Following environmentalist Edward Abbey’s footsteps in the Utah and Arizona deserts

The road trip from Moab, Utah, to Ajo, Ariz., is a sunbaked ramble through about 600 miles of dreamy, lethal desert, beginning with the red rocks of Utah’s Arches National Park, skirting Monument Valley and the Colorado River, and ending in the cactus country of southern Arizona.

Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was a desert rat, a chronic contrarian, a serial government employee with a penchant for anarchy. He spoke for the rocks, the sand and the snakes in a way that no one had.

He made his reputation by exploring Arches in the nonfiction “Desert Solitaire” (1968), then doubled his fame in 1975 with “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a novel that follows four misfits as they lament lost wild places, burn billboards, disable heavy equipment and dream of liberating the Colorado River from the concrete grip of Glen Canyon Dam. In the wake of that book, a few of his admirers founded Earth First.

To appreciate the desert, Abbey once wrote, “You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the…contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.”

Abbey spent the summers of 1956 and 1957 at Arches, at the time a national monument with no paved roads. Then he spent a decade chewing on the experience and concluded that there should be no pavement at Arches, no more cars in national parks, and no more growth in Western states that don’t have water for it.

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