April 13, 2000 News » Cover Story

Abbey's Road 

Literary triangulation and the search for Cactus Ed

Start in the biggest patch of white space you can find remaining in the American Southwest. Make your way into the most isolated, untouched forsaken desert valley and push on one more valley beyond that. Look for Mexican poppy, larkspur, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and brittlebrush growing in an improbable cluster among the lava-hard rock and the patches of soft, crumbling soil. Listen for the chimes of ancient clamshells against slivers of volcanic glass. Sniff for fine cigars and mescal.

I'm on the road to Tucson, driving through the night, through the first snow in weeks, searching for Edward Abbey. Common sense and my Albuquerque friends tell me to sleep out the storm and enjoy the daylight drive tomorrow, but I've got a date with Abbey's papers and I have no intention of being late.

I've set a course for the Special Collections Library at the University of Arizona, and the pile of papers riding shotgun is highlighted in green with scores of items I've locked my sights on. Notebooks and journals, manuscripts and letters, an FBI dossier. The Great Book of Anarchism. The original spiral notebook outlining The Monkey Wrench Gang. Much of my Sirocco's trunk space is filled with every book by Abbey and his compatriots that I own, and the car is sagging noticeably. I can sleep some other week.

In search of

Tackling the entire Abbey Collection, 30 boxes of papers spanning 12 feet and nearly 50 years of constant writing, journaling, essaying, sketching, and screeing at editors with his letters, is too big a task for one week. It helps to have an angle -- a way to guide your research, some kind of interpretation to flesh out. Like the theory that Desert Solitaire is structured on the mathematical properties of a circle, with the movement of the seasons as the circumference, the Colorado River as the radius, and Ed as pi, the unknowable variable that transcends the symbol. Or, for easier digestion, honing in on The Monkey Wrench Gang on the 25th anniversary of its publication. Or the impossible, discovering the location of Abbey's desert grave, illegal, unmarked, carefully protected in secrecy.

Abbey had always been a dependable guide, getting me out into the white stuff before it was peppered with black dots of development, contained in a grid of access routes. "Wilderness begins in the human mind," Abbey wrote, and too often, even for those of us who feel our lives anchored in the outdoors, it ends in the uncultivated regions of our imagination.

"Once a scribbler, always a scribbler"

Fifteen minutes into my research, I can feel the desert sand rustling through the clean papers as I turn them. I'd secured permission from Abbey's wife, Clarke, and entered the library armed with my notebook and my bulging bag of books, only to be told I had to check it all into a locker outside the reading room. The library would supply a pencil and blank paper.

A librarian emerged from the bowels of the collection to deliver a box of notes from a series of desert hikes in an area I planned to visit myself before the week was out. I wanted my research to enter some new, untouched terrain. I'd always had two levels to work on when it came to experiencing Abbey -- the primary sources of his published writing and the primeval source of the wild country he wrote about. The papers promised a hint at the alchemist's solution for making the former out of the latter.

I was ready to pour through a notebook from years of tripping into that desert, certain it would offer me the clues to pinpoint a special destination for my own Sonoran sojourn. I was expecting some kind of log book or journal, the kind he would have left on the desk at one of his fire lookout stations, or the various journals containing the genesis of Desert Solitaire or The Fool's Progress. Instead, the palm of my hand welcomed three small pads -- blue, pink and red -- the kind you'd slip into your shirt pocket with a stub of a pencil wedged in the spiral, with 50 sheets each.

The notes were scribbled as he hiked, often in the relative cool of the moonlight, a thought about ironweed, creosote, or cholla here, some suffering beneath a 50-pound pack there, doubts about the ability to complete the 125-mile treck with no guarantee of water for 30 miles at a stretch, and always a determination to fulfill "the need, I guess, for authentic experience, as opposed to the synthetic (Books, movies, TV)."

It feels sinister, somehow. Peering over Abbey's shoulder as he writes, scheming to stalk him in his haunts and enter that very world where it was so quiet that "I hardly dare make a sound; delicately I turn the pages of this notebook."

