David Friedman: The Day I paddled with Edward Abbey

In this dreamlike voyage any unnecessary effort seems foolish. Even vulgar, one might say. The river itself sets the tone: utterly relaxed, completely at ease, it fulfills its mighty purpose without aim or effort. Only the slow swing of the canyon walls overhead and the illusory upstream flow of willows, tamarisk, and boulders on the shore reveal and indicate our progress to the sea (Abbey, 184).

It was the late afternoon and the sun was blazing down on us. We were all gunneled up (all of our canoes attached) taking turns reading from Desert Solitaire, one of Edward Abbey’s most celebrated works. As each of us took turns reading this book of gospels I grew increasingly eager to read. Finally, I thought to myself as the book was passed to me. I rubbed my thumb across the title that continues to impart wisdom and knowledge, Desert Solitaire, A Season in the Wilderness: A Celebration of the Beauty of Living in a Harsh and Hostile Land.

We were right in the middle of the chapter, Down the River. In this chapter Abbey is recounting his rafting voyage with Ralph Newcomb through Glen Canyon. This chapter is really a poem or eulogy, if you will, for the once-majestic canyon. Since then Glen Canyon has been transformed by the Glen Canyon Dam. This dam generates energy and irrigation water for the west. In addition to energy, it has created recreational opportunities on its reservoir, Lake Powell. Although the canyon has been industrialized, its memory lies on with many locals from the town of Green River, Utah. Bob, the outfitter who equipped us with our gear for our canoe trip down the Green River, shared many stories with us about the historic canyon from countless voyages he took down the river with his father. As we parted ways he said in a raspy voice, “there are a number of sections you will be paddling in Labyrinth Canyon that that are eerily reminiscent of the once majestic Glen Canyon.” 

There I was in my canoe, with the poetry of the past in my very hands. It was a powerful moment, for it felt as though Abbey was with us. As I read the historic chapter I felt Abbey’s words soak into my senses.

Beyond the side canyon the walls rise up again, slick and monolithic, in color a blend of pink, buff, yellow, orange, overlaid in part with a glaze of “desert varnish” (iron oxide) or streaked in certain places with vertical draperies of black organic stains, the residue from plant life beyond the rim and from the hanging gardens that flourish in the deep grottoes high on the walls (Abbey, 184).

I could feel, smell, hear, and touch his passion for the land. I felt like we were interpreting the landscape together. I could imagine him sitting with us gazing at the canyon walls and contemplating the wilderness that surrounded us. As I read Abbey’s words while I floated down the river – it was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I couldn’t help but feel that I was side by side or better yet, paddling with this historic river runner. For today was the day I grew closer to the river runners of the past. For today was the day I paddled with Edward Abbey.

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