Why to Fight for the World's Last Wild Places

A 9,000-mile long journey in the steps of two writers who celebrated the American West.

David Gessner was car-camping in the American West when he picked up Edward Abbey’s classic book, Desert Solitaire. It changed his life. Later, after being diagnosed with cancer, he moved to Colorado, and discovered the work of another iconic writer of the American West, Wallace Stegner.

For his new book, All The Wild That Remains, Gessner sets off in search of these two writer-environmentalists, traveling from Stegner’s birthplace in Lake Mills, Iowa, to Arches National Park in Utah, which inspired some of Edward Abbey finest writing.

From his home in Massachusetts, he explains what drew him to these two, very different writers; how Ken Kesey discovered LSD in a CIA experiment; how fracking is part of a long history of boom and bust in the West; and why it is so important to preserve the remaining wild places.

Your book is the story of a 9,000-mile journey into the West. It is also a pilgrimage in the footsteps of two writers, little known in America today, and still less outside it. What made you decide to disinter them?

I grew up in Massachusetts and when I was about 28, I was camping out West. Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey was for sale and at the Park Service, so I picked it up. I was car camping;. The challenge from Abbey was: don’t car camp, do more. The next thing I knew, for the first time in my life I went backcountry camping in Lassen Volcanic National Park and I thought, “Hey, that’s a pretty direct, literary influence.

The guy challenged me and changed how I acted.” Later, at the age of 29, in Worcester, Massachusetts, my hometown, I found out I had testicular cancer. The week of my 30th birthday, I was operated on. In the middle of that dismal year, while I was getting radiation treatment, I found out I’d gotten into grad school in Boulder, Colorado. It was like a deus ex machina. I was airlifted from Worcester to Boulder, and moved into a little town called El Dorado Springs, just south of Boulder. I lived by a creek below the mountains, where I started to read some Abbey.

It just seemed to go with what I was feeling—this come-back-to-life feeling. There were great lines, like, “On this bedrock of animal faith I take my stand.” I thought, “Wow, this is like a modern Thoreau, and it’s right for me, right now.” A year later, I moved into another cabin with an ultimate Frisbee roommate, Rob Bleiberg. His shelves were filled with works by Wallace Stegner.

I always say, “Abbey was my gateway drug to Stegner.” Stegner wrote about the West, too, but he was much more into the big picture. Bruce Babbitt, secretary of interior, said, “Stegner provided me with a way to think about the American West.” So the two of them double-teamed me and all of a sudden I was making vows that I would live in the West forever. Forever lasted about seven years. I got a job and moved, but I’ve always wanted to get back to those two writers.

Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner were deeply engaged with the West. They were a study in opposites. Tell us your nicknames for them – and how that captures their differences.

I called one Saint Wallace The Good and the other, Randy Ed Wildman. You describe their differences in dozens of ways but the simplest way would be their hairstyles. Ed was shaggy and bearded and wild. Wallace was perfectly coiffed. These differences came through in many other ways. Abbey would go on long trips down western rivers like the San Juan and Colorado. He would say, “I wanna get out and roam naked for weeks and hunt game and live wild,” which he sometimes actually did. Stegner would say much the same thing but would add, “And, I’d like to write a book while I am there.”

With Stegner, work was always the keystone. He was a workaholic, incredibly well read. He founded the Stanford Creative Writing Program and was a mentor to others. He was regarded as the Dean of Western Writers. He stressed loyalty and commitment, not just in his work, but in his life.

Abbey had five kids with five women and writes about his love of anarchy. He coined the term “monkeywrenching” for environmental sabotage, which included putting sugar in the gas tank of tractors trying to bulldoze the West. They’re real opposites. But, bad pun intended, their common ground was the ground. They both fought for the West in different ways. 

Abbey was a pretty unsavory character. He liked to tote guns and was, by his own admission, a lousy father and husband. Among his works is an anti-immigration tract that could have been written by an Aryan Nations fanatic. Why should we bother with this guy?

I actually think he’s more relevant and pertinent now in our age of shaming. He was honest and showed himself like he was, flaws and all. He had great strengths, too. He was incredibly good with his friends; he fought for the land; he was idealistic. One of my favorite lines from Thoreau is, “The life that men praise and call successful is but one kind.” Abbey shows that a counter life is possible. Not a hippie-dippy kind of life but a counter life based on the things that were important to him: nature, friendship, the physical world. These resonate even more now, as we get more and more virtual.

Before you set out, you communicated with the writer, Terry Tempest Williams. She said something that upended your preconceptions about these two writer–and became a kind of “koan” for the entire journey. What was it?

