Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

abbey_desertsolitaireThe perfect book for anyone feeling, of late, as though the barbarian hordes are besieging all that is sacred and precious.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine, 1968. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature/politics…enviropolitico?)

Summary: Edward Abbey, a rebel-rousing UNM graduate, goes to work for the National Parks Service. He endures a year in Arches, Utah, where he struggles with the merciless scrape of desert heat, as well as his swelling misanthropy for tourists and park administrators who seem to nimbly defile the sensuous landscape at every turn.

Critique: Like Abbey himself, the writing and narrative within this text are wayward, willful, fluid, stubborn, and unconventional. First and foremost, the book is an ode to the outdoors. A long, luxurious love poem honoring geology, praising desolation, and admiring stark vistas.

Second, the book may also serve as one of the most engrossing horticultural guides you’ll ever read.

Finally, Solitaire may be one of the timeliest treatises you could read this year, as the NPS picks up up the diapers and debris following the massive, record-busting influx of visitors during its 2016 centennial celebration, despite the endemic budgetary strangleholds imposed by Congress which have produced massive infrastructural failures. But will there be National Parks to flock to in the coming years? There is plenty of reason to worry and doubt, given the most recent White House Administration appointments, which have included powerful figures who oppose the fundamental premise of “public lands in public hands,” who ignore the studies linking spiritual and psychological healing with regular exposure to wild lands, who instead subscribe piously to a religion of nature as a source of untapped economic pulp.

Have we been through territory like this before? Yes, says Abbey. And we survived with our Parks–a unique notion in the world when they were first protected for the enjoyment of all people now and in the future, regardless of income, gender, religion, political leaning. Will we, and our Parks, survive this unfolding predicament? On that, Abbey cannot rightly say (and not just because he died in 1989). Since Abbey’s time, the Parks have come to face a truly dire duo of fresh challenges: appealing to minorities and Generation App.

What Edward Abbey might say is that the disconnects these populations experience when they visit a National Park links to the very infrastructure designed to attract them–an infrastructure he vehemently opposed and actively obstructed. Roads. Scenic pull-overs. Clean, running water. Flushing toilets. In Abbey’s view, these conveniences prevent people from breaking past the surface of what it is to be in the wild and witness its jaw-dropping miracles and horrors. Our predilection with comfort inhibits our chance to be and feel exposed…at risk…immersed…swallowed…challenged…basically, alive.

Read this book and take from Abbey a view of what the Parks are and were; what they’ve lost and what they could be. Glean from his feral trompings through the needling canyons what it is to be an animal outdoors, your civilized skin eroding like the stone arches, your spirit expanding, fed fat on the eternal nutrients of sun and space. Read this book and take heart; the revolution will, at least, have campfires!

(Photo credit for the teetering rock: NPS/Neal Herbert.)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (with a look at structure)

wild-cheryl-strayedStrayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: memoir (specifically, one of those young-woman-in-crisis-goes-a’-traveling memoirs)

Summary: This book is Eat, Pray, Love meets A Walk in the Woods.

Despite a mostly impoverished, sometimes rough childhood, Cheryl grew up generally loved by everyone but herself. Soon after her mother dies suddenly from aggressive cancer, Cheryl’s life falls apart. She grows estranged from her siblings and stepfather, she cheats repeatedly on her beloved husband, and she slides into a corrosive affair with drugs. A chance purchase in a hardware store leads her to the Pacific Crest Trail, which she decides to hike from summer to fall. Never mind she has zero experience hiking or backpacking. Never mind that her pack weighs more than several NFL linebackers. Never mind that her boots are too small. Never mind she has no knowledge of wilderness survival — hell, she can barely survive everyday life. Cheryl becomes obsessed with the trail and her conviction that it will lead her back to the pure soul she used to be.

Critique: Readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s riveting spiritual-emotional rise from a suicidal life-crisis into a Zen Master Cinderella will derive similar inspiration from Strayed’s memoir. And what Strayed lacks in Bill Bryson’s rib-tickling wit, she makes up for in devil-may-care hubris for the potential dangers of a hike that challenges even the most poised outdoorsmen. And unlike Gilbert or Bryson, the final third of Strayed’s memoir deserves oodles of praise simply because it holds true to its promise. That is, she sticks to the appointed finish line.

Readers will find Strayed’s writing at its best when delving into the grimiest, dirtiest, most loathsome moments of a life gone wrong. She accurately maps out the seemingly innocuous events that contribute to disastrous decisions, but her tender perspective is likely to invoke empathy from the most judgmental cynics.

Writers and writing students will find much to harvest from the cunning structure of the memoir, which follows the “lowercase e” format. Rather than start at some chronological beginning and work a linear path forward, Strayed opens her narrative roughly near the middle, when a minor freak accident — a prank played by the gods — causes her to lose her hiking boots in the middle of nowhere. Strayed ushers the reader a tad forward, giving the overall context of her situation (the fact that she has set out to hike hundreds of miles of high mountain terrain alone, as well as her desired destination) before wrapping backwards into the past, just like the little e.

Strayed is certainly not unique among memoir and travel writers when it comes to deploying the little e thanks, in large part, to all the how-to-nonfiction craft books pointing at John McPhee’s famous little e essay, “Travels in Georgia.” Where Strayed stands out is in her ability to construct the swelling arc of that little e. Like the ancient winds that carved out Moab’s stone bone bridges, Strayed crafts a breathtaking climax whose singular wonderment hinges not on the escalation, but on the inevitable collapse, the inescapable catastrophe.

By the time readers sense the narrative bending back around to the “all is lost” beat of the beginning, they are all but foaming for the descent into disaster. They’re hankering for calamity is practically manic. This is not to say readers are heartless and cruel — far from it. Readers clamor for the this down-dog roller coaster moment because the arc of the little e has provided sufficient evidence to suggest the hapless narrator might just survive the very worst of hiking nightmares. They cannot wait to see the worst bring out the best.

In short, the structure forms an architectural framework for hope.

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