From The Best of Edward Abbey (Sierra Club Books, 2005)
Somewhere in the greatest chunk of Lower Sonoran desert wilderness left on earth, I crouch in the shallow gulch out of the gusty wind blowing in from Mexico. The March breeze rattles in the brittlebush, still sprouting a few faded yellow blooms. A broad alluvial valley rolls out behind me, across the green trace of a wash, up the slope to engulf distant mountain ranges. An immense silence encases the staggered breaths of wind. Boulders litter the tiny sand wash. I hop from rock to rock noting the tracks of lizards, coyotes and a single desert bighorn sheep. The sun is warm on my back—it’s a great day to be out here. I work my way along the gully and come out on a small flat. A big quartzite rock lies next to a basaltic boulder. The brown patina is etched:
I’ve come here to visit Ed Abbey’s grave. It’s been fifteen years now since we buried Ed here--illegally of course--in accordance with his last wishes. I tend to come out here most every year near the anniversary of his death, usually alone, other times with friends and family. Why? To taste this spectacular desert place, to pay respects, maybe conduct unfinished business, to celebrate his life, his brave death, to have a conversation with the rocks? Who knows?
In 15 years, some things have changed, others have not: We are older in a world on fire, witnessing the greatest threats yet to life on earth and to wild nature. Part of me is grateful old Ed’s not around to have to see it. The rest is acutely aware we have never needed an Ed Abbey more, to have his voice during these dismal times, that precise spine of outraged insight and of course the big toothy leering grin.
We might have expected someone, maybe dozens, to come along and filled these big lecherous shoes. Hell, there should be a hundred Abbeys by now. For whatever reason, they didn’t and there aren’t.
And that’s the sentiment that lingers: Despite the gut feeling of roaming adrift without him, that piteous ache is at least a shared one for the tribe of Abbey. In the gulch, out of the wind, the loss seems private, limited.
But the place is also significant. The road that led us back here to bury Ed completed a great circular journey. This landscape is the most important thing Ed Abbey and I ever shared. It’s still our last great American Desert Solitaire. You could shoulder a backpack and walk for over a hundred miles without crossing a road or seeing another human being. I’ve done it eight times, taking some seven to eleven days each. Of course you need to know where the water is. On Christmas Eve of 1981, I crossed Abbey’s tracks near the Copper Mountains on my way to the Cabeza Prieta Range. It took Ed nearly two weeks to walk from there out to Organ Pipe, where he had worked as a ranger during the late 60s when we first met.
Ed’s last solo trip across the Cabeza Prieta was cut short by the illness that would eventually claim his life. He was physically weak due to blood loss.
"I just couldn't do it," he said.
This infirmary plagued his last years; he knew he was living under a death sentence and bore it well.
Abbey was prepared for his death; he left us elaborate funeral and burial instructions, which led me to pick this arroyo for his final desert camp. And the very last time Ed Abbey smiled--it was just before dawn--was when I told him where he was going to be buried.
In his last decade, Ed wrote quite a bit about death. Not morbidly or obsessively but how, in the end, you had to wrap your arms around death and embrace that final act, about the desire for immortality and how it is based on a terrible fear of death, which comes from not having lived fully, from a cowardly, tedious, and uneventful life, and how the worst thing of all would be to hang to this kind of life using the technology of life-support systems: "If your life has been wasted, then naturally you're going to cling like a drowning man to whatever kind of semi-life medical technology can offer you, and you're going to end up in a hospital with a dozen tubes sticking in your body, machines keeping your organs going. Which is the worst possible way to die. One's death should mean something. Those who fear death most are those who enjoy life least. Death is every man's final critic. To die well you must live bravely." Ed said.
If there remained any question about Abbey's life, it was answered by his dying. Despite the indignities and bodily invasions he suffered, he forgave and never wavered.
There was a deal: we promised Ed he wouldn't have to die in a hospital. Finally, he pulled out all the tubes and needles and announced--with the clearest eyes I had ever seen--that it was time to go.
There were four of us: Jack, Steve and Ed’s wife Clarke. We quickly packed up Ed's room. Clarke said, "Doug you pick the spot (for Ed to die) and lead the way." Jack backed up his pickup to the hospital door. We loaded up Ed into the front seat of Jack's truck, propped him up between Clarke and Jack, and we headed east, towards the Tucson Mountains. At the railroad tracks, I pulled over, ran back, and asked how Abbey was doing.
"He's going fast," they answered.
I led up the freeway north for seven minutes, then turned west, towards the mountains, not far from my own house. I pulled off on a dirt road, then on a trail leading along a pipeline, and off again on a track out into the empty desert. Jack's pickup was right behind me.
I turned off the truck lights and got out. You could see lights way off in the valley but there were no houses or lights nearby. A single saguaro and a few scrawny mesquite trees were visible through the morning gloom. I knew a tiny wash ran through and watered the saguaro and mesquite; I sometimes came out here myself to spend the night when I needed a little space. It wasn't all that bad of a place to die.
