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Edward Abbey Now, and Then

Abbey book cover

All it took to bring a buried 30-year old memory back to life was the picture of a book cover.

This particular book cover—of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang”—was attached to a press release announcing a lecture by rare book expert Ken Sanders on a new library exhibit. The exhibit would be of a new Special Collection of Abbey’s works, now considered rare, collectable, Special with a capital S.

Seeing that illustration, I was suddenly, but somewhat unsteadily, transported to a red rock plateau outside Moab, Utah in the late 1970s. I don’t dare try to pinpoint the date;

credit: Dean Shenberger

the decade was long enough ago. It was late afternoon in May, getting toward sunset. A longish hike on the last day of a seminar organized at the University of Utah English department had taken a group of graduate students to Delicate Arch. The leader of the course had continued on a bit, while the students scattered along the rocks, resting on day packs, taking in the rich tableau about to unfold. To the west, the sun slipped lower, casting angled shadows across the landscape. The colors of the arch deepened through a range of reds and oranges that even hundreds of paint chips at Home Depot cannot come close to capturing. As the eastern sky darkened behind the arch, it become even more remarkably vivid. That might have been a dramatic enough end to a few days in the desert reading, writing, listening, arguing, and hiking. But no, it wasn’t.

Then there was music.

At first it was a from a flute, sound drifting over the rocks from no identifiable source. Our leader—Ed Abbey you will have likely guessed by now—was sitting below us, playing to the arch, to the sky, to the lightning bolts soundlessly punctuating the faraway western horizon, and to the coyotes. Yes. They began to sing along. One, two, then a chorus. The darker it became, the more the music by man, animal and—I am convinced—ancient spirits, began to soar. I had read “Desert Solitaire.” Now I was in it.

It was a simple book cover that brought back a magical night, in feelings first, then sorted out in logical detail. I cannot remember the date, but I can still smell the rain coming and hear the echoes of the coyotes long after the flute was packed away.

The Friends of the Marriott Library hosted a lecture about Abbey’s influence by rare book seller Ken Sanders Sunday March 4th. Although the lecture has come and gone, the exhibit of Abbey’s books and other items from the Special Collection “Brave Cowboy: An Edward Abbey Retrospective” will be on exhibit at the Marriott Library until April 27.  Read an account of the lecture here in the Salt Lake Tribune.