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Desert Rats, Mountain Men

Adventures With Ed, A Portrait of Abbey by Jack Loeffler, University of New Mexico Press, $24.95.
Edward Abbey: A Life by James M. Cahalan, University of Arizona Press, $27.95.

Radical defense of wilderness was most famously celebrated in two Ed Abbey books, Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang. Now two new biographies look for the roots of this maverick’s sensibilities.

Early on, Abbey discovered his power to shock. In Adventures With Ed, Jack Loeffler relates a tale of Abbey’s stint as student editor of the University of New Mexico’s literary magazine, Thunderbird, where he "committed an act of literary heresy that people have never stopped talking about. He published an issue . . . on the front cover of which was printed, ‘Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest!’ signed, Louisa May Alcott. The campus went wild. Ed wouldn’t rescind the issue or apologize, and his tenure as editor was terminated." When he was a newspaper editor in Taos in 1959, Abbey, Loeffler, and two friends became a chainsaw gang. They started by hacking down 12 billboards north of Las Vegas, New Mexico–activities that became fodder for The Monkey Wrench Gang.

The prospect of the irretrievable loss of wilderness to profiteering prompted Abbey’s greatest sorrow and anger. As he proclaimed in Abbey’s Road, "Today, our technological-industrial social machine is trying to enslave the whole of Nature–put everything to work for the sake of human greed and human power. That, I think, is the ultimate evil of the modern age."

Loeffler makes us privy to an adventurous brotherhood, two friends who duked it out verbally and still remained close. "We became adept at sharing silence, even over the phone," Loeffler writes.

Both Loeffler and James Cahalan, in his Edward Abbey: A Life, recount Abbey’s irresistible appeal to women, and the conflagrations it caused in four failed marriages. "There was something charismatic about Abbey," Loeffler writes, "not just to women but to his male friends too."

Whereas Loeffler provides firsthand, affectionate anecdotes, Cahalan’s work is an academic accounting of Abbey’s journals, letters, audio- and videotapes, public appearances, 21 books, and numerous magazine manuscripts. Cahalan interviewed Abbey’s family members, former wives, girlfriends, and rangers Abbey had worked with at 16 national parks.

Cahalan plots, sometimes ploddingly, an entire lifetime, from Abbey’s birth in Home, Pennsylvania, to his last years in Oracle, Arizona. Cahalan sees Abbey as a marketing maven, who combined savvy self-publicizing with true literary genius to cajole his readers into protecting the environment.

He speculates that Abbey’s counterculture-cowboy mystique may have been inherited, with the father passing on itinerant ways to his son. As the economy withered in the Great Depression, Abbey’s dad, Paul, drove the family around Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the summer of 1931, selling nameplates and other items along the road to survive while the whole family camped in a tent. And it was the resourceful can-doism of his mother that fortified her son to move environmentalists and agendas.

Loeffler and Cahalan agree that Abbey adopted a "resist much, obey little" approach not for mere anarchy’s sake, but to jolt people into sensing the urgency of protecting the wilderness. They also record some of Abbey’s more alarming quirks, such as a habit of throwing out beer cans while driving. Such behavior was Abbey’s personal protest against building highways on pristine land to ferry sightseers into his beloved national parks.

Loeffler supports Abbey’s contention that he did not see himself as a naturalist but strictly as a writer dedicated to preserving nature’s beauty. That dedication was irrevocably confirmed by a mystical, pivotal experience in 1948 that changed Abbey forever. Abbey had hiked down alone into Havasu Canyon, a branch of the Grand Canyon. After five weeks he emerged and, Loeffler writes, "Abbey’s soul adhered, once and for all, to the desert dust, the red rock, the pinon-juniper wood bark, the clear air, the wilderness of the American Southwest."

Loeffler says Abbey’s credo was twofold, as articulated in One Life at a Time, Please. First, for a writer to be true to his subject, no matter where the truth leads him. Second, to write clearly and succinctly, as in metaphorically, "clear as the desert air."

