Some of our best wilderness writers are comedians. Take Outside's Tim Cahill, who assumes the persona of his own fretful mother, imagining the worst possible finales to his parachute jumps and underground crawls. There is Sports Illustrated's Bill Gilbert, the Oblomov of the backcountry, who can never remember why in God's name he forsook the comforts of home to slog across, say, the wastes of Baffin Islnad. And there is Edward Abbey, who writes for a number of magazines in the guise of a sex-starved, rule-flouting rogue whose only redeeming features is his love for wild country.
In "Back of Beyond," one of 30 articles collected in this volume, the victim of Abbey's anarchism is an Avis rental agency in remotest Australia. After assuring the agent that he's going only a short way, will be back in two days and needs no insurance, Abbey heads for the west coast, 1,700 miles away. "I figured I could make it in a week or two," he writes. "Or even sooner if there were roads through the region." A few days later, suffering from two flat tires and a cracked oil pan, the car gives out.
Abbey walks a few miles and locates a tow truck. He forgets to mention the flat tires, and the towed car flips on its side. A beer or two later, Abbey and the driver stop and right the car. "Two doors were sprung, two jammed shut, some windows smashed, and the bright new finish a bit worse for wear, but otherwise everything looked shipshape" In the town of Kalgoorlie, Abbey makes plane reservations back to his rural Arizona home and returns the maimed machine to Avis at the last possible minute. The agent asks whether the car was satisfactory. "Oh quite,' I said, sweating, stinking, drunk, filthy, and happy, 'quite, quite,' and took off, disappearing forever into the Southern Cross."
Forever? There must have been more to it. Abbey secured the car with a credit card furnished by the magazine for which he was on assignment. There must have been a day of reckoning, and Abbey probably paid in some way, but who wants to learn how and whittle down his tall tale?
Abbey also prides himself on tossing empty beer cans in Lake Powell, the dammed-up reservoir that superseded Utah's Glen Canyon, because he feels they belong there. A similar distaste for the interstate highway system prompts him to litter its margins. (In the backcountry he is scrupulously neat.)
But the most provocative expression of his iconoclasm can be found in "Desert Solitaire," an earlier collection, in which he offers his rationale for wilderness preservation. None of the customary jurisdictions wholly satisfies him - not the preservation of rare species, not the offering of spiritual solace and physical challenge to jaded urban dwellers. There is something else. We should set aside wilderness, Abbey argues, as a haven from political oppression. "Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone and the High Sierra may be required to function as bases for guerilla warfare against tyranny"
As Abbey pointed out in a previous book, he is not a naturalist. Rather he considers his nonfiction (he has also written five novels) to be "simple narrative accounts of travel and adventure." Yet beneath his love of hijinks and adventure, Abbey is a troubled man. There is a place in nearly all of his essays where he halts his narration, reins in his ribaldry and rails at the hubris of contemporary scientist or the greed of American developers. And his sense of humor sometimes segues into melancholy. In Death Valley, for example, Abbey and a friend drop LSD, and Abbey quips that his friend's brain is "turning soft as Camembert in the acid bath." But a few hours later the friend slips into paranoia, and Abbey has to hug him until the crisis is past.
He avoids terminal despair, Abbey tells us by having respect. Respect for my obligations to others, respect for the work I still hope to do, respect for myself. The despair that haunts the background of our lives, sometimes obtruding itself into consciousness, can still be modulated, as I know from experience, into a comfortable melancholia and from there to defiance, delight, a roaring affirmation of self-existence. Even, at times, into a quiet and blessedly self-forgetful peace, a modest joy."
On the cover of his new book, beneath the words "Abbey's Road," a sign which appears to have been drawn by Abbey himself cautions. "Take the other."
Do not listen to him.