The Balancing Act of Arches

To be sure, it wasn’t always as solitary as he made it sound. Abbey’s second wife and young son often stayed with him in his trailer, where life could begin to feel like “a prison term.” He hankered for the smoky barrooms of Moab now and again, and passed an off-season amid “the degradation and misery of my fellow citizens” in Hoboken, N.J.

Matt Smith had reminded me of something else: “There’s a romantic haze about Abbey that radiates out from Moab,” he had said — a pervasive, facile regard for a man long dead and heedlessly canonized. Mr. Smith told me that many readers, for instance, seemed to breeze past whole sections of “Desert Solitaire,” including an early chapter in which Abbey strikes a shamefully condescending tone toward the Navajo.

“About Indians he could be particularly ignorant,” said Mr. Smith, whose ex-wife and three children belong to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community in Arizona. Other readers have pegged Abbey as an unrepentant chauvinist and possessing more than a smidgen of sanctimony, wishing to impose on others his own rigid strictures for living.

I get that. What I also get is real heartache for a land he loved and knew was doomed but still tried desperately to save. It killed him that others couldn’t see how precious it all was. Abbey had a special gift for poking fun at himself — he once wrote a savage review of his own novel “The Fool’s Progress” under the pseudonym Morton Kamins, taking issue with his “irrefutably atrocious” politics. He also found our collective infirmities to be downright hilarious, in particular the arms-length reverence with which we tend to behold our wild spaces, as if they can be admired only at a safe distance, through a car window.

You don’t have to spend much time in Arches to see what Abbey was telling us: We are missing out. The chief victims of industrial tourism are, after all, us tourists. “They are being robbed and robbing themselves,” he cautioned. “So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of those urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”

ONCE MORE I SEEMED to be standing on the lip of a tremendous declivity, staring across a side-winding chasm slowly reddening in the evening light. As the sky sharpened at its edges in pink, slashing tongues, I could see, finally, through a gap in the cliffs, a long curve of juniper-covered hills rolling and tumbling southward before breaking up into open country.

On my last night, I camped on a spur of sandpapery rock tucked into a side canyon off the Devil’s Garden primitive trail. I had to be out of here tomorrow, back to Salt Lake City and my flight home. It had been a paltry three nights in the desert. Such transience would have depressed Abbey. I laid in my tent at dusk, my head poking out the flap, listening to coyotes yap and yowl.

“When I return will it be the same?” Abbey wrote in a final passage of “Desert Solitaire,” feeling anxious about the future as he prepared to leave his beloved Arches for the off-season. “Will I be the same? Will anything ever be quite the same again? If I return.”

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