I built a little mesquite fire, and put a folding chair next to it. We helped Ed get in it; he wanted to sit up by the fire for a while. After a few minutes, Ed said he was ready to get into the sleeping bag. We all came over and said good-by, then backed off again. Clarke got in the sleeping bag with him and we waited. And waited.
He opened his eyes.
"Sometimes the magic doesn't work," he said, as the sun rose into the desert sky.
By midmorning, it appeared that Abbey wasn't quite ready to die. We packed him up and went back to his home, to his writer's shack on the edge of a wash. We saw him through the nights in shifts.
I was alone with Ed most of that last night--the last six hours of his life. Mainly, I just sat, watched, and administered the drugs for pain and the gagging resulting from the blood from his throat running down into his stomach.
After my 3 AM sticking of Ed's now atrophying muscles -- poking 21 gauge needles into his bony shoulders -- I quit injecting him altogether. I had lost heart and couldn't bear to hurt him anymore. He opened his eyes and turned towards me.
"Isn't it about time for that overdose, Douglas?"
He managed a small grin, the next to the last one.
Then it was back here to the great desert country of southwest Arizona, this harsh, dry region we all loved. We drove through washes lined with big mesquites and desert willow trees, over creosote-studded bajadas, past cholla and ironwood, driving west with Ed packed in dry ice in the bed of the truck. The sun was low on the horizon. Towards the west, the colors of sunset clashed with the absolute black and white expanse of basaltic boulders peppered by ghostly brittlebush. As far as the eye could see, and one could see distant ranges a hundred miles into the setting sun, there was not a human sign; no roads, trails, power lines, -- only the faint evening breeze stirred in this landscape.
The next morning I found the exact place we would plant old Ed. Steve did the shovel work. I lay down in the freshly dug grave to test the exact confirmation and to check out the view—it was a good one. Beyond the bronze basalt and desert trees, seven buzzards soared into view, soon joined by three others, all ten banking over the volcanic rubble and riding the thermal up the flank of the mountain, gliding out and over the distant valley. As Ed wanted to be incarnated as a buzzard, we took this as a sign.
We picked up the body and carried it over the rugged ground. I was shocked at how light Abbey seemed, as light as a feather. We lowered Ed into the hole. It went very quickly. I picked up a black vulture feather for an offering, but there was very little time for ceremony.
There’s been considerable ceremony since. Today, the head of Ed’s grave is littered with heart-shaped rocks, seashells, crystals, bear and lion fetishes and animal bones. A lot of Wild Turkey and Mexican beer has been poured over the rocks. This beautiful spot is a fitting place to contemplate the continuing importance of the man. In the American wilderness, Abbey found the heart of freedom, dignity and the roots of our own democracy. His life and work were tightly stitched by lonely desert trails and mountain paths. Ed’s gravesite has also become the most fitting perch to consider my own dedication to the war to preserve wilderness. Maybe, as Abbey told us, it is the only thing worth saving.
Ed Abbey blasted onto the popular scene in 1968 with Desert Solitaire, a book that changes lives. As I had just returned from Vietnam and was never able to pry loose the issue of war in Asia from the war on wildness back home, I view the publication of Desert Solitaire and the origins of the more militant branch of the modern western conservation movement as at least synchronous. His hilarious novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, helped launch a radical wilderness movement. The time was ripe for change and Ed was right there.
Now, in our own days, we lurk on the brink of yet another abyss--a human waged war upon life on earth, upon wilderness and the wild creatures who live there. Abbey, the quintessential iconoclast, saw it coming. “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government,” he warned. You can almost hear that nasal sonorous query today, “What to do, What to do,” nudging our moral compass in significant declinations, telling his friends to grab hold of the joy of the land and laugh at ourselves.
Ed’s not here to walk point anymore. What remains is the considerable arsenal of his books. The Best of Edward Abbey is the only anthology Abbey himself compiled. It is a pack rat’s nest of material, cranky, passionate and elegant. His selection process itself is sufficiently cantankerous to constitute material for several advanced degrees. The preface alone is worth the price of the book. Abbey offers a juicy glimpse of his first book, Jonathan Troy, which Ed considered a dismal failure, and a taste of Black Sun, a sexy novel to which Abbey remained loyal despite the scorn of the Eastern literary establishment (The New Yorker called it “an embarrassing bad novel.”) Of the wildly successful Monkey Wrench Gang, Ed chose a chapter called “Seldom Seen at Home,” which was omitted from the book’s first edition. An editor at Lippincott had argued that the chapter was stylistically jarring and slowed the action. In Moab, several months before The Monkey Wrench Gang was published, Ed asked me what I thought and I stupidly concurred with the editor. Here Abbey rightly spits it back in both our faces.
On the other hand, Ed Abbey’s own choice of essays and stories is the truest guide to his entire body of work. Take it from the horse’s mouth, the selections are the best and most representative. For this reason, Ed’s own anthology surpasses all others. There will be other Abbey Readers but only The Best of Edward Abbey carries the personal and thorny generosity that characterizes the best of an American classic.