Desert Solitaire is written by Edward Abbey about his experiences, impressions, and thoughts during the three April to September seasons he worked as a park ranger at Arches National Monument. His observations about the surrounding environment/atmosphere and reflections on modern technology (and how it impacts our relationship and connection with the world around us) paint a peaceful and more simpler way of life.
One commentary of his I particularly found interest in was on how technology can isolate us from our surroundings even if it is helpful and almost necessary at times. The way he discusses how the flashlight, while allowing him to see very well in the specific spot where it is shining, limits his ability to see outside of that. When he doesn’t use his flashlight his vision may be more limited overall but it adjusts so that he is able to get a slightly better visual on all of his surroundings and he feels more a part of them. This is emphasized by the use of the generator which provides light and electricity inside his trailer when he is writing his letter but the sound itself drowns out the outside world and the lights are so bright he can barely look at his trailer initially (has to shade his eyes). After he is inside the trailer however he adjusts to and loses awareness of the obnoxiously loud noise of the generator and the brightness of the lights. He cannot observe or participate in the desert around him anymore (temporarily of course) and remarks that he has “exchanged a great an unbounded world for a small, comparatively meager one.” (pg 13) It leads one to question how technology both assists and limits us in various ways and the costs of a more convenient way of life. This theme also ties into the industrial tourism he discusses later in the book which brings into question where it is and isn’t appropriate (whether and to what extent it should be limited) or shouldn’t intrude on people’s experience in National Parks.
He delves into the topic of what he calls “Industrial Tourism” quite a bit (primarily pg 44-58) and gives his thoughts on the issue along with his own ideas for solutions. His first two seasons there occurred when the park was (as his coworkers put it) “undeveloped” despite it having quite a few unpaved/gravel roads that are able to be driven or hiked on as well as other accommodations made by the park service for those visiting there. After that however, due to the parks continuously striving to meet demands of tourists who want an easy drive through everything, they put in miles and miles of paved roads and more upscale accommodations to campers and visitors to make it easier to visit without the hassle. The Park Service even has a page on their site for scenic driving through the park, giving people tips on how to see as many of the monuments as possible within a certain time frame when traveling in their cars. If you have 1.5 hours they have two potential ways to view the park which is to drive to Windows section to see the largest arches (adding on time of course if you want to stroll beneath either North Window or Double Arch) or driving to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint to see it from a mile away and on the way back stopping by Wolfe Ranch to “imagine what it would have been like to homestead this relatively barren area in the late 1800s”. If you have 4.5 hours they recommend driving all the paved roads and spending only 10 minutes at each viewpoint which, based on what he has written in this book, I am sure Edward Abbey would loathe.
The development of national parks and monuments in order to make them even more accessible to tourists who travel almost exclusively by car has been debated before but isn’t always an easy answer. His proposal of banning the creation of new roads as well as banning civilian vehicles altogether may seem radical to many but there are practical aspects to it. When it comes to finances the cost of maintaining the roads and building them is a pretty big expense. Also the number of traffic accidents caused by people trying to view (and photograph) these natural wonders from their cars are astronomical. One of the most common ways people are killed or injured in National Parks is due to motor vehicle accidents, only rivaled by medical issues such as heart attacks and diabetes (in Yellowstone National Park the deputy chief of public affairs for the NPS estimated that there are around 3 life-flights to transport a person out of the park to a hospital every day during the busy summer months, majority of which are due to car accidents and medical problems) limiting motor vehicles within the park would definitely help with that. If they used a shuttle system for those who need assistance or to get from one part of the park to the next it would allow for those who are visiting to not have to risk their safety to get a good photo or look at the world around them as well as accommodate for people who may not be able to walk as far due to medical issues/age. There could be stops at certain intersections of trails or trail heads so that people can go and hike to the monument themselves.
The idea of letting people run wild though is a bit tough to swallow. There are many issues with potential vandalism/damage from people’s behavior even if unintentional. Limiting where people are allowed to go and what they are allowed to do is not just a safety issue but also a conservation issue since, although the areas they are allowed to go may be more disrupted, the areas that they are prevented from intruding upon are more likely to be spared the damage. If people are allowed to climb on and go wherever they please there is no way to really police the majority of the visitors and guide (or stop) them from doing something harmful to the environment. For example, when the author found some names carved in the sandstone by some vandals he tried to smooth it out and repair the damage the best he could. When it comes to the larger national parks such as Yellowstone they cannot really police such a massive area as thoroughly and in with some having very delicate ecosystems/features, even the slightest disruption or damage could leave lasting damage (Example Here). There are also many features that need protection from these people lest they be lost forever as in this case. People don’t always listen to rangers (and sometimes they aren’t around to stop them) so seeing someone in an area where no one is supposed to be or go is a pretty good indicator that they probably shouldn’t be doing what they are doing. I am just not sure full liberty/free rein in our National Parks can protect the parks from the damage the tourists themselves will do as has been shown in the past.
One quote that particularly stuck out to me was the way he points out a bit of hypocrisy when it comes to how the Park Service often handles its historic monuments/the natural beauty of the park on page 47-48
“(talking about Lee’s Ferry) Powerlines now bisect the scene; a 100-foot pink water tower looms against the red cliffs; tract-style houses are built to house the “protectors”; natural campsites along the river are closed off while all campers are now herded into an artificial steel-and-asphalt “campground” in the hottest, windiest spot in the area; historic buildings are razed by bulldozers to save the expense of maintaining them while at the same time hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on an unneeded paved entrance road. And the administrators complain of vandalism.”
While vandalism is a ongoing issue for our National Parks, the way in which these parks are sometimes handled/treated by our government and officials can be quite damaging and it questions what else could be considered a form of “vandalism”.