The wooden shoe business

We're in Utah now. It's September of 1970, the first week of the semester, and Professor Abbey, dazed and raw after the death of his third wife Judy two months earlier -- "What now is the aim of my life? To sit on a rock in the desert and stare at the sun until the sun goes black" -- has filled the first five pages of a guacamole green spiral notebook with his introductory remarks, class policies and philosophies for the creative writing "sweatshop" he was teaching as writer in residence at the University of Utah.

The rest of the notebook yields to his earliest notes on The Monkey Wrench Gang, like the daydreams of an idle schoolboy, doodling during class, drawing bridges, compiling technical data, sketching out characters, plotting out the highlights of his story.

Employing the ordered sequentialism of a writer who never word processed, Abbey starts with the copyright page, an assurance that "this book though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. And it all began just one year from today." Then the briefest casting of the characters, with three layers of notes, made, I believe, at three different occasions.

The book may not be a field guide to monkey wrenching -- the art of beautifying the wilderness by burning billboards, sabotaging construction equipment and always pulling up survey stakes -- but Abbey's notebook is. One page has five bridges sketched out and identified: truss, cantilever, arch, arch-suspension and suspension. Other pages are filled under the heading of "technical data" and include notes on detonating cords, incendiaries, the amount of sugar needed to paralyze a bulldozer's crank case (5 lbs.), and instructions on how to derail a train.

I pay special attention to a character who is variously called Henry Lightcap, Zachariah, Brigham Jedidiah, Joshua or Joe Seldom Seen Smith. He is an "old jack-Mormon cowboy trail guide jeepherder," a "hard-drinkin' family man, 8 kids," an "outdoors expert: knows the canyon country, fishing, hunting, living off the land, bitter about the dam, the highways and the developers in general," a foul-mouthed character who complains when he "cain't swear cain't talk cain't hardly think." He is a womanizer -- with three wives and a girlfriend -- who is prone to flights of fancy: "I wish I was a octopus & you my octopussy" and, when Bonnie is in rappel practice, "wish I was that rope." I've got a rendezvous with the real Seldom (see "The Monkey Wrench Interview," page 19) scheduled later in the week on the shores of his sunken canyon.

Anarchy, American style

Skip back to March of 1947, less than a week before Abbey's 20th birthday. He has unwittingly established himself as a viable target for FBI surveillance by posting a note on the bulletin board at State Teachers College in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Abbey may have suspected it was his unabashed support of eco-sabotage and his tutelage of the Earth First! radical environmental movement in the wake of The Monkey Wrench Gang that captured the bureau's interest, but J. Edgar Hoover was writing confidential memos about Abbey as far back as 1952, and his FBI file contains the typed notice on plain notebook paper encouraging students and faculty members to join a nationwide protest in burning or mailing their draft cards to President Truman.

"This sounds like a foolish, crackpot scheme but it's not," Abbey wrote. "It is much worse than that -- it is a form of civil disobedience. That's something rather old fashioned but in times like these, when America's government is diverting the major portion of its expenditures to armaments and our military leaders are trying to fasten permanent peacetime conscription on the nation, then as Thoreau said, "It is not too soon for an honest man to rebel.' "

Rifle through the pages and we land in Albuquerque, where a "loyalty check" associated with taking a job as a clerk-typist appointee for the Geological Survey reveals that "While at University of New Mexico in 1951 [Abbey] was editor of literary publication and printed following quotation on cover of publication "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.' " The report does not mention that Abbey intentionally mis-attributed the quotation to Louisa May Alcott.

Abbey started a notebook he labeled "The Great Books of Anarchism" that same spring, and eight years later, Hoover's minions made note of Abbey's master's degree in philosophy with a thesis called Anarchism and the Morality of Violence. In his earlier notebook, he wondered what kind of he anarchist would? loyalterian, & ironical anarchist." He found himself suited to the calling, and rarely rebuked the appellation throughout his life.

Unstuck in time

The whirlwind tripping through Abbey's self-documentation is dizzying, humbling, and intensely, viscerally cathartic. I came to Abbey with the susceptibility of a teenager who thought the desert was empty until following my friends down its canyons and discovering differently. A decade of pounding into every pothole I could locate on Abbey's road comes rushing back over me as I speed through his journals, sink into the manuscripts, and look bleary-eyed at the reams of letters.

