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‘Thoreau of the American West,’ Edward Abbey, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Edward Abbey, the irreverent writer and impassioned environmentalist whose popular books perpetuated their author’s dream of seeing “the whole American West made into a wilderness,” has died in Tucson.

The man dubbed “the Thoreau of the American West” by “Lonesome Dove” author Larry McMurtry died Tuesday at his home at age 62 of internal bleeding caused by a circulatory disorder, said Jack Macrae, a friend who also is editor-in-chief of Henry Holt & Co., Abbey’s publisher.

Abbey recently had completed a draft of “Hayduke Lives,” a sequel to his best-known book, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which told of a group of environmentalists plotting to blow up Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam.

Hundreds of thousands of paperback copies of “The Monkey Wrench Gang” were sold after its publication in 1976, making Abbey a sort of underground hero to the burgeoning environmental movement.

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His writings have been credited by founders of the hard-line environmental group Earth First! with providing the underpinnings of their philosophy.

“Hayduke Lives” would be the 20th book by the one-time park ranger, firefighter and political radical.

The renegade outdoorsman once said there was nothing wrong with throwing beer cans out car windows, since paved roads were abominations and unworthy of respect. He had grown to hate the survey stakes, aircraft and golf courses that marred his once-pristine desert landscape.

Anthologies refer to him as “irascible,” “cantankerous,” “iconoclastic” and “crusty.”

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Abbey himself resisted simple summations, even those calling him environmentalist or naturalist. “If a label is required,” he once wrote, “say that I am one who loves the unfenced country.”

Despite the fact that he found himself “getting more radical as I get older,” as he told The Times last year, he was not without a sense of humor.

Two years ago Outside magazine asked Abbey for an almanac of the high and low points of the 1975-85 decade.

Under “Low Point” he wrote: “Beef ranchers in Montana and Wyoming harvest 155 ‘troublesome’ grizzlies.”

The “High Point” read: “Grizzlies in Montana and Wyoming harvest 22 ‘troublesome’ tourists.”

In “One Life at a Time Please” he offered essays guaranteed to offend everyone he touched. Cattlemen were “nothing more than Western parasites.” Recent arrivals to the West were “instant rednecks.”

But Abbey represented far more than the wise-cracking, one-time farm boy he was.

In a review of “Desert Solitaire,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edwin Way Teale noted that Abbey’s work as a park ranger had brought him to the wilderness before the invasion of “the parked trailers, their windows blue tinged at night while the inmates, instead of watching the desert stars, watch TV and listen to the canned laughter of Hollywood.”

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He called Abbey “a voice crying in the wilderness, for the wilderness.”

Abbey was born on a small farm in Appalachia and, after a stint in the Army, hitchhiked West in 1946. He studied English and philosophy at the University of New Mexico and turned to writing while supporting himself at odd jobs.

He worked off and on for both the National Park Service and the Forest Service as a road inspector, auto assembly line worker and ditch digger.

“I pounded survey stakes before I ever got the notion to pull them out,” he told The Times in 1988.

Although he became a champion of the outdoors, he was not one to rhapsodize its qualities.

He faulted writers “gushing about finding God in every bush.”

“I sat on a rock in New Mexico once,” he said, “trying to have a vision. The only vision I had was of baked chicken.”

Abbey’s most recent novel, “The Fool’s Progress,” was published late last year. His other books included “Good News,” a futuristic novel about life in America; “The Journey Home,” “Down the River,” “Beyond the Wall” and “Abbey’s Road.”

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For years he had lived in the Sonora desert in a modest home with a chain-link fence enclosing a stand of palms.

His writing studio stood out back ringed by the toys that were testament to the children who lived there (he and his wife had two while he had three from four previous marriages).

Known not at all for his religious beliefs, he wrote what could only be called an invocation in his “Desert Solitaire,” a 1968 book he said was inspired by “two seamless perfect seasons” with the Arches Park Service in Utah:

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.

“May your rivers . . . meander through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl. . . .”


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