Desert Solitaire

By: Edward Abbey

One doesn't read Desert Solitaire for the tales of Edward Abbey's experiences in the American Southwest (though riveting), but rather for the insights and ideas that stemmed from two years as a ranger in Arches National Park and his journeys throughout the harsh desert.

Among story, humor, and descriptive prose, veins of philosophy are often encountered and run deep throughout the book. If you seek profound wilderness experiences, enjoy questioning cultural assumptions, or share Abbey's rebellious distaste for the number-obsessed system, you'll relish in these pages the way I did.

I'm living just a mile outside of Yellowstone National Park as I write this and would love to hand copies out at the entrance gate to the millions of confused tourists trying to experience wilderness from the inside of car, gift shops, and camera of their phone.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of that goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something maybe. Probably not.
A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.
Unburdened by the necessity of devoting most of their lives to the production, distribution, sale and servicing of labor saving machinery, lacking proper recreational facilities, these primitive savages were free to do that which comes as naturally to men as making love...
What for? ‘In anticipation of future needs, in order to provide for the continued industrial and population growth of the Southwest.’ And in such an answer we see that it’s only the old numbers game again, the monomania of small and very simple minds in the grip of an obsession. They cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness, that Phoenix and Albuquerque are doubled again and again. They would never understand that an economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human.
Protest alone will not halt the iron glacier moving upon us.
If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss.
If 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 supernatural. 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 ancient dreams.
Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation.
All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, said a wise man. If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and the rarity.
In trying to isolate this peculiarity, if it exists at all and is not simply an illusion, we must beware of a danger well known to explorers of both micro—and the macrocosmic—that of confusing the thing observed with the mind of the observer, of constructing not a picture of external reality but simply a mirror of the thinker. Can this danger be avoided without falling into an opposite but related error, that of separating too deeply the observer and the thing observed, subject and object, and again falsifying our view of the world? There is no way out of these difficulties—you might as well try running Cataract Canyon without hitting a rock. Best to launch forth boldly, with or without life jackets, keep your matches dry, and prey for the best.

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