Wallace Stegner and Ed Abbey’s utopias were different.
Stegner’s dream was of a western community where good people worked together toward a common good. Abbey’s dream was a solitary one, a dream of retreat. In Crossing toSafety, the Stegner character dismisses his best friend’s vision of pastoral retreat, and offers in its stead a vision of a jail cell, an orderly day with no visitors and with time allotted for work, exercise, sleep. We romanticize nature, the realist says, because we don’t have to live in it.
Archetypal wild man Edward Abbey and proper, dedicated Wallace Stegner left their footprints all over the western landscape. Now, award-winning nature writer David Gessner follows the ghosts of these two remarkable writer-environmentalists from Stegner’s birthplace in Saskatchewan to the site of Abbey’s pilgrimages to Arches National Park in Utah, braiding their stories and asking how they speak to the lives of all those who care about the West.
For most people the pastoral is fantasy, but Abbey made the fantasy real on many occasions. The most famous example is his sojourn into Havasu Canyon in 1949, which he then wrote up as a chapter of Desert Solitaire. The chapter begins with Abbey’s story of a drive to Los Angeles with friends, during which they stopped at the Grand Canyon and overheard a park ranger talking about a placed called Havasu, a canyon with waterfalls down below. “My friends said they would wait,” Abbey writes. “So I went down to Havasu—14 miles by trail—and looked things over. When I returned five weeks later I discovered that the others had gone on to Los Angeles without me.”
I can testify that those 14 miles are not easy ones since I had descended them from the rim of the Grand Canyon on a hot day in May, two months before, wearing an ill-fitting backpack bought the day before from Play-it-Again Sports in Tucson. I remember a lot of misery and two great joys. One joy was finally taking that pack off my shoulders, and the other was, after hours trudging through the orange, dusty, dry land, coming upon a stream of blue-green water surging through the desert dryness. It was that water, Havasu Creek, that Abbey had followed into the tiny Indian village of Havasupai, or Supai, “where unshod ponies ambled down the street and the children laughed not maliciously at the sight of the wet white man.” The village is still there, still small, looking like the oasis it is—green fields and ramshackle buildings appearing suddenly, like the river, out of the desert. Abbey relates with pleasure the fact that when he arrived the Indians had just voted down the paved road that the government had proposed. There was still no road when I got there, but there had been other changes. For one, my hike down was marred by the constant metallic whirring of blades, helicopters that seemingly made the trip from the canyon rim to the little town every 20 minutes, delivering mail, goods, and tourists. The other change since 1949 had to do with the religion of the couple of hundred native people who still lived in Supai. Most of them had converted since Abbey’s day. They were now almost all committed Rastafarians.
Abbey had pushed right through the village to make his camp near one of the canyon’s three spectacular waterfalls. For 35 days he lived there alone. “The first thing I did was take off my pants,” he writes. Of course. And next? “I did nothing. Or nearly nothing. I caught a few rainbow trout, which grew big if not numerous in Havasu Creek. About once a week I put on my pants and walked up to the Indian village to buy bacon, canned beans, and Argentine beef in the little store.” Other than that his days were filled with long walks and plenty of lazing about, maybe some note-taking in his journal. He originally had thought to sleep in one of the old, deserted mining cabins, but the mosquitoes attacked, so he dragged the old cot to within about five feet of where the creek tumbled over the edge and became a waterfall, and there he slept for the next month or so, the “continuous turbulence in the air” keeping the bugs away.
Part of Abbey’s appeal to readers has always been the temptation of ease, real ease. Whether it is fantasy or not, we are attracted to the idea of Eden, a place where humans don’t want to be elsewhere but wander naked and sleep next to waterfalls. Where people are happy with things just as they are. This has always been the lure of the pastoral, going back to the shepherds, or at least to the poets who wrote about the shepherds. Here is a way of life, an unambitious, unconventional, and uncelebrated way of life that provides these rewards. Here is another possible way of being, and it is hard to read about this other way without thinking, “Hey, shit, maybe I could live that way, too.” Joseph Wood Krutch wrote of Thoreau that one of the reasons his book was so joyous was that at Walden Pond, Henry was a finder, not a seeker. We imagine that Thoreau, and Abbey, have stumbled upon something that we ourselves, mired in our complicated grown-up lives, will never find.
It is a fantasy about the shedding of responsibilities and reverting to a kind of romantic savage state, and so we must imagine Mr. Stegner scoffing. But the beauty of Abbey is that he scoffed a little too. Abbey, like Stegner, had a wide realist streak, and in fact it is the dialogue of his inner realist and inner romantic that help make reading him so enlivening. He might have extolled the delights of solitude but he also knew the dangers. As time went by in Havasu he noticed that his mind started turning on itself. “The days became wild, strange, ambiguous—a sinister element pervaded the flow of time. . . . I slipped by degrees into lunacy, me and the moon, and lost to a certain extent the power to distinguish between what was and was not myself….”
Abbey combated his demons in Havasu in a realist’s fashion: by walking and jostling his agitated brain. Part of him knew that it isn’t through the mind that we solve the mind’s riddles. Abbey’s final walk in the canyon makes up the inspired ending of the Havasu chapter, and brought him a kind of salvation, not through idleness, but through action. It is perhaps the most dramatic moment in all of Desert Solitaire. Not a car chase perhaps (that would have to wait for The Monkey Wrench Gang) but a real life-and-death drama, a literal cliffhanger. It starts when Abbey takes a long hike into an unfamiliar side canyon and drops down over the edge of a rock slide. He sees no way back up so he drops down again, a longer drop this time. His hope is that he can work his way downward to the canyon floor but when he looks over the next edge he sees “an overhanging cliff to a rubble pile of broken rocks 80 feet below.” There is no way down or, seemingly, back up. So what does the bold explorer do? “I began to cry. It was easy. All alone, I didn’t have to be brave.” After many failures, Abbey manages to escape the first little canyon, by balancing atop his walking stick and getting his fingers over the edge, and then up the next by shimmying up a rock chute. He cries again at this point, “the hot delicious tears of victory,” knowing he might just get out of the canyon alive. Still, there are many miles to go to return to his cot by the waterfall and he is overtaken by darkness and soaked by rains. He seeks refuge in a shallow cave, three feet high, a “little hole littered with the droppings of birds, rats, jackrabbits, and coyotes.”
He builds a small fire but runs out of fuel and when the rain doesn’t let up decides to sleep there.
The chapter ends:
“I stretched out in the coyote den, pillowed my head on my arm and suffered through the long night, wet, cold, aching, hungry, wretched, dreaming claustrophobic nightmares. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.”