As always, I arrived too late. The time to be here, the real sweet spot? I missed it. Try a good half-century ago, I was told by locals, before the place was discovered by the outside world, back when it was still Arches National Monument and not yet a designated park, just a dusty backwater in southeast Utah inhabited by a few old cowboys, desert castaways, Latter-day seekers and a handful of tourists who had perhaps made a wrong turn somewhere. The roads — a pure, unpaved hell — tended to discourage folks. Fifty, maybe 60, people a day made the 4-mile drive from the highway to the front gate, where many simply turned around and headed back the way they came. (By contrast, 4,000 visitors now amount to a slow day at Arches.)
The mid-1950s was a time when one could plausibly claim to be the “sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian” of Arches, as Edward Abbey did in “Desert Solitaire,” his classic 1968 account of two seasons spent as a park ranger there. A “rather personal demesne,” he called it, with “league on league of red cliff and arid tablelands, extending through purple haze over the bulging curve of the planet to the ranges of Colorado — a sea of desert.” All of it, he wrote, “lies beyond the end of the roads.”
Abbey, who died in 1989, more than admired Arches’ beauty. He considered its remoteness an antidote to the everyday drudgery of civilization, a vital means of “[c]utting the bloody cord,” of briefly abandoning our homebound lives, our sunup-to-sundown errand running, for the thrill of the wild. “We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope,” he wrote in “Desert Solitaire.” Keeping Arches wild was, for him, a matter of our collective sanity.
I happened to be standing on Abbey’s old house trailer site at Arches, now a cluster of blackbrush and cliffrose in spring bloom, and gazing across his “33,000-acre terrace,” a windless, sun-warped sprawl of red spires and orange buttes rising and falling to the horizon like a city of dust and stone. Below me was a freshly paved road crawling with weekend traffic — a frightening number of RVs and SUVs and double-decker tour buses, their windows sealed tight, and a column of grumbling Harleys — and beyond that, through the heat glare, the soaring, extraterrestrial monolith of Balanced Rock.
I tried to picture things as Abbey might have seen them, minus the motorized din and the crowds fanning out around Balanced Rock’s knobby pedestal, striking selfie poses. Sitting in his doorway here watching sunsets “that test a man’s credulity — great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold,” Abbey often found himself utterly, blissfully, alone.
“Can you imagine?” said Matt Smith, an Arches ranger, squinting next to me in the morning sun. “Not a lot going on here back then.”
Actually, I could imagine it, but barely. Over our shoulders lay Salt Valley, a vast, wandering expanse of sagebrush and tumbleweeds, as empty as the moon. But the procession of vehicles below us achieved a kind of gyroscope effect, whirring and flashing. “You might expect this at Walmart, but not here,” Smith said, nodding toward the road. Somewhere a car horn blew. And blew. And blew. Abbey, it seemed safe to say, would not abide.
Like so many others, I came here because of him. It was only a couple of years ago when I’d first read “Desert Solitaire” and been floored by Abbey’s barreling prose, his joy and petulance, his pre-Gonzo Gonzoness: “[F]or godsake folks get out of them there machines, take off those [expletive] sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras!” he wrote. “[R]oll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it.” Exhilarating, hard-shelled, unforgettable stuff.
So I was surprised to learn that Abbey considered “Desert Solitaire” — his most famous and lucrative work — to be a curse. Published in 1968 to resounding indifference, it soon gained the cultish following of countless half-read books, turned Abbey into a desert sage and, in a cruel twist, “launched thousands of maniacs into the empty ground” of Arches, as his friend and biographer, Charles Bowden, put it. Unwittingly, Abbey helped entrench these red rock canyonlands in the popular imagination as a proto-hippie zone of spiritual transcendence, and he never quite forgave himself. According to Bowden, a “Dead Ed Industry” in the nearby tourist boomtown of Moab, Utah, still traffics heavily in Abbey’s legend.
Of course, no book can account for what has happened at Arches in the past half-century (it was designated a park in 1971, when it more than doubled in size, to 76,679 acres). This year, Smith said, the park was on track for a record 1.8 million visitors, up from about 25,000 in Abbey’s day, a 7,000 percent increase. He described a nightly “melee” at Delicate Arch, a popular sunset spot, with hundreds of tourists jockeying for primo viewing along a sandstone promontory. In 2015, on Memorial Day traffic was backed up for a mile outside the main entrance onto Highway 191, resulting in the park’s first ever emergency closure.
“It’s loud, it’s busy,” Smith said. “People are running over blackbrush shrubs that might be 600 years old. There’s a fragile biological crust that grows over the surface of the soil here, and they’re tramping on it because they don’t want to walk from the road to the trailhead.”
Other national parks are facing similar attendance crunches — the beneficiaries (some might say casualties) of the Park Service’s wildly successful “Find Your Park” advertising campaign — but none more so than Utah’s Zion National Park, 300 miles from Arches, which had a record 4.5 million visitors last year, the same number as Yosemite, a park five times its size.
