Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, p.11Edward Abbey
“Sorry we didn’t bring anything. We’ll eat good when we get back.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “I’ll survive, maybe.”
But Roy had lost interest in the subject. He wasn’t listening to me. The vacant look was in his eyes as he resumed the study of his problem. After a while he let his head drop back against his saddle and closed his eyes. The red nose, the gray hair, the yellow teeth and fingers, a white stubble of whiskers on his bony jaw, his leathery flat cheeks—he looked like an old horse all right but still tough and viable. He was only about seventy years old.
Old Roy is a good man in most ways, but he has his troubles. I’d been spending some of my days off at his ranch, doing a little work around the place in return for room and board. (There’s a girl there, one of the paying guests.) I was sharing a bunkhouse room with Viviano one night when I heard the shuffling of feet, the sound of a mumbling voice. It was very late; Viviano was sound asleep. I got up and stepped outside and saw Roy walking by in his long underwear and boots, a revolver in his hand, talking to himself. What’s up? I asked him. Insomnia, he said. Try getting a little sleep. I tried, he said, and I can’t. What’s the gun for? Skunks, he said—they been at the chickens again. Well they’re no chickens here, I said. No but there’s skunks, and they’re living right under that room where you’re sleeping. And he walked away, unhappy and preoccupied.
He has troubles, God knows. He fights with his wife—third or fourth wife—and has difficulties with the bank, with his hones, with his hired help, with the ranch machinery. Mortgaged over his head, he tries to economize by getting by with old trucks and a second-hand tractor, and by hiring cheap and irresponsible help like me and Viviano. He thinks he is saving money by always paying Viviano one month late. Worst of all he skimps on food.
His pack trips are notorious for their frugality. He does the cooking, of course, so that someone else is morally obliged to wash the dishes, and so that he can control the consumption of supplies. “One egg or two?” he’ll ask at breakfast time, when you are hungry enough to eat the skin off a bear. Slowly, his old yellow hands shaking, he shovels two little Grade C eggs onto your plate. Then he says, “You want any bacon with that?”
He tries to justify his miserliness with food by pretending that he is observing some time-honored Western tradition. “It’s a fact,” he will claim, “them old timers never ate much when they was out working on the range. A man rides better on a hard stomach. It’s a fact. But we’ll eat good when we get back.”
The lying old bastard. He hopes that by starving his employees they won’t live long enough to collect their wages. The paying guests don’t fare much better and as a result seldom come back for a second season at Roy Scobie’s Redrock Ranch. It’s a beautiful ranch and his pack trips take them into an unknown world—but they don’t often return. As a small businessman Roy is getting smaller every season. Bankruptcy and heart attacks loom ahead.
I’ve endeavored to warn him. He is interested in my opinion and listens at first with some care. Then his attention wanders. The habits of a lifetime are impossible to break. When we bed down at night, out in the open, he always looks for a slab of sandstone to spread his bedroll on. “Rock is softer than sand,” he explains. “That’s a fact.” His words trail off into the vague mumble, “Slept on rock all my life, goddamnit.…” The empty stare follows: a foolish thrift is driving him to ruin and all he cares about is his heart; he is thinking about falling off his horse again like Ernie Faye fell off the ladder picking peaches. Dead on the rock.
I can help him with that question, too, I sometimes think; I have a supply of classic philosophical lore ready to offer at the slightest provocation. Our life on earth is but the shadow of a higher life, I could tell him. Or, Life is but a dream. Or, Who wants to live forever? Vanity, vanity. Recall Sophocles, Roy: Lucky are those who die in infancy but best of all is never to have been born. You know.
All kinds of ideas spring to mind, but an instinctive prudence makes me hold my tongue. What right have I to interfere with an old man’s antideath wish? He knows what he’s doing; let him savor it to the full. He’ll never have another chance as good as this. Each man in his humor. Every cobbler gets clobbered at last, etc. Let him shamble through the dark at night in his underwear, looking for the black skunk with the white stripe down its back, the ultimate enemy.
