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Abbey’s Picnic

No food, no water, no car—another good day in the desert for a celebrated author.

By Ingrid Eisenstadter

Edward Abbey was one of America’s great wilderness advocates. "Let’s keep things the way they were," he was fond of saying. He was also a writer. (If asked, he called himself an "arthur.") Born in 1927 an Appalachian hillbilly, he came into the world on the cusp of the Great Depression. He grew up to establish himself as a cranky misanthrope, man with too many wives, and brilliant nature writer with a lightning wit.

Abbey is best known for two books, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness and The Monkey Wrench Gang. The former is an essay collection about the lonely beauty of southwestern deserts, and the latter is a novel—a rowdy, Luddite comedy about cutting down highway billboards, blowing up dams, and pouring Karo Syrup into the gas tanks of earthmoving machines to, well, prevent them from moving earth. It’s a book about throwing beer cans out of car windows. "Beer cans are beautiful," Abbey maintained. "It’s the highway that’s ugly."

Both books have been continuously in print since they were first published a few decades ago, and the action-packed Monkey Wrench Gang has been licensed to movie producers much of that time. The book has never completed the trip to the big screen, apparently because the same film studios that fearlessly produce entertainment about the destruction of people are afraid of a movie about the destruction of property. That’s illegal.

Abbey died at 62, in 1989, just before the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. That was lucky for Exxon, but unlucky for wilderness, which lost a good friend. So did I. Had Ed lived, this year would have marked the occasion of his 75th birthday. Here’s a story that happened closer to his 45th, when he was writing The Monkey Wrench Gang, a time when we had cast our lot together.

Still sometimes today, people ask me if we really lived the lives described in The Monkey Wrench Gang, and I confess, no, we did not.

And we never will again. —I.E.

About this time of year, almost 30 years ago, Ed and I were laboring through the exurbs of Ajo, in the south of Arizona. We were driving on a miserable, unpaved, backcountry road in an old VW van that he had recently purchased from some dope-smoking longhairs. There were, of course, paved roads to Ajo, but Ed had taken the scenic route, as usual. He had the gas pedal to the floor on this javelina trail, and we were doing 15, maybe 18 miles per hour because of an imperceptible incline (ah, the VW van). It was not scenic. Just the lamentable, searing desert and us.

I was hungry, hot, annoyed. I was thirsty.

"I’m thirsty," I said.

"Have some water."

"You brought water?"

"No. You?"


He thought for a while and said, "I’m thirsty, too."



"I’ve told you a thousand times not to go into the desert without water," he said.

"Well, had you told me we were going to go this way, why, I suppose I would have brought some water," I said, eventually adding, "and food."

"What? No food?"

"No. No food. Nothing to eat."

"I’m hungry," Ed said.

Now we just ignored each other. Ed was concentrating on staying on the road and, as nothing really distinguished this particular road from anything to the left or right of it, staying on it was not easy. As for me, I was concentrating on the bleak horizon shimmering in little waves of heat, the only thing in sight that was moving.

Everything we owned was in the back of the van, as usual. Whenever Ed heard about a house that had fewer neighbors than ours, or more property, or a bigger refrigerator, we moved there, as we were doing this day. It wasn’t very hard to move because we didn’t own very much: some clothes, one of which was a tie; a typewriter (manual); a sewing machine (treadle); some pots purchased at J.C. Penney in St. George largely as a means of cashing an unemployment check; an ice chest; books maps tools; a bottle of wine; and some money, not much. As usual.

We spoke only intermittently in the oppressive heat, because as soon as we opened our mouths the desert sucked the moisture out of us, and we were running low already. When our sparse conversation lapsed entirely, the only sound we could hear was the low-slung van waging battle with the rock-strewn road. Kerchunk. Kerchunk.

Looking across the exsiccated wasteland, I explained again to Ed that I was sick of the desert and longed for the mind-numbing humidity of home, Bronx, New York.

"How’s about a trip East?" I asked.

"No," he replied uncomplicatedly, and began to point out the sights. Of course, there were no sights by anyone’s standards but his, so I ignored him.

Kerchunk. Kerchunk. I glanced at the speedometer. Ten miles per hour.

"Can’t you get this crate to go any faster?" I asked.

"I’ve got the pedal on the floor, fer chrissake. What do you want me to do? Push?"

"I’m thirsty," I said.

"Well, you should have brought some water. That was stupid."

"You’re the one who’s stupid."

"No, you."


