It is not death or dying that is tragic, but rather to have existed without fully participating in life-that is the deepest personal tragedy.
~ Edward Abbey
Today is the 32nd anniversary of the passing of Edward Abbey. In my book, More Than a Rock, I mention the role that Abbey’s book Desert Solitaire played in my life—in no small part, the reason I am here today, having found a home (in every sense of the word) living in this beautiful desert.
A recent conversation with a friend while camping in the desert, reminded me specifically of the moment Abbey’s words entered my consciousness. As a conscripted soldier in another life, books helped me maintain my sanity, giving me a more worthwhile use for each passing moment than whatever duty I was assigned. This is how Desert Solitaire came into my life—by accident. I happened to have picked it from a stack of used books because it had the word “desert” in it. I have always loved deserts even when I did not live in one.
I didn’t know anything about the man who wrote the book. At that time I have never been to the United States, could not have found the state of Utah on a map, and the only place I knew named Moab was the original biblical Moab (ironically, not too far from where I was when I first opened the book).
That night, shortly after 2am, alone on a guard tower watching over an ammunition bunker, I opened the book. I read the first sentence and stopped. I set the book down to fully savor and assimilate the shock of the words: “This is the most beautiful place on earth.”
There was little in my life then I considered beautiful. During my time in uniform I often wondered if whatever life I was destined for was even worth enduring. About the closest thing I could feel then that resembled hope was the knowledge that I was still young, that my “service” would soon be over, and that if I survived it there was at least the chance that I, too, may someday find a place, and a life, I might consider beautiful.
So, thank you, Ed. And I agree: this is the most beautiful place on earth.
I used to camp a month a year in Arches, way back when there were only primitive dirt roads in Arches. The only book I ever brought with me was Desert Solitaire, and my husband and I would read it out loud to each other in that vast and (back then) silent and solitary place. That book helped create me as a person. I’m glad Ed isn’t alive to see the horror that Arches has become.
I’m sure he saw it coming. Even in the intro to Desert Solitaire he wrote, “most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.”
Thanks for sharing these wonderful words. I had read Desert Solitaire and of course loved it, but it wasn’t until I saw a photo of Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef that I had a real desire to visit Utah. The photo hit me like a ton of bricks! My son and I did travel down into that area and it was the first time I felt like I was truly in the wilderness. I live in East-central PA, not near cities, but no longer can see the Mikey Way. Looking foreward to your writings an photos for years to come!
Thank you, Kerry! As you may know, Ed was originally from PA, too.
Truly very strong words! They touch my heart as well as your intense image!
Thank you Guy for another powerful personal column. “Desert Solitaire” had a profound influence on me, and so did your writing today. For that I thank you!
Thank you Paul B.!
As alway, Guy, thanks for your words. Here’s my favorite Ed Abbey quote: “One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space [and I might add, make photographs]. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
I love that quote, Paul. Thank you. I would take out the “hunt” part though. Wildlife everywhere is on the decline and facing existential threats from climate change and habitat loss. We have other options for entertaining and feeding ourselves.