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In Desert Solitude, Faithful Pay Tribute to the Abbey Myth

Times Staff Writer

Edward Abbey died on March 14 at age 62. That evening, friends hauled the author of “The Monkeywrench Gang” into the desert and buried him under a big pile of black rocks, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.

Over the weekend, some of those same friends, accompanied by hundreds of others, walked into another part of that vast slick rock and cacti cemetery to celebrate the life of a man, who, more quickly than any writer since Jack Kerouac, has been resurrected as a modern myth.

In “Desert Solitaire,” the 1968 book that incited a generation of environmentalists, Abbey described hauling the bloated carcass of a tourist from a remote canyon in Arches National Park. Then a seasonal ranger, Abbey congratulated the man on his good fortune in dying under the desert sky, away from meddling doctors and priests.

“If we had loved him,” he added, “we would sing, dance, drink, build a stupendous bonfire, find women, make love . . . and celebrate his transfiguration from flesh to fantasy in a style proper and fitting, with fun for all at the funeral.”

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Saturday, folks did just that--presumably all of it. They also talked at length about why, as one speaker said, so many of the disparate people who had arrived at this remote mesa from around the country would recall the moment they heard Abbey had died as vividly as the moment they learned that John Kennedy had been shot.

As the morning sun lifted layers of gray from the surrounding red and black bluffs, poet Wendall Berry told the congregation that Abbey’s work gave people courage.

Berry is forbidden to read Abbey at night because his laughter wakes up the house, he said. But concealed in Abbey’s humor, he added, is a commitment to a serious vision and an antidote to the despair that sometimes seems integral to modern life.

“I never laid down a book by Edward Abbey that I did not feel more encouraged than when I picked it up,” he said.

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Hike Up a Dirt Road

The tribute was staged a short hike up a dirt road that had been the entrance to the park when Abbey worked there. Soaring Entrada sandstone cliffs framed one side of the setting; in another direction hovered the snow-capped Tukuhnikivats, which Abbey called “the mightiest mountains in the land of Moab.”

Someone had set an American flag beside the small podium, from which speakers addressed the several hundred people spread out across a gentle slope of lichen-mottled sandstone.

More than one speaker remarked that Abbey’s work was distinguished by a rare love of life and love of country, despite his anti-authoritarian disgust with government and his radical stands against much of modern life.

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“Patriotism,” Berry said, “is not the love of air conditioning or the interstate highway system or the government or the flag or power or money or munitions. It is the love of country.”

The Eastern Literary Establishment made only grudging nods of recognition at Abbey. That apparently suited him fine. In one of his worst nightmares, he once said, the “effete” novelist John Updike moved into the scruffy neighborhood outside Tucson, Ariz., where Abbey and his fifth wife, Clarke, lived for almost two decades.

But now, even some of the Eastern literati are paying homage, said Barry Lopez, author of books such as “Arctic Dreams” and perhaps the best known of the new breed of nature writers.

“A lot of the literary Establishment ignored Ed, or dismissed him as a crank,” Lopez said, before addressing the Abbeyites. “Now they’re coming around 180 degrees. The reason he is already a mythic figure is his quality of integrity and saying exactly what’s on his mind. We live in a land where so much is based on duplicity of language. People have a real thirst for anyone who speaks with a clear voice in a direct and uncompromising manner, saying precisely what they mean.”

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Few writers with their literary roots in the West ever doubted that Abbey was a force to be reckoned with.

Larry McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove,” has termed Abbey “a modern Thoreau.”

John Nichols, the author of “The Milagro Beanfield Wars” whose bad heart kept him at his Taos, N.M., home this weekend, said of Abbey by telephone: “I think ‘Desert Solitaire’ will stand up as a powerful classic. And ‘Monkey Wrench Gang’ will always be a lot of fun.”

Besides Monkey Wrench--the romantic tale of a ragtag band of river rats who rampage through the Southwest ripping up survey stakes, dismantling bulldozers and launching other quixotic attacks on alleged progress--the author wrote: eight other novels (the last of which is scheduled for release in the fall); five coffee table photographic collections, and six collections of essays. All reflect his preference for the natural over the man-made world and a strong-headed individualism in combat against technocracy.

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Abbey’s books, “were burrs under the saddle blanket of complacency,” author Wallace Stegner wrote in a letter Berry read to to the gathering. “He was a red-hot moment in the conscience of the country, and I suspect that the half-life of his intransigence will turn out to be comparable to uranium.”

Beer-Can Salute

George Foreman, who co-founded the radical environmental group Earth First!, raised a beer-can toast to the man who inspired what has been called “red-neck environmentalism.”

“Ed said that one brave deed is worth a thousand words. But every novel, every essay, every story Ed wrote has launched a thousand brave deeds,” he said. The people cheered. A string quartet played Mozart.

