Title photograph : Zabriskie point, unknown photographer.
If i said to you ‘Abbey Road’ , what image or memory would it conjure up for you ?.
The more musically minded might say that for them ‘Abbey road‘ is the Abbey Road recording studio in London and was where the Beatles recorded ‘Sgt Pepper’s lonely hearts club band’ among several other of their albums. Few would know, yes it’s musical trivia time, that the first ever recording there was ‘Land of hope and Glory’ and conducted by Sir Edward Elgar. Reading a full list of the music that has been recorded there is a deep dive into the world of great music…..Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark side of the moon‘ just one. Why i mention Pink Floyd now ?….well it’s because things get a little psychedelic later.
I didn’t realise the size and scale of the place until i found that they can do full orchestral recordings there : Howard Shore, for example recorded the original sound track to the Lord of the Rings trilogy there….and i think John Williams ‘Star Wars‘ theme was recorded there too.
Rather than the original famous Zebra crossing picture with the Beatles for ‘Abbey Road’ I wanted to find the ‘Young ones’ Beatle’s parody but couldn’t find a good one.
For me, Abbey Road has a very different meaning.
I can almost visualise my mother smiling from where i sit, you see, an address in Abbey Road is the first house that i remember living at in a small market town in Lincolnshire (UK) almost in the flat-lands of the Lincolnshire fens. To place that in time we lived there for most of the ‘beatles’ musical era….the 1960’s. For a completely odd synchronous moment i was actually writing the later part of this post : ‘Abbey’s road‘ when my mother sent me a photograph of the old house as it is now. I won’t bore you with a photograph of a nondescript house here, back then mum ran a shop out of what was effectively the front room, then it was wool i seem to remember, now it looks like it’s a barbers shop.
It was and i guess still is a very quirky building, if i remember this right it was once 2 very small cottages built side by side off a little dark passageway. It shares the same foundations as the Corn Exchange next door. There really was an Abbey further down the road in bygone days and the Corn exchange next door really was the place to deal in Corn…..which is why, apparently, the place was alive with mice !
Stranger to me, was that the house, Number 5, was linked at the back to Number 9 and sandwiched an almost wedge shaped Number 7 in-between like a slice of pie. No 9 was my grandparents house and also a shop out front. Number 7 must have been a builders nightmare as there couldn’t have been a single right-angle anywhere in the floor plan and their backyard must have tapered to a point. I’m pretty sure that my first genuine archetypal dreams were all about that little odd shaped house in the middle, which, in the dream always had multiple levels of narrow stairways and many closed doors.
Once upon a very long time ago it was from a tiny bedroom window right up in the angle of the roof that i saw an unidentified flying object descending in the middle distance. It must have been summer, late summer i think and a clear sky not long after the sun had set and i was probably 6 or 7 at the time. What i saw was a silvery-brown disc shaped object steadily descending but with no lights and no sound. I had no idea what it was then and still have no idea now. I wasn’t dreaming and i hadn’t been exposed, at that age to any sci-fi TV….not that there was much in those days. For those who don’t know that side of the country those counties tend to be very flat : Lincolnshire and Norfolk are notable, and have ‘big sky’ so often the view of sky is very clear and open.
Both counties then were loaded with RAF and USAF bases because it’s the easiest place to build very long runways for the squadrons of ‘V’ bombers that were based there. One of my early memories is of being taken for a drive in, i think, my dad’s first car. Somewhere out in the flat-lands of Lincolnshire we passed an RAF base , Vulcan bombers i think lined up in the distance and a row of ‘Bloodhound’ missiles on their launchers….all pointing to the east. Remember that this period was when Kruschev’s Soviet Union was a serious and genuine threat and the whole of Lincolnshire just one big juicy target.
Years later I spent a couple in the Air Cadets, stood next to a runway as a Vulcan bomber howled down the runway and leapt into the air….they really do. One time we went aboard one and I got strapped into a live ejector seat in the co-pilots position.
I have never tried to explain the sighting, i saw what i saw and that’s that. A few years ago i did try to work out the object’s azimuth and rough distance from the house. I couldn’t, in the end, work it out from an ordnance survey map but could when Google-earth and Google-maps came along. Abbey road by the way, is also the same road i walked to and from school very day and formed the basis of an early post on here : SDKFZ 234/4.
Abbey’s road then.