It’s a familiar story. I live 15 minutes from Walden Pond, Thoreau’s old hideaway, which I dare you to visit on a summer weekend. Americans, as well as an increasing number of Germans, Japanese and Scandinavians, are rediscovering our national landscapes, not altogether a bad thing in an age of general estrangement from the outdoors, when parents like me worry about their kids having nature-deficit disorder. It was probably inevitable that future generations would unearth the Arches and Waldens of the world.
And you can hardly blame us. On our little rise above Balanced Rock, Smith and I had front-row seats to an ancient bedrock cataclysm: pinwheeling stone staircases, lager-tinted turrets and weird, fanged crags poised over petrified sand dunes, and farther off, the La Sal Mountains — loping green knuckles streaked with old snow. “No end of blessings from heaven and earth,” in Abbey’s words.
We were on a roll, Smith and I, jawing about the good old days. I was egging him on when he said, “You can trace human habitation here back 14,000 years. That might’ve been a golden age, too.”
But despite the crowds, Arches was still Abbey country, he said. Peace and quiet could be had, if you were willing to put in the work. Most visitors to Arches stay for less than two hours — about how long it takes to drive from the entrance to the turnaround at Devil’s Garden and back, with a few selfie breaks in between. Fewer than 1 percent of visitors, Smith said, venture into the backcountry.
I was after what Abbey was after: sweet, elusive solitude — the kind you can’t reach by car and rarely glimpsed by city-dwelling, latte-guzzling wusses like me. So the next day I packed up a tent, binoculars, two gallons of water and dozens of vile trail bars. Leaving behind my car and the road, I set off to see Arches, to really see it, or at least to find out if that was even possible.
Now we’re talking! A man, alone — out of cellphone range — in the maw of Mother Nature! A few paces from the road, there was no one. Some scrub oak and juniper, yellow warblers and green-tailed towhees, a pair of Cooper’s hawks high in the cliffs. I hiked under a charcoal smear of sky, passing through a canyon of gradually rising sandstone. Gauzy clumps of cotton from cottonwood trees drifted down around me like snowfall.
Arches has a few backcountry campsites but hardly any established trails to access them, just unofficial “social trails” struck by pioneering types who presumably know how to use a compass. My wife had given me one before I’d left home, but even if I had remembered to bring it — which I hadn’t — I wouldn’t have known what to do with the thing.
Ah, getting lost — this is where I really shine. In my hands, the simplest directions turn into a meandering, imponderable abstraction. What about one of those GPS thingies, you say? In short: I’m a Luddite — but such a device also seemed a special betrayal of Abbey, who was an archetype of self-reliance. No. Seeing Arches meant finding my own way and working it out if (which is to say, when) I drifted off-course.
All I had to do was follow a dry creek bed winding its way through the canyon — technically a “wash,” or drainage — and to pay fleeting attention to my map. Nevertheless, I managed to sail past my campsite by a mile or so. It was fun to think of what Abbey would have made of me, with my $150 hiking shoes, dehydrated quinoa meals and no blessed idea of where I was headed. It’s fair to say he would be galled by this very account, calling yet more attention to a fragile and overused landscape. (Don’t forget, Abbey had done something similar with “Desert Solitaire.”)
Doubling back, I somehow found my campsite, up on a sandy bench in a clearing of knee-high grass and prickly pear cactus. I was eye-level with the crowns of huge cottonwoods. As an evening breeze picked up, I pitched my tent beneath a cliff streaked with desert varnish — a patina of marbled black-and-orange thanks to eons of exposure to the elements. I felt a visceral pleasure at having found this place, and at having it all to myself. After dinner, the bats came out, a half-dozen of them, dancing and spinning as if on the ends of strings. Then the sky cleared and the stars materialized. My eyeballs, you might say, were suddenly unpeeled. In this way, at least, I shared something in common with Abbey.
An exile from the East who fled his family’s farm near Home, Pennsylvania, at 17, Abbey always retained the ability to be awed by the desert. “Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight,” he wrote in the opening pages of “Desert Solitaire.” “I am 20 miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exhalation.”
All told, he spent just a year at Arches — he was in his late 20s and lacking the gnarly Poseidon’s beard and hobo paunch he later acquired — but it formed and sustained him as a writer. Although he loathed the terms “environmentalist” and “nature writer,” he had no truck with the tide of development coming to the canyonlands and which in fact was already ravaging the desert around Arches. During his first season as a ranger, in 1956, a uranium mine opened just outside the park’s boundary. Now defunct, it left behind 16 million tons of radioactive soil, which is still being removed by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Abbey was also one of the last people to float Glen Canyon, a 186-mile-long stretch of the Colorado River that many considered more spectacular than Grand Canyon, before it was dammed in 1963 and turned into a Jet Ski and houseboat vacationland, Lake Powell. The dam inspired Abbey’s great eco-sabotage thriller, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which the FBI considered incendiary enough to keep tabs on him for the rest of his life.
