“No Comment” from an Unmarked Desert Grave

Cactus Ed is out there somewhere in the Cabeza Prieta Desert in Pima County, Arizona, his tough old carcass still decaying and decomposing inside that tattered blue sleeping bag.  Becoming fertilizer for cactus and sagebrush, as per his request.  There’s likely not much left by now, other than a calaca covered with wisps of his signature whiskers, still clinging to brittle wrinkled remnants of skin.  A bag of bones, defying the laws of the land with an illegal burial, much as Ed advocated throughout his life, which ended prematurely back in 1989.  Edward Abbey was 62 when he joined the ranks of the deceased.

Three close friends packed Ed in dry ice, put him in the bed of a pickup truck, drove him out to an undisclosed location, and with the aid of picks, shovels, five cases of beer and a fifth of whiskey, dug a hole and buried him.  The voice of anarchy and environmentalism made his exit, thumbing his nose at coroners, undertakers, and county records, and embracing the desert soil he loved so well.  I knew the story back in ’89 when he left us, but it puts a smile on my face every time it comes to mind.  A few months later, I picked up a first edition of his posthumously-released novel Hayduke Lives, happily consuming Ed’s final words of inspiration on environmentalism, anarchy, and eco-terrorism.

Edward Abbey was a second-hand friend of mine.  In other words, we never met.  My high school buddy Tom Gross befriended him back in the late 60s, when they worked as fire lookouts together somewhere on the northern Arizona plateau.  Along about that time, Tom gave me a copy of Ed’s second novel The Brave Cowboy, which told the story of a rebel who chose to break a few laws and disobey The Selective Service Act of 1948.  A fitting gift, since I was at that time in the process of telling my local draft board to fuck off.  It inspired me to trust my own inclinations, stand on my own two feet, and dare to defy authority.  Kirk Douglas liked the book well enough to buy the movie rights, star in, and produce it under the title “Lonely are the Brave” in 1962.  I never met him either.

I didn’t give much thought to Ed Abbey until a couple decades later, after moving to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Being a magnet to dissidents, I’d recently made friends with a U.S. Postal Service worker named Chris England.  There was some controversy at the time about The Bridger-Teton National Forest issuing gas and oil drilling permits up Cache Creek Canyon, a drainage which runs right through the town of Jackson.  Not yet knowing anything about it,  I picked up an issue of The Jackson Hole News one Wednesday, and there was Chris on the front page.  Chained to the front door of the Bridger-Teton Forest Offices, in protest against the drilling.

Chris got himself into some hot water over the incident, got charged with some now forgotten minor crime, almost lost his U.S.P.S. job, but in the end prevailed.  Gas drilling up Cache Creek ended.  I got interested in his cause, and for the second time in my short life, a friend (Chris) gave me a copy of an Ed Abbey novel.  This time it was The Monkey Wrench Gang.  And for me, life would never be the same.  It was an epiphany…an aha moment.  Doc Sarvis, Hayduke, Seldom Seen Smith, and Bonnie Abbzug made me realize that this world belongs to me.  That if somebody’s messing with Mother Earth, they’ll have to answer to somebody.  Maybe me.  Earth First!  And as the Monkey Wrench Gang would proudly proclaim:  “We stand for what we stand on.  No compromise in the defense of Mother Earth”.

After devouring The Monkey Wrench Gang, I went on to read nearly all of Ed’s writings and ramblings, both fiction and factual.  When he got some bad press, and was accused of being a racist, I had to write it off to a misunderstanding.  Something taken out of context.  A man with such profound love for the earth and all its species couldn’t truly be a racist.  Although we never met, Ed and I kicked around much of the same beautiful wild country of the American Southwest for most of our lives, shared a love for that land, and harbored a deep, burning hatred for the government/business interests which despoiled it.  We also held similar views toward organized religion.  In an early article, Ed stated bluntly: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”  As the pagan grandfather of four little Catholics and a Jew, I should probably not say whether or not I agree.

Recently I came across another Abbeyism which I’m pretty sure he took from me.  The F.B.I. had maintained a file on him, as they do with all known subversives, since 1947.  It was nearly forty years later that he found out, stating simply; “I’d be insulted if they weren’t watching me.”  I’ve paraphrased the same idea many times, assuming that I’ve been on at least some sort of watch list since my anti-war activities of the Viet Nam War era.

It was Ed Abbey on my mind (and maybe John Muir) as I began exploring the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem back in 1986.  Scrambling, scaling, finding the summits of 35 noble peaks and lofty pinnacles in the Tetons, and about as many in the Gros Ventre Range.  Hundreds of alpine lakes, some the color of milky emeralds, some frozen solid well into the long days of summer.  Massive glaciers stained red with Chlamydomonas under the July sun.  Creeks running clear with water as sweet as a young girl’s smile.  Diminutive alpine flowers poking out of snow melt, in ancient fist-sized clumps, growing right out of the rocky surface.  Rock chucks and pikas chattering, scolding, slipping into their hidden lairs.  The uncomfortable breeze from a granite slab, dislodged from above by a majestic mountain sheep.  1200 pounds of bull moose with antlers in velvet appearing on the trail above in the morning fog.  Twin black bear cubs scampering across a fireweed meadow, with mom bringing up the rear.  Mountains with names to match their splendor: Nez Perce, Shadow, Rolling Thunder, Disappointment, Static, Buck, Thor, Tukuarika, Teewinot!  Canyons where I still meander in my dreams;  Cascade, Avalanche, Paintbrush, Hanging, Glacier Gulch!

Edward Abbey was accused, over the years, of being anti-American.  People dumb enough to love and trust the U.S. Government wouldn’t recognize truth if it came up behind them and bit them in the ass.  Nobody loved this country as much as Ed.  With the possible exception of myself.  Loving my country means loving the earth which sustains it.  Not the freaking mess which it has spawned.  Ed spoke out against Mexican immigration, not because he had anything against Mexicans, but because he hated what overpopulation was doing to his beloved Southwest.  He despised the burgeoning cities of Phoenix, Las Vegas, even Albuquerque.  Too damn many people was the reason for the abominations of Glen Canyon Dam and all the other damned dams, despoiling pristine river canyons, turning them into giant cesspools.

We need an army of Ed Abbeys if we’re to have any chance of surviving as a species.  An army of joyful monkeywrenchers with the courage of their convictions to do battle with those who rape Mother Earth for corporate profit.  On an earth spinning wildly out of control, Ed’s vision of the U.S. Government and the wars it wages for Wall Street profit should be heeded by all those who cheerlead for the military.  “The tragedy of modern war is not so much that young men die, but that they die fighting each other–instead of their real enemies back home in the capitals.”

On his deathbed, Ed was asked whether he had any last words.  He had only two.  After his three amigos had buried his lifeless carcass and covered their tracks, they placed a marker nearby.  But not too nearby.  The marker read:

Edward Paul Abbey
1927-1989
“No Comment”

John R. Hall: Meanderer, dreamer, mountaineer, restaurateur, military draft refusing felon, wannabe revolutionary, and citizen of Earth, observes the circus of life, and writes from wherever the north winds blow him. He can most likely be found somewhere in The Hawaiian Island Chain, in Mexico's Corazon, in The Sonoran Desert of Arizona, The Mohave Desert of Nevada, The high deserts of New Mexico, on a Teton glacier in Northwest Wyoming...or at halls245@msn.com. Read other articles by John Rohn.