The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West
© 1977 Edward Abbey
The desert is no place for decent men, which is why Edward Abbey likes it so much. Born on the eastern seaboard, on a farm between the cities and the woods, young Abbey was seized by wanderlust and wandered westward. There he found mysterious monoliths, painted deserts, winding canyons penetrated only by the foolhardy, and interminable expanses of prickly plants and even pricklier critters. Prickly might well describe Abbey — or irascible, or cantankerous, or resentful, even indolent. Most of those terms are self-applied here as Abbey describes first his journey to the American west, his finding a home in Arizona, and his disgust at realizing that Industrial Civilization was following close on his heels. They ruined the view with power lines, flooded canyons with dams, and filled the air with smoke — and so he writes, not to defend pretty views but to defend the very idea of wildness. Man is wild, can’t be broken completely — and he needs undisturbed space to go crazy in every once in a while.
There are two reasons to read books by Edward Abbey; the first is for his descriptive writing, which wholly absorbed me when I first read Desert Solitaire years ago. The man is a grumpy poet writing prose; he describes the land like a lover, though he doesn’t use so intimate a language as say, the author of Song of Solomon. Certainly he finds enough here to wax poetic about. Making cloudbanks marvelous in Desert Solitaire was child’s play; here he even makes a poisonous tick sound intriguing. The early book is biographical, but once he arrives at the mountains, they take over, for there are small ranges all over the southwest. The second is for Abbey’s personality, which is…colorful, to say the least, and a delight in small doses. Rough-hewn is Abbey; there’s no machine-made box to slide him in. He is a passionate loather of big business and big government, but his contempt for the EPA lies in the fact that it isn’t doing enough to curb the industrialization of the west, that it sides with the power plants and oilers over the small ranchers and rambling eccentrics. His passion borders on reckless. He writes that his motto regarding wilderness hikes is “be prepared”, but that his practice is to go off half-cocked, daring Nature to do its worst. One story has him utterly destroying his fiance’s brand new gift-from-daddy convertible to transverse a washed-out road. That particular relationship didn’t survive the long hike back. In another account, he follows a mountain lion’s tracks and encounters the fearsome creature, poetry and power in one awe-inspiring package.
What Abbey fears most is the triumph of deary mediocrity. He can appreciate the city, as he does in here in a piece on Hoboken and Manhattan. It’s not a loving appreciation, but he does recognize that urban life has its consolations. But man is too wild a thing for the city, and the city itself can only be endured for long if there is some place to escape to. Abbey likens it to prisoners of Siberia, able to endure their brutal treatment by the sight of the beckoning expanse of forest; never mind that the forest has its own dangers, it is there — unconquered, open, a warren of escape. Abbey shudders to see Tuscon and Phoenix marching toward one another, soon to form one long contiguous blob of parking lots and neon — and not just because their unchecked growth is draining water reserves or concentrating filth, but because it makes escape ever more difficult. We crave adventure, Abbey writes, danger — the wilderness offers it. Abbey If we live in constant security and predictability, we’re effectively living the life of zoo animals. We climb mountains for the same reason we fill the air with soaring music and vibrant poetry: our souls are restless and craving. Craving what? Something to do, some meaning, some thrusting of ourselves into reality.
There is a lot to ponder in this slim little collection of essays and bar-room ramblings given life in paper. Certainly, as far as ‘current’ crises go, the book is dated. I am certain many battles have been lost since the decades since Abbey first discovered the soul-stilling expanse of the west. Given Abbey’s gruffness here, I would refer new readers to Desert Solitaire...but once a friendlier introduction is made then by all means return here to experience more of that beautiful description, that delightful cussedness, that adventurous what-the-hell-carpe-diem view Abbey took to life, its appeal aided by his thoughtfulness.