Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

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Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

by Edward Abbey


An essay set in the American Southwest in the late 1950s and 1960s; published in New York City in 1968.


Drawing on journals written during seasonal work as a National Park Service ranger, Edward Abbey meditates on the solitary life in the desert and protests against human encroachment on its frafile environments.

Events in History at the Time of the Essay

The Essay in Focus

For More Information

Born and raised in rural Appalachian Pennsylvania, Edward Abbey (1927-89) began his lifelong love affair with the Southwest as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where after graduation he went on to earn a master’s degree in philosophy. He began his writing career as a novelist in the 1950s, scoring a modest success with The Brave Cowboy (1958). The story of a traditional cowboy confronted and ultimately crushed by the forces of modernity in the new West, The Brave Cowboy was made into the critically acclaimed film Lonely Are the Brave (1962), starring Kirk Douglas. Abbey worked at a series of part-time jobs while he wrote, becoming a road inspector for the U.S. Forest Service and a ranger for the U.S. Park Service. Even after the success of Desert Solitaire made it no longer financially necessary, Abbey would go on taking seasonal work as a ranger. He also continued to espouse Desert Solitaire’s environmental themes later in life, in works such as The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). This widely read novel is often called the Bible of the Earth First! movement, which took up the novel’s idea of sabotaging or “monkeywrenching” environmental offenders such as dams, lumber operations, or polluting factories. However, it was Desert Solitaire’s angry denunciation of human interference with desert wilderness that first propelled Abbey to the forefront of the emerging environmental movement of the 1960s.

Events in History at the Time of the Essay

The national park system in the postwar years

In the mid-1950s, when Edward Abbey first worked as a National Park Service ranger, both the service and the national parks themselves were facing an acute crisis. After the Great Depression of the 1930s and the national emergency of World War II (1939-45), a postwar economic boom brought many Americans newfound prosperity and the leisure time in which to enjoy it. Encouraged by low gasoline prices and by a vast automotive industry accustomed to high, wartime levels of production, Americans in large numbers first began vacation trips by car after the war. America’s national parks, which together comprised the country’s most impressive and beautiful wilderness locations, led the ranks of favored destinations. In the first postwar decade, the numbers of visitors to the parks each year more than quadrupled, from less than 12 million in 1945 to nearly 50 million in 1954.

Yet funding to the National Park Service, which had been drastically cut during the war, remained at or near the low wartime levels. Consequently the parks and the Park Service rangers


1872 Yellowstone becomes the first national park.

1890 Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks are established.

1916 The National Parks Act set up the National Park Service to administer parks. lts purpose is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner… as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (Sellers, p. 38) Desert Solitaire refers to this statement when it argues against allowing automobiles in the parks.

1919 Grand Canyon National Park is established.

1964 Wilderness Act establishes wilderness preserves within certain parks, imposing strict limits on human intrusion.

who cared for them were poorly prepared to handle the new flood of visitors. In October 1953 the well-known writer and historian Bernard DeVoto exposed the park system’s problems in a widely read article in Harper’s Magazine. Entitled “Let’s Close the National Parks,” the article castigated Congress, which funds government agencies, for treating the parks like an “impoverished stepchild” (DeVoto in Sellars, p. 182). DeVoto noted that roads, camping areas, service buildings, ranger housing, and other facilities had been allowed to deteriorate to the point that “true slum districts” existed in some of the more popular parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite (DeVoto in Sellars, p. 182). In a rhetorical attempt to arouse public indignation at the chaotic situation, DeVoto suggested closing some of the favorite parks because of the lack of funding.

DeVoto, who served on the park system’s advisory board, likely wrote the article with the tacit support of the Park Service’s director, Conrad Wirth. A savvy politician who strongly supported tourist development in the parks, Wirth had taken office in 1951 and would serve until 1969. When DeVoto’s article failed to stir Congress, Wirth conceived a plan that he could present to Congress that would update the park system on a grand scale. Called Mission 66, Wirth’s plan called for millions of dollars to be spent on park development over the coming decade, with completion to coincide with the park system’s 50-year anniversary in 1966. In 1956 Wirth successfully shepherded Mission 66 through Congress.

