The Journey into Self-willed Lands
Writer Sean Prentiss searches for Edward Abbey and home
“It's easier when you're lonely to be lonely on the road,” Sean Prentiss writes in one of the first chapters of his New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards winner Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. Restless and burdened with questions, Prentiss drives west out of Michigan into the expanses of the desert west that some know as Abbey country, the very same as the book's namesake. Prentiss begins his book at a point when he is adrift—he finds himself living in a city without mountains on the horizon for the first time, he is alone and he is directionless. He sets out from Michigan with a quest he has fashioned for himself: to find the secret grave of the writer who changed his life, Edward Abbey.
Edward Abbey, often described as “the Thoreau of the West,” is a too-often-overlooked literary icon—a rebellious voice of the struggle for liberty in the face of routine and authority. The author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, perhaps his two most well known works, he is said to have inspired the Earth First! movement through his suggestion of non-violent sabotage as a means toward ecological justice. Abbey, who died in 1989, would likely cringe at being called a “nature writer,” but in truth, his 20 or so books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry have compelled thousands to step out into the wilderness around them, whether that is desert or mountain or forest. As for Abbey, his heart was forever rooted in the Southwest, so much so that just before his death at the age of 62, he asked that his friends carry his body in a pickup truck to some remote stretch of the desert—no coffin, no embalming—and bury him there. Four of his friends did just that, and to this day, the location of the grave remains largely a mystery.
It's the mystery that Prentiss is chasing as he sets out westward, writing “Maybe we are pulled by mystery like we are pulled by wilderness—that desire to enter self-willed lands.” But there are other questions frothing in his mind—When did he stray so far from the life he wanted for himself? How can he discover where his true home is? Over the course of the book, Prentiss speaks with many of Abbey's closest friends—men who inspired Abbey's iconic characters like George Washington Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith—and follows the path Abbey cut all across the country—from Albuquerque to Moab to Tucson to Hoboken to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge—the place where many believe Abbey's grave lies.
“Where I see myself as having learned the most from Abbey,” Prentiss told me over the phone from his new home in Vermont, “is trying to figure out about place and about home. Abbey spent his whole life looking for home, and I spent most of my life looking for home, too.”
“Where I see myself as having learned the most from Abbey,” Prentiss told me over the phone from his new home in Vermont, “is trying to figure out about place and about home. Abbey spent his whole life looking for home, and I spent most of my life looking for home, too.” This much is evidenced in Finding Abbey, which is part memoir, part biography and in part, a tale of adventure. Like Abbey, Prentiss moves from place to place, never quite setting down roots anywhere. “What I am so thankful for is that by reading Abbey, following Abbey, talking to his friends [and] thinking about it, I was able to figure out what I didn't want—which was to stay in a city far from mountains.” Over the course of our conversation, Prentiss described the place where he finally landed in northern Vermont. From where he sits at his desk, he can see a loon nest and a beaver den. He is minutes away from a mountain, and bear and moose are occasional visitors to his property. There's a strong community surrounding him, even if he can't see a single human-made structure from his windows. “I fell in love with Vermont,” he summed up.
But getting there—to home—wasn't as easy as a read through of Abbey's catalogue. Prentiss not only tramped days-deep into some of the most remote desert in the United States searching for Abbey's grave, he spent years researching Abbey's life and meditating on his works, talking to those who loved him and finally, organizing his own life in chapters around his great quest to find Abbey—tackling the man in all his complexity along the way.
Abbey had a lot of flaws—he was very outspoken about his views on immigration—which were a call for a total moratorium on immigration into the US. In fact, he wanted a wall along the US-Mexico border. He abandoned (“and he uses that word himself—abandon,” Prentiss reminds us) his children and wives at many turns. Not to mention (OK, I'm going to mention it) spouting off some pretty sexist sentiments, too. Writer Luis Alberto Urrea tallies it up in three words: “Ed Abbey—Aryan.” Prentiss does not forgive Abbey any of these things, calling them out for being as arcane and shortsighted as they are, but also highlighting lines where Abbey contradicts his tired racist rants. As Prentiss and his best friend, Haus, hike around the Cabeza Prieta, which straddles Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, Haus meditates on the many immigrants that make the trip through the same desert into the United States. “Too often environmental literature distorts the true heroes of these landscapes. It's not men on backpacking trips.”
“Abbey is more complicated than any one quote,” Prentiss explained his view to me. “But what I like to focus on is how he radicalized the environmental movement, how he changed environmental writing [and] blended anarchism and environmentalism together.” Prentiss looks at Abbey's work from the long view, clear-eyed and critical, but acknowledging along the way how Abbey revealed the desert to him in new ways and how he revolutionized writing. “As a writer, I sure want to write like Abbey,” he said, while acknowledging that, as a person, he's not much like Abbey at all. That doesn't stop him from chasing Abbey's spirit across the West. Whether or not Prentiss finds the grave (with a hand-chiseled tombstone nestled in to the sand reading “Edward Paul Abbey: 1927-1989. No Comment”) is best left to readers of the book. What Prentiss certainly does find is Abbey's spirit—as Prentiss puts it, “It's like his words and ideas settled upon all the lands of the American West.” For many of us, this is very true. Perhaps, most importantly, the journey and the process of writing this book, led Prentiss home. Since its writing, he has married and settled down in that small house tucked into the mountains of Vermont, and, as we spoke for this story, his wife was days away from having their first child. He credits Abbey for revealing to him where he belonged. “This journey … it changed my life. … I have a home. I'm having a child. I can't wait to root them in this place as deeply as possible.”
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