I'm in the West now, and boy does it feel good. I’m here to track the ghosts of Wallace Stegner and Ed Abbey and to reflect on the current state of the Western environment. Here are some of the highlights of the journey so far:
- During a June scouting trip to Tucson, I poured over the Abbey journals and letters in the University of Arizona Library. I was there to study, and I tried to be a good boy and stay in my seat -- to be studious and calm -- but I got tired of only reading about Western adventures. Finally I gave in to the urge to explore and drove up to the Grand Canyon. My plan was to hike in to the Havasu Falls, about 12 miles down from the canyon rim. The falls were the site of one of my favorite chapters in Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Abbey spends a month living alone down near the waterfall, dragging an old miner’s cot to sleep on behind the curtain of water. He wanders around naked, talks to himself, hallucinates a little. The chapter ends when he strands himself on a cliff ledge and sleeps in a small cave in the rock wall. He writes: “I stretched out in the coyote den, pillowed my head on my arm and suffered through the long night, wet, cold, aching, hungry, wretched, dreaming claustrophobic nightmares. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.” Although I didn’t sleep in a coyote den, I did have my share of misadventures, springing in part from the fact that as I launched my hike into the canyon, I seemed to think I was still 35 and in great shape, as I had been the last time I lived in the West. The reality is that I was a pasty 51-year-old Easterner who had no right hiking 12 miles with a backpack in 104-degree heat. I would later pay the price with an inflamed red leg, grotesquely swollen with cellulitis. But I made it out two days later. And the pain was balanced by the joy of seeing the blue-green, almost-tropical falls after four hours of hiking though dry, dusty orange rock.
- Two weeks later, in Greensboro, Vermont, I visited with Page, Lynn, and Allison Stegner, Wallace Stegener’s son, daughter in law, and granddaughter. Climbing up the long driveway, canopied by trees, was like driving into one of my favorite books, Crossing to Safety. Family members are sometimes understandably wary of biographers, but the Stegners were nothing but generous. The first night we talked over drinks for close to three hours, and then two days later for another three, capping it off when they came to my reading at Sterling College in Craftsburry Common. I got to see WS’s writing shack, and Allison named the various ferns for me, something she had learned from her grandmother, Mary Stegner. After our second meeting, I climbed up Barr Hill, where the final scene of Crossing to Safety takes place. There was only really one awkward part of my visit. I didn’t know what to call Stegner when talking to them. They of course called him either “Wally” or “Grandpa,” but neither of those worked for me. I couldn’t very well call him “Wallace Stegner” all the time either. So at some point I just started calling him “Mr. X.” Really.
- In Home, Pennsylvania, I was given a tour of the childhood home(s) of Ed Abbey by Abbey’s biographer, Jim Cahalan. More generosity. He treated me not as a competitor but as a friend. While I was sketching a drawing of the spring house and foundation (all that was left of the Abbey farm after a fire), an old neighbor of the Abbeys came up and started talking. She described Abbey’s dad, Paul Abbey, how smart he was -- the house full of books -- and how big his hands were. Back at Jim’s house, he talked about writing his book, and I was reminded of what I love about biography. You could see in Jim’s eyes that the quest to bring Abbey back to life had been both exciting and obsessive. He told me that his wife had banned him from uttering the name “Ed Abbey.” He had learned everything he could about the man, and there was something filling and obsessive about that. Just like hearing the neighbor describe Paul Abbey. The dead are briefly brought back to life.
- And that was all a just warm up for the real road trip, which started five days ago with a trip to Wendell Berry’s farm in Kentucky. Wendell was Stegner’s student at Stanford, and I think it is fair to say that he was Stegner’s favorite student. I have written elsewhere that when Wallace Stegner died he left an unfinished things-to-do list on this desk. In that essay, I suggested that it is the job of the rest of us to help finish the things that Stegner started, and no one alive does that particular work better than Wendell Berry. One of the highlights of that visit was late in the afternoon when the heat broke and a thunderstorm rolled in. I drove down to the barn with Wendell and watched him command his border collie, Maggie, as she herded the sheep into the barn before the lightning started.
From there it was on to St. Louis, and from St. Louis on to Denver, and then home -- home! (yes, it felt like that) -- to Boulder, where I crammed in two bike rides, a swim in Eldorado Canyon, a long talk with Reg Saner (who to my mind is, along with Wendell Berry, someone who carries the Stegnerian torch), and of course a big night of drinking with old Ultimate Frisbee friends.
But that’s enough for now. I’m boring you ... showing you my slides... This morning I find myself finally catching my breath, typing these words at a desk in a beautiful cabin up above the mountain town of Paonia, staying here on Lone Cabin Road with a former student and current friend, Adam Petry.
Meanwhile, I need to thank everyone who has pledged to help fund the trip on Kickstarter. We are about a third of the way toward our goal with eight days left. But even if I don’t make my mark, Kickstarter has been worth it. It makes me feel as if I am not traveling alone but as part of a greater community. If you want to join us, please check out my short film and book description here and consider chipping in a few bucks. Thank you.