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 for a week or so at the dwelling. No pulp for a snowbound week here: most of the books smacked of advanced education and wide-ranging interests. There were titles by Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Burroughs, Bourjaily, Mann, Kerouac, the True Light Beavers (Don’t ask), Malcolm Lowry, Ginsburg, Sholokhov, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Sanchez, and Ram Dass.
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 is his account of his years as a park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument in southeast Utah.
So, I read.
The memoir resonated with me as it vividly evoked an unusual wildland―for I was still open to a periodic escape to the backcountry, providing it was a warm and snowless backcountry―and did so with appealing doses of philosophy, humor, poetry, nods to classical composers, and, especially, anger. Abbey was obviously angry at wilderness degradation, but that bile would resonate with me later; it was his Thoreauvian distaste for anthill society and its determination to marginalize, if not crush, the individual that clicked with me at the time. Thus, the Solitaire of the title, I figured.
Abbey’s was the first book I ever read that revealed and celebrated the desert―actually, what scientists and geographers characterize as the semi-desert of the Colorado Plateau―and explained its appeal. And, more than just a paean for a landscape, Desert Solitaire struck me a deeply personal book: I felt I really got to know this likable and candid guy named Abbey.
A fanfare for the common loner. Abbey’s writing style and approach to life has served me to this day.