The weird silence woke me up. I looked around. Everything seemed to be withering in the heat, blasted and shrunken under the furnace of the sun. I dreamed of water and wondered if it would be worth the effort to dig a hole through the ceramic mud of the canyon floor. While I debated the matter in my head, Roy opened his eyes, staggered up, glanced blearily at me to see that I was awake, nudged Viviano in the ribs with the toe of his boot. “Let’s get on, boys,” he said.
We saddled our horses and got on. On with the death march, marcia funebre, the stations of the cross, el jornado del muerto. The cows faced us stubbornly, their red eyes full of hatred. The poor little white-faced calves trembled on their shaky legs, hides coated with dust, hind-ends crusted with sunbaked excrement. Miserere.
Roy moved his horse stolidly against them, implacable. Viviano, undaunted by the heat and still showing off, sprang on his horse—yes, literally vaulted into the saddle—and rode yelling and flailing and whistling into the herd. (One leap and he was in the saddle; five beers and he was on the floor.) I climbed onto my horse like a man dragging himself through a bad dream, got both feet in the stirrups and rode after the others. After a few minutes of milling struggle the weary beasts gave up and headed down the canyon, moving in the right direction toward their fate.
Not that their fate was so terrible: a summer in the high mountain meadows eating flowers, far above the heat and hay fever of the desert; I envied them. The cows would live to breed again, those that didn’t eat too much larkspur; the new crop of calves had a life expectancy of at least one full year; only the yearling steers would be shipped off in the fall to meet the hook and the hammer. I nursed my sympathies, saving them chiefly for myself, who could better appreciate them and deserved them more—hungry, tired, dirty and thirsty as I was.
More side canyons came into view—Two-Mile, Sleepy Hollow, and others without names—and we had to separate, explore each one in search of the outlaws and the fugitives, drive them out of the thickets where they were shaded up and add them to the herd.
There is water in Sleepy Hollow, a big pool under a seep in the canyon wall, fenced off from the cows. We paused for a few minutes to drink and refill canteens, then moved on. No time for a swim today. The drive continued.
As the herd became bigger the dust and the heat got worse. The cattle complained but we were merciless. One old cow, followed by her calf, slipped aside into the tamarisk and lay down. Since she was on my flank of the drive I had to get her out. Again I had to dismount and go in on foot, fighting my way through the brush and clouds of gnats and the vicious yellow-backed flies. The cow didn’t want to get up; she preferred the shade. I beat her with the club, kicked her in the ribs, yanked at her tail. At last, groaning and farting with exaggerated self-pity, she hoisted her rear end, then her front end, and plodded off to rejoin the gang. When I got back to my horse I was too tired to climb immediately into the saddle; it seemed easier for a while to walk and lead the horse.
Second movement, seventh symphony, Beethoven again—the slow, ponderous dirge. Had the sun moved at all? Not that I could tell. But as I came up with the others, Viviano, grinning through his dusty face, yelled at me:
“Around the bend, only nine son of bitch more, we get the Jesus Christ out of here.”
“Good,” I said but something in my face must have given me away; Viviano laughed, spurred his horse and dashed off singing.
I parked my beast for a minute close to a mudbank and hauled myself onto the saddle the easy way. But dropped the reins and nearly fell off retrieving them. Recovered. Both feet in stirrups, I took a few gulps of water and proceeded.
More quicksand. This time we weren’t so lucky. The pool extended clear across the canyon floor from one sheer wall to the other. We rushed the herd through but one cow, the same one as before, got herself bogged down. Really trapped this time. Belly-deep in the soup, willing to give up, she neither struggled nor bellowed. This cow didn’t want to fight anything anymore.
The sun beat down on our backs and the sweat trickled into our eyes. Roy and Viviano discussed the situation briefly; we went to work. Keeping their mounts clear of the quicksand, they each tossed a loop over the cow’s head, drew the knot firm around her neck, taking in the slack, and dallied each rope to the horns of their respective saddles. As the ropes tautened and the horses prepared to pull, I slogged into the mud and tugged at the cow’s tail to give her hindquarters whatever lift I could.
