The Great American Desert Essay

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The Great American Desert

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The Great American Desert

In the article, “The Great American Desert”, Edward Abbey (1977) is trying to convince the general public that the desert is not a place for humans to explore. He talks a lot about the dangers of the desert and tries to convince the readers that the desert is not worth wasting your time and going and visiting. I disagree with Abbey. Anyone who has some knowledge about the desert and takes a class or is accompanied by an expert who knows a lot about the desert should be able to venture out in the many great American deserts.

Abbeys first survival hint to the desert is, “stay out of there. Don’t go. Stay home and read a good book.”(p. 204) What fun is staying home if people have the chance to go and explore the desert? Getting a hands on experience and being able to explore the desert in real life is more educating than sitting at home reading a dull book on the desert. David Alloway (1999) once said, “the historical fact is however, that the human race was cradled in arid lands and people are well adapted to survive in deserts.”( 1) Alloway is a teacher at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and he teaches a desert survival class. His class philosophy is “not to fight the desert, but to become part of its ecosystem.”( 1) So the first hint or suggestion before you attempt to go into the desert is being prepared.

Being prepared before someone enters the desert should be their number one priority. First off Alloway said people need to have a hat with a wide brim and closed crown so it will protect your head and face from sunlight. Next, wear loose fitting long sleeves and pants so that air can be circulated easy. Sunglasses that exclude ultra-violet light are a necessity to help prevent cataracts later on in life. Some other areas of preparation are carrying sufficient amounts of water, first aid and survival kit for the desert environments, and some useful knowledge. ( 2) These are the major things needed in the preparations of going on and exploration in the desert.

The next point Abbey tried to make was about the dangerous animals out in the desert that put a threat to a person life.

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"The Great American Desert." 13 Mar 2018

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Great American Desert         Stay Out         Stay Home         First Aid         Edward Abbey         Survival Kit         Human Race         Real Life        

He talks about the many different animals that could cause serious harm and maybe even death. I believe that just as long as people keep their space from the animals, do not destroy there home, and have some type of knowledge about desert animals before they go out into the desert that they will be fine. There are many people who have escaped the desert without dieing, so there must be some way to escape the dangerous animals in the desert.

Abbey brings up in his article that, “those who learn to love what is spare, rough, wild, undeveloped, and unbroken will be willing to fight for it.”(p. 207) He was talking about people fighting to save desert land from being used as highways, or buildings. How can he expect someone to love the desert if they never get to explore it? To have such a love for something someone has to at least find out why they love it and why they would want to preserve that land. So if he is so worried about saving the land he should want more people to visit the desert and see why they should put forth there time and effort into saving the desert.

Next Abbey talks about his motto which is before you go into the desert you need to be prepared, but he does the opposite when go exploring the desert. (p. 207) When he travels he packs almost nothing and he goes off on his own and in many different directions. How can you have a motto and then do the opposite? I think that if he thinks the desert was so dangerous he would at least like a colleague to travel along with just in case he did get in some type of dilemma. Two brains are better than one. Abbey does give a few good tips on desert etiquette. The first tip was for people who plan on cooking while on there exploration to bring a cooking stove so they do not burn the rare and beautiful desert wood. Next, if you build a fire make sure to scatter the ashes rather thank bury them and replace any rocks you used in constructing the fire. Do not bury the garbage because animals in the desert will dig it up sooner or later. (p. 208) So pretty much just try to keep the desert clean of any human trash and do not alter the environment.

“Anyway- why go into the desert”, Abbey said, “Really, why do it?”(p. 209) He likes to go explore the desert why cant anyone else. People like to go out and explore new things. Especially places out in the wilderness. There are so many new and wonderful things happening out there. Many people go out to the desert and study the environment so that we can learn more about it. These studies help in making future trips to the desert safer. It could help people be more prepared on what they will come in contact with in the desert. So there are many reasons why people want to go and explore the desert.

In Abbeys concluding paragraphs he talks about one of his journeys in the desert. As he was walking in the desert he was studying the scenic view. When he was looking out in the wide open spaces, he said “but there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the silent world. That’s why.”(p. 210) So he answered his question of why people want to go and visit the desert.

