just don’t do it. 

Thankfully, even though eternally bound to their cars and buildings and what you call culture, the overwhelming majority believes wilderness benefits them, the primary thesis of your book.  The country never looked back after it enacted the Wilderness Act and the number of acres designated as wilderness and set aside from any development has grown steadily.  And with this, there are many places where the experience a hiker or climber has now isn’t very different from when you wrote Solitaire.

What would entertain you the most regarding the National Parks is the degree to which the National Park Service has actually been limiting and/or excluding cars, at least from a few locations.  I took the drive to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park in 1977.  At this time, that’s not allowed.  Only shuttles go.  Slowly, perhaps only at the pace of one of the indigenous slugs, Yosemite Valley is also ridding itself of cars.  Free shuttles there are more regular than New York City subways and offer waterfalls, cliffs, and meadows rather than muggers.  It may only be on a geologic timescale, but the NPS is limiting automobile access rather than increasing it.

While the NPS actually trying to reduce auto traffic might amuse you, what would please you the most is the realization of what a treasure the desert is and that there’s more true wilderness there than anyplace else.  The greatest areas to be added to the wilderness system in the lower 48 may well be in the deserts.  Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Capital Reef, Great Basin, Saguaro, and, of course, Arches all became full National Parks after Desert Solitaire was published.  Additionally, major tracts of Sonoran, Mojave, Great Basin, and Red Rock deserts have been set aside as wilderness.

Finally, we now have wolves in the lower 48.  I know you loved predators and recognized their importance to ecology not to mention their inherent aesthetic value.  There are wolf packs near my home.  I have yet to see them or hear them howl.  That day will come. 

I guess that’s about it for now.  Thanks for the book. 

My normal close is “Take Care,” but that seems a bit disingenuous, so I’ll just sign off.

Rob Loveman

PS: In your scheme of things, I am a mountain man.  But come the day I don’t have the strength to deal with the winter, I will happily become a desert rat.  Not sure when, but it will happen. 

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