It is not the writer’s task to answer questions but to question answers. To be impertinent, insolent, and, if necessary, subversive.
Ed Abbey hitches along in my backpack as we head down the Bright Angel Trail at sunrise to meet the rafts near Phantom Ranch. Up way too early in a foreign time zone, I yawn and rub my eyes—better be alert as we head down or a blundering step will find the shore of the world—while Ed slumbers snugly in a ziplock bag, along with my journal, tucked somewhere deep inside my pack. It has been a while since we spent any time together, even though a good percentage of his collected works occupies a whole shelf in my study. I lingered at this shelf a while as I gathered my stuff together for this trip, eventually selecting Down the River, inspired by its opening essay, ” Down the River with Henry Thoreau”:
With me are five friends plus the ghost of a sixth: in my ammo can—the river runner’s handbag—I carry a worn and greasy paperback copy of a book called Walden, or Life in the Woods. Not for thirty years have I looked inside this book; now for the first time since my school days I shall. Thoreau’s mind has been haunting mine for most of my life. It seems proper now to reread him. What better place than on this golden river . . .
Likewise, Abbey’s mind has been haunting mine for the past decade and a half, and to some extent I have him to thank that I ever became an English teacher. When I spent my single season as a backcountry ranger for the BLM in Escalante, UT, I knew of him only by reputation, his subversive novel The Monkey Wrench Gang having inspired the eco-sabotage of EarthFirst! and their ilk. Far too radical for me, I figured. But then a fellow ranger, the warden of the local state park, pressed copies of The Journey Home and Desert Solitaire into my hands as a parting gift before I made my way to Green River and the bus that would take me home when my nine-month tour was up. I stayed up all night on that Greyhound bus, reading by the glow of my headlamp as we slid through the Colorado Rockies and then out onto the high plains. Worn out from years of literature study, a pursuit that had become more and more a lifeless exercise in self-indulgent navel-gazing, I was thrilled to find a writer who was up to something, a writer who spoke for me:
Here yet you may find the elemental freedom to breathe deep of unpoisoned air, to experiment with solitude and stillness, to gaze through a hundred miles of untrammeled atmosphere, across redrock canyons, beyond blue mesas, toward the snow-covered peaks of the most distant mountains—to make the discovery of the self in its proud sufficiency which is not isolation but an irreplaceable part of the mystery of the whole.
Desert Solitaire, in particular, resonated with me, many of my experiences in Escalante having mirrored his in Arches down to the sundry details; I too had shared my government-surplus housetrailer with a family of mice, I too had a snake dwelling under my doorstep. I credit Abbey with helping me rediscover good writing and reclaim meaning and pleasure in reading. And through him I was introduced to an entire genre of writing giving voice to the natural world just as I was busy falling in love with it.
Grand Canyon: Looking upriver from Schist Campsite at dawn.
His words are in my head as we approach Indian Garden. We’re halfway down to the river and it’s still the early side of midmorning, but we scamper for shade under the cottonwoods, and a quote surfaces from memory:
Each day begins clean and promising in the sweet cool clear green light of dawn. And then the sun appears, its hydrogen cauldrons brimming—so to speak—with plasmic fires, and the tyranny of its day begins.
I’m amused by this sudden and unbidden recitation. Abbey’s voice has not just permeated my memories; it continues to color the way I see the world. Is this healthy? I’m not the same person who boarded a Greyhound bus in Green River, UT, in 1992. Or am I? Does Abbey still speak for me? And what about the people I’ve come here with—it’s an especially interesting lot—what would they make of him? (I’m particularly counting on Ed to behave himself and not get me into trouble with my wife’s boss, the conservative talk radio host.) What better place, indeed? It does seem proper now to reread him . . .
Questions. Every statement raises more and newer questions. We shall never be done with questioning, so long as men and women remain human. QUESTION AUTHORITY reads a bumper sticker I saw the other day in Moab, Utah. Thoreau would doubtless have amended that to read “Always Question Authority.” I would only add the word “All” before the word “Authority.” Including, of course, the authority of Henry David himself.
Now it’s your turn, Ed.
Continues at down the river with Ed Abbey, part two