Me and Ed: Remembering a man I never met but felt I knew
Posted on August 27, 2013
In late January 1963 I was in Sun Valley, Idaho. A recent college graduate, I was a 24 year old ski racer who didn’t seem to quite fit into mainstream America. Through a friendship with Ron Funk, who cared even less about the fit than me, I found myself committed to one of the more audacious ski adventures of my life, running the Diamond Sun down Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain. As I wrote in The Straight Course, “The Diamond Sun may be the most difficult standard race in the world. It is the fastest I know of and starts on top of Bald Mountain and finishes at the Wood River 2 3/5 miles below. The route is any way possible down Ridge, Rock Garden, Canyon and River Run.” The Diamond Sun had been run only twice since WWII and is fast, dangerous and scary, and I was appropriately cognizant of this reality.
I mean, the night before the race I was scared shitless, filled with doubts about myself and whether I had what it takes and, more, whether it mattered that I address those personal doubts and questions. In order to relax and take my mind off such heavy toil, my friend Mike Brunetto and I went to the movie showing in Ketchum that night. The film, Lonely Are the Brave with Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau, is, in my view, the best work Douglas ever did and is one of my all time favorite films. Among other things, it touches on the integrity of personal freedom and the freedom of personal integrity and the price one might pay for them.
At any rate, the film touched and inspired me and added a sliver of resolve to my scared shitless mind and spirit. The next morning we ran the Diamond Sun and everything went flawlessly for me. I set a new record (which still stands as the race hasn’t been run since) of 2:21.0 for the 2 3/5 mile course. A fine memory of a good time, and I always thought of Lonely Are the Brave as an integral part of it. More important, the race gave me the confidence I needed to go to Chile the following summer with the intention of setting a world record for speed on skis. We went to Chile and set a record and that experience changed my life in myriad ways including better self-knowledge and the doors that open with a world record on the resume that would remain closed without it. The expanded awareness of my own human capabilities helped form much of my life and activities, including the writing, and, more important, the same commitment to writing as a path in life as dangerous and scary as the Diamond Sun, though slower of pace. Some of the doors that opened I probably shouldn’t have walked through, but self-knowledge is a process, not an accomplishment.
A few years later (1971) I began writing for Skier’s Gazette which a year later became Mountain Gazette and which eventually led to my work being published elsewhere. Mountain Gazette was as crucial to my writing as the Diamond Sun had been to my skiing.
By the early ‘70s I had read Desert Solitaire a couple of times and knew that Ed Abbey was a great writer and, in some ways, the spokesman of our times. I read his occasional pieces in MG and was impressed when then editor Mike Moore told me that Abbey sent his contributions in accompanied by a check to help out the struggling publication. Since MG paid me for my work I was grateful to Abbey for more than his fine writing, vision and personal integrity. When MG published my long essay/memoir Night Driving in 1975 it took up most of the issue except for a wonderful Abbey piece about desert driving, and I was thrilled to see my name with his on the cover. Good stuff.
That same year Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang was published. It is a very good novel that resonated with a large segment of America that didn’t quite fit into the mainstream and it nurtured all but the most pesticide sprayed imaginations. After I read it I gave it away as Christmas gifts. I was living between Truckee and Squaw Valley at the time and my neighbors, two New Jersey hippies whose son went to school with my son Jason, were among the recipients. A spacey friend of theirs was visiting from the east coast that winter and one snowstorm morning I went over to my neighbors’ home for a coffee. The spacey friend’s grin wouldn’t leave his face as he thanked me for giving The Monkey Wrench Gang to his hosts, and then he told me about his previous day. He had spent most of the day and into the night reading Abbey’s paean to the purposeful destruction of eyesores and pavement and machines that destroy the earth. He finished the book at 1 a.m. and was inspired to immediate action. Perhaps other, less literary influences were at play as well, but despite the late hour and the storm he hopped on a bicycle with a huge bow saw and rode the 3 or 4 miles to the freeway near Truckee and, under the cover of darkness and the storm, spent a couple of hours dropping a huge, offensive-looking, wood-supported billboard advertising one of the local ski areas. Then he rode the bicycle back home. He had taken Hayduke’s credo to heart (and action): “My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.”
The dropping of the eyesore billboard was the first eco-revolutionary act that I knew of in the Tahoe area, and though I was only one of a few who knew who had done it, I was only one of many who were amused, informed and inspired by it. Life went on and I read more Abbey and rightly thought of him as a giant literary and environmental and thereby societal influence of our time.
And then, some 20 years after the Diamond Sun, I was browsing in a book store and came across an Ed Abbey novel I didn’t know about entitled The Brave Cowboy. A quick glance showed that it was the basis of the film Lonely Are the Brave. The novel is really good. I was and am amazed that I hadn’t put the two together, but knowledge, self and otherwise, is a process, not an accomplishment. A bit of research expanded my awareness that Dalton Trumbo had written the screenplay for the film, and if ever a Hollywood writer type could be a soul-brother to Ed Abbey it was Dalton Trumbo.
I was bemused and informed and once again reminded of the ever present connections and influences, known and unknown, that permeate all our lives, and I promptly wrote Abbey a letter of praise and thanks for his contribution to my life. He graciously answered and reiterated the worth and power of the written word and encouraged me to continue writing. We agreed to meet up sometime, somewhere in the southwest desert, but it never happened and so like most of his fans I have the easy privilege of remembering and thinking of him through the greatness of his work, unencumbered by the rough edges of his person and the inevitable objections I have to some of his ideas.
Ed Abbey died in March 1989. As he requested, Abbey was buried illegally in a spot in the Cabeza Prieta desert of Arizona known only to his friends who buried him, Doug Peacock, Jack Loeffler, Tom Cartwright and Steve Prescott. It is reported that a large quantity of beer and hard booze accompanied the burial, some of it poured on the grave to help Ed on his way. In May of that year a public memorial for Abbey was held near Arches National Monument outside Moab, Utah. The day before the service a friend and I climbed Castleton Tower in Castle Valley. It was May 19, my son Jason’s 18th birthday and I sat on top thinking that both Jason and Ed Abbey would have enjoyed the view from there. The next day we attended the memorial which was wonderful, moving and appropriate. Barry Lopez, Ann Zwinger, Doug Peacock and Dave Foreman were among those who gave beautiful eulogizes for Ed that day. Wendell Berry, who never met Abbey, recited a poem, calling him to Berry’s native Kentucky:
The old oak wears new leaves.
It stands for many lives.
Within its veil of green
A singer sings unseen.
Again the living come
To light, and are at home.
And Edward Abbey’s gone…
I think of that dead friend
Here where he never came
Except by thought and name:
I praise the joyous rage
That justified his page
He would have like this place
Where spring returns with solace
Of bloom in a dark time,
Larkspur and columbine.
The flute song of the thrush
Sounds in the underbrush.
But for me the most moving, astonishing speaker at Abbey’s service on May 20, 1989 was a woman whose name I had never heard and whose work I had never read. Her name was Terry Tempest Williams and she spoke of her long hikes and talks with Ed in the Utah desert and of the importance of friendships and connections and the environment. Terry ended her talk by whipping out some post cards and waving them like a baton, intoning “Keep in touch. Keep in touch. Keep in touch. Keep in touch.” With friends, with connections, with the environment. I was so impressed with Terry that I tracked down her work and have kept up on it ever since. As mentioned, knowledge is a process, not an accomplishment. As are awareness, friends, connections, the environment, work, life, the joyous rage, staying in touch. Thanks, Ed, for that and much more.