By now I was aware that the rhythmic pitching of the van was corresponding not to our hitting rocks in the road, but to the sound of the engine. Kerchunk. Kerchunk. It was growing louder.

We ignored it. We talked about where in Ajo we would have dinner, assuming we ever got there churning along at ten miles per hour. Maybe we should be talking about breakfast instead, I suggested dryly. By now we had to talk pretty loud to be heard over the sound of the engine. KERCHUNK. KERCHUNK. I looked again at the speedometer. Five miles per hour. The van was now lurching in sync with the noise. I was holding on to the door handle to steady myself. After a time, Ed turned to me and yelled: "I think something’s wrong with the car."

"No. Really?"

"Did you put any oil in it?" he shouted.

"When?" I yelled back.


"No. You?"



"Should we pull over?"

"Well, I dunno why we should pull over," I shouted. "You think we’re going to block traffic?"

Pedal to the metal. Two miles per hour. Not a car in sight. In fact, no signs of life of any kind in sight. All the reprehensible creatures that surrounded us had the sense to be out of the noonday sun. No food. No water.

And, so, well, we began to laugh. Time passed. At this point it would be inaccurate to say the van was actually moving anymore, because that would imply we were going forward, whereas in fact we were just jerking violently in place, the engine clanging, resounding, pealing through the desert. And, so, we laughed harder.

Ed dropped his head down onto his arms, now folded across the steering wheel, and he tried to catch his breath.

"Hey," I exclaimed, "keep yer eyes on the road. We’re drivin’ here."

Then, with a final, violent kerrrrrrCHUNK, the engine seized up. Froze. Died. Four red-hot pistons solidly and finally fused to the cylinders, melted into the engine block that was now their coffin, never to pump gas again. O, silence. Silence everywhere. Heat. Thirst. Despair.

"Well, thank God," Ed said, glancing at the gas gauge, "we’ve still got half a tank."

Now we spilled out of the van, him on his side, me on mine, tearing eyes, struggling for breath, leaning heavily on the hot van, then collapsing onto the desert sand with aching lungs and throats, laughing. When our merriment subsided, we crawled over to each other and, back-to-back, sat quietly, exhausted. Time to assess our situation. After a while, Ed spoke.

"Got any water?"

Time to decant the wine. I hopped into the back of the van, opened the ice chest, and pulled out a bottle of hot red wine, red-hot wine, which we had opened some days before. "Vino Fino." A dollar a fifth. Seventy cents if you knew where to shop. No wine glasses. No dixie cups. Ed popped the cork, took a swig of the steaming, vinegary stuff, and made a sour face as he forced it down.

"Fruit of the earth," he said, and handed the bottle to me. We got drunk. And why not? We didn’t have much longer to live anyway.

Thus, the conversation turned to dying, especially the grim possibility that we would run out of wine before we died. We talked about the wills we didn’t have; the life we would not share; the state our gutted, rotted carcasses would be in before we were discovered; whether we should leave behind a note ("got oil?"); and then we heard a car. No, a truck. And then we could see it. And then it stopped. The driver gave us some water. Ice water.

Ed knew the man in that truck and after the what-are-you-doing-here’s were exchanged, and the bet-yer-glad-to-see-me’s were done, with a six-foot rope he tied our dead VW to his back bumper and off we went. Soon we were on a real road doing 60 miles an hour. At last, a breeze. Regrettably, we were much too close to him to be going so fast.

"Tell this idiot to slow down," I said.

"And how exactly should I do that?"


"And what if he steps on the brake, idiyat?"


"Well, then," I was thinking about it now, "I guess we’ll roll forward six feet and hit him at sixty miles per hour." We chatted about whether we could get arrested for drunk driving when our engine wasn’t turned on and we finished off the wine.

Our tow ended at a car dealer in Ajo, and there we threw out the VW and bought a red and white Ford van, an American car, reliable. It had a tape deck and tapes. It had an air conditioner. It had elk antlers wired to the front hood. It had six cylinders. It was the only used car for sale in the lot.

We loaded our worldly possessions into our new van, which, before too long, I would back into a parked car that was, alas, occupied by its owner at the time. We didn’t own the Ford for long. Indeed, we would go through three or four more cars in the year or two that were ahead. Just as well. An occasional plate change is a good thing.

I turned on the air conditioner, Ed put in a tape, and off we went. We had dinner in Ajo after all. Late that night we pulled into a cheap motel, cashed an unemployment check, and fell peacefully to sleep. It had been a good day, as usual.

Ingrid Eisenstadter is a dancer from the Bronx.

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