Mission 66 amounted to a massive construction campaign that ultimately cost around one billion dollars. New and renovated physical facilities in the parks included:

  • Approximately 1, 200 miles of new roads within the parks
  • More than 1, 500 miles of renovated roads
  • Nearly 1, 000 miles of new or renovated trails
  • More than 1, 500 new parking areas and 330 renovated parking areas
  • More than 500 new campgrounds, water systems, and sewer systems
  • More than 400 new administrative and utility buildings, and more than 200 new power systems
  • More than 1, 200 new employee housing units
  • More than 450 renovated historic buildings
  • 114 new visitor centers

(Adapted from Sellars, p. 184)

The program was highly publicized in such periodicals as National Geographic Magazine. Meanwhile, during the decade in which Mission 66


The Colorado River enters Utah from Colorado and flows diagonally southwest to Utah’s southeastern corner through a series of national parks and national monuments:

  • Arches National Park (called Arches National Monument when Abbey first worked there in 1956 and 1957; it was upgraded lo national park status in 1971)
  • Canvonlands National Park (containing the Maze, a geographical lecture explored by Abbey and described in Desert Solitaire)
  • Natural Bridges National Monument
  • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area—essentially Lake Powell and associated features, such, is Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Below Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, just over the Utah-Arizona border, lies Marble Canyon, the site of a contested and ultimately defeated dam proposal in the 1960s. Below Marble Canyon is Grand Canyon National Park and then Lake Mead National Recreation Area, after which the Colorado turns south, running along Arizona’s western border with Nevada and California. From Arches National Park north of Moab, Utah, to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, these locations—clustered along the winding Colorado River—make up the geographical settings most prominent in Desert Solitaire.

As many had observed, the Colorado River is especially well suited for damming. Flowing from the western flanks of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the river has cut a 1,000mile-long series of deep canyons (including the Grand Canyon) into the high mesas through which it runs. Many of the narrow canyons can be easily dammed, so that their wails form the sides of a man-made lake. Furthermore, because it begins at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, the Colorado unleashes immense amounts of energy as it flows downhill to the Gulf of California. Its sharp losses in elevation make the Colorado especially attractive to those wishing In build hydroelectric dams. While some 20 dams now interrupt its flow, most famous is Hoover Dam, completed in 193b, which forms Lake Mead on the Colorado below the Grand Canyon. The Colorado’s dams—especially the controversial dam at Glen Canyon—are a major focus of Abbey’s criticism in Desert Solitaire.

was put into effect, visitor numbers in the parks continued to mushroom. They were bolstered by a new Interstate Highway System, which entailed the simultaneous construction of nearly 40,000 miles of interstate highways throughout the nation. By 1966 annual park visits had climbed to over 133 million; by 1972 they would exceed 211 million.

In promoting Mission 66 to the public, the Park Service emphasized the idea of “accessible wilderness,” a scheme that would allow the parks‘ millions of visitors to “see, sense, and react to wilderness, often without leaving the roadside” (Sellars, p. 187). Wirth and other Park Service officials believed that by encouraging more people to visit the parks, they were helping to protect park wilderness lands from the political pressures of commercial development. Powerful logging, mining, hydroelectric, and other interests were continually lobbying for the right to develop national park lands and other government owned lands for their own profit. Only strong public involvement with the parks would give the Park Service the political clout to resist such efforts, the thinking went. Yet despite what the service touted as Mission 66’s success in protecting, refurbishing, and promoting the national parks, by the 1960s a growing number of Americans had begun to question the basic approach that Mission 66 and other like-minded programs exemplified. In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey calls this approach “industrial tourism” and singles it out for his particular wrath. Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter (aptly titled “Polemic:Industrial Tourism and the National Parks [italics original]”) to denouncing it.

