March 18, 2019
Author: Chilton Williamson
It may or may not make sense for the living to think in arbitrary terms of decades, centuries, and millennia; what is certain is, the dead don’t. Edward Abbey had been deceased just two months short of ten years, and I was defunct about four months, entombed that long in the overpopulated, electronicized, ideologized megasprawl of modern America without escape or furlough, when I threw the camp gear in the back of the pickup truck and drove 400 miles due west from Las Cruces, New Mexico, into Arizona to meet Tom Sheeley, on his way south from Flagstaff, in the vicinity of Ed’s secret—not quite anonymous—grave.
Doug Peacock drives out from Tucson now and then to say an encouraging (or would that be discouraging?) word to his old partner in mayhem and disruption and empty a bottle of Jim Beam over the site, and I had been advised we’d find fetishes and other relics of remembrance and esteem in the vicinity. Just how many people have been initiated into this geographical and topographical mystery is uncertain, but the number must be very small. Before leaving Las Cruces, I called Steve Prescott, Ed’s brother-in-law, in Salt Lake City for precise directions, scribbling them on the back of a page or two of properly discarded manuscript while I held the receiver pinned between my ear and shoulder. Steve gave careful instructions, nearly as exact as if he were reading them off a slip of paper or taking them directly from a map, but he warned me that finding the grave would not be easy work. I told him it was all right, Ed didn’t give a damn about ten-year anniversaries (a trained philosopher as well as a naturalist and poet, he thought in epochs and eras rather than in decades), and, if Tom and I didn’t find where Cactus Ed was planted this trip, we would the next—any pretext or excuse to get lost in the Southwestern desert being an acceptable one, as Coronado in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola and the Gran Quivira proves.
Ten years after Ed last witnessed them, the January skies are browner with the drifting smog of San Diego, L.A., and Vegas, and the cities of Tucson and Phoenix more cankerous and grandiose, spreading like toxic amoebas across the desert and into the side canyons beyond. “Everything I cherish is either threatened or in the process of being destroyed,” Ed remarked near the end of his life, and things haven’t got any better since 1989. If God has allotted us our three-score years and ten, rather than complain of the parsimonious brevity of human life, perhaps we ought to reflect that in 70 years a man—one living in the 20th and 21st centuries particularly—may see too much; we were not made to suffer and perceive such great changes, occurring with the almost incredible speed people have not only learned to expect but are now educated to welcome and embrace—thus redefining for ourselves what it means to be a human being in the 20th century, as one of our recent First Ladies has described it. Having a woman around keeps a man’s mind off sex—according to an Abbey aphorism. Could Bill Clinton’s problem have been that he never spent time enough at home with his wife? Meanwhile, I find it interesting that stream-of-consciousness as a literary technique was invented before most writers owned automobiles: amazing the thought processes that occur as you’re driving at 65 miles per hour across the Papago Reservation (the northernmost and loveliest extension of the Sonoran Desert) toward a conflagration of burning pink that breaks suddenly from an overcast of ashen clouds, then extinguishes itself minutes later behind the western mountains like a ship in flames subsiding in the still, black sea.
After being delayed in Tucson while the fan clutch on the truck was replaced, I arrived at the desert crossroads of Why, Arizona, an hour and a half late and drove from one gas station/convenience store to the next until Tom Sheeley flagged me from a gold Dodge Ram with a tan camper shell over the bed. Tom, a classical guitarist who teaches in the music department of Northern Arizona University, is also an outdoorsman who once worked as a boater and camp cook on the Colorado River and as a consultant for Wild and Scenic Tours, the river-running outfit on the Green and the San Juan, which introduced him to another consultant, Edward Abbey (who, by one account at least, was terrified of whitewater, as every author with a duty to posterity should be). Once, when I ventured to suggest that The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey (text by Ed, photos by John Blaustein) was something less than vintage Abbey, Tom replied that, after all, Ed did succeed in capturing the brio and esprit de corps of the river-rat fraternity; a recent review of the text tells me he was right. To while away the added hour and a half I had consumed hanging around the Texaco station in Tucson, Tom had been browsing the collection of Abbey paperbacks on the truck seat beside him, among them One Life at a Time, Please and Desert Solitaire, Ed’s finest literary production.
I’d been looking forward to this evening as a culinary milestone in my career as an outdoor adventurer—something on the order of those safari dinners as pictured in the old New Yorker, with champagne and pheasant, and perhaps even white tie and tails—but it was late, both of us felt ravenous, and Tom didn’t feel like playing Emeril in the dark. So we drove ten miles on to Ajo, an old copper-mining town named for a head of garlic, where Tom had performed a concert a year or two ago, and drank beer with shots of whiskey in a Mexican restaurant off the arched plaza shaded by palm trees, waiting for the food to come out. After supper, while still legally sober, we drove back to Why and continued south a few miles, made camp among the saguaro, teddy-bear cholla, and palo verde, built a fire, whipped a fifth of Jim Beam within an inch of its life, wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags, and fell asleep in the truck beds under the winter constellation of Orion.
In the morning, we both felt better than either of us deserved, and after a George Hayduke breakfast—bacon and fried sliced potatoes added to ranch-style beans with a fiery salsa; French bread; espresso—drove back to Ajo to purchase a topographic map of Abbey’s Graveyard, a suitably large tract including many hundreds of square miles. Armed with this map, plus Steve Prescott’s scribbled but close instructions, we felt reasonably confident of locating Ed’s last resting place. So confident, in fact, that we carried with us in the truck, in addition to ten gallons of water for health and emergency purposes, a 12-pack of Old Milwaukee (ten cans for us, two for Ed when we finally reached him).