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Word about the tribute spread in a way the anarchist Abbey might have approved. Throughout his life, he had fired off fusillades of white postcards to praise, scold and maintain contact with the countless people, who, for whatever reasons, drifted into his field of influence, those who knew him said.

Saturday’s affair, announced with a postcard barrage and a few notices in publications of the environmental fringe, drew academic admirers and reverential young Abbey cultists who insist on chucking beer cans out car windows because their iconoclastic hero was known to have done so. A physician who attended said he had worked with Chico Mendes in the Amazon rain forests before that organizer of the rubber-tappers union was murdered. Another man who came said he spent his life exploring for gas and oil throughout the Southwest. He felt no guilt about what might appear to be hypocrisy. Abbey would understand his need to work outdoors, he said.

Those who knew Abbey conceded that he had a few inconsistencies himself. His attitude was, “So?”

He has been accused of racism, sexism, fascism. Abbey supporters said such charges are made by people who have not read his work closely. Supporters found other things to fight with him about.

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For his part, Abbey once wrote: “If there’s anyone still present whom I’ve failed to insult, I apologize.”

Nichols, who shared Abbey’s environmentalism but denounced aspects of his politics, said that the author’s humor defused any true antipathy. “When I think of Ed Abbey, I think of Emma Goldman, who said, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,’ ” he said.

Congress is now considering a bill that would make several million acres along the Utah-Colorado border a wilderness area. A congressional sponsor of the proposal has recommended that the area be named after Abbey.

Other parts of the land he cherished, though, have fallen to his worst fears.

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In “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey decried the “industrial tourism” he felt the National Park Service encouraged with its paved campgrounds and flush toilets. Such places disregard the adventurous urbanites who came for a rare taste of “the primitive and remote.” Instead they attract “the indolent millions, born on wheels and suckled on gasoline.”

In fact, tourists now march into the air-conditioned visitor’s center at Arches National Park and ask if there are sights they can see without leaving their motor homes. The winding main roads are now paved and lined with numbered signs pointing out each spectacular mesa and rock formation.

“This is the paradox” said Robin Wilson, widow of Bates Wilson, the park administrator whom Abbey credited with “much of what understanding I have of a country we both love.”

“All of us who know this area want to bring all our friends here and share it with them,” said Wilson, now an activist in the area. “It builds and builds.”

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Dancing and Drinking

Saturday night, at a guest ranch outside Moab, hundreds of Abbey aficionados danced and drank.

It probably was not as raucous as Abbey had wanted, but someone did let the horses out of the corral, and at least one young woman, wearing only a blouse, staggered across a lawn littered with cars and trucks.

The ranch, complete with a bookstore well-stocked with naturalist writings, poetry, and wildflower guides, is run by Ken Sleight, widely acknowledged to be Abbey’s inspiration for the Monkey Wrencher, Seldom Seen Smith.

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“I’m meeting all sorts of people I thought were myths tonight,” said Sleight’s wife, Jane.

Among the myths she knows well is Douglas Peacock, reportedly the man upon whom Abbey based George Washington Hayduke, the Monkey Wrench hero who is gunned down by a government helicopter like an American mujahedeen defending God’s Country.

About midnight, while young Abbeyites hooted and spun yarns and sashayed to twanging goat-roper music, Peacock and Sleight embraced, grappled, laughed.

Borrowed Traits

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Peacock, 47, still sunburned and stocky, makes films about grizzlies. Sleight, a thin guy with a bowl haircut, glasses and a cowboy boots, takes dudes out on horse-pack trips into the canyons he and Abbey used to explore.

“Ed borrowed traits from some of us to wrap the characters around,” Sleight, 59, said, his words coming slowly after a full day of toasting a friend. “But they were also very autobiographical.

“I think the Abbey myth is going to get bigger and bigger,” he said. “I encourage it, because I believe in what he had to say.”

Abbey was courted by Hollywood off and on throughout his life. He was pleased with the film “Lonely Are the Brave” in which Gregory Peck played the hero of Abbey’s early novel “The Brave Cowboy.”

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Now companies are reportedly bidding on his latest novel, “Fool’s Progress,” and there is renewed interest in producing a film based on “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

Before he died, Abbey completed the sequel to the Monkey Wrench Gang--"Hayduke Lives!” Long before the sequel was announced, though, “Hayduke Lives!” bumper stickers became ubiquitous throughout the Southwest.

Now there’s an addendum.

On the road leading into Sleight’s ranch, where a hundred or more cars and trucks with raft frames and kayaks and mountain bikes on top lined up, at least one sticker on one dirty Jeep had been defaced with the words: Abbey Lives!

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