The rise of the environmental movement

While the tradition of wilderness preservation has roots as far back as the influential American author Henry David Thoreau (1817-62; see Waiden, also in Literature and Its Times), the modern environmental movement first arose in response to the commercial expansion and population pressures of the postwar era. In the arid states of the Southwest, such pressures focused on the question of water, especially on the region’s major river, the Colorado. At the urging of real-estate developers, utility companies, and others, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed a number of canyons along the Colorado River as dam sites. The major ones lay within land administered by the National Park Service, which, under Conrad Wirth, deferred to the powerful Bureau of Reclamation. But in the ensuing years these parks would be at the center of a series of highly publicized controversies. The environmental movement can be said to have begun in the early 1950s with the first of these struggles. At that time several conservation organizations took the then revolutionary step of rallying public opposition to a large hydroelectric dam planned at Echo Park, a part of Dinosaur National Monument on the Green River, which is a major tributary of the Colorado. Encouraged by the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and other groups, thousands of Americans wrote letters to Congress expressing their opposition to the proposed Echo Park dam. In 1956, owing to the public outcry, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to abandon its


Founded in 1892 by California naturalist John Muir, its activist leader David Brower made the Sierra Club into the leading environmental group in the United States in the years after World War II. Drawing on lessons learned in the campaign against the proposed dam at Echo Park, the Sierra Club became a highly effective political action group. In the 1960s the organization was instrumental in influencing the National Park Service to give more weight to ecology, biology, and wilderness preservation in its stewardship of the land, and less to accessibility and recreation. This shift in emphasis would reshape Park Service practices starting in the 1970s.

plans for the dam. The Echo Park campaign has thus been seen as the fledgling environmental movement’s first major victory.

However, for many activists victory at Echo Park came at a high price, because as part of their bargain with the Bureau of Reclamation, the Sierra Club and other organizations agreed not to oppose another dam planned farther south on the Colorado, at Glen Canyon. Construction on the Glen Canyon Dam began in 1959, and the dam began operation in 1963. Its impounded waters today form Lake Powell, named (in Abbey’s view) “supposedly to honor but actually to dishonor the memory” of John Wesley Powell, the explorer whose journals lovingly describe the canyon as he saw it by raft in 1869 (Abbey, Desert Solitaire, p. 188). Because Glen Canyon was a place of rare beauty, its flooding generated the most enduring controversy of all the Colorado River dam projects, with recriminations lasting long after the waters had risen. Abbey himself rafted down Glen Canyon in June 1959 with his friend Ralph Newcomb; his account of that trip comprises Desert Solitaire’s longest chapter. A strong opponent of the “goddamned dam,” Abbey heaps scorn on “the coalition of persons and avarice” responsible and warns the reader that they are “preparing a like fate for parts of the Grand Canyon” (Desert Solitaire, pp. 188, 189). Also hotly contested, the attempts to dam parts of the Grand Canyon would meet with defeat in 1966.

Mormons, prospectors, cowboys, and Indians

While Abbey’s main focus is the natural beauty of Utah’s Colorado River canyon country, he also devotes attention to the kinds of people he encounters there and to their various cultural histories. Utah was settled in the nineteenth century by pioneers belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly called the Mormons. Abbey sprinkles his text with brief references to the Mormons‘ exploration and settlement of Utah’s most inhospitable lands. Mormons in Utah are still noted for the spirit of communal, cooperative living that helped those early settlements prosper. While the hard-drinking, secular Abbey has little sympathy with the Mormons‘ abstemious, highly religious lifestyle (he complains about the weak beer served in Utah), he does praise this communal spirit.

Mormons make up the majority of Utah’s population, but also non-Mormon cattlemen and sheep ranchers settled here, as elsewhere in the West. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, small ranchers throughout the West were being pushed out of business by modern corporate operations, which raise livestock on a large scale and can thus undersell the small rancher. One summer Abbey worked briefly for a crusty old rancher called Roy Scobie in Desert Solitaire. While decrying the harmful environmental impact of cattle and sheep, Abbey expresses sadness at the passing of the small, independent ranchers. By the late 1950s, similar competition with large corporations drove off the independent uranium prospectors who had flocked to Utah and other Western states a decade earlier, as nuclear energy came into use. Abbey devotes a brief digression to prospectors in a short chapter called “Rocks.”

