Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was a desert rat, a chronic contrarian, a serial government employee with a penchant for anarchy.
He made his reputation by exploring Arches in the nonfiction "Desert Solitaire" (1968), then doubled his fame in 1975 with "The Monkey Wrench Gang," a novel that follows four misfits as they lament lost wild places, burn billboards, disable heavy equipment and dream of liberating the Colorado River from the concrete grip of Glen Canyon Dam. In the wake of that book, a few of his admirers founded Earth First!
To appreciate the desert, Abbey once wrote, "You can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the ... contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you'll see something, maybe."
In my 20s I inhaled four or five of his books and met him at a book-signing in La Jolla, Calif. I knew nothing about his life off the page, but it seemed to me he spoke for the rocks, the sand and the snakes in a way that no one had.
I recently realized he'd been gone for three decades, and when had I last read him or rambled through his beloved territory? I took a week, flew to Grand Junction, Colo., rented an SUV with four-wheel drive and stocked it with water, snacks and books.
I had three Abbey milestone spots in mind that would make anyone a believer in the desolate beauty of the desert West, even if you never open one of his books.
HIKE TO DELICATE ARCH
The first was Arches, where before long I found myself at a trailhead in the dim, blue light before dawn.
Most of the trail was slickrock, strewn with boulders and junipers -- "moderately strenuous," the sign said. In 1 1/2 miles I gained about 480 feet in elevation, tiptoed along a ledge above a big drop, turned a corner and gaped.
This was Delicate Arch. Among the more than 2,000 natural arches in the park, it's the marquee attraction, eerily symmetrical, perched on a mountaintop, neighbored by a deep, round bowl of pink sandstone.