Dr. Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
10 October 2014
Rays shone down. The air rippled, forming waves like distortions in space. The oppressive heat practically baked the world alive, or so the kid thought in his heat-addled daze. Hazily, he gazed at his surroundings, trying and failing to take them in. Everyone else seemed to be holding up just fine: sweating a little, probably, but they didn’t look like they were half-dead or dying. Unlike him.
Cars parked in rows. A hazy sky, a blazing sun. Red rock and sand as far as the eye could see, occasionally dotted with the green of foliage. They were in the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone, or Moab, or some random national park that the family just decided to vacation at. He had agreed to this at first, even looked forward to it, but as usual he had overestimated his tolerance for discomfort.
You’d think that he would have learned by now.
He heard chatter in the background, saw his family move along with the rest, following a bunch of taller men in uniform. Mechanically, he followed, too tired to complain any further. Anything to escape the heat. Truthfully, though, he knew it wouldn’t help: fatigue only made the heat worse.
Time passed in a daze.
They settled down now in a camp of sorts, and the he didn’t feel quite as terrible as before. Of course, what little muscles he had ached and screamed; the strain from the hike coupled with the bags he carried had practically reduced his muscles to jello. But then again, the sun had set, and so he was no longer being baked alive. The evening in the desert was almost pleasant.
He glanced over to to the rest of the crowd. His parents were over by the campfire, chatting excitedly with one of the tall guys (a ranger, was it?), tending to the fire. Judging by the aroma, the pots and pans and iron racks, and the thin trails of steam, they were making dinner. His sister had disappeared to god knows where (“I’ll be fine, really!”), probably exploring, or taking pictures of the view, or something like that. She always was better with the outdoors than him.
Time passed in a daze, and eventually his sister did come back with pictures of miscellaneous scenery, and eventually his parents did finish up with dinner. Instant noodles, grilled bacon and sausages. Not a five-star meal, but he never really liked those anyway. They woke him up from his half-nap, herded him over, and had him introduce himself to the ranger. He conceded, with just a name and a stiff nod. And his parents laughed going on about things like “shyness”, the ranger joined in the laughter in a somewhat forced manner, and the kid just scowled and got to his dinner.
Once again. Simple fare, but pretty good. He plopped down on a chair, squinting at the setting sun, and sighed wearily. These next few days would be the longest four days of his life. He was sure of it.
The sun continued to set, until it was just a golden sliver on the horizon, until it finally disappeared. Despite this, the desert was still lit, by moonlight and bonfire. It was somewhat surreal to him, but he was used to nights dark as pitch, with starless skies. It had been a while since he saw the stars.
He made small talk with a few other campers, nothing too special or memorable. Time passed, dinner came and went, and eventually, the time came for him to talk to the ranger. On hindsight, it wasn’t exactly anything special, but it certainly was strange.
It started simply enough: with the usual small-talk they made, where in this case it meant complaining about the heat, jokes about feeling like they were being baked to death. Normally, they’d just laugh it off, find something to look forward to, and move on to other things. But the ranger?
“That’s not bad.”
“Huh?” The confusion almost snapped him out of his daze.
“To die out here, I mean. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? To die in a place like this?”
The kid stared dumbfounded, looking at him like he grew a second head. This time, the confusion certainly did snap him out of his daze. He scanned the ground and surrounding area. From where he was sitting, he could see cans of beer, stacked here and there. Was the ranger drunk? Just rambling?
“Um,” He hesitated, struggled internally: to be tactful or honest? After a moment of deliberation, he chose the latter. “Are you being serious?”
“Are you drunk?”
“Probably.” He noticed the kid’s expression, and laughed. “In vino veritas. In wine, truth. Doesn’t matter if I’m drunk or sober, it doesn’t change a goddamn thing.”
The kid hesitated for a moment, and contemplated if the issue was worth pushing any further. A few uneasy seconds passed by.
“Why would dying out here ‘sound nice’?”
