English, Department of


Date of this Version

June 1998


Published in: Coyote in the Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words, edited by Peter Quigley. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1998. Pages 88–105. Copyright © 1998 The University of Utah Press. http://www.uofupress.com/
Used by permission.


On April first, 1956, only a few days prior to recording in his journal the birth of his son, Edward Abbey began the first of three seasons as a ranger in Arches National Monument. He immortalized this sojourn in the influential classic of nature writing Desert Solitaire, a work whose very title suggests that his experience of the desert was one essentially aloof from familial or other ties. As Abbey reveled in his desert solitude, his wife, Rita, and new son, Joshua, were summering in Hoboken. During subsequent years his wife and son visited periodically with him, but never for extended periods, and their presence at Arches is never portrayed in the book. What is intriguing about this chronology is not so much that Abbey would leave wife and newborn for the desert. Perhaps as a struggling writer he simply needed the work. Evading motives in the "Author's Introduction" to Desert Solitaire, he demurs that "Why I went there no longer matters" (Abbey 1971, ix); and the impulse for such a move was no doubt complex. But what strikes me as suggestive is that in this semiautobiographical account of his time at Arches, Edward Abbey would make only passing and derisive mention of his wife, and none at all of the new son he so proudly announces in the privacy of his journal.

Such observations are not merely biographical trivia, for the absence of family from Desert Solitaire is, I think, essential to Abbey's conception of the value of his experience of "a season in the wilderness," as the book is subtitled. His job, he informs us, requires him to live and work at a "one-man station some twenty miles back in the interior, on my own. The way I wanted it" (1971, 2). His stance here seems well sanctioned by the tradtion of literary natural history composition of which he is an heir (Thoreau's removal to Walden Pond, though often misconstrued as more antisocial than it was, serves as a paradigm), and in turn Abbey's solitary experience has influenced the way others conceptualize their relationshp to the land.