Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

Southern Utah is one of my favorite spots in the world, so it’s a bit surprising that I hadn’t read this before. Perhaps the delay was caused by residue from an earlier attempt at reading Monkey Wrench Gang that left me with an Abbey sexism hangover. Book pressed into hand and duly warned about the eye-rolling terrible bits, I gave Abbey another chance. Parts of the book are pure awfulness – cringe-inducing degradations of women not worth repeating; he also quite fancies himself the erudite philosopher and name-drops throughout to let us know how smart he is. Some parts are weird– he finds a gopher snake and wraps it around his chest inside his shirt. Some parts are hypocritical – professing a love of nature and then killing a rabbit for the hell of it; singing the praises of population control then talking about making babies (also a father many times over himself). Despite these, there are some gold nuggets worth excavating from the pages. His best parts are the anti-tourist rants and descriptions of his adventures in the backcountry as he slurps water from every last murky puddle and flings his body willy-nilly into pools searching for shortcuts. He bemoans the Park Service kowtowing to the Wheelchair Explorers, as he dubs the mechanized tourists that roll up in their cars and expect well-paved roads to lead them within arms’ reach of natural wonders. “What can I tell them? Sealed up in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels, how can I pry the people free? The auto as tin can, the park ranger as opener.” He goes on rants about industrialization, particularly in relation to solving the Indian problem– why would the Navajo want to become factory workers or office clerks? “The Navajos are people not personnel; nothing in their nature or tradition has prepared them to adapt to the regimentation of application forms and time clock.” (And for that matter, nothing in us non-Navajos as well).
Best yet was the section on going down the Colorado River before the Glen Canyon dam was built. He and a pal load up provisions (tobacco, coffee, raisins, beans, eggs, bacon) into their inflatable boats, lash them together, and whirl away downstream, forgoing life jackets, camping on sandy beaches inside the canyon. They explore side canyons and tributaries (Escalante River), hiking up to see the Rainbow Bridge, accidentally starting a brush fire or two. Lots of drinking river water that they put into cans to let the silt settle to the bottom after several minutes. Another mouth-watering section was about Havasu (Havasupai), a branch of the Grand Canyon he explores for five weeks, living near a waterfall and communing with nature. Overall a worthy read; perhaps an edited version would make it stronger, but it would remove all the (tedious) Abbey-isms that make it his book.