Posts Tagged ‘hippy trails’

Edward Abbey: Desert Solitaire

June 13, 2022

     I really enjoyed revisiting this minor classic of travel literature and 1960s hippy days. Abbey is both curmudgeonly (in a nice sort of way) and iconoclastic, too. Here he writes of his time as a national park ranger in the wilds of Utah, occasional encounters with often gormless and exasperating tourists, and the adventures and exploration he was able to undertake alone and with friends whilst in those remote regions. It reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (I think) about his time as a fire-watcher in one of America’s great forests…

Abbey describes really well, conveying atmosphere very effectively, observing all things very closely, and interpreting where he needs to, from a deep knowledge of flora, fauna, geology and geography as well as of the various indigenous American tribes of the region. He revels in isolation, hence his deliberately sought volunteer post out in the back of beyond; he enjoys stillness and silence, his own company and being able to be with his thoughts, all attributes which call to me as well. And he is not afraid of the dangers – animal or natural – which abound in the region. There is a recklessness about him and his activities; he is unfazed by a number of scrapes he gets himself into.

Here is a man who feels at home in the desert and who can share with his readers his heightened awareness and appreciation of the most mundane of things and events. It is very much a masculine world he inhabits, and I suppose what we might today term alpha male activities he indulges in, but it is a text of its time and reflects the attitudes and values of those transitional times. I also found myself considering on what to me came across as specifically American in his experience, that love of wilderness and vast wide open spaces which it’s very difficult to experience here in Europe.

He’s also opinionated, but I enjoyed this, as I suspect most of us do when the opinions coincide or overlap with our own. There are frequent polemics against what he calls industrial tourism, and against the car above all, as a way for people get out into a wilderness but then fail to interact with that environment. Sometimes there are stories unconnected with his park duties or park life that ramble on rather too long, but they were bearable in the end.

An anarchist, hippy, eco-warrior (not that he’d have recognised the term) then; what shines through this book is the beauty of the natural world and his sense of ecstasy in being part of it, and his fearlessness despite the dangers. It’s a really good and uplifting read.

My travels: V for Volubilis

June 6, 2017

When I was a student and a hippy, back in the dim and distant past, a friend and I took a trip one summer to Morocco, where we did the usual hippy things, camping out in the open, living and eating as cheaply as possible, travelling around on rickety Moroccan buses along rather scary-looking winding roads overlooking precipices. We didn’t get that far on our travels, a few days on beaches before setting off for Fez, and eventually we fetched up in Meknes, which had stunningly impressive mediaeval city walls, the like of which I’ve never seen since until my recent visit to Carcassonne; from here we went to a small town called Moulay Idris, and thence to a ruined Roman town in the desert, called Volubilis

I think I did a number of daft things when I was younger, and this was probably one of the daftest. OK, we knew it would be hot – we’d been in the country for a while already, and it was so hot that it was impossible to do much at all in the afternoons – but this was the desert and we’d never been in a desert before, the middle of nowhere, with very little shade or shelter, and after we’d got back to civilisation at the end of the day someone casually remarked that it had been fifty degrees that day… We weren’t really prepared at all and I do not know how we escaped sunstroke, dehydration or grievous sunburn.

Volubilis was an entire town, a town from Roman times, in ruins in the middle of the desert, and largely untouched since those days. Yes, it was sort of on the tourist trail, and I think we may have paid to get ‘in’. I probably still have the ticket somewhere… It was astonishing. Everything was the same sandy colour – the sand, the scant vegetation, the stonework. There was a lot of it – probably on a par with the Roman site at Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, if not larger. And it was hot. I lost count of the number of litres of water I drank that day, and sweated out. But it was a magical day: I got a very brief feel of what a desert actually was, and the ferocity of the conditions, and I have wondered if that experience was one of the things that sparked my lifelong fascination with deserts, which you may have noticed via quite a few of my blog posts… The Roman ruins were fascinating, because they hadn’t been tidied up and prettified the way many ruins are in more affluent countries.

Morocco was a serious culture-shock to this sheltered Western student. I saw people suffering from leprosy in the streets, and many with crippled and deformed limbs; when I mentioned this to someone who’d been in the country rather longer than me, he replied, ‘Well, in Europe if you break a limb you go to hospital and get it fixed. Here, if you’re poor and can’t afford it, you don’t…’ We came across many locals who did their best to part Westerners from their money in a range of devious ways; we also met many friendly and interesting people. The food was fascinating, the hygiene…different. We spent a fair amount of time wandering through the medinas in the towns we visited, fascinated by how different everything was, what was offered for sale, how transactions were carried out, bartering… As we travelled around, I couldn’t get over the huge cacti and other desert plants which grew everywhere, and no doubt these triggered my enjoyment of growing them myself back home, though on a far more modest scale.

I suppose what has stayed with me most from that long-ago trip was the nature of the encounter with somewhere that was, in so many ways, so utterly different from what I had known up till then, and the challenge it represented to how I saw the world…

%d bloggers like this: