Under the Desert Sun

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It is a wolfish face. The eyes of the man in the photograph peer over a long, grizzled beard and glitter. They speak not of cruelty or pre-dation but of mischief. They are a little wary, and a little weary. The smile suggests that this man has something to say and is deciding how much you can handle. It is the face of a man who has seen his fellow men, and seen them whole; who is not overly pleased with what he sees. It is the face of a congenital contrarian. This man enjoys lighting fires under people just to watch them jump. I like him instantly, and would like to know him better, but his photograph sits atop an obituary. It is March 1989. Edward Abbey is dead.

Abbey was born in 1927 on a family farm in the mountains of Appalachia, in western Pennsylvania, but before he was 20 he had travelled to the American south-west and fallen in love with the ‘implacable indifference’ of the red rock desert and labyrinthine canyons of ‘the four corners’, the point at which Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado converge. It would forever speak to his heart. By the 1950s he was working as a park ranger, and in 1956 he began two seasons at the Arches National Monument in south-east Utah, now a national park. He was home. It was a time of ‘pure, smug, animal satisfaction’. He began to keep a journal that would later blossom into an elegiac memoir: Desert Solitaire (1968).

Abbey’s memoir begins with his arrival at the Arches in early spring. With the full weight and authority of the US National Park Service behind him, an official though battered pickup truck, and his very own house trailer awaiting him, all he has to do to set up home is fish a dead rat out of the toilet, sweep up the mouse droppings, adopt a gopher snake to drive away the rattlesnakes (they like the mice) and beware of the cone-nosed kissing bug, whose bite seldom causes convulsions in healt

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About the contributor

Though he holds strong and often unconventional opinions, and is known to call things by their rightful names, Richard Platt does not write with a gun on his desk, but with an imperious and ever-vigilant parrot on his shoulder.

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