Ed Abbey – Outhouse Reading
Come visit. Bring self, guitar & beaucoup vin du pais.
We’re up on Aztec Peak L.O., Tonto NF, about 20 mile
south of Young off 288. Will be here till October, probably.
Love, Ed & Renée.
The night before it came, I’d just return from California where Earl and Travis Edmonson and I had recorded twenty eight songs for a double album to accompany my first book, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle—a book I’d proudly sent to Ed in February of that same year—a book he’d made favorable comments about; nonetheless, I wanted to talk to him about those comments, and we hadn’t been able to get together since April when I last saw him and Renée. I thought about tossing my guitar, sleeping bag, ice chest, books and boots into my VW Safari and splitting on the double, but I was between a rock and a boulder; had a very important date with my publisher in Flagstaff the next morning to okay the use of the book cover for the new album…so…
…I called Paul.
“Heddo. Whud tibe is our meeding tomorrow, Paul.”
“Ten o’clock. Uh-h–you don’t sound so good, what’s the matter? Got a cold or something?”
“I duddno, but I sure ab stobbed up. I mide be a bid late—I feel kinda sicky, got a headache, but I’m takin’ lotta vitabin C.”
“Well, hell, if you don’t feel good, better come in later—like sometime next week. It ‘s not that important.”
“Oh, but id is to me. I…”
“No, no, be simpler when the layout’s all finished and you can okay it—let’s make it same time, next Monday.”
“Well, okay, if you’re sure—an’ thanks, Paul, I’ll be over dis by Muday for sure.”
“Meantime–get well, get drunk, whatever it takes. I’ll see you then.”
Now and then one must juggle one’s priorities.
Thirty minutes later I had all my shit together and was ready to hit the road with a Tonto National Forest map, five gallons of water, a thermos of iced tea and a couple of wet towels. Driving south in August in an open VW Safari—we called them ‘Hitler’s Jeeps” —required a unique air conditioning system, one I should have patented. It was only about a hundred and fifty miles to Aztec Peak and I planned to stay in the high country as much as possible, going through Payson, then taking a shortcut (shown on the nice green, half-inch-to-the-mile FS map) down to Young, off highway 260. I made two stops; one for gas, the other for a pile of groceries, steaks, ice and two gallons of wine—never could tell how long between trips to town for old Ed, or how many unexpected guests might show.
If you’ve never tried using those forest service maps to places you ain’t never been. Don’t. They look innocent, but they’re damned deceitful— full of red trail mark numbers that never match up to what’s at ground zero. I was in Payson a bit before of noon, but it took me more than three hours to maneuver, then back-track all the unmarked trails, dead ends, and corral- stocktank-irrigation-ditch blockades; that’s saying nothing about the cows, head to tail, slowly pooping across the track. No matter how hard I leaned on the horn, I had to wait. It was obvious that they owned the place, and had for generations—the only thing they hadn’t eaten was the bark on the pine trees, and in some places I wasn’t too sure about that.
By the time I got back to the highway and found 288 to Young, Arizona, my Safari smelled like a feed yard. But I had nice chats with back country hermits, forest service yahoos and cowboys, who probably laughed for months about, ‘the babe in the red and yaller jeep (it’s not a jeep), tryin’ t’find the Chamberlain Trail to Young, who couldn’t a got from here to there less’n she cut down a mountain.’ Whatever they might have said or thought, it was decidedly cooler in the maze than out—the one good thing about it.
The drive down 288 on the maybe-gravel, maybe-not-so-gravel road through Young to the turnoff up to Aztec has wafted into ether, but I do remember the climb to the tower as being around 2000 feet in a 5-mile grind, and that it was after five when I rolled to a stop beneath the glass house on stilts; more than ready, as were Ed and Renée, for a glassfull from one of those jugs I’d so carefully wrapped in my sleeping bag to keep from injury.
I’d visited Ed at two other towers, but it was always different, always breath-taking to look out from the top of one world onto the tops of other worlds, if they be high desert and piney woods, or low desert, dunes and cacti; a 360° view with nothing higher than you. We stood on the catwalk that surrounds the glass house, drinking wine, eavesdropping on the whispering pines, catching up on friends and conversations since we’d last seen each other, expressing our contentment with smiles and laughter and savoring a view enhanced by the grape. There at Aztec, we looked down on one big reservoir–three others trailing behind mostly unseen, between gulches, basalt, twisty rims and sheer cliff–to the flat mesquite bottomland. And, of course, sunsets.
