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Murray State University J E R R Y A . H E R N D O N “Moderate Extremism”: Edward Abbey and ‘The Moon-Eyed Horse” i In the opening pages of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey tells us of his delight in the solitude available to him as the sole custodian of the 33,000 acres of Arches National Monument, where he will spend his six-month tour of duty “twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human . . . -”1 His initial loneliness is quickly dispelled in his sense of kinship with the natural world and its creatures, and he finds his situation exhilarating. Gazing at the landscape on his first morning, he feels “a ridiculous . . . possessiveness,” a desire “to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally . . .” (5). And he slows the pace of his life to match the rhythm of his natural environment, experiencing a kind of recovery of childhood innocence: . . the time passed extremely slowly . . . with the days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood” (“Author’s Introduction,” xii). In a later chapter, Abbey writes of the “equanimity” he feels in his solitude, and, a bit further on, he insists that without “the possibility of escape” to the wilderness, “the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis” (129-130). In the fifth chapter, 1Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (New Y ork: M cGraw-Hill, 1968), p. 14. All references are to this edition, and subsequent citations will be identified by page num ber incorporated parenthetically in the text of this paper. 98 Western American Literature he argues vehemently and passionately that a civilization which cares about the health and sanity of its citizens must preserve its wilderness areas as refuges from the pressures generated by urban industrialism. But Abbey does find his situation a bit lonely at first, and he is not in total solitude for very long at a time. O n the first day at his post, he tries to persuade the superintendent and chief ranger, who have brought him his Park Service pickup truck and his water supply, to stay for supper. When they refuse, he climbs the rise near his trailer to watch them depart. Abbey also deals with the tourists who come on weekends. There aren’t many of them, but they are sufficiently numerous, appar­ ently, to keep him company. Abbey goes to Moab once a week, both to obtain supplies and to establish “a little human contact more vital than that possible with the tourists” (40) he meets on the job. He also occasionally spends one of the two days he has off per week cowboying for some local rancher like Roy Scobie. At one point, Abbey admits that “the one thing better than solitude . . . is society” (97), and he dreams in his early days at his post of work­ ing there for six months of the year, indefinitely, and spending “the winters in some complementary, equally agreeable [urban] environment — Hoboken perhaps, or Tiajuana, Nogales, Juarez . . . . Maybe Tonopah . . . or possibly Oakland or even New Orleans . . . ” (42). At the end of his tour of duty, preparing for a flight to New York, Abbey suggests that he has had “enough of Land’s End, Dead Horse Point, Tukuhnikivats, and other high resolves . . .” (265). He now wants “a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue” (265). Insisting that he wants to “hear the wit and wisdom of the subway crowds . . . the cabdriver’s shrewd aphorisms, the genial chuckle of a Jersey City cop, the happy laughter of Greater New York’s one million illegitimate children,” Abbey says “the desert has driven me crazy” (265-266). So both the pressure-cooker of an urban-industrial civilization, if one does not escape occasionally, and the solitude of the wilderness, if one stays too long, can drive one mad. Abbey expresses his philosophy as a striving for “balance. . . . Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds” (265). It is his statement of his need for “balance,” for both society and solitude, that serves to indicate Abbey’s point...


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