Finally, Abbey laments the poverty and hardship experienced by the region’s original inhabitants, the various Native American peoples who lived along the Colorado before the whites‘ arrival. Abbey discusses the largest Native American tribe, the Navajos, at some length in Desert Solitaire. As he observes, the Navajos have fared better than many other native peoples, partly because they control a vast reservation containing rich natural resources. An aspect of history that Abbey does not mention is the way the Park Service took unilateral possession of native lands in the West during the early to mid-twentieth century. Though some lands were later returned to tribal control and the Park Service changed its policy, a recent study notes that the Navajos often felt “under siege” by the Park Service (Kellar and Turek, p. 186). Yet the Navajos managed to retain control of their communal lands, which occupy parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, and are virtually surrounded by national parks. One measure Navajos took in response to the Park Service threat was to create a number of protected tribal parks within their reservation, such as Monument Valley Tribal Park in Arizona, established in 1958. Such actions ensured that the “continued vitality of the Navajo language, survival of traditional culture, and rich legends” were backed by “a sense of place” in strengthening the Navajos‘ tribal identity (Kellar and Turek, p. 186).

The Essay in Focus

The contents

In a brief “Author’s Introduction” to Desert Solitaire, dated April 1967, Abbey writes that “about ten years ago I took a job as a seasonal park ranger” at Arches National Monument, and that “what I found there is the subject of this book” (Desert Solitaire, p. ix). He went back for a second season, and would have continued returning “but unfortunately for me the Arches, a primitive place when I first went there, was developed and improved so well I had to leave” (Desert Solitaire, p. ix). Yet while he warns the reader that he has “some harsh words” for his employer, the National Park Service, overall he thinks the Service has “done its work rather well” (Desert Solitaire, p. xi). Abbey gives credit for this success not to the Park Service’s bureaucratic administrators, but to its rangers. Warning readers, he concedes that:

much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive—even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so.

(Desert Solitaire, p. x)

A chapter titled “The First Morning” describes Abbey’s arrival at Arches at the beginning of April. Pulling in after dark in his pickup truck, he meets the park’s two permanent employees, the superintendent and the chief ranger. They give him directions to the small, spartan house trailer, 20 ragged miles into the park’s interior, where he will live and work essentially alone for the next six months. The next morning he rises early, thaws his boots over the trailer’s gas stove, and goes out to watch the magnificent sunrise over weather-sculpted “windows in stone” that give the region its name (Desert Solitaire, p. 6). The “monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space” evokes in him a desire to “confront… the bare bones of existence,” to see nature as it really is, “devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities” (Desert Solitaire, pp. 6, 7). Brewing coffee and frying some bacon, the new ranger tries to get warm as the rising sun quickly melts the night’s thin snowfall. The next chapter, “Solitaire,” continues with Abbey’s first day on the job, as he tours the park with the superintendent, whom he calls Merle McRae, and the chief ranger, whom he calls Floyd Bence. Leaving a Park Service pickup with Abbey, the two men depart that evening, and beside a fire of fragrant juniper wood Abbey exults in his solitude.

In the next two chapters Abbey describes some of the plants and animals with which he shares the desert. They include snakes, deer, lizards, birds, wildflowers, sage, and juniper and pinyon pine trees. Impulsively he throws a rock at a rabbit, killing it. Examining himself for feelings of guilt, he finds none—instead he feels more connected to the desert’s diversity, and its endless tug-of-war between predator and prey, hunter and hunted.

Next is the digression titled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks.” Looking back in the mid-1960s on the wilderness that was Arches in the late 1950s, Abbey laments the changes—especially the invasive paved roads—that have occurred here as part of the push to develop the parks:

As I type these words… Arches National Monument has been developed. The Master Plan has been fulfilled. Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year…. The little campgrounds… have now been consolidated into one master campground that looks, during the busy season, like a suburban village: elaborate housetrailers of quilted aluminum crowd upon gigantic camper-trucks of Fiberglass and molded plastic; through their windows you will see the blue glow of television and hear the studio laughter of Los Angeles… Progress has come to the Arches after a million years of neglect. Industrial Tourism has arrived.