Fifty-year-old journals from Scotland send him into speculation about the influence of the landscape over a person. "Should the great desert (for example) provoke moods, feelings and finally permanent traits of expansive openness, broadness, universality, oneness with the natural world, a cosmic (subspecies eternitatis) outlook? Or would it result in an analogous aridity, sterility, death-dealing and stalking?"

A quick stint at Yale finds him hypothesizing on a "genuine Western novel ... in which the landscape, the climate, the peculiar physical environment of western America plays a crucial, essential, necessary part." And a Stegner fellowship at Stanford elicits a Californicated stab at salesspeak: "We will now hear a few words from GAWD: "Friends. Are you tired, confused, uncertain about the meaning of life?' "

The '50s end with a desire to emulate Conrad, "To write of -- no, to do for the desert what he did for -- of -- the sea Emulate his passion for the exact. My style: something almost harsh, bitter, ugly. The rough, compressed, asymmetrical, laconic, cryptic. Cactus. Old Juniper. Rock, dry heat, the stark contour. NO FOG. NO GODDAMNED FOG." And by the '60s, he had turned his attention full force to fighting to defend his adopted Southwestern homeland from the "masses of asses in sunglasses," scrawling and scribbling the timeless ode to bedrock and paradox, Desert Solitaire.

Cactus Ed is dead; long live Hayduke!

Like an uncomfortable, unsettling film whose quality risks being lost in the shadow of an unpleasant treatment by an audience content with automated bliss, Abbey's journals and letters reveal the difficulties contained in the man.

For every joyfully provocative letter to the editor, there are heartbreaking exchanges with his children and parents, an increasingly bitter lament in the wake of The Fool's Progress and the continued, seemingly permanent, inattention from the eastern literary establishment and the lack of serious treatment of his work.

The sprint to the finish line to complete Hayduke Lives! before the death he knew was coming is tortured, forcing himself through. Three weeks before his death, he mailed off the final pages with the assurance that he has ensured his family's security for at least a few more years.

The latest writing in the collection comes within two weeks of his death. His last journal entry is headed "Why book reviewers hate my books." The next day he finished his introduction to A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, only slightly tempering his disappointment at the literary world that never offered the salve of acceptance.

Quiet as he kept it, there was all the rage and intolerance of a world that would yield only painfully to his desire to break trail.

Doug Peacock, the basis for Hayduke, was among the close friends and family who sat by Abbey's side as he lay dying at home, refusing the indignity of a hospital room and even having his wife and friends whisk him out to the desert to die in what proved to be a false alarm. "In a world where no one gets out alive," Peacock observed, "in a culture in which death still comes as an unexpected shock, Ed's dying with grace was the greatest of all the gifts he gave me." When he passed on March 14, 1989, he was taken, illegally, to a favorite desert sanctuary and laid into his grave after Peacock first tested the view. It is unmarked, save for an inscription chiseled into an adjacent rock:

Edward Paul Abbey


No Comment

Literary triangulation

I've got 17 topographic maps laid out on the floor of The Summit Hut wilderness outfitters. On top of the maps are two of Abbey's books, lying open, face down to mark the page; my notes from a speech made eight years ago by one of his friends, innocent enough out of context; an essay published four years ago by another friend, also harmless; the epilogue to yet another's book; and my own journal with key phrases and locations copied into it.

I'd been looking for somebody who knew the Sonoran desert because I couldn't find enough of the places Abbey mentioned to make sense to me. Finally, at closing time, the manager comes out to speed me along, and it turns out he once biked the Sonoran. He knew a thing or two, but he only confused me further until he recognized an old prospector's grave on one of the maps he'd pulled. He described it at my prodding as I lit up and flipped through the pages of my book. I had marked the spot in the book as an important landmark, and when I read Abbey's description to the manager, everything matched up except the names.

