Blog - Desert Solitaire

Reflections on Desert Solitaire

I love the evocations that Abbey guides us along, within this meandering, endless, empty land. Without trying to detail out even a single Juniper tree, but instead painting the broad strokes of the entire land as a substitute, Desert Solitaire imparts you the feeling of someone yearning to be free, for whatever that means in an increasingly industrialized world.

What I respect most about this book is that, despite being in complete disagreement over almost all of the political views of the author, there is yet no bitterness. I can understand the reasoning for why there is this fanatic, crazed look in his eyes, for the wilderness of the blank desert calls to something innate within us. Yet, what I do not understand is this ability to condemn so much of the world, for this almost selfish ambition of preservation for "future generations". Abbey is smart - he admits his own paradoxes, without which we might even be considered incomplete - but I cannot grasp how he would be willing to abandon his own wife and child for this self-indulgent fantasy. Is there truly something that is so inseparable from our very being, this desire to challenge what has not been challenged before, or the relishing of a task because it is difficult, that allows us to reject the bonds that tie us to each other?

To a similar extent, I can express my reservations about libertarianism. The adage of "live and let live" sounds fair on paper, but it seems to presume a tabula resa for every single person who starts off, or otherwise inherently adopts injustice as just another form of life. The former seems naive, while the latter seems lazy at best and negligent at worst. Why can there not be a yearning for the wild and also a desire to allow people to enjoy it in the ways they can?

When I was a child, the national parks were my joy. But I did not come from a family that had the resources to squander on long, luxurious vacations. Our family held through thin times, where a family of five subsisted on a meager graduate student's stipend, when a single three day vacation would be a rare time away from work. My parents were talented in many regards, but there was never anyone to teach us how to enjoy the woods, or how to build a campfire, or how to trailblaze. Besides the normal constraints of money and time, there was also the consideration of immigration papers and the prospects of the future generation's (ie, me) education and wellbeing to consider. Adopting Abbey's proposals for how the national parks ought to be governed would have created a prohibitively high barrier for me to gain any kind of appreciation of the wilderness.

Of course, seeing Abbey's proposal in perhaps a more generous light, perhaps we can interpret his polemic words as a criticism of the society around him, that there are too many forces molding the general population into this uniform perspective of nature and beauty. But we are all from different backgrounds and perspectives; for reasons completely not due to our own choice, we often face different paths throughout life. For one path, even if that is the path of total freedom and anarchy, to be ordained for everyone, seems self-contradicting.

But beyond Abbey's politics, and the movements that have risen out of this autobiography, his language is beautiful. The smell of juniper burning, or the delicate beauty of a single cactus bloom, or the arches, standing not for you, not for anyone, but just to be there, out in the wilderness, is a powerful, powerful message in deed.

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