Watching a desert sunset from on high lends a whole other dimension to the show. Colors seem less postcardy, a bigger spread—on and on, forever— not as intense in the west where the colors usually collect and run wild, more vivid toward the south and overhead. The delicate colors drifting northward, when viewed from the desert floor, would be lost altogether.
“Are the sunsets always like this up here, Ed?” I asked.
“Except when we have a fire; then there’s the same pollution here as they have down there all the time. Smoke, dust, and exhaust make great sunsets.”
“Well, then, we ought to have a lot more and better ones in the future,” says I.
“We will, we will! Amen!” Ed raised his fruit-jar to the sky in salud, then drained his vin du pays—wine of the land, but not this land.
As we watched the city of Phoenix spread its non-stop lava flow of lights to the far horizon and beyond–growing like the cancer he often mentioned in his writing–I wondered where in God’s name it would end?
“Where do they all come from, Ed?” I knew well enough, so did he, but his answer made me laugh.
“New Jersey”–dead pan, no grin, no twinkle; he meant it–“Just stating the facts.”
The lowering sunlight reflecting off the reservoirs below—the ones feeding the malignant growth—stood in the place of a once rolling, rocking Salt River; a life-supporting vein now clogged with a chain of man made aneurysms (misnamed lakes), with patronizing aliases like Canyon, Apache and Saguaro, alluding to what nature put there long before white man showed butt.
Dams. Ed’s and my most hated blobs on the planet.
Twenty-two years before this day, we’d both known another canyon, flooded and betrayed by dams—courtesy of our government’s blind and bumbling political leaders. Since then, we both have acted, written, worked and prayed for the return of that miraculous place—Glen Canyon with a Colorado River running through it. Our hopes and dreams about its return didn’t very a great deal.
Our first hope was that Mama Nature would relieve us of all responsibility—even to further protests—by honoring us with a 300,000 cfs flood that would pulverize the dam and flush Grand Canyon, draining Res Fowell in less than a week. (bless her, she tried—1983)
Our next dream was that someone with lotta balls would figure how to blow the sucker, rattle all dams below it to the max and bury the Wreck-the-Nation Bureau. (not us, no way—someone who really knew how)
Our most hopeless hope was that our government would awaken to the bad act they’d performed and set the river running again in a manner non-violent, in time with the river’s flowing–actually, this had been our first hope, but we knew our bureaucracies better than to assume any action. We knew that a river always wins and would eventually take Glen back despite our efforts to the contrary, yet I voiced the fear, “But Ed, if it happens in human lifetime, before we’re wiped off this planet, we’ll just screw it up in some new, destructive way and turn it into another Homo Sap-ian circus.”
“Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.”–a direct look beneath rebellious eyebrows and a splay of sun wrinkles—“If a few concerned, dedicated souls like us, who know damned well what Glen Canyon was like, keep passing that knowledge on to equally caring individuals, there’s hope that it might not be a circus.”
That the great Abbey cared about my canyon was undoubtedly the main, if not the only reason I held any hope for its life in the future and so continued with the lecture circuit; reading, playing and singing–midwest to west coast that year–pleased if three out of thirty cared or were even listening. In-between those time I hiked the upper drainages flowing into the foul little fjord, turning back the minute I whiffed it, exiting the way I came before I set eyes on the sewer and heard the whine of motors that had replaced a gentler sound of paddles and oars.
Renée, having listened to us bitch and moan, ultimately gave up and descended the reverberating stairs to the outhouse. In her absence the discussion we had about those stairs most assuredly stemmed from the fruit of the vine.
“A few weeks above this ringing ladder,” I told him, “you could guess who was coming up—male or female, someone familiar with the altitude, or antsy about it—might even be able to recognizing a close friend by the way they climb up.”
He hadn’t thought about it. “Not that much traffic up here, but glad you mentioned it; gives me another thing to deliberate these lonely days and nights when Renée is in Tucson at the University.”
(Seems like Ed’s women were always going to school; were they playing catch-up, or just finish-up? I’d only met the later two–couldn’t say about the two in front of them–but I got a feeling that there weren’t all that many lonely times up here for Mr. Abbey).
