A lifetime of walking down
Edward Abbey's road
The first time I met Ed Abbey, he monkeywrenched a perfectly good draft beer, a Heineken, by taking the light and dark versions and pouring the two bottles into one glass. In my view, one of the more unnecessary acts of eccentricity I'd ever seen him perform ... and it's a long list. I had met him in Tucson, Arizona, for an interview for the UofA campus newspaper, The Arizona Daily Wildcat, where I was a reporter who preferred to ditch a class than miss a story. Abbey's included. We met at The Big A, an off-campus burger joint that he always used for interviews. A strange fact by itself, in many ways, since it was a sports bar and he thought football was a pox on the earth (but then, what wasn't a pox on the earth, as far as Abbey was concerned?). Yes, he'd done many, many interviews at The Big A, and I can't tell you how many times I cringed whenever the next reporter described Abbey's iconoclastic persona with the following observation: mixing light and dark drafts of Heinekens.
I had just discovered Abbey's "The Monkeywrench Gang," a fictional story about a group of misfit sabateurs operating in the Four Corner's region, while working the previous summer at the El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon Village. I read many chapters with my feet hanging over the edge of a cliff while I drank boda bags of wine. I had already read "Desert Solitaire" and made a habit of bringing a notebook with me on hiking trips.
The second time I saw Abbey was on the first night of class at the University of Arizona in 1982. The creative writing department at the UofA had snagged the writer to teach his wannabe writer fans how to write non-fiction. A few years after I graduated from the University of Arizona, I asked Abbey about his teaching methods, and his was pretty self-deprecating about the whole topic.
"It's gotten worse," he said. "I still feel I'm a lousy teacher, but I make the students work hard, so I don't know if they have time to realize how bad I am. I'm a little dubious about this whole creative writing business as something to be taught in college. I'm not sure whether it does more harm than good."
On that first night in Abbey's non-fiction writing class in the Language Arts Building, he taught me one of the only things I can remember about so many of such classes. Well, actually, three.
They are, as he wrote on the chalk board that first night after being about 10 minutes late: "1) Write right; 2) Write wrong; 3) Write on."
Short and sweet, it was, and the same could be said for that first night a la Abbey. A few minutes later the grizzled, jeans-clad author was distracted, as we all were, by something going on at the plaza. He rushed over to the second floor window of the classroom, and after seeing a bunch of anti-nuke protesters go by with candles, exclaimed, "Hey, I gotta go see that!" And with that, he rushed out the door and did not return. We wannabe monkeywrenching writers sat there at our desks for just a short, stunned moment. We were all probably wondering if perhaps a lesson on how to write about cactus and coyotes might be included on the syllabus. But he was in the classroom only a moment, and then was gone.
We caught up with him at the candlelight vigil in front of the old ROTC building at the center of the University. He was singing with the anti-nuke protesters. That was Abbey, the spontaneous one, holding a candle, and I can still see the light flickering on his beard and in his eyes. He was performing, for us, for his students, for those who had not known he was the latest new campus celebrity. Certainly, no foe to publicity of any kind, Abbey well understood the necessity of being an outlandish personality. His greeting card was his frequent call at public gatherings to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam. But that was just part of the performance.
I believe he took an interest in me. Once we were given an assignment to write something on the "wild side." Everybody else assumed that meant practice writing about cactus and coyotes and the call of the lone wolf student writer. Always one to color outside the lines, I decided to write about downtown Phoenix as viewed from a general walk around the Greyhound Bus station. In the course of my study of the terrain, I went by the Phoenix Convention Center and discovered a couple who had slipped away into some bushes to have sex. This, of course, was too good to be true, considering my idea for the assignment, and I turned it in as a metaphor about Eden and life in the city.
Nobody in the class believed that it happened, though. My classmates, during another one of those awful round table critiques (always to be taken with a grain of salt), told me it was non-fiction we were supposed to be writing, not fiction. But Abbey believed me. He even came to my defense, saying, "This is all just an exercise. All of this is."
There was, in fact, one item distributed at his second class in mimeographed form that proved to be a great boon. The Edward Abbey reading list: Barry Lopez, John McPhee, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Two nature-loving Luddites, a city slicker, and the patron saint of the New Journalism. But there was one other name that took me years to appreciate: 16th century author Michel de Montaigne. The French writer was one of the first to try to express himself, via highly literary means, by writing about himself, and it was he who popularized the term essayer, as in essay. It means "to try."
In hindsight, remembering those classes with clarity, still, after 30 years, I'd have to say Abbey was a better teacher than he knew. The benefit of being his student wasn't just getting a chance to rub elbows with a literary legend at regular intervals. He was a true authentic. And it was more than the after-class get togethers at the local pubs, or the parties at his home. He was, in fact, a rigorous critic when it came to grading the essays written for the class. In that regard, he was as tough of a teacher as they come. I can remember one particular essay I'd written as a kind of imitation of Abbey, about a hike down Hermit Trail, in which the teacher had eviscerated my copy with red ink. Indeed, he wanted students to write like themselves, not their hero. He frequently made all kinds of interesting comments on assignments that were turned in. Once, I wrote an essay about how the right wing and the left wing could come together on the political spectrum, and he had penciled in, "Hey, I believe that, too!" But another essay on the anniversary of the death of John Lennon was ripped apart for its sentimentality. His classes were a mix of vindication and shame. He wanted people to be real, just like he was. His favorite student, I recall, was a man who lived part-time in a cave who wrote with a rugged honesty.
The last time I saw Abbey was in Prescott, where I was a reporter for The Courier. The novelist had been invited to read from his upcoming novel, which would eventually be published as "The Fool's Progress." Reading from his opening chapter, Abbey set the packed house at the Hassayampa Inn into roaring laughter with his incredibly honest tale about breaking up with a girl and, in anger, shooting his refrigerator with a shotgun. Afterward, someone called the reading "portrait of an artist as a dirty old man."
Just a few years before his death in 1989, Abbey was still game for making outrageous statements. Among American authors he, like Norman Mailer, knew the importance of being a notorious character in real life, keeping his name out there. By then, perhaps, he had mellowed. For example, during that trip to Prescott, I saw him tell a little old lady that he was sorry about his legendary threat to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam because people might get hurt by the act. Then, he said, "All environmentalism is a defensive action."
And one might wonder how he might fit in with today's political divisions. Perhaps his beliefs these days would be called libertarian. To call him a bleeding heart liberal would be a mistake.
At our last meeting, he said, "On many issues I'm on the same side as [Arizona Governor] Evan Mecham and Sam Steiger [a conservative Arizona congressman], I suppose.That puts me in some pretty unpleasant company. But I never felt I joined any particular group or faction. If they [the right wingers] started welcoming me with open arms or inviting me to conventions, I might get a little worried. I might think, 'God, maybe I have gone too far the wrong way.' "
In the time since his death Abbey's legend has only grown and the appreciation of his writing has blossomed. In the time since his death, I can't count the number of times I've met people in the Southwest who had met him and remember him well. By my own evidence collected as a student, I would have to say he wasn't all that comfortable in the university laboratory of civilization.
“The best thing about graduating from the university was that I finally had time to sit on a log and read a good book,” he once said. But I'd also say the best thing about having a class with Abbey was the profound memories that linger. Many times over the years, especially in terms of where and how I have decided to work and live, I have asked myself, "What would Edward Abbey do?" There are teachers and then there are those who teach. Abbey was the latter. Who knows how many people have dangled their legs off a cliff with a notebook in hand because of him. Considering this has led me to realize how so many of us are walking on Abbey's road.
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