The ranger snorted. “Well it’d certainly beat rotting away in some hospital bed, wouldn’t it? Just being kept alive for the sake of being kept alive?” An instantaneous reply, the conviction of which almost shocked the kid. He decided to prod even further.
“I’d rather not die in the first place.”
“Of course you would.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The ranger made a face, and the kid wasn’t sure if it was a smirk or a scowl. “You from the city, right? Or maybe the suburbs?”
“Suburbs, right. Well, if a neighborhood in the middle of nowhere counts.”
“So you’ve never been out here? In a place like this?”
The kid shook his head.
“Then I’ll tell you something. All things die—”
“I am aware—”
“Of course you are. All things die. All things end. You’ll die, I’ll die. There’s a time for everyone. And what a better way to die, one with nature, rather than struggling against it, delaying the inevitable?”
“If we all just keeled over and died just because we’d all eventually die, there wouldn’t be a human race.”
“And sometimes I think that’s for the better.”
“You heard me. It might be for the better. Ever see what kinda things we do to the world? Drown it in asphalt and concrete, sealing everything out, mindlessly expanding our cities and trampling over the wilderness? We destroy nature’s beauty. Remove humanity from the equation, and what do you get?”
“Tch. Nothing beautiful. Can’t be beautiful if nothing’s there to say it is. As far as this world goes, we practically invented beauty.”
“And maybe that’s for the better, too.”
A pregnant pause. The kid stared dumbfoundedly for the umpteenth time, but shook his confusion off.
“...May I ask, why?”
“Because the last things nature needs are human concepts attached to it.” His speech became impassioned, and he started waving his arms, gesturing. “Beauty? Names? It doesn’t mean anything except to us. Humanity.”
“Then why’d talk about its beauty in the first place?”
“Because the only things that care about beauty are people. And it’s us, we the people, who need the deserts, the swamps, the mountains, forests, rivers, the wilderness, the most. Nature exists for its own sake, not for ours. If we all die out, the world doesn’t end. The world will keep on turning, and it’s our loss.89 Don’t you see? I want this ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ to survive because it’s we who need it the most.”
This is going nowhere. “We’re getting off-topic,” the kid said.
“And what is this ‘topic’?”
“The original question.”
“I… alright. Do you not care about living?”
He laughed this time. “I said I don’t care much about dying, not that I don’t care about living. I do want to live. But I wouldn’t mind dying. At least, not in a place like this.”
“Baked to death in the sun, getting your flesh picked clean by vultures?”
“Beats rotting away in a hospital, getting filled with tubes and veins and all that other sterile shit. If my sun-dried corpse nourishes the wilderness— the roots of trees, wings of eagles and vultures, maggots and worms and wolves and all that is the world, not our world but the world that came before— that’s enough. That’s a grander death than we, any of us, deserve.44” He paused for a moment to catch his breath. “Ever almost died before?”
A moment of hesitation. “No.”
He looked unconvinced, but continued. “Well, I have. Stuck in a canyon, no way out but an unclimbable wall. Well, I climbed it alright, dunno if it was fate or fortune or any of that rot. Had to inch my way up the wall, and it was wet too. Ever try to climb a wet wall?” He snorted, and took another sip of beer. “Probably not. But let it be known: it’s not easy.
By the time I got out, after a couple of hours of climbing, it started to rain. Well, I had to find shelter somehow. Eventually found an abandoned coyote den, and it was exactly how you expected a former lair of beasts to be: caked in shit and filth. Half-dead, starving, cold and wet and crying. And let me tell you something, would you even believe it? That was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
And so followed yet another pregnant pause, yet another dumbfounded look.
They stopped talking, looking over the crowd of tents and bonfires. Some had taken naps, others were off to the side, enjoying after-dinner cigars and drinks. And yet again, his sister had disappeared to who knows where. The kid looked to the distance, seeing spires and monoliths and arches of stone. He hated the heat, but he had to admit, the landscape at night was… “nice”, to say the least.