I have a not so neat little segue in mind from Vulcan bombers to American environmentalist writer Edward Abbey but it would take far too much time to explain until i had introduced 2 more characters here. At some time, once i have explained the desert areas of the USA i will try to come back to that story as it also links a lot of time and other events for me. Here i am just going to talk about outdoors writer the late Edward Abbey and a bunch of his books. I suspect that outside of a small collection of outdoors enthusiasts and US literary experts he is hardly known at all in the UK.
A couple of weeks back my partner turned up at the house having unearthed yet another couple of boxes of books from storage : and mainly much of my old outdoors literature. I used to collect books about many aspects of outdoors practice and almost obsessively. Given that i have been a mountaineer/climber, long distance hiker, sea kayaker and canoeist, sailor, first aid instructor and bushcraft instructor……an all-round has-been in fact….so many genres of books that we used to have an entire wall of bookshelf.
Nowadays iv’e had to reduce the collection a lot and there are still boxes of books yet unopened in the workshop, a pile by my end of the sofa and probably more scattered around the country. I still buy a lot of books because i get so many book gift tokens as presents…i just lashed out on a gorgeous art book ‘The cabinet of natural curiosities’ (Albertus seba) last week and the week before that i found a glorious book about maritime art when i was browsing the secondhand book dealer in the local market.
Plates from Seba’s collection, i would love to find a fan of red coral but i think it’s now rare and protected.
At any one time i tend to have 2 or 3 books on the go. At the moment i am dippingin and out of ‘The cabinet’ for it’s stunning pictures but also on the go is Douglas Murray and his ‘The strange death of europe’. In my work rucksack i know is a copy of Burgess’s ‘1985′ which is hardly known…i hadn’t even heard of it until just recently thanks to Youtuber Demirep. I know there is a pile of books in my work cubby hole because i lent some to a work colleagues daughter for a project and there wasn’t enough space to stuff my lunch in there as well.
Edward Abbey then.
So, here is the formal part, cut and paste from Wikipedia : “Edward Paul Abbey (January 29, 1927 – March 14, 1989) was an American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues, criticism of public land policies, and anarchist political views. His best-known works include the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which has been cited as an inspiration by environmental and eco-terrorist groups, and the non-fiction work Desert Solitaire.”
Here though are a couple of anecdotal stories to kick off with that i have picked up from other sources.
The first is that Abbey detested television although he owned one several times at his various homes in the American south-west. One time he got so enraged by what he was watching that he took the TV out back and blew it’s brains out with his shotgun. I often used to feel like that before i simply gave up owning one and paying the exorbitant licence fee. I frequently feel like that when i accidentally see any of our ‘quality’ daytime TV or what passes for news…..naked propaganda basically…..did you know that George Orwell’s ‘ministry of truth‘ is based on his time with the BBC ? and ‘room 101‘ an actual room in the building.
The second, very brief, story is that after his death, friends took his body out to somewhere very remote in the south-west deserts or canyonlands and simply buried it with absolutely no regard to any regulations as per his last request.*
By all accounts Abbey was a prickly and difficult character ‘ornery‘ is sometimes the local expression and he was often thought of as ‘Cactus‘ Ed : a bit prickly then. He didn’t like the US government and they in turn didn’t like him, apparently watched and monitored him for his extreme environmental views all his life.
That takes us right to the end of the Edward Abbey story though so let’s dial it back some and talk about environment and more importantly, wilderness as Abbey saw it and wrote about it.
Up until the mid 1990’s i might have claimed to have been a competent, even knowledgeable outdoorsman and wilderness backwoodsman. I would have been wrong on those accounts because, aside from the sea, i had little experience of genuine untamed wilderness. That is simply because we have almost none of it in the UK apart perhaps from some small areas in Scotland. Even there it should be possible to walk out of a wilderness area, so called in a hard day’s hike. I now live on the wettest age of a small soggy island, down where i live , next to Dartmoor, some would call the moor ‘wilderness’ . On a grey, claggy day it can feel like that : quite disorientating, but 2 hours hard walk in a straight line and you will be off the moor or hit a road. In Wales and the Lake district for instance, so called ‘wilderness areas, there are very few areas where there aren’t domesticated, farmed animals on the hills.