Abbey also bemoaned what he called “industrial tourism” and the designs of the National Park Service to develop Arches for better “accessibility” — that is, more traffic — which struck him as a profane attempt to bend nature to our will. “Let the people walk,” he wrote. Or crawl, or bicycle. Anything to get them out of their cars and preserve what little wilderness remained. “I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk — walk — WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!”
In the end, it was no use. Shortly after he left Arches, it was modernized — “improved,” the thinking went. The roads were paved, campsites gussied-up, a visitor center installed, and the entrance moved to its current location, closer to Moab. Arches’ “old magic,” as Abbey called it, was gone.
Except, not entirely.
I spent the next day roaming Upper Courthouse Wash, along the park’s southwestern edge, which I seemed to have all to myself. I say “roaming,” as if I grasped where I was the whole time, which of course I didn’t. Gray, saggy clouds parted midday to reveal a truly mean sun. The light had a surgical edge that made everything flare like magnified glass.
I slipped farther into a canyon flooded with sun and wind and birds — ash-throated flycatchers and every raven in the world, it seemed, gathering to complain about the heat. In an early chapter, Abbey punches cattle through Upper Courthouse Wash with some cowboy friends — grazing was allowed in Arches during its monument days — and the experience put him in mind of that most elusive desert resource: water. “Everything seemed to be withering in the heat, blasted and shrunken under the furnace of the sun. I dreamed of water ...” It was easy to see how things could get sketchy fast, and I was glad for my insulated hydropack and extra water bottles.
Again, I took a wrong exit and wound up, well, it’s anyone’s guess, really, but when I eventually stumbled onto my campsite, perched on a baking blond slab of Navajo sandstone, I was so relieved that I pumped a fist into the air and rapped a few lines from Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now.” Slipping off my shoes, I trod barefoot across the cooling rock, then climbed up and onto a rim overlooking the canyon, where I could see clear to Devil’s Garden, in the far northern reaches of Arches. I was 3, maybe 4 miles, tops, from my car, but I might as well have been on a distant star. I didn’t see another soul for 24 hours.
“Freedom is the possibility of isolation,” wrote Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who Abbey was perhaps thinking of when he hopped a boxcar headed west from Pennsylvania, seeking in the desert a different kind of life, a refuge from “the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus,” as he wrote, somewhere out here between the road and the rock, the high heat and the solid night.
To be sure, it wasn’t always as solitary as he made it sound. Abbey’s second wife and young son often stayed with him in his trailer, where life could begin to feel like “a prison term.” He hankered for the smoky barrooms of Moab now and again, and passed an offseason amid “the degradation and misery of my fellow citizens” in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Matt Smith had reminded me of something else: “There’s a romantic haze about Abbey that radiates out from Moab,” he had said — a pervasive, facile regard for a man long dead and heedlessly canonized. Smith told me that many readers, for instance, seemed to breeze past whole sections of “Desert Solitaire,” including an early chapter in which Abbey strikes a shamefully condescending tone toward the Navajo.
“About Indians he could be particularly ignorant,” said Smith, whose ex-wife and three children belong to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community in Arizona. Other readers have pegged Abbey as an unrepentant chauvinist and possessing more than a smidgen of sanctimony, wishing to impose on others his own rigid strictures for living.
I get that. What I also get is real heartache for a land he loved and knew was doomed but still tried desperately to save. It killed him that others couldn’t see how precious it all was. Abbey had a special gift for poking fun at himself — he once wrote a savage review of his own novel “The Fool’s Progress” under the pseudonym Morton Kamins, taking issue with his “irrefutably atrocious” politics. He also found our collective infirmities to be downright hilarious, in particular the arms-length reverence with which we tend to behold our wild spaces, as if they can be admired only at a safe distance, through a car window.
You don’t have to spend much time in Arches to see what Abbey was telling us: We are missing out. The chief victims of industrial tourism are, after all, us tourists. “They are being robbed and robbing themselves,” he cautioned. “So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of those urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”
Once more I seemed to be standing on the lip of a tremendous declivity, staring across a side-winding chasm slowly reddening in the evening light. As the sky sharpened at its edges in pink, slashing tongues, I could see, finally, through a gap in the cliffs, a long curve of juniper-covered hills rolling and tumbling southward before breaking up into open country.
On my last night, I camped on a spur of sandpapery rock tucked into a side canyon off the Devil’s Garden primitive trail. I had to be out of here tomorrow, back to Salt Lake City and my flight home. It had been a paltry three nights in the desert. Such transience would have depressed Abbey. I laid in my tent at dusk, my head poking out the flap, listening to coyotes yap and yowl.
“When I return will it be the same?” Abbey wrote in a final passage of “Desert Solitaire,” feeling anxious about the future as he prepared to leave his beloved Arches for the offseason. “Will I be the same? Will anything ever be quite the same again? If I return.”
John O’Connor is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.