All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West

This is a hard book to categorize. Is it a dual biography? A history of a region? An environmental paean to a place? A literary memoir of the West? A road book to both grand and despoiled places?

It’s all of the above and more. Gessner began the book as a tribute to two western writers who have inspired him: Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Gessner went to grad school in Colorado and fell in love with the southwest. Abbey and Stegner became his heroes and teachers, although not literally—he learned through their writing.

He compares the more revolutionary-seeming Abbey who broke laws (trashed earth-moving machines to stop development and threatened to blow up dams) with the more straight-laced Stegner.

 

Both did not limit themselves to writing; both pushed actively to save the environment.  At one point, the author writes why he believes that Stegner was the more liberal person despite appearances to the contrary. Abbey inspired many environmentalists, even radical ones, whereas Stegner worked with Congress to stop dams, and to save natural areas and create park land.

In between, the author describes his road trip the summer of 2012 while much of the West was on fire. It not only describes the highway but bike trips he made to favorite spots and to visit people, many who knew the two authors well. A couple included the people who Abbey based the characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang upon, who are now in their 70s and still pushing to save the west.

Visiting Salt Lake City for the first time, Gessner fell in love with the city set on a slant under the mountains. Here one of his contacts brings him to Stegner’s parents’ graves. Stegner’s father wandered throughout his childhood --always chasing after the next big scheme—until Stegner’s mom refused to move on, so the family settled in Utah.

An environmental activist showed Gessner the family plot—where Stegner’s mother and brother had stones, but Stegner’s father did not. The author’s father killed himself after shooting his girlfriend to death, and obviously Stegner decided not to honor him with an engraved gravestone.

Another interesting narrative includes a float trip down the Colorado that Gessner took with a group of young people who were working to eradicate invasive species on the river’s banks.  On the last night, the canyon was transformed by a rain storm.

In his conversations with Abbey’s sidekicks and friends, Gessner discovers more about Abbey’s funeral and wilderness wakes. “Wild parties” that included an illegal burial.

The book makes many key points primarily that our western region is a fragile, vulnerable land, that we are currently abusing and destroying. Gessner believes as Stegner did that a cooperative approach to the land is the only way to take care of it, one that both the Mormons and Native Americans have used.

All the Wild That Remains is also rich in great quotes. Two of my favorites are:

“Transcendence. It is this which haunts me night and day. The desire to transcend my own limits, to exceed myself, to become more than I am…. To transcend this job, this work, this place, this kind of life—for the sake of something superlative, supreme exalting.” Edward Abbey

Stegner in describing his early life mostly lived outdoors in Canada reported that his life and that of his brother were as ”isolated, lonely, wild and free as the life of hawks.”

If you love wildness and the West, this book is for you. It will inform and inspire you. And here are links to what are considered the best books by Abbey and Stegner, Desert Solitaire and An Angle of Repose which won the Pulitzer Prize.