No, books didn’t keep me in Leadville, but they did sustain me as I fought the cold, recovered from dynamite headaches (not from the concussions of mine detonations, but rather from casual contact with undetonated powder), and grappled with the challenges of living in the higher elevations of the remote. Scores of paperbacks covered half a bedroom wall of our little house built like a railroad flat. Few of the books were mine. Nearly all had accumulated in the house over a period of a year or two prior to my arrival, contributed by myriad young men who had lived or merely crashed at the house. No pulp for a snowbound day here: most of the books smacked of advanced education and wide-ranging interests. There were titles by Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Burroughs, Bourjaily, Mann, Kerouac, Malcolm Lowry, Ginsburg, Sholokhov, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Sanchez. There was Ram Dass’s Be Here Now.
And there was Feast: a tribal cookbook by the True Light Beavers. The “Beavers” was a communal hippie group whose commune, I assumed, had managed to survive into the seventies, as their book was copyrighted 1972. I paged through this somewhat oversize book, which included photos of various “Beavers” people―all smiling, probably because they were all well-nourished, not to mention all regular as they posed seated in their outhouse―with interest and a twinge of guilt. Five years earlier, blossoming into my own hippie act, I would have loved to have been a member of their commune, especially if it included that young, smiling, long-haired, shapely Earth mama who appeared to be wearing a hand-knitted bikini top. By 1975, however, their lifestyle seemed dated. Still, I liked the core planet-worshipping philosophy of the “Beavers,” even as I was part of a workforce that was destroying a mountain and smothering a large swath of the central Colorado high country under millions of tons of toxic mine tailings.
One paperback on the shelf grabbed my attention almost immediately. First, there was its cover art: a photo of a solitary, naked, red rock monolith against a beautiful blue, cloud-dappled sky. Then there was its title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Living in Leadville, I naturally opened any tome whose title suggested warmth. Written by a guy named Edward Abbey, Solitaire was his account of his years as a park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument in southeast Utah─not the classic Southwest, perhaps, but close. To me, the memoir not only vividly evoked an alluring landscape―for I still enjoyed escaping to the out-of-doors, providing it was a pleasant out-of-doors―it did so with appealing doses of romance, philosophy, humor, irreverence, science, and, especially, fiery outrage at wilderness degradation. Abbey’s was the first book that revealed the desert―actually, what biologists characterize as the semi-desert of the Colorado Plateau―and explained its appeal to me. More than just a paean for a landscape, Desert Solitaire struck me a deeply personal book. A fanfare for the common loner. Abbey’s writing style and approach to life has served me to this day.