(Desert Solitaire, pp. 55-56)

Ironically calling the park “Arches Natural Money-mint,” Abbey writes that what happened there “is of course an old story in the Park Service” (Desert Solitaire, p. 56). He lists other parks in which similar development has taken place, including the newly established Canyonlands National Park and Grand Canyon National Park. Instead of serving naturalists such as hikers who are willing to leave their cars behind, the parks are now geared towards “the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner” of the national parks (Desert Solitaire, p. 61). This expectation has been created and encouraged by those politically powerful interests that stand to make money from it: oil companies, road builders, heavy equipment makers, and above all the auto industry. Abbey calls for banning cars from the national parks. Only then will the park system truly live up to its slogan, “Parks are for people,” which Abbey says has been intended as meaning “parks are for people-in-automobiles” (Desert Solitaire, p. 63).

Over the next three chapters Abbey shifts his focus temporarily from parks to people. In “Rocks” he offers some geological information about the region, then retells an anecdote of an ill-fated love triangle involving prospectors. In “Cowboys and Indians” he recounts his adventures working with a soon-to-be-bankrupt independent cattleman named Roy Scobie, and in “Cowboys and Indians II” he describes the circumstances in which the Navajos have struggled to maintain their cultural identity. The next chapter, “Water,” returns to earlier themes. In it, Abbey moves from a lyrical description of water (including flash floods) and its role in the desert to protest schemes to develop the West by hatching plans to fix a supposed water shortage. “There is no lack of water here,” Abbey writes, “unless you try to establish a city where no city should be” (Desert Solitaire, p. 159). Abbey challenges the modern ideal of growth: “growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness…. Albuquerque and Phoenix will not be better cities when their populations are doubled and doubled again” (Desert Solitaire, pp. 159-60). Despite its lyrical title the next chapter, “The Heat of Noon: Rock and Tree and Cloud” continues in this polemical vein: Abbey argues that wilderness preservation is essential to liberty. In “The Moon-Eyed Horse,” he digresses to narrate an encounter with a runaway horse in a remote canyon.

“Down the River” focuses on Glen Canyon, combining protests against the dam with an elegiac narrative of Abbey’s 1959 raft trip through the canyon with his friend Ralph Newcomb. Abbey rages against the dam and against what he sees as the hypocrisy of naming the resulting lake after John Wesley Powell, the canyon’s nineteenth-century explorer:

Where he and his brave men once lined the rapids and glided through the silent canyons two thousand feet deep the motorboats now smoke and whine, scumming the water with cigarette butts, beer cans and oil, dragging the water skiers on their endless rounds…. To grasp the nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remained visible.

(Desert Solitaire, pp. 188-89)

A series of Abbey’s experiences follows. In “Havasu” he describes becoming briefly stranded in a side canyon of the Grand Canyon, and in “The Dead Man at Grandview Point” he relates the hunt for the body of a missing hiker. “Tukuhnikivats, the Island in the Desert” reports Abbey’s climb up a mountain he selected because he liked the name, which means “where the sun lingers” in the language of the Ute Indians. This reflection spurs a page-and-a-half long list of some of Abbey’s favorite place names in the West. In “Episodes and Visions” Abbey writes about his interactions as a ranger with the tourists at Arches. He pokes gentle fun at their sedentariness and their questions (“Where’s the Coke machine?”), and he imagines exhorting them to “crawl out of that shiny hunk of GM junk and take a walk” (Desert Solitaire, p. 291). He reflects on his attraction to the desert: “There are mountain men, there are men of the sea, and there are desert rats. I am a desert rat (Desert Solitaire, p. 298). Unlike the mountains and sea, Abbey suggests, “The desert is different. Not so hostile as the snowy peaks, nor so broad and bland as the ocean’s surface, it lies open—given adequate preparation—to leisurely exploration, to extended periods of habitation” (Desert Solitaire, p. 302). In “Terra Incognita: Into the Maze” Abbey describes his descent with a friend, Bob Waterman, into the impressive and complex geological feature called the Maze in Canyonlands National Park.