He sighed. “I’ll give you something then.” He stood, stretched, about to make his way over to the fire for some leftover bacon. “If you had died back there, it probably would’ve been more meaningful than the slow burn from age or disease.”
He walked away, to get away from the ranger or to get to the food, he wasn’t sure. “It doesn’t change a thing, though. Death isn’t something you should aspire to.”
“Maybe. But I wonder, why do you want to live so badly?”
The kid didn’t reply.
As it turned out, the days passed just as slowly as the kid had anticipated. They hiked, they climbed, they walked a ton, more than his feet could handle. And so it was night again. Dinner was the same as usual: instant noodles and various grilled meats. By now he was getting a little tired of noodles, but the meat was still good.
The after-dinner ritual didn’t change either. Drinking, napping, idle conversation. He didn’t know how it happened. But whatever happened, it happened like yesterday. Another meaningless argument, that started innocently enough.
It started with a review of the day, of sorts. How was your day? How did you like the sights? And so on. And the kid’s day was okay, he liked the sights just fine. But the heat. The oppressive heat. Enjoying anything while getting baked by that heat was nigh impossible.
“I felt like I was going to die.”
The kid scowled. “Drunk again?” But it was a question that needed no answer, just a downward glance, at the growing stack of beer cans.
“Perhaps. But does it even matter? I’d be the same if I were sober.”
The kid merely snorted in response, and the ranger continued. “And you? What’s with you and heat?”
“What about me and heat?”
“Obvious. Why do you hate it?”
“Because I do.” The ranger laughed. The kid didn’t. “I’m not going to pretend that my dislike has any deep or meaningful significance. It just is. I hate heat.”
“You seem to hate it more than the others.”
“Well, then, that means I’m more sensitive to it than others.”
“Really? No other reason?”
“If there were other reasons, I would’ve said them by now.”
A pause. They contented themselves with waiting in silence for the moment. The ranger took another sip of beer. The kid got up and stretched, making his way over to throw away his plates, or maybe to get another serving of meat. He hadn’t decided yet.
“But…” The ranger broke the silence. The kid glanced over his shoulder, a disinterested look on his face. “Would you really appreciate all this without the heat?”
“I would.” No hesitation.
“Think about it.”
“I did.” The kid came to his decision, and dumped his plate in the trash, grabbing a can of iced tea. “I am aware that pain and suffering and whatnot makes all the sweetness sweeter. And that’s nice, very nice, but even so, I’m not going to seek out suffering.”
The ranger looked thoughtful for a moment, then took another sip of beer. “Is that why you’re afraid of dying?”
“I’m more afraid of dying taking forever,” he said, with an annoyed expression. “But no, I’m not going to actively try to die, or meet death face-to-face.”
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.37”
“It’s nothing special.”
The kid looked up from his drink, and saw the ranger staring at him expectantly. He almost laughed. “It’s probably not what you’re thinking. Simple story: it was winter. Roads were iced, weather was snowy. Car lost control. Veered into the wrong lane. Truck’s headed directly at us, full-speed. Guess what happens?”
No response. The ranger stays oddly quiet.
He continues. “Nothing much, actually. The truck veers to the left, or right, or something, and only grazes us. Kinda. Well, I mean, one moment I’m just sitting there, the next half the car’s caved in, but we’re not dead. And you wanna know what I felt, at that very moment?”
Seconds pass. Still no response.
“Nothing. A second or two of mild surprise, and then hours of boredom as I waited for the police to handle the situation. And it never changed. It didn’t make me appreciate life more, or make me grateful or humble or anything. I forgot about it in a few days. It wasn’t something that left a mark on me, or stuck with me for the rest of my life. It was about as impacting to my life as that time my sister threw a slipper at my head, or when that time I had to bake seventy cookies for a science fair project. Hell, those events were more impacting than the crash. Maybe you can look upon your brushes with death with nostalgia, but me? I can’t bring myself to feel anything.”