Both books afford a welcome and fuller understanding of this wilderness hero, exploring the contrast between a crude, rude exterior and a remarkably tender passion for the natural world.
–Sunamita Lim

Missing in the Minarets: The Search for Walter A. Starr Jr. by William Alsup, Yosemite Association, $24.95. In August 1933, when a prominent young lawyer named Walter A. Starr Jr. failed to show up after a solo trip to the mountains, his law partner went to the Sierra Club for help. Club president Francis Farquhar dropped everything to assemble a world-class rescue team. A day later he was combing the range in a two-seater airplane while hand-picked alpinists were scouring the rocky ground near an abandoned tent on the east side of the Sierra. The climbers included the crusty old king of Sierra first ascents, Norman Clyde, and two youngsters who had just returned from a Sierra Club High Trip, Jules Eichorn and Glen Dawson. All three would make indelible marks in mountaineering history.

A former trial lawyer who is now a federal judge, author William Alsup intended the disappearance of Starr to be but one chapter in a broader-ranging book about the Sierra Nevada’s popular Minaret region. But when he dug into historical accounts, he found puzzling contradictions. So he devoted his sleuthing skills to unraveling the mystery of Starr’s untimely death.

His book sheds new light on this fascinating old story, while providing today’s climbers and backpackers with panoramic black-and-white photos and a detailed history of climbing in the spikily scenic Minarets. Alsup’s insights will no doubt send backpacking buffs back to their battered copies of the book Starr had almost finished when he met his demise. Posthumously published, Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region is still in print 70 years later, counseling us to "glory and dream" in the paradise of these "defiant mountains." –Joan Hamilton

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert, Penguin Putnam, $24.95. Eustace Conway’s life reads so much like a tall tale that by page four of novelist and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, you half-expect Babe the Blue Ox to come thundering onto the scene. Here’s a man who lived in a tepee for seven long winters, sewed his clothes from buckskin, and once killed a full-grown deer with a knife and his bare hands. While still in his teens, he walked from Maine to Georgia without a backpack, living on what he could hunt and gather. At age 34, he rode a horse across America in 103 days–a world record. The year was 1995. The list of exploits goes on.

Conway is the primitive in our midst. Today, he lives on a 1,000-acre preserve in Appalachia, where he farms the land and teaches others how to live in closer harmony with nature. Like many other Americans of his ilk–Thoreau, Muir, and Burroughs all come to mind–he believes we have lost our way, and that our only hope lies in a return to Nature.

Part Boswell, part Tocqueville, Gilbert examines larger themes through the lens of her subject–namely, the frontier mythos and American masculinity. The Eustace Conway she presents to us may be larger-than-life, but with flaws to match his virtues–a gentle soul and raving control freak all wrapped in one; in other words, a confounding paradox. What does one make, after all, of a man who enthuses equally over forest idylls and "slick little business deals," who revels in the simple life, but finds the "idea of a mere eight-hour work day ‘disgusting’"? In the end, it’s the great puzzle of Eustace Conway that makes him so intriguing.

Consider, for example, Eustace as eco-philosopher: Reduce, reuse, and recycle are all well and good, he says, but only as a last resort. Two other R’s must come first: reconsider and refuse. Who needs material goods when we can find what we need in nature? Eustace prefers to get by on know-how, building fires with a bow drill, reading by lamplight, farming with draft horses. All of which sounds good until the reader realizes that Mr. Conway’s code doesn’t extend as far as, say, plastic buckets, motorcycles, or chainsaws–all technology that he puts to good use.

Such contradictions are bound to frustrate readers bent on consistency. And, to be sure, Conway’s story is best approached in a spirit of magnanimity. Think of that other American, Walt Whitman, who once wrote: Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.) Eustace Conway is, finally, like Whitman before him, a force of nature.
–Patrick Joseph

New from Sierra Club Books
My Story As Told by Water, David James Duncan’s National Book Award—nominated collection of compelling essays about rivers of the Pacific Northwest and their endangered salmon, is now in paperback.

The River Why, Duncan’s classic, which stands with A River Runs Through It as one of America’s most popular fly-fishing stories, is also now available in paperback from Sierra Club Books.

Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (415) 977-5600, through our Web site,, or by writing the store at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.

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