The Journey Home by Edward Abbey

This is why we read Ed Abbey. He has the power to make me laugh and cry within a few pages.

I cannot describe The Journey Home better than Abbey does himself: this book is a collection of “adversary essays and assays, polemics, visions and hallucinations… published piece by piece in various odd places from Audubon to the Vulgarian Digest” and “fragments of autobiography, journalistic battle debris, nightmares and daydreams, bits and butts of outdoors philosophizing” (from Abbey’s introduction). The subtitle is “Some Words in Defense of the American West.” It works very well in the ways he describes: it is indeed a defense of the American West (although as he puts it another way: “the idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders”). It is a lovely collection of some journalism, some hallucinations and dreamings, and some eloquent essays.

The introduction to The Journey Home is devoted to arguing why he is not a nature writer; he’s just a guy with a lot of experience in and love for nature, writing a memoir that naturally includes a lot of nature. I hope he would forgive me, were he still here, for saying: Abbey, you are a nature writer. Memoirs they may be (and watch out for his novels, too: I loved Fire on the Mountain; was disappointed by Black Sun which apparently he really loved; and am excited to crack open his best-known and arguably movement-starting The Monkey-Wrench Gang) but they are also some of the finest nature writing we’ve seen. His own arguments notwithstanding, Abbey absolutely belongs in the company of Thoreau and Muir. I recognize so much of what I, and modern authors and political thinkers and philosophers I admire, have thought and felt and written, in Abbey’s earlier work. He is important.

He is also so angry! He can be so funny, so flippant and casual (Husband and I both laughed til we cried over “Disorder and Early Sorrow”), but so angry, too. Rightfully so, of course, in detailing strip-mining operations and the destruction of the woods he played in as a kid. He is a contradiction; he reminds me very much of a much-loved friend who will recognize himself in this review. He throws beer cans out the window as he drives:

Rumbling along in my 1962 Dodge D-100, the last good truck Dodge ever made, I tossed my empty out the window and popped the top from another can of Schlitz. Littering the public highway? Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly. Beer cans are beautiful, and someday, when recycling becomes a serious enterprise, the government can put one million kids to work each summer picking up the cans I and others have thoughtfully stored along the roadways.

(from “The Second Rape of the West,” which deals not with beer cans on highways but strip-mining for coal, among other large-scale littering operations.)

…but is at the same time an ardent defender of wildness and nature, left alone. He advises a leave-no-trace approach to wilderness, packing out trash, dismantling fire rings, because after all, “the search and rescue team may be looking for you.” (That’s the wilderness, as opposed to the public highway.) He’s so incredibly (sadly) relevant today, only dated in some of the little details. He is poignantly hopeful; I regret the ways in which we’ve not lived up to his hopes in the few decades since he wrote. For example, our US Census in 2000 unfortunately showed our national population at 281,421,906 rather than the 250 million at which Abbey predicted we would “level off,” and we are now estimated at not quite 313 million.

Funny, angry, righteous, well-researched, poignant. A priceless glimpse into a fascinating, contradictory personality, and a moment in American time that will never be replicated. I want nothing more, after reading this book, than to go on one of his ill-conceived and poorly-planned backcountry trips with him. He makes me think – he makes me think in ways that we all desperately need to think, even more so today than when he wrote (original pub date 1977). I challenge you to read of his attempt to shake hands with a mountain lion (in “Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom”) and not get goosebumps.

In the end, this is a collection of essays and ramblings by a gifted author who loved our natural world, about small things as well as the big issues, like why we shouldn’t destroy what little of it we have left. I found it incredibly moving (again: I laughed and cried) and beautiful and can’t wait to read more Abbey. I only hope he’s right that

If man in his newfound power and vanity persists in the attempt to remake the planet in his own image, he will succeed only in destroying himself – not the planet. The earth will survive our most ingenious folly.

I’m afraid we’re going to push the point.

9 Responses

  1. I am embarrassed to admit, that even though I love travel and nature, I’ve never read any of his works. I’ll have to start looking for his books. I think I would really enjoy them.

    • I think he’s pretty incredible. Sounds like you should at least give him a shot! Desert Solitaire and this one are the nonfiction I can wholeheartedly recommend so far; I still have lots more reading to do. But you might have trouble going wrong with his nonfiction. That said, beware Black Sun; I think it could give you the wrong impression of him if you started there. I look forward to hearing/reading about your impressions if you do get around to him. I highly recommend.

  2. I’m excited for you!! And I’ll be interested to hear how easily you can lay your hands on him…

  3. [...] three of the Edward Abbey I’ve read this year; that is, two nonfiction (Down the River and The Journey Home) and one novel (Fire on the [...]

  4. [...] bicycles, and the ill-fated trip through Big Bend with his then-fiance that Abbey writes about in The Journey Home – three things I [...]

  5. [...] and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom” (oft-quoted and reprinted; my version comes from The Journey Home), he describes his one encounter with a mountain lion. When he became aware of its presence, he was [...]

  6. [...] –Edward Abbey, from the introduction to The Journey Home [...]

  7. [...] The Journey Home is a collection of EA’s essays and journalism, every single one a gem, and similar to [...]

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