Finally, in “Bedrock and Paradox” Abbey closes his telescoped, composite “season in the wilderness” as the tourists leave and he too prepares to return to civilization. Yet he is not entirely unwilling. “After twenty-six weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken” (Desert Solitaire, p. 331). He takes a final tour of the park in his pickup, then cleans out the house trailer and accepts a lift from another ranger to Thompson, Utah, where he will catch a train east. “The desert,” he writes, “will still be here in the spring” (Desert Solitaire, p. 337).

Changing attitudes to land use

In proposing a ban on cars in the national parks, Abbey offers an example of how such a ban might be handled even at popular destinations such as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. He suggests building large parking lots well away from the parks‘ scenic hearts, and using a combination of horses, bicycles, and shuttle buses to transport people to their interiors. When Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire, this idea was ignored. More than three decades later, however, the Park Service is implementing essentially similar plans at both parks. Abbey also predicted that if “people are liberated from the confines of automobiles there will be a greatly increased interest in hiking, exploring, and back-country packtrips” (Desert Solitaire, p. 68). Many tourists still cling to their cars, but since the publication of Desert Solitaire hiking, camping, mountain biking, river rafting, kayaking, and other outdoor activities have indeed exploded in popularity. Today, hiking and other wilderness activities have become so popular that in most national park wilderness areas rangers have been forced to issue limited numbers of permits, with enthusiasts often waiting in line overnight in order to obtain one.

During the public debate over Glen Canyon, one argument used by those supporting the dam was that while few would enjoy the river by rafting, many would benefit from motorboating on the resulting lake. Even as similar debates were going on over damming parts of the Grand Canyon, however, greater numbers of people began discovering the pleasures of rafting through the canyon, and today about 26,000 people make this trip every year. Indeed, river-running (rafting) itself has become a nationally popular sport. Ironically, rafting in the Grand Canyon was adversely affected by Glen Canyon Dam upriver, because the dam caused the Colorado to recede during peak power usage. By the early 1990s, however, rafting the canyon was so popular that laws were passed requiring the dam’s periodic release of water to approximate that of the natural cycle.

Such changes reflect not just decades of traffic jams in national parks, but also a greatly increased concern for and appreciation of the environment on the part of the American public. Historians have pointed to the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, as marking a turning point in raising public awareness, and they credit it with bringing the words environment and environmen-talism into their current widespread use. Like the rejection of the dams on the Grand Canyon in 1966, the first Earth Day’s overwhelming popularity suggests that even as Abbey was writing Desert Solitaire a shift in public attitudes had already begun.

Sources and literary context

Abbey’s most important sources for Desert Solitaire were the desert itself, and the journals he kept during his seasons as a park ranger there. As he writes in the Introduction, “most of the substance of this book is drawn, sometimes direct and unchanged” from those journals (Desert Solitaire, pp. ix-x). Indeed, an early title for the book was Desert Journal. The journals also reflect incipient versions of some central ideas Abbey elaborated in the final book. For example, as early as 1957, during Abbey’s second season at Arches and well before the development he later objected to, an entry for April 8 (one week after his arrival) records the idea of banning cars from the parks: “DICTUM: NO AUTOMOBILES IN NATIONAL PARKS…. God Bless America. Let’s save some of it” (Abbey, Confessions, p. 141). Selections from Abbey’s journals were published in 1994, five years after his death, under the title Confessions of a Barbarian.

Many real people from Abbey’s life appear in Desert Solitaire, some under their own names and some under fictitious ones. For example, Ralph Newcomb and Bob Waterman were the actual names of two friends with whom Abbey enjoyed the adventures recounted in the book, while “Merle McRae” and “Floyd Bence” were names that Abbey made up for Bates Wilson and Lloyd Pierson, the real-life superintendent and chief ranger at Arches. In his original introduction to the book, Abbey praised Bates Wilson, “who might justly be considered the founder of Canyonlands National Park,” as “responsible for much of what understanding I have of a country we both love” (Desert Solitaire, p. xii). Abbey would have this passage removed from later editions because he came to blame Wilson for the roads and other development that took place during Wilson’s tenure as superintendent at Arches.

