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The Voice Laughing in the Wilderness

He couldn't seem to leave town. As Tucson grew larger and more grotesque, he kept talking about going to Moab or Ajo or somewhere. He told me once that Tucson was easy to leave--he'd done it six times. But he never seemed quite able to go through with it, any more than I can. And so now he's dead and still in Tucson.

I had lunch with him a week or so ago at a hamburger joint on Speedway--an Abbey kind of place with the air rich with the scent of seared red meat, the tables dotted with co-eds, and the walls unchanging over the decades--a brief refuge from Tucson's lucrative cannibalism of its soul. As usual, he admonished me to "get out of that silly magazine" where I was slaving away jotting down the bad habits of the city, and get back into the desert with a pack on my back. Then he shoved forward a pile of books I must read--he always showed up with books he wanted to share. He spoke softly and with a slight smile on his face. The enemy of every government on earth, the bogeyman of squads of developers, the man seemingly crazed with saving every scrap of wild ground he could--well, the same guy, laughed a lot, and seemed to coast through the day fascinated and amused by the absurdity of life, including his own. Whenever I was around him, I was absolutely convinced that he was younger than I ever could be. I'd get kind of mad because he seemed to be having more fun than I was.

This time lunch was about a novel--not about one he wrote (he never seemed to talk about his own work), but a thick book by some guy in Maryland named Bruce Duffy entitled The World As I Found It. He pushed it eagerly toward me and explained it was about philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and the tong wars of early logical positivism. I allowed that it all sounded as exciting as having my teeth drilled, but he would have none of my objections. By God, he'd written the author a fan letter, and I must read the book. And I did, and Ed Abbey was right.

He was not a simple person to consider. He believed in zero population growth and fathered five kids. He was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, a onetime military M.P., a man who advocated destroying bulldozers to save land, tossed his beer cans out the truck window, and recently bought an old Cadillac convertible and tooled around town with a sporty cap on his head. He never made a lot of money, he gave 10 percent of his income to environmental causes, and for years and years scrapped along with part-time jobs and kept writing and writing. He hardly seemed to raise his voice, but had logical, coherent fierce opinions. He had an anarchist's contempt for government, and was like a distillate of whatever the word American means.

And he could write better than any other man or woman I have ever known.
Many have pointed out these traits, and others, as contradictions. They were not. They were Edward Abbey, a bundle of appetites, ideas, and delights. Before the last mayoral election he called me up and we had lunch. Ed Abbey had decided to run for mayor--not grunt through a real campaign, but declare for the office, and debate the various whores of the business community running for office. We were sitting down over a plate of machaca when I broke the bad news to him. I said, "Ed, you don't live in the city, you live in the county." He seemed kind of indignant that such a requirement existed and could stop him from his appointed rounds.

The first time I met him I was out at his house to interview a guest of his for the local paper. I was leery of meeting him, kind of like I was disturbing a national monument. So I tapped timidly on the door. He opened it up, introduced himself, and instantly thrust a copy of my first book into my hands--a text that had fallen dead from press and taken almost ten years to sell 2,000 copies. He asked if I would autograph it and went on and on about its wonders. So he may have had pretty bad literary taste, but he was one of the kindest men I have ever known.

We became friends. And what we did, was, well, we talked about books and ideas mainly. I don't think I ever spent ten minutes kicking around environmental issues with him--I guess they were simply a given. He worked very hard at his writing. An Abbey draft was blitzkrieged with crossed-out words, clauses and sentences moved, and had the general appearance of a bed of writhing serpents. Of course, it read like he was talking to you, like he had just dashed it off. He wrote so well that a lot of people did not appreciate the craft in his work--you can crack his books open almost anywhere and just start reading out loud. But if you start looking closely, you'll find he makes every word work, every sentence, every paragraph. The stuff's as tight as the head of a drum.

Of course, what stopped people like myself in their tracks was not simply his style, it was his mind. He wasn't just an entertainer, he had ideas to sell, and for decades he explored his ideas, refined them, and forced us to snap awake and pay attention. Ed Abbey invented the Southwest we live in. He made us look at it, and when we looked up again we suddenly saw it through his eyes and sensed what he sensed--we were killing the last good place. His words were driven by a moral energy, a biting tongue, and, thank God, by an abundant sense of humor. It's pretty hard to read him without laughing out loud. And he was radical. Want to save the National Parks? Get the stinking cars out. Want to keep Arizona beautiful and healthy? Let's make half of it a wilderness. Want to bring the Colorado River back to life? Let's blow up Glen Canyon Dam. There are damn near twenty books. Read them and see. I suppose his reputation will now fall into the claws of the Visigoths of the English departments and I don't know what they'll make of him. But here's what I think: when I'm dead and dust, people will still be reading Edward Abbey. Because the stuff he wrote is alive.

The morning he died, his wife Clarke called me and told me and I felt like a giant hole had been punched in the mind of the Southwest, a kind of new, chilling void. And I sensed Tucson and the region had slipped one more ratchet and lost another piece of its dwindling soul. I realized I was going to be a little lonelier for the rest of my life. I don't figure on being lucky enough to know another Ed Abbey.

Then I remembered a letter he wrote to the newspapers--he seemed hardly able to get through a day without firing off a broadside to some newspaper or magazine. He suggested that a suitable memorial should be created for a leading local developer. He wanted to name the new sewage plant after him. Neither newspaper would publish the letter.

The last time I talked to him, he told me how he'd written an essay a year or so ago in which he'd noted that nobody in his family ever died. And then, suddenly, his brother had died from cancer, his mother had been run over and killed by a truck. He looked up at me with a mad twinkle in his eyes.

I said, "Maybe you ought to print a retraction."
God, I'm going to miss him. Who in the hell is going to keep us honest? The guy we counted on, well, he moved on.

Charles Bowden used to edit City Magazine.

He suggested that a suitable memorial should be created for a leading local developer. He wanted to name the new sewage plant after him.

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Charles Bowden