I said, “When Renée went down the stairs I heard descending musical notes–all manner of tone quality there–a drone, a hum, or a boom in the wind. Don’t they pick up notes when you play your flute up here?”
He said it wasn’t the stairs, it was the steel cross-braces holding the tower together that made those sounds in wind and weather. “It would be nice if I got harmony, or even notes, with my flute, but I don’t, and you’re the only one I know who’d dream up something like that.”
“Here comes Renée—listen,” and I sang as she climbed the stairs: “There’s a canyon in the desert……There’s a river in the canyon……There’s a spirit on the river……And her song is my companion……When I’m free-e-e…” (the ascending melody, from middle C, to C an octave above, hit the high note just as she reached the landing).
Laughing, she asked, “What are you two playing?”
“Musical stairs.” I told her.
“Good, I’m glad you’re not still arguing about the yukky state of the world. Let’s see—we can talk about…ah…about…”
“Food,” growled the Big Bear.
We ate below, where we seared steaks over a campfire within a ring of rocks and cleared pine needles—a swept up space that wouldn’t have been there at all if Ed hadn’t come down one evening and found a couple of knotheads building one on top of the needles so it could smoulder there, undetected, until it set fire to the whole forest.
“Barbarians, cretins,” he grumped, “even a latter-day boy scout has more sense than that?”
“No fires to report today, huh?”
“Surprisingly, no. This time of year they get hot and heavy, one almost every day, somewhere. He’d learned what was and what wasn’t a fire a few days after coming to the job. “I spotted smoke up north one morning and radioed in like a good fire watcher–couple other fire stations radioed back with: ‘Go back to your typewriter Abbey, it’s a sawmill, they burn it down every day’, or something to that effect. I’ve learned to take second sightings most of the time.”
After we ate, he took the steak bones and scraps, put them in a plastic bag with squishy things that didn’t burn up in the fire, and stowed them in a lock-lid garbage can to keep them from bear paws and jaws . “Only do this in the woods, or lookout towers were I’m looked at,” he offered. Out in the desert I feed the animals, if there’s anything left; the walk-in-maybe-not-walk-out desert where there’s no one but them and me.”
On a promise that he’d play his flute in the morning, I brought my guitar from the Safari and sang a bunch of songs he hadn’t heard, along with his favorites. It was a lovely picture beside the dying campfire—they sat across from me, backs supporting each other, humming along, singing, or just listening. Ed appreciated so many different kinds of music, classical, Mexican, folk, jazz, and it pleased me endlessly that he liked to hear my river songs. I’d have sung them all night but we were all getting sleepy from the wine, the great feed and clear, luscious air.
Tonight he and Renée retired to cots up in the glass house instead of sleeping in his truck as they often did if the weather turned threatening. Aztec had no immediate outbuildings, unlike the North Rim where he’d bunk in a cabin near the foot of the lookout, or on the tower’s catwalk, but more often down the hill half mile away in a comfortable trailer house.
I curled up in the Safari, listening to pine needles as they dropped on the vinyl roof and surfed across it with the wind–soft-talking in whispers. A musical note, that Ed said wasn’t there, chimed now and them from the tower. I was asleep in seconds.
By the time I awoke next morning, E and R had already topped out and I kept hearing hee-haws, beeps and squawks from on high. Something was going on up in the tower. No flute.
From my waterbottle, I splashed my face, brushed teeth, then ran for the outhouse at the edge of the trees with Ed’s book “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” I plunked down on the hole and began thumbing through pages, looking for a passage I wanted to point out to the author as I waited for the news to drop. The pines made a shuh-h-h, the radio in the tower a wow-e-e-e, and I could hear rust flaking off my thinker as I shifted it into high gear.
Oh-h-h, that’d be fun! (if you can get him to do it).
Why wouldn’t he? (your book’s not that hot a shot).
But his book is, no matter who’s reading it. (not the same as if Jack, Howie, Dave, or…Stewart Udall were sitting here.)
But can I get his–with my book? (he’d do it for a friend–he’s that kinda guy).
Am I his friend? (no indication to the contrary—invited you up here, didn’t he?).
Okay. I wiped and went up the melodic ladder.
All sorta things were going on up there. A plume of smoke billowed
in the northeast—or what I thought was northeast—slowly turning the sun into a gooey, opaque pink where it rose behind a dirty-cotton sky. The smoke looked far, far away, but when I asked how many miles, Ed, who was bent over the big metal plate of the Osborne Firefinder, checking the azimuthal angle, said, “Fifty by crow. Up on the Rim. Near Pinedale and Deer Springs.”