A pregnant pause. “That’s idiotic.”
“But— are you afraid of dying or not?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no? You heard the story. That’s all I have to say.”
“Then why do you keep yourself alive?”
“Because I like living.” He said it as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. And the ranger nodded, apparently agreeing that it was the most obvious thing in the world. They were silent again, listening to the crowd of campers. The kid was starting to get tired of the conversation.
“But,” the kid began, not content with ending the conversation there. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
“The original question. The one I asked yesterday. Why do you seem so eager to die?”
“Because I’m not. There’s a fine difference between welcoming death, and not fearing it. I’m talking about the latter, here. I don’t welcome death. You know that well enough, the fact that I’m still alive proves that. If I welcomed death, I’d go die. It’s not hard, with a job like mine. All I’d have to do is to make a mistake.” He paused once again, presumably for dramatic effect. “But you’ve said it yourself, kid. Bitterness makes the sweet sweeter; to taste sweet, you can’t be afraid of bitter. You need that bitterness. It’s the same idea here: you can’t enjoy life if you spend it fearing death.46”
At that, the kid could tell the conversation was over, nowhere else to go from here. He looked down at his drink, and saw that it was empty. An excuse to go, and go he did. He stretched a bit, limbs still aching from the day of hiking. He took a step towards the main camps, to throw away his trash and bail for the day.
“Do you understand?”
“I do. But that doesn’t mean I agree. If I’m going to enjoy life, I’ll won’t spend it trying to brush with death or bitterness.” He turned away. “They’ll come naturally. Why seek them out?”
“Hah! Then I guess this argument was pointless.”
“I guess we agree for once.”
“Of course, of course. But hey.
Most arguments are.”
The sources I used were mainly to better understand Abbey’s voice and beliefs, so I could write him more in-character. Presumably, an in-character Abbey would have more ribald humor and such, but trying to add humor always ended poorly, and ended up as less “amusing”, and more “jarring”. Any sentence ending with a superscript loosely corresponded to a quote from Abbey. To elaborate, one of the sources (Notes from a Secret Journal) was a book of notes, quotes, and musings by Abbey. The direct references were:
p37: “Suicide: Don’t knock it if you ain’t tried it.”
p44: “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture— that is immortality enough for me. And as much anyone deserves.”
p46: “Those who fear death the most are those who enjoy life the least.”
More quotes were used as inspiration, even if they weren’t directly quoted in the text. The main purpose of using that book was to get a feel for Abbey’s character, his philosophy and politics, his general stance on the way things are, and so on. And I extrapolated from those ideas: what would he be like in person? Another note, but the reason I had him somewhat drunk in the dialogue was so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the matter of sensitivity or manners.
The other book, New West, was used for more guidelines on how to try emulate Abbey’s style, namely the narrative voice and prose style (both attributed in the index, at pages 66-74, and 73-74 and 76-78, respectively). By understanding how and why he decides the write the way he does, it helps with understanding his character, both the fictional and real Abbey. It should be noted, then, that the Abbey in this piece is based more on Abbey the ‘character’, not Abbey the ‘author’. Of the more important quotes, we have:
p78: “A descriptive sense of the land itself supports the body of his prose. Without his visual awareness, his use of detail, and his mastery of the particular phrase, Abbey’s writing would be lifeless and dull.”
This being so, I tried to emulate that style by describing the environment, and linking it to what was happening on hand. While I wasn’t going for a complete replication of his style, the intention was the “evoke” it, or make it reasonably linked to it. Also, I didn’t go too in detail with the environment because this piece is, first and foremost, a dialogue, so I had to get to the chase quickly.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire; a Season in the Wilderness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Print.
Abbey, Edward. Vox Clamantis in Deserto: Notes from a Secret Journal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Print.
Ronald, Ann. The New West of Edward Abbey. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1982. Print.