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WILD WEST KEN / LAMBERTON

His preferred immortality

The body of Edward Abbey nourishes more than juniper trees and saguaro roots.

September 20, 2005|KEN LAMBERTON | Ken Lamberton is the author of "Chiricahua Mountains: Bridging the Borders of Wildness."

THE SAND SUCKS ME IN to my knees where I step, my boots dropping deeply into some kangaroo rat's living room. The scent of blooming primrose and verbena burdens an evening breeze, rose-sweet and heady, a contradiction in this desert place where El Camino del Diablo -- the Devil's Highway -- slashes across the underbelly of Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

After a half-mile trek, I sit on a heaving dune with the skeletal Sierra Pinta to my back and a tide of Tyrian-dyed verbena surging at my feet. To the south, the twin shark's teeth of Mexico's Pinacate peaks gnaw the horizon.

Somewhere out here is the grave of Edward Abbey.

It's not like he doesn't have company. Unmarked graves punctuate this country, their heaped-up cairns of stones guiding travelers into a desert that swallows them whole.

There's one difference, however, between Abbey's grave and all the others: Abbey chose this place.

Few people know the exact location. He was 62 when, after four days of esophageal hemorrhaging, he died at home on March 14, 1989. Afterward, his wife and friends carried him to a place where he could rest without morticians and formaldehyde. Instead of a coffin and funeral parlor, he wanted his body zipped inside his sleeping bag, hauled to his grave in the back of a pickup truck, and buried quickly. He said: "If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture -- that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves."

Even facing death, Abbey was an optimist. "Despair," he wrote, "leads to boredom, electronic games, computer hacking, poetry and other bad habits." He believed in people, that we could set aside self-centeredness and the pursuit of growth for its own sake. That we could learn to care for each other first and as a result learn to care for the land.

Abbey had the right spirit, even among all his contradictions and character flaws. He understood nature's raw penetration. It was his only religion.

A dune off the Devil's Highway offers a comfortable place to rest away from my truck.

Turkey vultures ride a thermal toward the Sierra Pinta. The vulture, which some people say created the land with the touch of its wings, seems to be Abbey's totem animal. It was during his tenure as a ranger in Arches National Park that he began to see himself as a vulture: a "redheaded, foul-breathed eater of carrion, maintainer of desert cleanliness, a fully grown gadfly, by gawd, easier to see, easier to shoot down," according to his friend Jack Loeffler.

I once thumped across lava flows in the Pinacate Desert, part of the new Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate in Sonora, Mexico, not far south from here but a world away. This is wilderness laid bare, the earth turned inside out. Abbey called it the "bleakest, flattest, hottest, grittiest, grimmest, dreariest, ugliest, most useless, most senseless desert of them all." You'd think he hated the Pinacate.

It was spring, and I camped at Tecolote, arriving at the cinder cone in the evening after driving four hours from Tucson. Rock daisies, their tiny blooms like stars against the deep-space blackness of the lava, clustered along the flows and cinder mounds. The flowers were part of an enormous bloom, one that comes only once in a decade.

Earlier I met Noe Gamez, a desert version of the pirate Jack Sparrow, who guides eco-tour groups from Tucson. "Arduous journeys for those who indulge in extremes," his business card proclaims. Abbey would be proud. Pinacate aficionados like Gamez helped the Mexican government decide to establish these places of interest like Tecolote.

I threw my sleeping bag under a nearby ironwood tree and immediately set about fixing dinner -- steak, ranch beans and flour tortillas, corn on the cob, all on a mesquite charcoal grill, except for the beer. It's the kind of meal Abbey would have appreciated, especially here on this black lava in the penumbra of lantern light.

The sun set the cinder hills aflame, and I was enclosed by light and shadows of what this place remembers of its beginnings. I smelled brimstone and steam, and the sweet carnation scent of primrose. I remember my mood elevating.

Lying on my back under the ironwood, my body touching the earth and the land embracing me, I felt a mounting optimism. We can get it right, as Abbey believed. Regardless of our mistakes, our abuses and failings with each other and the land, we remain connected in the same way a child remains connected to its mother. We sustain each other, exchanging energy and elements, be it with some wild landscape or the landscaping in our own backyards. Alienation is impossible. We only need now to begin admitting it.

"We are kindred all of us," Abbey once wrote, "killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us."

Abbey may be buried out here somewhere. But his body nourishes more than junipers and vultures, roots and wings. He nourishes me. He wanders among slickrock and saguaro, sand dune and cholla forest, and even here among all this black lava. I've heard him in the early morning darkness, in the small piping voice of the tecolote owl curling among the branches of an ironwood tree.

*

Abbey lives! Sierra Club Books recently reissued "The Best of Edward Abbey," an anthology Abbey himself compiled in 1984. This new edition contains a foreword by Doug Peacock, model for George Hayduke in "The Monkey Wrench Gang."

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