So much has flared up in my mind since I began this story, this meager story about my long gone friend, Ed Abbey. I keep trying to remember, to bridge the years between then and now—almost thirty—and the question that hangs tight is: Could he possibly have foreseen this strange, pyrotechnic world we have going here? A wildfire! In every sense of the word.
Here’s where I take up the curmudgeon.
At this sitting, June 2006, in the fourth or fifth year of a drought that is going to last one helluva lot longer than five more, a fire rages in Oak Creek Canyon twenty-five miles from where I live. It is featured by the national media and fills the air with dense smoke, spreading through the wilderness above cliffs like those at Aztec where the fire fighters can’t get to them–or the aeroplanes and helicopters–to drop enough retardant to make a difference. Shall we draw a parallel here? Our political atmosphere is filled with the same dense camouflage. It follows no pattern we have seen before. It spreads throughout our territory then leaps to others far and wide, and no matter how much retardant we pour onto the destruction (such as the maiming of our Constitution) it makes no difference. We cannot reach the wildfire in Wild Washington .
At the same time our culture, social structure, civilization, whatever you want to call us, is mimicking each one before it and venturing off the deep end toward oblivion. Everything we do manifests itself in selfish, short-term, ruinous ways, because we’ve gone too far, too fast, and we can’t back up in the bureaucratic slime of growth-for-the-sake-of-growth, powered by the economics machine and the human numbers we’ve created.
Did Ed envision, for example, the tangential progression from 4WD, to SUV, to ORV, to ATV, to fuckeverthinginmywayTANKS? Did he comprehend the growing army of fat gutted, ATV apes farting fumes and ripping black tread across every mound of slickrock?–over acres of sensitive soil and undergrowth? Did he foresee a navy of watercraft bashing through every stream of moving water on the planet? Or believe that the adrenaline-locked, fast-track racing sports–with all their thunder, psychedelic space suits and helmets–would move from the arena onto our back country roads, our desert and wilderness trails, to everywhere? From his coined Industrial Tourism, what reaction would he have to the Extractive Amenities Industry; the jeep-trailbike-snowmobile-kayak-rockclimbing-backpack Guided Tours that mine the wilderness for money and produce detailed Howtogetthere Maps, to be sure to be sure?
We need what we don’t take–and we take what we don’t need.
A minority of seekers out there know they need “sacred time” in a special place. Using their very own feet to find it, they go to escape the grind, to look and touch and listen to what Nature has to say. A few hike alone—some in twos, threes, fours–delighting in what nourishes body and soul, teases their imagination and whets their appetites for more sacred time in sacred places. I wish them all the best, a hundred times over, because their world is shrinking fast. And they know it too.
“A blown dam, Doc Sarvis? Forget it. Hayduke’s dead.”
“A five-hundred year flood, Lee? Forget it. You’re droughting out. To not have enough water stops the economic machine, and the people machine, like sugar in a bulldozer.”
Don’t I wish. Only animals have the intuition, the built-in DNA to not produce progeny in times of drought or stress.
There was no smoke in the immediate Aztec Peak vicinity; in fact the day was a beauty. Ed could not leave the tower so Renée and I took off hiking; we crossed small rivulets, walked along rims of grey granite and wished we could slide under a couple of inviting waterfalls that were impossible to get to. For this high in the sky, I thought there was an amazing amount of water flowing. The ponderosa leaped high overhead, the drop-offs low down beneath—a Peregrine falcon Ed said he’d seen several times in the last few days favored us with a zoom across the blue on its way up to visit Ed again in the glass house. For a long while we sat on the edge of a dropoff, feet dangling into space, looking into the tops of one hundred-foot ponderosas pines—a good time, I decided, to test my outhouse thought bubble on Renée before I presented it to Ed.
“I want to take a photo of Ed sitting in the outhouse reading Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, then one of me sitting there reading The Monkey Wrench Gang—think he’d hold still for that?”
She smiled, getting the picture, then giggled and said, “I don’t see why not. If there’s any doubt we can try pouring more wine.”
With that affirmation, we scooted back off the ledge and headed for lunch.