In conclusion, I think Abbey wanted people to dislike the desert because loves it so much and does not want humans taking the desert over and making it a family vacation attraction. He likes it how it is now. I do not think Abbey should be so selfish about the desert. There are a lot of people out in the world who would like to go exploring in the desert. The desert is a great place for exploring and people who want to go there and see this environment should be able to too. These people should know what they are getting into first before entering the desert and be knowledgeable and after all that they should be ready to exploring in the wonderful desert.


Alloway, D. (1999, March). Desert Survival Primer. Retrieved March 1, 2003, from

Abbey, Edward (1977). A Forest of Voices. In C. Anderson & L. Runciman (Eds.), The Great American Desert (pp.204-210). California: Mayfield.

Born and raised in the Appalachian hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Edward Abbey (1927-1989) served in the military in post-WWII Europe and attended universities in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Scotland. After the publication of his second novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956), which was later made into the film Lonely Are The Brave (1962), Abbey returned to the West and worked as a seasonal park ranger and fire look-out. His first job was at Arches National Park near Moab, Utah and in subsequent years, he worked at numerous western parks and forest-lands including Sunset Crater, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lee’s Ferry, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Coronado National Forest, Grand Canyon North Rim, and Glacier National Park. Abbey warned about the perils of industrial tourism, road-building and dam construction in the American West – most notably speaking out against the building of Glen Canyon Dam, which plugged the Colorado River at one of its most stunning locations.

The late 1950s was a period of rapid change for the arid American West propelled by the availability of air-conditioning and refrigeration, the accessibility of abundant water and electricity provided by successive dam projects and the development of a national infrastructure of roadways and media. These changes also threatened the delicate ecological balance of the deserts. Abbey gave witness to these changes through letters, essays and novels, and his works call on individuals to be responsible for what they see taking place – to make choices and take action. His writings provoked new ways of thinking about nature and inspired the formation of environmental groups such as Earth First!

Canyonlands explores landscapes through Abbey’s writings – landscapes shaped by the forces both of nature and of human intervention. The project features original recordings and archival montages along with interviews with legendary figures of Abbey’s generation including Jack Loeffler, Jim Stiles, Ken Sleight, Katie Lee, and Kim Crumbo. It is one section of the Unknown Territories project which also features an interactive project about John Wesley Powell’s exploration and representation of the Colorado River (1869-1873), original photographs and other items.

Canyonlands was co-produced by researcher-artist Roderick Coover and by literary scholar and river guide, Lance Newman, and it grew out of conversations had between the two producers while boating on the Green and Colorado Rivers. This conversational origin shapes theories behind the interactive structure of the work, and it explores analogies with walking in deserts (for more, see A Dialogue about the Desert, Electronic Book Review, 2010.

Form and Structure

In its interactive form, Canyonlands offers a new kind of documentary film—a cinemascape in which users navigate through a landscape of videos and supporting materials. A primary path offers visitors one possible route through the materials—approximately a 60 minute documentary. Followed sequentially, users advance more or less chronologically from Abbey’s arrival at Arches National Park in the late 1950’s until his death in 1989. But users may also make their own paths. The cinemascape can be explored in any order or direction at once or over many visits. By letting users select a particular set of clips and supporting materials, the spatial structure of this and other cinemascapes offers users the opportunity to follow how arguments are built out of experiences and may be constructed with poetry and visual imagery as well as through exposition. The structure is designed to engage users in creative conditions of exploring and ethical positions of choice-making.

Canyonlands is built around three themes 1) the idea of wilderness, 2) the battle over Glen Canyon Dam, and 3) writing as a monkey wrench. The first section connects Abbey’s texts about life as a ranger at Arches National Park with interviews with Jim Stiles and Jack Loeffler, who discuss changes in the American West that were exacerbated in the 1950s and 1960s by the spread of air-conditioning, industrial tourism and car culture. The second section concerns the damming of Glen Canyon, which became a rallying point for change; this section includes interviews with Ken Sleight, Katie Lee and Kim Crumbo. The third and concluding section considers Abbey’s book, “The Monkey Wrench Gang” as a provocation; while Abbey’s books imagined sabotage and civil disobedience as forms of protest, it is the writing itself that was his true monkey wrench.

Canyonlands is part of the larger Unknown Territories Web-based project:

Video/image: © 2012 Roderick Coover.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Posted onJuly 26, 2012byadmin1963Posted inFall 2012, Practices


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