The way one approaches a wilderness story is to fashion a quest.
— Tim Cahill
Every journey, whenever and wherever it begins, has a before and an after.
In the moments before you begin a journey, you are something less: less complete, less aware, less developed, less sure of where you are going or what you will find. But you are also less jaded because you don’t know of all the dead ends ahead, less burnt from the days scorching beneath that black sun, less weary because you have not yet walked the hard rock road through those harsh deserts.
When the great environmental writer Edward Abbey died in 1989, four of his friends buried him secretly in a hidden desert spot that no one would ever find. The final resting place of the Thoreau of the American West remains unknown and has become part of American folklore. In this book a young writer who went looking for Abbey’s grave combines an account of his quest with a creative biography of Abbey.
Sean Prentiss takes readers across the country as he gathers clues from his research, travel, and interviews with some of Abbey’s closest friends—including Jack Loeffler, Ken “Seldom Seen” Sleight, David Petersen, and Doug Peacock. Along the way, Prentiss examines his own sense of rootlessness as he attempts to unravel Abbey’s complicated legacy, raising larger questions about the meaning of place and home.
Afterward, you become something more. More aged from the years spent searching for whatever your heart needs, whatever made you begin this fool’s journey. More weary from the fretting of failure, from the glances at the map to ensure you are on a right path. But also maybe, if you are lucky, wealthier for the sunrises seen breaking over those serrated mountains and the new friends you’ve met along the way.
But can a person precisely point, as if on a map, to the origin of a true, transformative journey? Is there any proper beginning?
If there is a beginning to a journey, then this journey to find Edward Abbey’s hidden grave might begin on one sleepless night in 2008 as I walk again through my recently purchased house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A year ago, I moved from northern Idaho to this metropolitan area with its 700,000 people. I left Idaho’s wild mountains and rivers for a career job in the city. Soon after arriving in Grand Rapids, I purchased a house, this house, and now I walk through it each night. And each night, this Craftsman house echoes emptiness and loneliness at me. This house reminds me that I am still single. This house makes me fret over having one job for the rest of my life, the rest of my life spent in one place—in this city, in this house.
Outside this house, the black of night has been washed away by evenly spaced streetlights casting their sodium vapor glow until these streetlights are this city’s only constellations. I’m a country boy, born in the ancient and broken hills of Pennsylvania. I came of age in the mountains of the West. For all my 38 years, I’ve never learned cities. I don’t understand house upon house, long lines of traffic, buildings that block out the sun.
So my journey begins here, knowing I need to get out of the devastation that we call the city, out of this job we call a career. And what better way to break free of these emotional fences than to begin a journey, a sally, to hit the road, to hunt for something secreted so far away that it feels as if it is in terra incognita, beyond the edges of all the maps.
Or maybe the first small steps of this journey began during my senior year of college in 1994 when my best friend, Haus, introduced me to the writings of Edward Abbey. While reading Abbey’s seminal work, Desert Solitaire, in the backyard of my apartment, I learned to yell at the world about environmental degradation, to rage and love with passion, to hike deep into the deserts, any desert, and then hike deeper still. Abbey’s authorial voice was authentic, loud, belligerent. There was no bullshit, no fluff. You could either join him or hate him for his extreme stances on wilderness, immigration, population control, and monkey wrenching. Regardless, he was going to tell you exactly what he thought.
As I turned the pages in Desert Solitaire, which I repeatedly underlined and starred, I realized Abbey was different from my cliché image of a writer—a beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking, pretentious asshole. Abbey seemed like someone who might get drunk with me around a campfire and talk about his favorite trail. When I’d ask how to reach the trailhead, he’d point west and say, Over there. Thataway. Then he’d smirk.
Or my journey begins not with a definitive date but, as all journeys must, with the discovery of a mystery.
So this journey could have begun when I learned sometime in the late 1990s about Abbey’s mysterious burial. Abbey died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1989 at age 62 from internal bleeding. After his death, four friends transported his body to a desert. There, they illegally buried him in a grave hidden to all but his friends and family and those turkey vultures banking overhead. His friends laid a hand-chiseled basalt tombstone atop the grave. The stories tell us that the tombstone reads, “Edward Abbey. 1927–1989. No Comment.”
We know when Abbey died. We know where he died. We know how he died. But no one but those closest to Abbey knows where he is buried.
So this journey is about the need to unravel, thread by thread, this mystery—to follow where those threads lead. Or maybe it’s because humans need mystery, because a person like me, who has been sated on the wrong kinds of food (security and home ownership and a steady paycheck in the city), becomes hungry for something nourishing, something healthy, something real. Or maybe we are pulled by mystery like we are pulled by wilderness—that desire to enter self-willed lands.
Or maybe the journey begins in October 2011. Haus and I are still best friends after all these 20 years. Today, he and I wander into some massive desert that is not yet known to either of us. Until this visit, neither of us has ever uttered its name out loud. But we are in this desert and have already hiked many hot miles, scouring the land for what might be impossible to find—a hidden grave in the endless contours of the land. But the grave is here. It must be.
Where we search, the sun burns hot upon the land until all that the land can offer is saguaro cacti and palo verde, and they both shimmer green. The rest of this land is crumbled rock. The rest of this world is thirsty dirt. The rest is merely dust. The rest is a sun that burns until even the rock turns black.
But if we have to choose a definitive beginning for this journey, then maybe it begins today, on an overcast Monday afternoon in August 2009 as I drive beside Crooked Creek, which languidly winds itself toward the slouching town of Home, Pennsylvania.
I’m venturing to Home to begin the long journey that will stretch almost two years as I try to locate Abbey’s desert grave. But of course I’m searching for more than just a hidden grave. Because what am I going to do with another man’s grave? Why would I care about another man’s grave?
Instead, I’m after the essence that people leave behind, the traces of themselves that linger upon the land. The essence of who Edward Abbey remains out there, and I intend to find it, because maybe his essence, his secrets, can teach me how to best live my own finite days here in cities and in deserts, in lifetime jobs and in 30-year mortgages.
So Home is where this journey begins.
Header image of Sonoran desert landscape west of Tucson by Simmons B. Buntin.