Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey
© 2003 Jack Loeffler
“He walked across the desert at least a thousand times,” Tom Russell sang of Abbey in his “Ballad” thereof. Jack Loeffler was with him many of those times, as the two friends drank one another’s beer and amused one another around many a camp fire with both inane chatter and provoking political discussion. In Adventures with Ed, Loeffler offers a remembrance of Abbey’s life that is largely biographical, but is also interwoven with Loeffler’s own commentary on the issues that drove both men — chiefly, the ongoing destruction of the west and the growing unsustainability of industrial society. It reccommends itself easily to any fan of Abbey.
I was astonished when reading Postcards from Ed to see a shot of Abbey in military uniform, as a military policeman no less: both a cop and a soldier? Seemed an unlikely start for a man who was so anti-establishment, but one can’t argue with the draft. (Well, one can. Abbey did in his Brave Cowboy, with one of his characters denouncing it as nothing less than slavery.) Adventures with Ed demonstrates that his lean frame carried many surprises: we all have a history, and it’s usually more interesting than our even our friends give us credit for, let alone our enemies who reduce us to stereotypes. We meet Ed as a young man on a hard-scrabble farm in the Appalachians, fathered by a man who was interesting in his own right, a rural intellectual who favored Eugene Debs and introduced his son to both classical music and rabbit hunting. The familiar story of Abbey emerges here — a young man of adventure, hitchhiking across the United States and then falling in love with the West, there to live the rest of his life. There are the surprising interruptions, though; his being drafted into the Army, and serving in Italy; his frequent moves back and forth between the West and larger cities, usually because he was married at the time; his array of occupations, which astonishingly included welfare agent, both to New York City’s urban poor and to the West’s native Americans. One can easily imagine Cactus Ed in a fire watchtower, or even tending a bar in Taos, living in a commune with other political radicals and artists. It’s a much harder sell to think of him approaching shoddy apartments and adobe houses, clipboard in hand, dutifully generating data and reports. Both fed who he was, though, as he bore witness to what the machine-state did to both the land and to the men who were caught in its clutches — or at least, carried in its wake.
Adventures with Ed offers a myriad of said adventures; Loeffler and Abbey wandered the landscape of the Southwest many times together, camping for days at a time under endless skies. They both saw what was happening to the landscape; the plundering of mines, the creation of roads and railroads at public expense for the benefit of a few corporations. They got into danger more than a few times, either when their outdoors explorations got out of hand, or they ran into corrupt police officers with a side hustle of banditry in Mexico. The latter was particularly harrowing, as they had their wives and children with them — and only one little pistol. The adventures were also intellectual, as the two both read broadly, thought deeply, and argued often. Through Loeffler’s eyes, we see Abbey developing his ideas about anarchism and ‘eco-defense’, in which he defended his frequent destruction or sabotage of private property (billboards, bulldozers, etc) by comparing it to a man defending his home from an invasive brigand. To Abbey, the open lands of the West belonged to everyone — including the coyotes and the rocks, and should not be parceled out by developers to poison Indians with uranium mining or the water table below and skies above. They altered in their opinions as they argued with one another, and over the years: Abbey came to the West idolizing cowboys, but quickly grew to view the ranchers using ‘public lands’ for ranging as the crummiest of parasites, who were destroying Western grasslands directly, and undermining its native population of elk and antelope.
I suppose Abbey appeals to me in part because of his contradictions; his avowed anarchism, yet his desire to see the state check the very corporations that own it; his earthy roots and intense interest in celebrating the working man, yet his appreciation for ‘highbrow’ classical music and for intellectual and philosophical debate; his competing desires to roam the land wild and free, and yet enjoy the fruits of a quiet domestic life — his love for his wives and his reliable tendency to go philandering, at least until he grew older and his libido cooled slightly. He certainly had his flaws and interior contradictions, but he was intensely authentic and never boring. Although I was familiar with Abbey as philosopher and activist, Adventures will be remembered as a favorite for delivering an image of him as a friend, father, and devoted-if-often-distracted husband.
Postcards from Ed, ed. David Petersen