As a boy growing up in Pennsylvania, Abbey devoured the cowboy books of Western writers such as Zane Grey (1875-1939), an early visitor to Glen Canyon and other sites mentioned in Desert Solitaire. He was later profoundly influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, whose seminal book Walden (1854) originated American nature writing. Like Thoreau in Walden, Abbey compresses more than one season of wilderness living into a single, composite season for literary purposes. Abbey frequently either refers to Thoreau or quotes him directly in Desert Solitaire. Another valuable source for Abbey was explorer John Wesley Powell’s published journals, which he quotes several times in “Down the River.” In addition to passing references to well-known writers from Shakespeare to T. S. Eliot, Abbey refers to previous authors and books celebrating desert environments, including C. M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (English; 1888) and Joseph Wood Kratch’s The Voice of the Desert (American; 1955). Krutch (1893-1970) was an eminent author and naturalist whom Abbey met around the time Desert Solitaire was published. While both shared a love of nature, Krutch belonged to an older, more conservative generation. Abbey, while not exactly a hippie, shared the irreverent and anarchistic outlook of the emerging 1960s counterculture movement. He and Krutch disagreed over the Vietnam War, which Abbey strongly opposed.

Reception and impact

Desert Solitaire received positive reviews on its publication in January 1968, with critics praising Abbey’s passion and his forceful style as well as his defense of the environment. “To the ‘builders‘ and ‘developers‘ among park administrators,” wrote Edwin Way Teale in the New York Times Book Review, Desert Solitaire:

may seem like a ride on a bucking bronco. It is rough, tough and combative. The author is a rebel, an eloquent loner…. His is a passionately felt, deeply poetic book … set down in lean, racing prose, in a close knit style of power and beauty. Rather than a balanced book … it is a forceful presentation of one side. And that side needs presenting…. There will always be others to voice the other side, the side of pressure and power and profit.

(Teale, p. 7)

Freeman Tilden in National Parks Magazine likened Abbey’s chiding of the Park Service to “a love-tap,” writing that Abbey has “the yowl of a coyote: but be patient. He has the grace of that animal, too” (Tilden, p. 23).

Sales were modest in a year dominated by tumultuous political events, and Abbey complained that Desert Solitaire amounted to “another book dropped down the bottomless well” (Abbey in Cahalan, p. 113). Yet by the fall of 1968 Desert Solitaire was being avidly read by, for example, Wallace Stegner, the novelist and chronicler of life in the West, who loaned it to his friend, the poet and essayist Wendell Berry. In this way the book made an early impact among writers and others concerned with environmental issues. Dave Foreman, who later founded the radical environmental group Earth First!, called it “the first book I‘d ever read that I totally agreed with” (Foreman in Cahalan, p. 114).

Desert Solitaire has often been compared with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962; also in Literature and Its Times), which first awoke the public to the environmental dangers of pesticide use. But only after environmental issues rose to the forefront of public consciousness with the success of Earth Day in 1970 was Abbey’s book published in a mass market paperback edition (the following year). Another author, Russell Martin, in his book about Glen Canyon, compared Desert Solitaire to an edgier work than Carson’s, J. D. Salinger’s classic cult novel of the disaffected: “Slowly at first, then ever more insistently, the book became word-of-mouth required reading, a kind of Catcher in the Rye for the coming-of-age environmental movement” (Martin, p. 287).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Abbey, Edward. Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989. Ed. David Peterson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

_____. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Ballantine, 1971.

Cahalan, James M. Edward Abbey: A Life. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001.

Keller, Robert H., and Michael R. Turek. American Indians & National Parks. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.

McClintock, James I. Nature’s Kindred Spirits: Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Gary Snyder. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Martin, Russell. A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West. New York: Holt, 1989.

Sellars, Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Teale, Edwin Way. “Making the Wild Scene.” New York Times Book Review, 28 January 1968, 7.

Tilden, Freeman. Review of Desert Solitaire. National Parks Magazine 42, no. 245 (February 1968): 22-23.