Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Saturday, 10 May 2008

The Right Book

Arches National Park, Utah

Sometimes the right book has special meaning in the right place. If you read Jack London short stories in Skagway or Dawson, "The Journey" in the high mountains of western Canada, "Geronimo" on the Mexican border or "Desert Solitare" while visiting Arches National Park, you will understand.

Desert Solitaire was published in 1967 and based on two seasons in 1956 and 1957 when the author, Edward Abbey, served as a solitary park ranger in a place with no paved roads in what was then the Arches National Monument. At the time, Abbey was literally a "lone ranger" in a place visited by 3,000 people each year. His book is beautifully written and alternates between poetic descriptions of rattlesnakes or juniper trees and bitter diatribes against "Progress". Thanks in part to Abbey's book, Arches, now a National Park, has 800,000 visitors a season.

The last time we came here it was late in the season, two weeks after the first expected snowfall. The park was uncrowded and most of the commercial campgrounds in nearby Moab had closed for the year. This time the campgrounds were full and the park was jammed with visitors. It was difficult to find a parking spot at any of the trail heads and the trails were bustling with tourists. As we drove in the park, there was usually an SUV or minivan trying to drive up my tailpipe and see everything in a hurry. People line up at the park entrance at 6:30am, hoping that a campsite in the park will come open.

Abbey rails against "Industrial Tourism", the practice of building paved roads into the wild places and the automobile. Cars, he says, should not be allowed into sacred places: cathedrals, museums, bedrooms or National Parks. If you visit a park he feels you should do it on foot, on a bicycle, on a horse or even on a wild pig. I was disappointed by the crowding and traffic, but we returned to the park just before sunset after the crowds and cars had dissipated. The photographic conditions were better and we spent an hour on a lonely turnout looking at the stars.

They had a discussion of Abbey's book last night in the Park amphitheatre at twilight. We arrived early and I ask the lady ranger, a former English professor, if Ed will be giving the talk. She says, "I'll do my best to channel him". I stare in blank confusion at Mrs. Phred, who told me that he would be there. She tells me that Abbey died in 1989, but she was afraid that I wouldn't have come if I knew.

Anyway, so far all our travels in the summer have been to uncrowded places like Alaska. Our visits to National Parks have been late fall, winter and early spring. I'm definitely rethinking my plans to see the big California parks this summer.

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