A 1965 Visit to Edward Abbey's Garden at
Old Arches National Monument, Moab, Utah
“Wilderness – we scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination. Why such allure in the very word?” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
During two seasons in the late 1950s, Edward Abbey took up residence in a trailer at the old Arches National Monument. Over fifty-five years later, exactly where Edward Abbey's trailer stood is a subject of controversy. As the least likely government employee ever, Abbey was the park ranger who kept things clean and neat out at the end of the road. There, near Devil’s Garden, Abbey observed the timelessness landforms and a rapidly changing political landscape. The only hint of his future status as a proto-anarcho-communist environmentalist came in this passage from his 1968 book, Desert Solitaire.
Page 59, “For about five miles I followed the course of their survey back toward headquarters, and as I went I pulled up each little wooden stake and threw it away, and cut all the bright ribbons from the bushes and hid them under a rock. A futile effort, in the long run, but it made me feel good.”
In 1965, my father and I visited many of the places that Abbey was to make famous in Desert Solitaire or in his most famous fiction work, The Monkey Wrench Gang. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey wrote with wry humor about tourists abusing even the sacred walls of a national monument. The somewhat sickening, yet heart-pounding acts of eco-sabotage came later, in The Monkey Wrench Gang and its various sequels. This article, largely in Abbey’s own words focuses on the kinder, gentler author we first met on the pages of Desert Solitaire.
Landscape Arch – In 1965, my father and I hiked the unimproved trail to Landscape Arch. Although far more delicate than the arch named Delicate Arch, we found no fence or other barriers to climbing up the hill and under that gracefully suspended stone slab. Stopping short of the arch itself, our instincts were good. One afternoon, twenty-six years later, picnickers sitting beneath the arch barely scrambled away from a mighty rock fall there.
Near that spot, my father positioned his Nikon camera to show both Landscape Arch and the smaller Partition Arch above and to its right, near the rim. As I reviewed old Kodak Ektachrome slides of our time there, I was not sure if the second arch was real, or just a flaw in the 35-MM film. After pouring over fifteen pages of Google images, I found only two photographs that included Partition Arch in the same shot. I wonder where that photo spot is. It would be nice if Arches National Park could provide a protected path to the spot where those rare photos originated.
Page 37, “I reach the end of the road and walk the deserted trail to Landscape Arch and Double-O Arch, picking up a few candy wrappers left from the weekend, straightening a trail sign which somebody had tried to remove, noting another girdled and bleeding pinion pine, obliterating from a sandstone wall the pathetic scratchings of some imbeciles who had attempted to write their names across the face of the Mesozoic.”
Page 267, “In the government truck I make a final tour of the park, into the Devil’s Garden where I walk for the last time this year out the trail past Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch and Landscape Arch, all the way out to Double-O Arch at the end of the path.”
Book Cliffs – Thirty-five miles north of Moab, Utah stand the majestic Book Cliffs. From Green River to the west, past Crescent Junction in the middle and on to Thompson Springs to the east, they parallel both the Union Pacific Railroad mainline and Interstate I-70. Stark in their appearance, the Book Cliffs angle of repose is too steep and the terrain too dry to support more than sparse vegetation. In broad daylight, as our 1965 image shows, the Cretaceous sandstone capping the cliffs stand tall and unbroken, like the skyline of a major city. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey often mentions the Book Cliffs.
Page 4, “On the north and northwest I see the Roan Cliffs and the Book Cliffs, the two-level face of the Uintah Plateau.
Page 23, “I refer to the garden which lies all around me, extending from here to the mountains, from here to the Book Cliffs, from here to Robbers’ Roost and Land’s End, an area about the size of the Negev.”
Page 118, “Mornings begin clear and dazzling bright, the sky as blue as the Virgin’s cloak, unflawed by a trace of cloud in all of that emptiness bounded on the North by the Book Cliffs.”
Page 269, “For a few minutes the whole region from the canyon of the Colorado to the Book Cliffs – crag, mesa, turret, dome, canyon wall, plain swale and dune – glows with a vivid amber light against the darkness on the east.”
Dead Horse Point – If you have seen the Movie Cars, you know Dead Horse Point. After visiting Moab while on vacation, Pixar director John Lasseter copied whole scenes from that place and etched them into the minds of millions. What those movie viewers may not realize is that Lasseter got it right. The view from Dead Horse Point to the Shaffer Trail and beyond to the Colorado River looks impossible in its depth, yet you can recognize it in the movie.
In 1965, the landscape did look different than it does today. Below, in a place called Potash, the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company was only two years into conventional mining of Potash salts. With its processing facility hidden upstream, the Paradox Basin anticline still looked pristine. Readers will also note that my father had a penchant for tempting fate, standing within only a few feet of the precipice. A few times on our trip, he convinced me to do the same. Today, I would chalk that up to youthful exuberance.
Not until 1970, five years after our visit, did the now famous blue settling ponds appear on bench land above the Colorado River. From then on, solution mining, or hydraulic fracking of the anticline salt beds continued in earnest. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey focuses on several aspects of Dead Horse Mesa, but not the potash mine or its future risk to the environment.
Page 11, “…of Dead Horse Mesa, a flat-topped uninhabited island in the sky which extends for thirty miles north and south between the convergent canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. Public domain. Above the mesa the sun hangs behind streaks and streamers of wind-whipped clouds.”
Page 66, “Finally he was discovered ten days after the search began near an abandoned miner’s shack below Dead Horse Point. They found him sitting on the ground hammering feebly at an ancient can of beans, trying to open the can with a stone.
Page 209, “…for the diversion, I throw canteens and rucksack into the government pickup and take off. I go west to the highway, south for three miles, and turn off on another dirt road leading southwest across Dead Horse Mesa toward the rendezvous.
Page 219, “Getting late; the sun is down beyond Back-of-the-Rocks, beyond the escarpment of Dead Horse Point. A soft pink mist of light, the alpenglow, lies on the (La Sal) mountains above timberline. I hurry on, south of Moab, off the highway on the gravel…”
Page 223, “There is no trail and many dead and fallen trees make progress difficult… Dead Horse Point and Grandview Point, and farther away, farthest of all, wonderfully remote, the Orange Cliffs, Lands’ End and the Maze, an exhilarating vastness…”
Page 265, “Enough of Land’s End, Dead Horse Point, Tukuhnikivats, and the other high resolves; I want to see somebody jump out of a window or off a roof. I grow weary of nobody’s company but my own – let me hear the wit and wisdom of the subway…”
While on our 1965 Grand Tour of the Four Corners states, my father and I had many adventures. As a teenager from California, I did not expect ever to see such exotic desert and mountain landscapes again. Not until 2006, over thirty years later did I again visit Moab, Arches, Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point. Although the political and demographic landscape had changed, the timeless beauty of Edward Abbey’s realm had not.
In Part 2 of my 1965 saga, my father and I visit Lake Powell and Rainbow Bridge. When I post that chapter, you will find it HERE.