Make the most of your Utah national park tour
Make the most of your Utah national park tour – thanks to a 1950s park ranger
Read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire before you join one of our small group tours of Utah’s national parks and your experience of Arches National Park will take on a whole new level of meaning.
We don’t usually give homework to our guests before they join our small group tours, but if you like to do some background reading before you go on vacation, we’ve got a superb recommendation for you: Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.
An acclaimed writer and a reluctant conservationist, Edward Abbey spent two seasons as a park ranger in Arches National Park in the late 1950s. Published in 1968, Desert Solitaire is his autobiography of that time, and it’s the perfect pre-read for our April 2024 vacation package tour: A Utah Road Trip: Exploring the Landscapes and Cultures of South East Utah.
Who was Edward Abbey?
Born in Pennsylvania in 1927, Abbey spent much of his early life hitchhiking and hopping freight trains around the American Southwest, falling in love with the desert in the process. The landscape had a strong influence on Abbey’s work and art, and he was prolific writer, producing a stream of essays, memoirs and novels throughout his life, but it was his nature writing in particular that earned him the nickname “the Thoreau of the American West.”
After a stint in the military and at the Universities of New Mexico and Edinburgh, Abbey worked as a park ranger and fire lookout at several national parks. Desert Solitaire is about his time as a park ranger at Arches National Park – a place you’ll visit on our fully guided and expert-led late September tour: A Desert Adventure: Landscapes and Cultures of Utah, USA and, we suspect, never forget.
Ultimately, Abbey is impossible to pigeonhole. “Complex” is how Russell K Davies, leader of our Utah tours, describes him. Abbey was publicly opposed to technological advancements across the desert, but he did not seek out the status and reverence given to him by conservationists at the time.
“Abbey really wanted to write the great American novel and be known for that,” says Russell. “He drove a huge Cadillac through the desert southwest, throwing beer cans out the window after finishing beer after beer. Even in Desert Solitaire he rolls a tyre from a canyon rim into the bottom and, just to see what happens, throws a rock at a jackrabbit and kills it. These are hardly the hallmarks of a conservationist.”
What makes Desert Solitaire so special?
Abbey’s writing is by turn humorous, philosophical, moving and beautifully descriptive. Lifted largely from his journal entries of the time, it draws you in right from the start.
When he first arrives in his “little tin government house trailer” high on a ridge in the national park, he immediately falls in love with the place, despite the freezing cold and linoleum “sprinkled with mouse turds”! “This is the most beautiful place on earth,” he writes.
“There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the fight place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary…
For myself I'll take Moab, Utah. I don't mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it -- the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky -- all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.”
More than a memoir
But Desert Solitaire isn’t just a passionately written ode to the desert. The book will do more than simply awaken you to the poetic beauty of the park and the desert. Abbey’s exquisite nature writing turns the desert into a representation of the paradoxes of life: peace and rage, beauty and isolation.
His ultimate goal is to experience nature at its purest. It’s a fierce, noble ambition that feels frustrated by what Abbey sees as mankind’s inability to live peacefully within nature.
The book is also a tirade against human exploitation of the environment. Read it and you can’t help but feel a powerful sense of responsibility for and appreciation of the delicate ecosystems that thrive in Arches National Park.
As relevant today as it was when it was written
You’ll turn the last page with a deeper understanding of the development and conservation challenges faced by the National Park. And that thought-provoking debate around the delicate balance between humankind and the wild is as relevant today as it was when Desert Solitaire was published – perhaps even more so.
Immerse yourself in the pages of Desert Solitaire before your Utah national park tour and you’ll arrive more attuned to the nuances of the park's beauty, its unforgiving terrain, and the delicate balance of its ecosystems.
Quite simply, Abbey’s words will help you notice and feel more. Think of Desert Solitaire as a literary portal straight to the heart of the desert.
The towering red sandstone arches, the labyrinthine canyons, and ever-changing light come alive thanks to Abbey’s vivid observations. Throw in the real-time stories of your expert GeoCultura guides and your small group tour of Utah’s national parks becomes an even richer experience.
Go deeper into Utah’s deserts
If you’d like to read more about Edward Abbey, Russell K Davies recommends two more books, which, together with Desert Solitaire make up what Russell calls ‘The Desert Southwest: A Trilogy’. “I call these a trilogy as I think that the two books that follow Desert Solitaire offer additional insights into the person, Edward Abbey, the book and the adventure.”
· Desert Cabal - A New Season in the Wilderness by Amy Irvine: “Amy Irvine is a modern writer who goes to visit Abbey’s grave in the desert and the book is about the conversation with him. The chapters in her book are the same as those in Desert Solitaire.”
· The Red Caddy - Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey by Charles Bowden: “Bowden is my favourite writer on the desert southwest but he is not for everyone.”
Interested in guided geology vacations that take you straight to the heart of a country through its national parks? Check out our Darwin in Wales small-group tour, which visits Snowdonia National Park, or From the Rockies to the Badlands: The Geology and Dinosaurs of Alberta, which explores Canada’s Banff National Park and Dinosaur Provincial Park.