We were ready. Roy and Viviano urged their horses forward; the horses squatted, braced, heaved; the ropes squeaked under the strain. For a moment nothing seemed to be happening. Then something was happening. Like a cork from a bottle the cow was being drawn from the suction of the quicksand. She struggled feebly, the horses swung ahead, the mud made a violent raw gasping noise, exploded, and out she came.
Roy and Viviano stopped and gave me some slack; I removed the ropes from the cow’s neck as she stood trembling on firm ground. Her eyeballs protruded like a pair of onion bulbs; the tongue, purple in hue and coated with scum, hung loosely from the side of her mouth like a rag of spoiled meat. It was the longest tongue I had ever seen outside of a butcher’s shop.
“Seventy dollars worth of cow,” Roy explained, coiling his rope. “A fact. Couldn’t hardly afford to leave it there.”
The cow had still not moved. Viviano rode up and lashed it across the rump. “Heeyah!” he shouted, “lez go man, Jesus Christ!” The cow stumbled toward the herd, Viviano pressing it hard. “Heeyah! goddamn!” Whacking it across the rear with his heavy, wet rope. “Goddamn son of bitch cow!”
The herd began to move, the choking dust filled the air. I climbed on my horse, loading the poor brute down not only with my own weight but with two bootfuls of mud and water.
An hour later we descended the jump-off, a stairway of stone ledges in the canyon floor where trickles of water oozed down over mats of algae, through slick sculptured grooves and into the sandy basins below. The cattle clattered and skidded on the bare rock; sparks flew from the iron-shod hooves of the horses. Lagging behind, I stopped to admire a tiny spring bubbling out of the sand above the ledges, well off to one side of the trail. The water was so clear, so perfectly transparent, that only the dance of grains of sand in the bottom of the spring, where the flow came up through a fissure in the rock, revealed that it was under pressure and in motion. I took a quick drink—cool and sweet—and rode on through the blessed shade of the canyon walls; the sun had finally dropped below the rim. Life began to seem plausible again after an afternoon of doubt.
We went on for another mile and emerged abruptly and to me unexpectedly into full day again, the glare of the sun and the scalding heat. We were in the mouth of the canyon. Ahead lay the highway, the Colorado River, the outskirts of Moab. We pushed the cattle on over the bridge, across the cement and asphalt, and into the big corrals in the fields beyond. We unsaddled the horses and brushed them as best we could with handfuls of juniper twigs and turned them loose in the pasture. Free at last, frolicking like colts, they galloped after one another in circles, lay down and rolled in the dust, got up and galloped some more. I knew how they felt.
Roy’s station wagon was parked near the stockpens. We adjourned the field for a pitcher of beer in Moab. It was, of course, only the usual Mormon 3.2—for which may God forgive them—but never had beer tasted better, or been drunk by more deserving men. Old Roy treated us each to a bag of peanuts and talked a little about tomorrow’s work: trucking the cattle up to his allotment on the southern slope of Tukuhnikivats. A tedious job in which I would not participate—back to the Arches for me, I reminded him. Roy’s expression saddened; he would have to hire someone to take my place for the day, someone who would probably expect to be paid in United States hard dollars. He looked away and into the emptiness, thinking again; the smoke from his forgotten cigarette rose slowly into the haze beneath the ceiling.
Stop that, I wanted to tell him. Stop that thinking. I wanted to put my arm around his old shoulders and stroke his thin gray hair and tell him the truth about everything, the entire wild beautiful utterly useless truth. But I didn’t.
Viviano ordered a second pitcher of beer, got up suddenly from his chair, tripped over my outstretched legs and fell flat on the floor. He pulled himself slowly to his feet and scowled about through the gloom to see if anyone had noticed; nobody had. Nobody could have cared less. I should have apologized and helped him get up but I didn’t. He tramped bitterly, soggily, toward the men’s room and disappeared in a dim, rancid, yellowish light. He was a cowboy, muy macho, mucho hombre. Very sensitive.
