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Left to howl at the void

'The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it needs only defenders.' Edward Abbey wrote it and lived it. Those left behind, John Balzar reports, gather to celebrate his ebullient spirit.

May 18, 2004|John Balzar

Moab, Utah — An empty chair threw its shadow across the meadow: a tall-backed, scuffed, swivel writing chair, looming in its emptiness. The writing chair was one that Edward Abbey used. And when you know that, you can understand how long and how broad the shadow was.

Only rarely, once every few generations or so, a figure rises to stand above others as inspirational guardian of America's defining heritage -- its raw, open outdoors.

This month, 15 years after his death, friends and family gathered here in the hills south of Moab to celebrate the literature, the life, the ideals, the cockeyed spirit, the certain despair, the boundless joy and the soaring landscapes of just such a rascal, old "Cactus Ed" himself. In a loose sort of way, they called themselves the Clan of Abbey. A clan of the heart. A clan of the wild. A clan of backpackers, river runners, rabble-rousers and dauntless dreamers who believe that the high ground in America is the untrampled ground.

Abbey was a sometimes park ranger and itinerant fire lookout -- a Huck Finn and Henry Thoreau wrapped into one for the era in which America's conservation movement sharpened its teeth. In 21 books, both fiction and nonfiction collections of evocative, ruminative, rollicking personal essays, his cause was wild nature. The wild West. Also, the wildness in each of us that defines our freedom and sustains our humility. His foes were industrialization, dominion, technology, sprawl and greed.

"I write," Abbey said, "to entertain my friends and to exasperate our enemies."

"I write," Abbey said, "to make a difference."

Organized by word of mouth, the tribute occurred at a place that Appalachian-born Abbey held to be sacred: these Utah hills. The mountains that rise in one direction. The otherworldly, treeless slick-rock maze that spills out in the other. And the Green and Colorado rivers that gouge canyonlands out of it all. This was the crazy topography that became both the chief character and the compelling setting for so much of his writing. Abbeyland.

In a grassy meadow at Pack Creek Ranch, a foothill retreat where he sometimes holed up to work, a property owned by one of his dearest friends, a ranch where one of his children was conceived, friends pondered his empty chair. A few sat in it, as if seeking some tangible connection to a man who, they all agreed, had changed their lives, not by a few degrees but by many.

"When he was alive, Ed didn't need anybody to speak for him. He doesn't now," said Ken Sanders, a Salt Lake City bookseller, publisher, anti-establishment troublemaker and close friend of Abbey's. "All you have to do is read the books!"

"I met Abbey in 1972," recalled another of Abbey's fellow travelers, Montana backpacking guide Howie Wolke. "I picked up his book 'Desert Solitaire.' It was sitting on a coffee table and I started reading. Until then, I thought I was crazy. Then I found someone else, this man, who felt about the world and wilderness exactly the way I did."

At the core of this weekend's rendezvous were a dozen people like these whose lives, in one way or another, intersected Abbey's -- a graying lot now with creaky knees, thinning hair and weather-creased faces. Some had roamed these vistas with Abbey and now talked cheerfully about the lapse in the "statute of limitations" for their seditions.

On Saturday, these personal friends and Abbey's widow, Clarke, were joined by 200 other devotees whose connections to Abbey were purely literary, and hardly less intense. They traveled from throughout the West to gather around the empty chair and listen to a night of reminiscences -- and, in no small way, to ponder their own place in the eroding treasure of the West's open spaces.

"The evening," as Abbey wrote about a similar moment years ago in these reaches, "gave way to night, a dense violet solution of starlight and darkness mixed with energy." A brisk wind carried chilly greetings from the snowcapped peaks of the nearby La Sals; a bonfire shot sparks toward galaxies that didn't seem quite so far away either.

They thundered, they swore blue streaks and they sang, Abbey's friends. Novelist John Nichols read from his private, argumentative and ultimately tender correspondence with Abbey. After hearing that Nichols suffered a heart attack, Abbey hurried off a letter: "Take care of yourself. DON'T CHOP WOOD. Get your new wife a new ax."

Dave Foreman, the Abbey pal who became one of the most confrontational, and quotable, conservation agitators of the era, recalled being inspired by Abbey long before he'd ever heard of Abbey, or anyone like him. Foreman was 10, playing outside his home in Albuquerque, when he saw an astonishing sight. Black smoke began pouring from one of the dormant cinder-cones on the edge of town. An eruption! Mother Nature on the loose. Only decades later did he learn that the smoke came from castoff tires that college student Abbey set afire as a prank.

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