Carried where? Into the brown winter desert touched by the pale green of the saguaro, the yellowish creosote bush, and underlain by the gray-pink surface hardpan: wide valleys many miles across sweeping between ragged parallel ranges of red volcanic rock blackened with the dark desert varnish. Into the mild, early afternoon, unstirred by wind and warmed to a temperature of 75 degrees by the low sun whose light touched the landscape indirectly, as if through a pane of smoked glass. Into the desert where nothing was seen to move—no deer, coyote, or rabbit; no ravens or vultures even—with the exception of an occasional phainopepla, a crested black bird (the females are gray) seven-and-a-half inches in length with a long tail, red eyes, and a short warble, flitting from one saguaro to the next as if following the truck as we ground ahead in first gear down into the washes and up the opposite banks, around tire-tearing rocks, between clumps of bushes and trees reaching to rip the tow mirrors from the doors. Very slowly, while we drank a couple of lunch cylinders and tossed the aluminum remains backward through the open windows into the rattling bed behind (the only odometer Ed ever trusted).
We came at last to the jumping-off place Steve had described and continued on foot, carrying a couple of quarts of water and the two cans of Milwaukee’s finest for Ed in the daypacks. In life, he’d been here many times before; when Doug Peacock whispered the name of this desert pass in the ear of the dying man, Ed smiled in satisfaction. He died in Tucson around dawn, and, after dark the following night, his carcass, packed in dry ice and enclosed in his old sleeping bag, arrived by pickup truck with its four attendants—Peacock, Steve Prescott, Jack Loeffler, and Tom Cartwright, his father-in-law—at this site. Indeed, a spectacular place for interment: Trudging among the saguaros, dodging the rounded lava rocks under foot, I was reminded of Jim Bridger, who had said of the Rocky Mountain country that you could see forever from this place—and of Ernest Hemingway, who said of a friend’s finca that, if a man couldn’t write here, he couldn’t write anywhere.
As long as we stayed on top of the escarpment, the going was pretty good, but when we began to drop off, it became treacherous. The following morning, the bearers had transported Ed some hundreds of yards before climbing down and burying him in a grave dug six feet into the cliffside; afterward they collapsed the bank above, added an extra overburden (30 feet of clay and gravel) to keep the coyotes and the undesirable human element out, and raised a rude stone marker: EDWARD PAUL ABBEY, 1927-1989, NO COMMENT. In all this, they were disturbed just two times: again, when a wildlife biologist halted his truck in the vicinity; once, when two Air Force jets overflew them at an altitude of a hundred feet, causing Peacock to yell, “Down!” and cover Steve’s body with his own. (Ed’s beloved military-industrial complex dipping its wings in a final farewell.)
We hiked and stumbled around, Sheeley and I, for several hours, clutching and waving Steve’s instructions until the paper became a tattered and wilted rag, taking compass readings, looking for the series of invaginations he’d described and trying to imagine how four men carrying a corpse between them would proceed in this wilderness of rock and cacti, where they would dig—and found the gravesite, finally. Or thought we did, though the stone and fetishes that marked it had been removed, whether by wind and water or by Ed’s widow, Clarke, we never learned. In the end, we could not be absolutely sure, though certainly we were within 100 yards or less of the place. (There was nowhere else to dig on that rocky, cactus-congested slope.)
And all the time we could hear up there—out there—somewhere—Ed, cackling with laughter. I thought of our last goodbye (I didn’t know it was the last, but he did) on Third South in Salt Lake City in November 1988, when he’d embraced me before getting back in the car, and wondered if this exercise here on the desert had actually been necessary, if I hadn’t blurred the crispness of a Final Farewell to the indefinition of a Long Goodbye. But what’s wrong with long goodbyes, really? I loved Ed Abbey, love him more as time goes by, and I was glad to have made this visit. I believe Tom was, too.
Slowly, as twilight fell, we worked our way back to the truck and dropped the packs in the bed, aware of the double clunk as the lunch cylinders struck steel. We’d forgotten to leave behind our inconvenient tribute, but no matter. You don’t offer a friend warm beer in the desert, anyway.
In camp again among the saguaros with the full moon picking out Montezuma’s Head from among the towers and turrets of the Ajo Range, we held a wake, devouring two outrageous steaks from Flagstaff’s best butcher shop. Then Tom brought his guitar from the truck, and I uncorked a magnum of Casarsa Cabernet. Seated by a fire of split juniper logs burning in an oil-change pan set on the gravelly ground, we drank wine and smoked the dry cigars we’d bought in Ajo while Tom played “Norteña” by Gómez Crespo and the “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquín Rodrigo and the stars scrolled slowly in a southwesterly direction across the darkly shining sky. At the close of his life, Ed had looked forward to enjoying what he heralded as the Wild Nineties. Instead, he died. The 90’s didn’t turn out so well anyhow.
“You know, I think he went just in time,” I said.
Tom nodded above the guitar.
“Before the clitocracy really got after him.”
“And the immigration environmentalists.”
“I have a feeling the entire movement is reevaluating him this minute. The Brady Bunch too, of course.”
Citizen Ed. Though avoiding “syphilization” as the modern plague, he was a patriot. He cared about his country, the old American constitutional republic. “I’m not a hermit,” he once protested, indignantly—just a desert rat was all. From the ridge behind camp, a barbaric yawping—a noisy team effort—erupted suddenly
“An encore for the coyotes, por favor,” I asked Tom. So he played it.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture – February 7, 2019