Years later, still wandering in circles, I will come back to the Arches and the canyon country and inquire about my old acquaintances. Where are they? I will ask and the people will say to me:
Viviano Jacquez? You mean that little Mexican that worked for Roy Scobie? Well, who knows? Some say he went to Ouray, Colorado, to work in a silver mine; some say he married Scobie’s cook, that white girl from Oklahoma, and they went to California; some say he went back to sheepherding; some say he went to Spain.
And old Roy? You didn’t hear? Well he had to sell out a couple years after you left. He went down to Arizona and started an Indian jewelry store near Sedona. He’s dead now. He was hanging a picture on the wall of his store and had a heart attack. He was standing on a chair at the time.
COWBOYS AND INDIANS
There are lonely hours. How can I deny it? There are times when solitaire becomes solitary, an entirely different game, a prison term, and the inside of the skull as confining and unbearable as the interior of the housetrailer on a hot day.
To escape both, I live more and more in the out-of-doors. First I built the fireplace on a level bench of sandstone about fifty yards to the rear of the trailer. I dragged the wooden picnic table close to the fireplace and this became my office and dining room. Next I built a ramada or sunshelter over both. The ramada is a simple affair: four upright posts about ten feet tall tied and braced with crosspoles and supporting a thatched roof of juniper branches, which keeps out the sunlight but lets smoke and heat filter up through. There are of course no walls to this structure. The floor is sandstone, swept clean by the winds, with a couple of wild shrubs—cliffrose and blackbush—growing in one corner. The windbells and the red bandana, my private flag, hang from the projecting end of one of the crosspoles. Finally I set up a cot near the ramada—not under it—and my home without walls was complete. I can sleep at night with nothing but space between me and the stars, comforted in the knowledge that I am not likely to miss anything important up there.
The housetrailer serves now chiefly as storage place and kitchen. Although I sometimes cook at the fireplace outside, it is certainly easier to use the gas stove in the trailer, despite the heat. When the meal is ready I carry it out to the picnic table under the ramada and eat it there. The refrigerator, too, is a useful machine. Not indispensable but useful. It is in fact one of the few positive contributions of scientific technology to civilization and I am grateful for it. Raised in the backwoods of the Allegheny Mountains, I remember clearly how we used to chop blocks of ice out of Crooked Creek, haul them with team and wagon about a mile up the hil
Once the drink is mixed, however, I always go outside, out in the light and the air and the space and the breeze, to enjoy it. Making the best of both worlds, that’s the thing.
But how, you might ask, does living outdoors on the terrace enable me to escape that other form of isolation, the solitary confinement of the mind? For there are the bad moments, or were, especially at the beginning of my life here, when I would sit down at the table for supper inside the housetrailer and discover with a sudden shock that I was alone. There was nobody, nobody at all, on the other side of the table. Alone-ness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society.
By society I do not mean the roar of city streets or the cultured and cultural talk of the schoolmen (reach for your revolver!) or human life in general. I mean the society of a friend or friends or a good, friendly woman.
Strange as it might seem, I found that eating my supper out back made a difference. Inside the trailer, surrounded by the artifacture of America, I was reminded insistently of all that I had, for a season, left behind; the plywood walls and the dusty venetian blinds and the light bulbs and the smell of butane made me think of Albuquerque. But taking my meal outside by the burning juniper in the fireplace with more desert and mountains than I could explore in a lifetime open to view, I was invited to contemplate a far larger world, one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to the human kind. By taking off my shoes and digging my toes in the sand I made contact with that larger world—an exhilarating feeling which leads to equanimity. Certainly I was still by myself, so to speak—there were no other people around and there still are none—but in the midst of such a grand tableau it was impossible to give full and serious consideration to Albuquerque. All that is human melted with the sky and faded out beyond the mountains and I felt, as I feel—is it a paradox?—that a man can never find or need better companionship than that of himself.
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