Progress and Preservation in Abbey's Country

Photo: C. Peterson

Caity Peterson
by Caity Peterson



It was sentimental to bring along Ed, I suppose. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that someone had thought, “I’m going to the canyonlands – better read Desert Solitaire.” No different than, “I’m in Alaska – better grab my Jack London,” or, “Trip to Yosemite – bring out the John Muir.”

I had first read Abbey as a bookish high school innocent, having picked it up by chance and subsequently been taken aback by the hot-headed disdain for authority, the pugnacious contrarianism dripping from its pages. But there must have been some other reason I had kept that creased and shabby paperback with me for years after, though college, through multiple moves and downscalings. Call it a vague emotional attachment that had caused me to tuck it in a box in the back of my Honda with only my most prized volumes as I drove across the country to start graduate school. I remembered now, when a brief hiatus from my PhD studies allowed me the opportunity for the first time to visit, book in hand, the land that Abbey had evoked for me those years ago. His passion – that was it – his wild contradictions, his descriptive mastery, his ebullient scorn and love for mankind, the way he relished a common wildflower as much as a chunk of quartzite as much as a charismatic catamount. He did not disappoint in the re-reading.

A giant cottonwood marked our basecamp in a sandy wash on the upper Escalante. Nights were still long at this time of year, and chilly enough to make us wish we could build a campfire. Our butane backpacker stoves were poor substitute, and the moon was almost full, anyway – too bright for the stargazing that would have otherwise occupied us. Instead, the three of us passed the time before bed cramped awkwardly in my two-person tent, passing around a flask of whiskey and slab of chocolate. We would start with a game or two of cards, cursing amiably and tossing around practiced insults, before ultimately tiring and settling in for a reading. Each of us would take a turn at the helm, gripping the cheap reprint between chapped fingers and maneuvering the pages so they could be read in the light of the lantern that swung rhythmically from the fly of the tent. Would stretch the kinks from our back, rearrange our legs, clear our throat with a douse of whiskey, and begin.

“The clouds have disappeared, the sun is still beyond the rim. Under a wine-dark sky I walk through light reflected and re-reflected from the walls and floor of the canyon, a radiant golden light that glows on rock and stream, sand and leaf in varied hues of amber, honey, whiskey – the light that never was is here, now, in the storm-sculptured gorge of the Escalante…If a man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited, he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernal. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than enough to console him for the loss of the ancient dreams.”

In reading aloud, we heard Abbey’s bitterness, often his loneliness, but also his wonder at the smallest thing, his zeal for beauty and purity. In reading together, we carried with us shared jokes and storylines that narrated our daily adventures – the sight of an ordinary ant hill provoking memories of a humorous incident in last night’s chapter, or an unfamiliar species suddenly resolving itself in light of one of Abbey’s monologues on natural history. This must be Ephedra, this must be cliffrose, that must be a canyon wren singing. Most of all, we heard his joy in solitude.

“Within this vast perimeter, in the middle ground and foreground of the picture, a rather personal demesne, are the 33,000 acres of Arches National Monument of which I am now sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian…Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not — at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.”

We, like Abbey, thought ourselves lucky to be alone. We had gone to considerable effort to find ourselves so, after all. On the drive from our quaint California university town to the Utah desert, we camped once in an unnamed Joshua Tree forest outside of Death Valley National Park. Miles away from anything, we fell into grateful possession of a sheltered ditch in which to pitch our tents and eagerly absorbed a very exclusive sunset. In Death Valley proper, we dutifully followed the herds to the most important sights and spent the day jostling with teenagers on Badwater Basin, gleefully kicking over cairns and photo-bombing selfies in Golden Canyon. But when it came time to lay down our heads for the night we pointed our intrepid Honda down a pitted gravel track on the unrenowned back side of the park. Here we pulled to side of the road and slept surrounded by creosote bush and rabbit warrens, one distant camper van housing a kindred spirit a few hundred yards away, and nothing else.

The next day we planned to visit Zion National Park, but abruptly changed our minds when we saw the line of cars snaking out of the visitors’ entrance, as bad as any L.A. pileup. Instead we cruised on to Bryce Canyon, where we goggled appreciatively at the hoodoos and doodads for a few hours before sidling up to a convenient little patch of washed out ground up a side road outside of town where we could camp for free in another ditch. When we arrived in Escalante the next day, we scrapped our entire itinerary after learning that Coyote Gulch, too, had been beset upon by the hordes. We chose an equally intriguing but much less celebrated canyon for our backcountry jaunt, and it was for that reason that we found ourselves that night in all our glory pitched under the cottonwood tree, having passed a grand total of three other hikers the entire day.