The fire seemed under control and what smoke there was had been picked up by the westerlies and blown eastward. Lunch was eaten, Renée went off to study for whatever courses she was taking at the U, and I walked around in the glass rectangle watching Ed work those complicated instruments for firefinding, fascinated by the high stool he sat on, scooting thither and yon across the floor on what looked like four glass balls.
“Lightening safeguard,” he stated, “When it gets exciting up here, electrocution is not my idea of the best way to go.”
He then brought out his flute and played for almost an hour while I lay on one of the cots, lost in utter contentment, listening, breathing in the notes as he blew them out to a pine-whistling background.
When I asked about taking the photos he wasn’t what you’d call ecstatic, yet he agreed to the set up (sit down) of one picture–me, reading MRG–because he didn’t have 10,000 GD Cows up there with him.
I was ready for that. The book was only six months new, so I trucked it wherever I went for friends and maybe a random sale now and then. “I have a couple in the car,” says I, with a smug little smile, “always take them with me–you know, just in case…”
“In case you want someone reading it in a shithouse.” he added in his flattest, perfunctory tone.
What I recall about that session was not the pictures themselves, though they were quite entertaining, but that Ed got really pissed at me for first time since I’d known him. Intuitively, I’d felt all along that he wasn’t keen on this “publicity” idea of mine. In retrospect I can certainly understand why, but then, it was just a “fun thing” that any of the nature gang might play (like mud-shots and other vivid exposures on the river,) and I had no intention of using them for anything but my very own photo album.
He took my picture on the pot first; no fussing around, one click and it was done. While he was adjusting himself over the hole—in all his clothes and a jacket–I said, “Ed, hold the book a little higher; there’s a pine needle shadow over the title—and act like you’re reading it. I know you probably haven’t…”
He slammed the book shut so hard it made an echo, half rose off the seat, glared down at me and barked, “What the hell do you think I do— praise everybody’s scribble without reading it, just because they want me to?”
We’ve all felt watery knees, sometime. Mine felt flooded—the only sensation I remember. I’d lost him, the moment was gone, the photo would not happen. I had meant to say that he probably hadn’t read all of it–a busy person and famous as he was–but read enough to know it wasn’t a bad book—only he’d blown his stack before I got to all that. Trying to sputter out apologies I must have looked utterly stricken, seeing as how he then…opened the book…turned some pages…held it where I’d asked him to… and said, “Come on, take the picture. I gotta quit playing around and get back to the lookout.”
The photo shoot was not mentioned again. He never asked about prints, nor were any ever made, or shown to the public. I spent hours looking for the slides to refresh my memory for this story. They are gone—I can’t imagine where—misfiled or loaned to some forgetful friend and not returned. They can’t have been stolen; hardly anyone knows I had them.
In the fall of 1984, the Historical Society, of which I was a board member, wanted to show the film Lonely Are The Brave–Ed’s novel, The Brave Cowboy. They asked if I could get Mr. Abbey to give a talk with the showing. I called him, we chatted; embarrassed as I was to ask, he agreed immediately–said he liked the old town and wanted to see it again. I asked him to send a photo and press folio so we could give the event some really good advance publicity.
A week later came his reply:
28 Sept ‘84
Here’s a photo, as requested. As for a “folio”,
you can say that I’m the author of The Brave Cowboy,
(etc., listing of other books) What else? Well—
I live near Oracle, AZ, have a wife, children, house, bills
to pay, the whole catastrophe, and I’m looking forward
to becoming a mean, nasty, ugly, wise old man.
Outhouse Reading – Essay
© Katie Lee – June, 2006
Box 395, Jerome, AZ. 86331
A REAL GOOD READ—found this via researching SONGS OF COUCH AND CONSULTATION, for some tunes I plan to adapt to poetry I write. I’m posting on email@example.com, writing mostly limerick form—at little of everything for subject. I like progress, but too bad the Canyon remains in its prison. I wish I could someday see…and taste…it! Best regards. Jonathan Caswell.
a great read, I felt like I was along for the ride
Enjoyed the story very much and have read most of Mr Abbey’s books and writings…guess I’m a fan. And now a fan of yours Ms Lee. I just finished watching the film DamNation. I enjoyed your segment and comments in the film. I’m hopeful to someday hike the canyon and experience the sights and sounds. And if I’m able to do that, it will be in large part because of your efforts. Thanks!
Sincerely, David Moore