Desert Solitaire [Book Review]

Desert Solitaire is not for everyone. One does not have to travel too far in the plethora of reviews on this book, initially written in 1968, to find very polarizing views of this work. In some sense, this polarization is also reflected in the book, as there is no blatant theme that ties the individual chapters together. And in some cases, even individual chapters seem to clash with one another. For example, Edward Abbey will discuss how nature should be left alone, where there’s another chapter in which the author kills a rabbit with a stone for no real reason outside of pure curiosity, the “notion to experiment-on the rabbit” (pg. 33).

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Some chapters are purely description. The wildlife of both flora and fauna of the desert. The weather though the desert seasons from sandstorms and frosts to the blaring heat. And other chapters blend this knowledge with both survival tactics and historical accounts of this desert region of the United States.

The industrialization, or at least the attempt, is illustrated in more detail from ‘industrial tourism’ to mining rushes in such an environment that truly does not want to be urbanized. “…..there is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount…….which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be” (pg. 126).

Of course, there are some chapters that are just narrative, and rarely partake in any practical advice and solely exist for the audience’s suspense. This ranges from his attempts to tame a wild horse to his experiences of almost-death experiences in his personal adventures alone in the wild, most of the time ill-prepared.

The only art that you’ll find are illustrations of petroglyphs that are found in the Colorado Basin and surrounding areas in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. And these are just illustrations to highlight the start of new chapters.

For real illustrations, well……… you must go out and experience them for yourselves. And for any helicopter parents, you probably shouldn’t give this book to your kids.

Instead of trying to summarize a theory, Desert Solitaire is an alternative method to get a point across. It’s a purely raw method of describing ‘what’ it was rather than a ‘why.’ It’s like a true teacher that forces you to determine your own conclusions from the facts and stories rather than telling you what you should know.

In a way, it gave me a glimpse of what it was like years ago. A time when one went exploring without the safety of cellphone reception or GPS. When one didn’t need to bring about water filters, but learned how to tell a healthy water source from a poisonous one [Note: the ones crawling with bugs are not poisonous]. If it didn’t exist 50 or 100 years ago, it wasn’t necessary for one’s enjoyment in life, and it shouldn’t be a requirement in these times filled with artificial needs and desires [see my previous book review, The Persuaders].

While many may focus solely on the ‘desert’ theme in this book, there is also a deeper theme on ‘solitude’ itself. This is reflected in many of the author’s experiences of both working in a remote national park before industrial tourism and during his personal excursions. “Alone-ness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me…….the only thing better than solitude, is society (pg 97).” Solitude doesn’t necessary mean being away from other humans, but the feeling of separation from urban culture. We are social beings, but the beauty of nature does not have to remind you of what one leaves behind to truly experience and enjoy it.

However, as Edward leaves his post at the end of the book, his mind takes a swift turn as he prepares to moves back to the east coast. “A grim business, returning to civilization……Mostly for the sake of private and selfish concerns, truly…..I grow weary of nobody’s company but my own (pg. 265).”

Personally, I always classified myself as a small-group extrovert. I would prefer to be alone than immersed in large, crowded events. But I love being surrounded by a small group (2-10 people) where we can collaboratively interact with physical and mental activities. I’d rather run with a small group of friends than participate in a 5K charity. Hosting a small karaoke party is preferred over going to the bar and fighting for a chance at the mic with numerous strangers. In societies where the massive population densities can seed a sense of narcissism and inability to empathize with those in your proximity, it’s healthy to weed these unconscious reactions…..even if it means escaping from society altogether.

I desire to build friendships and social bonds…..but not everyone is like me. Regardless, everyone finds some level of balance between society and solitude. Even as remote as Edward portrays himself in this book, some his prominent stories involve the few individuals that he is proud to share with you in this book.