The mental sunrise finally dawns on me, and I realize that all of my information is untrustworthy, designed to mislead the reader off the trail. The names have been changed to protect the wilderness. And it's fifteen minutes past closing.

I buy $75 worth of maps because I no longer have a clue about where I'm trying to go. It's a fictional destination, and the only corresponding contours are unlabeled. I spend the night trying to break the code, but I take the whole pile of maps into the desert the next day.

I've given up on finding my original destination, but I'm determined to get into the country at least. Needless to say, there is no one in the tiny town, not called Baghdad, who has ever heard of the road I am looking for or the pass I am interested in. They have lived on the edge of this terra incognita all their lives, and it remains unknown, unheard of, untouched.

Trial and error at every little side street in town finally leads me to break through the suburban oasis onto a four-wheel drive jeep trail pointing where my instinct pulls me. I've logged a lot of backcountry miles in my Sirocco, but I've never ventured further out on an impassable road than this. I'm not wearing a watch, my odometer isn't working, and with frequent stops and top speeds of 20 mph, it's impossible to tell how far I've gone. A half dozen times I am convinced that I can't get any farther.

I come over a ridge, my final push up a bruising, punishing volcanic stretch of rock road, and this deepest of untouched valleys gives way to another layer of the back of beyond. I see the desert mountains glowing purple in the sunset and look across the grand expanse, knowing I have found what I am looking for: an eternity of surreal sunsets guaranteed to induce one last smile.

I exchange sandals for sneakers -- I'd forgotten to bring socks -- pack water, crackers, cheese, and journal, and dive into the wonderland in front of me, desperate to put distance between the jeep trail and me, but eager to sit and enjoy the lingering sunlight. The sunset is too red, too purple, and it is too unbelievably silent. I can't write. I am certain I am scaring off any wildlife within 400 square miles as my pencil scratches against the paper, disturbing the whole valley.

There are saguaro all around me, ocotillo scattered amidst the black volcanic boulders. As I walk unwittingly into the expansive valley, I am astounded to see the topography of my literary excavations slowly revealing itself as I walk. Entirely by accident, I stumble into the very country I'd pinpointed in my imagination.

I know I'm near, very likely within 1/4 mile. My instinct -- which never fails me in the outback -- tells me to crest this ridge to my right and start looking for signs. But something about the searching changes my attitude about reaching my destination. I'm happy right where I am.

There is precious little light, only a hazy half moon directly above me. I can see the paper I am writing on, but not the words. My gurgling stomach drowns out my pencil now, and Hayduke's old fear rises like a question-mark shaped light bulb above my head: Will the sphincter hold?

Three miles later, I give up trying to dig my Sirocco out of the ditch it has plunged into. The back wheels are in the air, and I don't want to be caught in this highly restricted area without a permit come morning. I set out across the impossible expanse, heading toward the dark and shadowy mountains tinted by the different hue of distance, that soft purplish color of something mythical from beyond.

I force myself to take breaks for water and crackers, knowing I may have as much as six hours of moonlit hiking ahead to reach the edge of a town that doesn't know this country exists. When I close my eyes momentarily I see the purple sunset from earlier in the evening. The moon is a dripping blur.

For a moment or two after I gave up digging, I cursed myself for not straddling the ditch more carefully. But ultimately, I cannot be thankful enough to be walking through this wild country instead of sleeping in a motel bed.

The journey home

A day later, I leave my riverside rendezvous with Seldom Seen and only have to think twice before careening off onto another unnavigable jeep trail, heading into Utah and the country where I first found Abbey.

I don't know why I've been so slow to learn what experience has played out time and time again. The instinct to head into the wilderness is always right. There is no situation where weighing an impulsive turn into the backcountry against the perennial sense of obligation -- of being somewhere getting something done -- won't tilt heavily to the wilderness, if only upon completion. They may feel the same when you hold them in the scales of your hands, but the wilderness will last you longer.

There is snow on the north face of the mesas and monuments and moisture in the air. I park my car two hundred yards from the canyon rim and walk off into another night to sleep in the canyons where I once read The Monkey Wrench Gang and found myself pushing bigger and bigger boulders a thousand feet over the edge.


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