She suggested that Stegner was the radical, a word that Stegner didn’t like very much, and Abbey was the conservative. There are a lot of ways to play around with that. There was a whiff of the Unabomber  about Abbey at times.

I think Abbey creates a modern Walden. He brings Walden into the modern world. It comes through in his work and in that of his protégé, Wendell Berry. That grew out of his reaction against his father. Stegner grew up as close to the frontier as one could. He was born in 1909, and his Dad was always looking for the main chance. Stegner’s book, The Big Rock Candy Mountain got its title from what his Dad was searching for: the big hit in gold or in oil, or however he could strike it rich. Stegner came to see that as endemic of the whole country and his philosophy came as a reaction against that.           

Stegner said the West was all about boom and bust. The latest boom is fracking. Tell us about Vernal, Utah and what you found there.

I found a town that, at one point, was focused on its river, on paddling and tourism, but early on had an oil boom, and for decades has been riding the highs and lows of oil booms, and busts.

I was overwhelmed by the parade of giant white trucks running down Main Street, many with license plates from elsewhere. The fracking boom was drawing people and every hotel was full of temporary oil workers. The next day I went up in an airplane and looked down at the fracked lands. The roads cutting through the dry land were like scar marks on a beautiful woman’s face. Bernard DeVoto, a friend and a hero of Stegner’s, said that the West has always been the country’s resource colony. Flying over it, I felt like I was in that resource colony.

Ken Kesey is one of a number of ’60s icons that turn up in the book. Most people under pensionable age probably don’t know who he is. Enlighten us.

Kesey is most famous because of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test. He was the founder of the Merry Pranksters group in San Francisco. Kesey said they were too young to be Beatniks and too old to be Hippies. They turned on to LSD before others did. Kesey was taking it in a medical facility for a CIA experiment and said, “Hey, this stuff is pretty good.” So he turned on his friends and the next thing you know they were tie-dye painting a bus and taking it across the country.

Kesey was not supposed to be part of the book, but kept cropping up. In one way, Kesey turned into kind of a stand-in for Abbey because Kesey and Stegner clashed. Stegner didn’t like the Hippies and the ’60s. As Kesey put it, “I turned on to LSD, Stegner stuck to Jack Daniels.”

Abbey’s best-known book is Desert Solitaire. It’s been compared to Walden Pond. Is that fair to Thoreau?

I think it is. A lot of people have ideas about Walden, but they haven’t actually read it. It’s got a shaggy shapelessness to it. You’re not going to find a lot of beautiful lyric nature moments. You’re going to find a lot of contradictions. In that way, I think Abbey creates a modern Walden. He brings Walden into the modern world. At the center of it is a man living a life apart from normal lives and from society: that idea of turning your back on society and going into the woods to live differently.

You were born in 1961. Was a yearning for an era your generation missed, the ’60s, part of your motivation in going on this journey?

I always feel like the ’70s I grew up in were leftover ’60s. Something that appeals to me is Abbey’s shagginess; his willingness to say, “Screw it” and not conform. That’s probably a ’60s thing, right? I grew up romanticizing that. I discovered Thoreau when I was in High School and never looked back. Though Thoreau was writing in 1850, he is in a way a symbol of the ’60s. I still find that attractive. In part, because we’ve moved so far away from it.

You say the West today is a fulfillment of Stegner’s and Abbey’s “darkest prophecies.” How so?

Stegner had this big picture view of the West. He saw it like puzzle pieces: its aridity, its vulnerability to being scarred, the tendency of its people to look for the boom that led to the bust. It wouldn’t have surprised Stegner or Abbey to see where we’ve gone. What they couldn’t have imagined is the new piece of the puzzle: climate change. This incredibly dry and hot place has become drier and hotter. Fires start earlier in the year and turn into mega-fires. The snowpack is melting. All the things they worried about have accelerated.

What lessons do these two writers have for us today?

I see the lives of the two men as being like road signs, and the road signs sometimes point in different directions. Stegner points toward a life of study and thought: an attempt to think beyond ourselves and our times, plus a dedication to working for the environment. Abbey teaches a different lesson. He fought hard for the environment, but was always completely himself, warts and all.

The original title of this book was Properly Wild. The question I asked myself was whether we could be both good and wild. I think with these two men as guides, we see how we can do that. With their different styles and personalities, they show us a way to live, with the core belief that we need to fight for the remaining wild places.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

Read This Next

Why 2023 could be the year of the superbloom
This strategy is helping the West contain wildfires
Does Smokey Bear need a makeover?

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet