(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness is the work for which Abbey is best known and by which he is most frequently defined. It contains his views on a variety of subjects, from the problems of the United States Park Service to an angry indictment of the evils of technology masquerading under the guise of progress. No voice is more eloquent in the praise of America’s remaining wilderness nor more vitriolic in attacking those who would exploit and destroy it for profit.

In the introduction to Desert Solitaire, Abbey informs his readers that he has combined the experiences of three summers spent as a park ranger at Arches National Monument into one for the sake of narrative consistency. He writes that the first two summers were good but that the last summer was marred by the introduction of industrial tourism. For Abbey, the tourist in the automobile (worse yet, in the huge recreational vehicle) spells the end of the wilderness spirit. Abbey’s ambivalent stance toward the tourists, ostensibly fellow lovers of the outback, reflects the work’s central dichotomy. Abbey’s eloquent voice describes the beauty of the desert landscape, only to pause on the intrusion of industry and commerce into one of the last remaining wilderness areas in the United States.

The first sentence of Desert Solitaire declares, “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” Although Abbey believes that the wilderness is as close as one can come to something sacred, his view is not simplistic. He sees wilderness as essential to the quality of human life. His quarrel is not with civilization itself but with civilization made manifest as industrial technology thrust on the physical and spiritual landscape of the human condition: “A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

Although Abbey is not a naturalist, Desert Solitaire is filled with the observations of the trained eye. He makes scientific observation serve the eloquence of his prose. The sureness of the scientific landscape lends validity to the thrust of his ideas. Nowhere in the book is the power of his prose or the sureness of his eye more apparent than in the chapter titled “Down the River.”

For Abbey, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam was one of the great sins of American society. In a discussion of human failings, he suggests that “original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us—if only we were worthy of it.” The rafting trip he and his friend Ralph Newcomb take down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon just before it...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)