(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Desert Solitaire is a work filled with philosophical and stylistic paradox. The narrator works for the United States Park Service at Arches National Monument, providing services for tourists for whom, it appears, he has nothing but contempt. He saves some of his most vituperative prose for these sightseers, laden with cameras and “sealed in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels.” He wonders how he can get them out of “that shiny hunk of GM junk” to take a walk. He wants them to see the land, to touch it, to know it, and finally to love it. Somehow if they can be converted, they will be a means to the salvation of the land. He conducts seditious seminars in the guise of campfire chats, wherein he hopes to kindle “the fires of revolt . . . which [mean] hope for us all.” He reviles the tourists, but he needs them. They are a fact of life, and their existence is by nature on a collision course with what remains of the desert wilderness in the Southwest.

Typically, Abbey is ambivalent about his relationship with the rest of humankind. The chapter titled “The Dead Man at Grandview Point” serves as a warning not to venture into such a hostile environment as the desert, where one might encounter death in various gruesome forms: snakebite, scorpion sting, starvation, heat prostration, or thirst. This graphic tale of a tourist unfamiliar with the desert, and thus ill-prepared to survive in it, is metaphorical of much that Abbey believes. On one level, it is a straightforward didactic tale: Stay out of Abbey’s desert or very bad things may happen to you.

Abbey, the park ranger, awakens to the stifling heat of an August morning in the desert canyonlands. He speculates on the shared madness of the tourists and their sardonic keeper, who defy common sense to venture into this inhospitable country at this time of the year when the sun’s “hydrogen cauldrons [are] brimming . . . with plasmic fires.” He discusses the persistence of life in the desert, closing with a comment on the habits of coyotes. He speculates that “we need coyotes more than we need, let us say, more people, of whom we have already an extravagant surplus,” a comment meant to offend, to disturb the reader’s anthropocentricity.

Having dispensed with the philosophical importance of mankind versus coyotekind, Abbey is called forth to search for a missing tourist. The search party gathers at the man’s locked automobile. The nephew of the missing man tells the search party that his uncle is over sixty and an amateur photographer who liked to walk. Because the man lacked experience in desert terrain and had been missing for two days, they assume that he is dead. The search party divides up, and after a few hours the tourist is indeed found dead under a small juniper tree, where he evidently had sought shelter from the sun. Abbey spares no details; the corpse is described in a state of swollen putrescence. The undertaker is summoned, and the corpse is zippered into a rubber bag. At this point, the narrative voice steps away from the immediacy of the scene to explain that Grandview Point is very close to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, near that part of the country known as The Maze because of its labyrinth of canyons, a land Abbey describes as “closer than anything else in the forty-eight United States to being genuine terra incognita.” As members of the search party lug the corpse to the waiting ambulance, they indulge in morbid humor. The ambulance...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)