All this seems like a lot of trouble simply to avoid the sight of other bipeds in fanny packs, but for us it was vital to our enjoyment of the surroundings. Much as Abbey did, we craved solitude, a nearness to place obtainable only by dragging tired, sore feet over it, being discomfited by it, occasionally frightened by it, and mostly in awe of it all the time. The discomforts endured for the sake of an uninhibited (uninhabited?) view of nature seem comical and not a little exaggerated, but the fact that we had to go to such lengths to enjoy the parks in the way we prefer speaks to a larger debate: to preserve, or progress? Abbey, it may be remembered, had an extensive record of beefs and travails with progress and development – the culprit, as he saw it, for the loss of true wilderness.

“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 “visitation,” as they call it, mounts ever upward.”

That was in the 1950s. The updated visitation stats on Arches (now a national park) are at 1.8 million people a year. Zion, though miniscule in area compared to most other National Parks, is at 4.5 million. A local business owner in the town of Escalante told us that visitation to the Grand Staircase National Monument in the 2018 season had shot up to more than 30 times the 2017 rate. To add salt to the wound, it’s now a scientific fact that virtually nowhere in the continental U.S. is more than five miles from a road (see Project Remote). We backcountry purists are more and more having to earn our solitude with equal parts determined walking and sheer cussedness.

These robust attendance rates engender a whirlwind of contradictory feelings. There is worry that woefully understaffed and underfunded parks won’t be able to keep up with the infrastructure, maintenance, and logistical challenges created by so many visitors. There is a touch of smugness; just as our government starts taking liberties with public lands, gutting National Monuments and opening parks to exploitation by mining and oil interests, people show up in record numbers to remind legislators just who those lands belong to. The self-righteous, dirtbag backpacker part of me wants all these people to piss off back to southern California, and take their shiny BMWs with them. The less selfish part of me is unequivocally glad for the mob. My troubles to reconcile my opinions on the matter stem from the mutual exclusivity of a park that is well-visited and one that is also pristine. I want public lands to be used and enjoyed by all, forever – that is their mandate, after all. But I also want the integrity of wildlands to remain intact, to cater to that precious commodity: solitude.

There are two halves to that particular game of football. The first is the restoration of park lands to their position as true public spaces, contrary to trends of increasing privatization of park operations and personnel. As classic examples of a market failure at work, it is the job of our public offices to step in and ensure that parks serve their purpose and their people. If the federal budget is any indication, the attention and priorities of our public offices lie quite noticeably elsewhere. That is our loss. If I were to be more forthright, more Abbey-esque, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a misappropriation of government funds, or the equivalent of a giant middle finger from our representatives in office.

The second half is somewhat subtler. It will be slower in coming, and without considerable effort and patience may not come at all, for it involves cultural change. I recognize the danger in sentiments that cast judgement for a particular way of enjoying open spaces; there is no better or right-er way of doing so. But I struggle to accept that my parks won’t be as pristine as I would like, that I won’t always have them to myself, and that they may be more roads and signposts than I ever cared to see if they are to remain truly accessible to all those who would wish to enjoy them. Yes, even if they wish to enjoy them from the backseat of an air-conditioned vehicle or from the comfort of a luxury lodge.

Ultimately, the task is to be strategic about the way we use our parks – how and where we develop, whether to limit visitation and to how much, how to educate visitors and make it easy for them to make the least possible impact while still enjoying the parks in the way they like. I am not the first to come to this conclusion, of course, and despite limited financial resources many parks in our country are forging ahead with striking the balance between progress and preservation.

Not everyone will get why we Abbey types want to camp in ditches, why we delight in eating globs of reconstituted vegetable protein, why we go out of our way to be as far away from anyone else as possible. That’s fine. We won’t be seeing you. There are still – and hopefully, always will be – forgotten places, out-of-the way places, solitary places, for those that know where to find them and are willing to get their boots wet.

To the rest, your presence here well outside your usual habitat attests that you value this land as much as I do, even if not in the same way. You could have vacationed anywhere, but you are here. In a desert, in a canyon, in a forest, on a mountain. That makes acceptance easier. For those of us that make it this far, may we use without misusing, may we progress without regressing, may we recreate without desecrating, and most of all, may we unpeel our eyeballs once in a while. May we get out and walk.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: McGraw Hill, 1968.