I picked up a copy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire at a bookstore in Santa Fe, having heard of Abbey before but never having read any of his work. Abbey spent several seasons as a park ranger at Arches in the late 1950s or early 60s, when it was still a National Monument rather than a National Park. In the introduction to his part-memoir, part-polemic, he writes,
… [M]uch of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered violently prejudiced, unconstructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. … [T]here is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right. (Abbey xxi)
Abbey was a fan of Bates Wilson of Canyonlands fame/notoriety, and of keeping the wild wild and accessible only to those willing to get out of their cars and adventure (his prejudice against motorized vehicles, for which he creates several epithets, becomes obvious quite quickly).
After visiting Arches, I can see his point, particularly as we did on the heels of Canyonlands and Capitol Reef. Neither of those two parks offer much to visitors who want a drive-through experience, while Arches essentially delivers people to the feet of its most-famous formations. We jockeyed for parking spaces on a Thursday at Delicate Arch, and probably would’ve given up if not for both my father and my cousin the geologist underscoring its impressiveness.
When I read about Arches, the only longer (three-plus mile) hikes were in the Devil’s Garden (pdf) section, at the northern end of the small park. Arches is undergoing road construction, though, and Devil’s Garden was closed the day we intended to hike it – but it would reopen the following day, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.
We decided to risk the crowds, and after short hikes to the aforementioned features, we took my cousin’s suggestion and left the park to hike to Bowtie and Corona Arches. This short hike led to a great payoff, including fun challenges like pulling ourselves up a metal chain over steep slickrock, clambering up a ladder and finding our way using cairns over more graded slickrock.
The next day, we drove by the entrance to Arches on our way to try to find a new campground. The line, now split into two from the previous day, stretched back to the stoplight from the highway, with easily one hundred people waiting. Unlike Thursday, Friday’s lines weren’t moving. At Everglades, we waited about fifteen minutes as the rangers employed a one-in, one-out policy; we weren’t about to wait in the Arches line if they used the same policy. We drove to seven campgrounds along the Colorado before Dan called our friend in Telluride and we asked to bump up our stay with her by a day.
I can’t understand why Arches doesn’t require non-camping visitors to use a shuttle. Zion requires it; both Bryce Canyon and Rocky Mountain suggest using the free shuttle; I’m sure other parks we haven’t yet visited work in the same way. My only complaint, after riding at least a dozen park shuttles, is that we hikers funk up the buses by the end of the day. No stress about parking, no working the clutch after hiking a thousand feet in elevation, reduced vehicle emissions, sign me up.
I have multiple issues with Abbey, primarily his paternalism and his attitude towards women – I can only imagine they have related roots. Abbey’s anti-social tendencies clearly reflect his anarchism; he gained the notice of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI by his early 20s and Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC soon after. Despite this, he makes a productive suggestion about how to keep wilderness relatively wild yet relatively accessible. He writes,
At the main entrance to each national park and national monument we shall erect a billboard one hundred feet high, two hundred feet wide, gorgeously filigreed in brilliant neon and outlined with blinker lights, exploding stars, flashing prayer wheels and great Byzantine phallic symbols that gush like geysers every thirty seconds. … Push a button and Smokey will recite, for the benefit of children and government officials who might otherwise have trouble with some of the big words, in a voice ursine, loud and clear…
Howdy Folks. Welcome. This is your national Park, established for the pleasure of you and all people everywhere. Park your car, jeep, truck, tank, motorbike, motorboat, jetboat, airboat, submarine, airplane, jetplane, helicopter, hovercraft, winged motorcycle, snowmobile, rocketship, or any other conceivable type of motorized vehicle in the world’s biggest parkinglot behind the comfort station immediately to your rear. Get out of your motorized vehicle, get on your horse, bicycle or feet, and come on in.
Enjoy yourselves. This here park is for people. (Abbey 57)
During our time in the car, Dan and I talk a lot about the tightrope the National Parks have to walk between preservation and recreation; between making public lands accessible (and enjoyable!) to those who desire to explore, to seek solitude or exercise, or simply a relatively cheap way to entertain the family, and protecting these lands for future generations of people, plants, wildlife, and other elements of nature.
Every bookstore we stopped at along the Arches-Canyonlands-Capitol Reef corridor, especially those within the National Parks, stocked multiple copies of multiple editions of Desert Solitaire, often along with other books by Abbey and about Abbey. Whether this was to capitalize on an author famous for writing about the area, or a passive-aggressive jibe at car-bound tourists, I can’t say.