[Note from Becca: want to join my street team for Swimming Grand Canyon and Other Poems
(forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, 2021)? Message me “street team”.]
Independent Bookstore Day 2021, celebrated this past weekend, brought to mind my last conversation with author Ed Abbey at Maria’s Bookstore in Durango, Colorado. It was 1988, the year before his passing. He stood at the back of the store signing books for customers who waited in a long line through the store, out the front door, and down the sidewalk.
Ed had joined a Colorado River trip I’d guided in summer 1975, soon after he’d written The Monkey Wrench Gang (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1975). The book was about to hit the shelves and would become a literary and cultural phenomenon. He didn’t reveal anything about the Gang, and we didn’t ask, but as we floated Cataract, he lived in a world that included the fictional lives and acts of Hayduke and Seldom Seen and Bonnie and Doc. It must have been a heady time for Ed.
His writing changed many lives, including mine, beginning with Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (McGraw-Hill, 1968). “The very names are lovely—” he wrote in “Rocks,” the chapter about the doomed Husk family: “. . . chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, chrysoprase, and agate.” Those words, as yet unknown to me, preceded a further litany of minerals, rocks, and elements—all different categories of geology swirled together, all enticing. The sounds of the lovely names on our tongues was the point, and a large reason I went on to study earth science in college.
Secretly I harbored an urge to be a writer or artist of some stripe. The vocabulary was one means of entry, as compelling as the earth it described. In the American southwest, Creation and luck and geologic time built the canyons I wanted to know with an easy familiarity.
Rocks and their beauty are flames to the moth, meaning the countless visitors who both preceded and followed Ed to the Canyonlands. Abbey’s Country, he called land outside Moab, his adopted hometown in Desert Solitaire. At least one scholar has written that one meaning of “Moab” is “his mother is his father.” Deconstruct that definition, I ask you. I certainly have not—not yet. Zen koan if every there was one.
A few months before COVID-19 put a temporary stop to indoor, in-person literary events, I returned to Moab to read my just-published book, The Oasis This Time (Torrey House Press). The town had modernized, upsized, and supersized since I’d lived there in the 1980s. Moab triples its population count during tourist season (which some say is almost year round) and perhaps even did in the 1970s and 80s—the base population has swollen in addition to the tourist trade. It’s a lovely town, though not so much the quirky haven for misfits it was four decades ago.
The October 2019 Oasis World Tour took me through the capital cities and boomtowns of most of the desert southwest. Population and vehicle speed and median home price had all gone sky high. Back in the day, even, the towns had been changing—I myself was part of the change—but the aspects I valued most about my seasonal homes couldn’t be bought, sold, enlarged, or even described. Or I didn’t think so.
By the grace of a handful of committed individuals, though, in each one of those cities and towns resides the radical heart of the curious mind: the independent bookstore. Each store holds shelves of beautiful works, like stone fruit or a geode hiding something secret at its core. Each one is tended and attended by a fierce and loving cadre of book lovers whose lively shops are home away from home for readers and writers.
After speaking at Rediscovered Books in Boise and The King’s English in Salt Lake City, I toured to Out West Books in Grand Junction. By the grace of the gods, people came to talk and listen, to converse about the power of storytelling, narrative arc, rivers, water, and the hero/heroine’s journey. In Moab at Back of Beyond Books and at the Bluff Arts Festival, the desert-writing faithful turned out after dark to share words beside the San Juan River, the rocks rising mute and immutable behind, the river carving its meandering path into sand and sandstone.
Seeing old and new friends, I recalled days of full river trips in the 1970s and 80s. Between trips, I’d drive from Flagstaff to Moab to spend summer nights on empty river beaches along the Colorado outside town. The river’s cooling power was always there, is still there, although those beaches are far from empty now.
Then it was on to Bookworks in Albuquerque and Collected Works in Santa Fe. Friends and new readers came to talk about their love of water and wilderness. Their love affairs are long-lived, not easily whisked aside, loves that stay lodged in hearts over time. People spoke of the Grand Canyon, the Pecos Wilderness, unnamed stone pueblos they saw high overhead in vertical walls, inscrutable writing in petroglyphs.
Finishing my tour at Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, I read the chapter in Oasis about the healing power of nature—something river guides, naturalists, and outdoor educators know in their blood. Several of my Colorado River friends sat in the audience; they were folks who’d seen transformations occur on the water day after day, trip after trip. It was a night of preaching to the choir if every there was one, with Bright Side hosting a lovely evening where they let us linger after the reading.
(I’m returning to Bright Side on June 16, 2021, for a conversation with Kathryn Wilder, author of the forthcoming Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West [Torrey House Press, 2021]. Stay tuned to all of our websites and my newsletter for details.)
My tour ended with a visit to Wesley Smith’s grave in Williams, Arizona. In 2006, I’d last visited his headstone with my husband Paul and daughter Rose, after their first Grand Canyon trip. Rose searched and found his granite marker, and we left a gift. A river bandanna? A knife? Maybe both, but they’ve gone the way of the wind, along with other gifts to Wesley I’d seen there before.
This time I placed a small, green heart beside his name. The stone heart had been given to me by lifelong friends in Salt Lake City at the beginning of the Oasis tour. “For your readings,” they said. Readings done, the evergreen heart goes to Wesley, too, and all of us who shared time on the river that inspires my books.
How lovely they are, along with the bookstores that carry our words, Ed’s lovely words, the very names of the rocks.
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