I’m willing to bet that a good portion of you reading this developed a deeper passion for the outdoors, deeper than simply liking to be outside, because you read Desert Solitaire when you were young. Or maybe you became an environmental activist after The Monkey Wrench Gang. Do you, like me, feel drawn to the “A” section of the dwindling amount of used bookstores in mountain towns, your fingers tracing the cracked spines of Abbey’s books, wondering what adventures those bundles of paper have been on, the sights they’ve taken in?
I remember reading Down the River, cover to cover in one day, at Leon’s Books, in downtown San Luis Obispo, California, a long-gone used bookstore, a squat blue and grey building that smelled exactly as it should, of dust and yellowed, rotting paper, and ancient oak shelves. A high school friend had suggested Abbey one afternoon while we wrenched on his old ’72 Bronco, drinking Rainiers pilfered from his dad’s workshop fridge. Weeks later I found myself wandering the aisles at Leon’s, saw a few tattered copies of Abbey’s books, pulled Down the River from their number, and sat on the ground, back pressed against a cold brick wall, and opened the book. Didn’t close it until I was finished much later that day. Paid for the book, stuffed it into my back pocket, and walked into the dusk, a different man.
When Abbey wrote of taking a small boat, shoving off into the Green River with a few cans of beans, tins of beer, and bacon wrapped in newspaper, you felt the same delirious anticipation he did; who knew what was around the bend?
Abbey’s legacy today is mixed, as tattered as my copy of Down the River (I lost it, years later, on a backpacking trip in the High Sierra. It worked its way out of my backpack’s side pocket and tumbled free, somewhere near the Rae Lakes up from Kings Canyon. I think Abbey would have liked that). He was cantankerous, a hypocrite, probably racist, a bit misogynist. He was also writing 50 years ago, a voice from an entirely different social moment. I wouldn’t want to live like Abbey, often alone, way, way out there, pleasantly pickled on beer and salt pork. I wouldn’t necessarily want his dour worldview either.
I am envious, though, of his ability to capture the West. To somehow use words to render the West’s impossible openness, its spirit, its possibilities. When Abbey wrote of taking a small boat, shoving off into the Green River with a few cans of beans, tins of beer, and bacon wrapped in newspaper, you felt the same delirious anticipation he did; who knew what was around the bend? Where did this canyon he was hiking without enough water, and certainly no map, lead? Didn’t matter, really. What would come, would come, and it would be beautiful, even if it was death.
The man had his faults. We all do. He also had a rare gift. Did one influence the other? Impossible to say. I never knew the man. I knew only the curated, edited thoughts he left behind.
But for me, and countless others, those thoughts molded my own. I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the impossibly old, weathered volcanic nubs and hills of California’s Central Coast that ringed my hometown until the day I walked out of Leon’s books, my mind swirling with Abbey. I remember looking east, toward the 2,000-foot Cuesta Ridge, that divides placid, flat San Luis Obispo from Los Padres National Forest, and wondering: What the hell is over that ridge? Adventure, that’s what.
What would come, would come, and it would be beautiful, even if it was death.
On a hike on Cuesta Ridge a handful of years later, now deeply familiar with that ridge and the pine forests that stretched beyond—a mostly unseen bit of the state that begins to separate California into two halves just inland from where the coast bends eastward at Point Conception, still a wild-ish place, free from development—the unthinkable: I startled a black bear. There weren’t meant to be bears there anymore; we’d killed them all to make room for the mission and the malls. The bear and I looked at each other, and I left that place. Not physically, but spiritually, and I was no longer in San Luis Obispo, my downtown apartment a few miles away, but I was in the bear’s place. A wild, rugged land, capable of supporting this apex predator and, well, who the hell knows what else? The bear shuffled on, and I kept walking, the trail now a mystery, and anything could have appeared around the next bend.
That’s not a metaphor for anything, Abbey isn’t the bear in this story, but my own backyard became infinitely stranger after I read Abbey. Both literally in the case of bear encounters, and philosophically, as I came to see it as a dwindling piece of the West Abbey loved so much.
For me, that’s Abbey’s legacy. He made my life wilder.
Today would be his birthday. In honor of old Ed, check out our list of some of his best quotes. Here are a few to end on:
“In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the 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 begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
“I despise my own nation most. Because I know it best. Because I still love it, suffering from Hope. For me, that’s patriotism.”
“How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”
“There are some places so beautiful they can make a grown man break down and weep.”
When’s the last time you read yourself some Abbey? Get him here:
Top photo: Terrence Moore