At the time i may have had a small skillset. I could, for example pack a rucksack and walk a decent distance over a few days of rough terrain. I could climb a rock and sail a boat but that’s about it. After a single trip to the American south-west and from reading Abbey and others i came to realise how few genuine outdoors skills i had and how little i knew even about my own backyard. I hardly knew our own native trees and edible plants for example.
At the same time i knew very little about the ‘wilderness’ areas of the USA, i had, for sure sailed up the eastern seaboard a couple of times and some of that is quite wild but knew little of the interior or the west side of the country. Of course as a climber i’d heard of Yosemite and the big-wall climbing there, and had seen pictures of the grand canyon but that was about the sum of my knowledge. As a climber i had always wanted to visit Yosemite but nearly all the climbing there is way above my grade. Most of it is vertical crack climbing on smooth granite which is something that i was never good on.
Scale again : i have climbed a bit, i’m used to walking up to a crag and roping-up for maybe a few hundred feet of rock climbing, maybe a 2 or 3 pitch route and effectively a couple of 50 metre rope length’s off the ground. Well….’The Nose’ on El-Capitan, Yosemite is 2,900 feet and 31 pitches.
‘Separate Reality’ one of Ray Jardine’s routes in the valley.
Much later in my own practice it was Ray Jardine, again hardly known, rather than Ray Mears who greatly influenced me. I will write about Jardine sometime : for now, NASA rocket scientist, extreme climber, sea kayaker, ocean sailor and ultralight hiker.
Cabeza-Prieta wilderness. Cactus Ed is buried out there somewhere.
Some time around the turn of the century (this one that is) i was sent out to south western USA, southern California in fact , to a hospital, to report on the viability of a cardiac procedure they did there and that we were considering doing in our cardiac surgery centre. For those who like this kind of thing the relevant condition is chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH) and the procedure is a pulmonary thrombo-endarterectomy (PTE). My job, such as it was alongside a surgeon and anaesthetist was to see the procedure and learn everything we could about managing the patients in the ICU afterwards It’s the only time in my career that i have had to write a full-on technical report about anything like that.
Rather than flying straight back to the UK i arranged to use some leave out there and because i’d split the travel expenses with my partner we both basically got to southern California and back half price. The actual trip was a genuine recce and not just a jolly in La Jolla : ultimately we decided not to perform the procedure at our hospital routinely.
In California then i remember that we hired a car and high-tailed it out of dodge and north-east up to first, Yosemite valley for a day or 2 and then drove over the Sierra and down the eastern slope , down and down via Mono lake and the Bodie ghost town to Owens lake and Death Valley. In a matter of hours we descended at least 6,000 feet and went from the cool and damp western , seaward, side of the Sierra Nevada mountains and essentially down into naked desert. Somewhere in between, Lone Pine i think, i remember we stayed overnight at the motel where John Wayne, John Ford and company used to film the classic cowboy/western films. The scene of many an epic shoot-out is an area of red sculpted rocks just over the road from the motel confusingly named the ‘Alabama’ hills’.
We actually spent one night at the only motel in death valley itself, that was a pretty strange experience. If there had been a music track playing right then it should have been ‘Hotel California‘. Late that night i walked out on the ‘playa’ away from the road and the motel just far enough to be out alone on the desert floor for a little while. In the clear desert night sky i could pick out the outline of the aptly named ‘funeral range‘ mountains on the skyline. Somewhere out there is ‘area 51′ Roswell, the Mojave desert and lots of other American weirdness. Just as an aside , we stopped in Barstow California during the drive west back to Los Angeles and our flight home. For those that have heard of it ‘route 66’ goes through there as well. Now, who played ‘getting my kicks on route 66′ ?.
Although i took plenty of photographs this was of course pre- digital and i can’t find any prints or negatives now so i have had to shamelessly borrow these from the internet. When i got back i showed a work colleague friend a whole series of photographs that had direct links to ‘Abbey road’ and album covers that had been shot in that area……thus we have Zabriskie point (Pink Floyd) Mono Lake (Pink Floyd again) and so on. Name the albums if you can.
Alabama hills…..California though confusingly and no cowboys or gunfights. Mt Whitney in the background i think….highest peak in the contiguous states by the way.
You might now be completely lost in my rambling reminiscence of our first trip to California. We had precious little time there although we did go back and do some serious hiking out of Yosemite valley. I really wanted to do a genuine wilderness trip to the Canyonlands and the ‘Maze’…..Edward Abbey country, all of it as by then i’d found and read every one of his books. In a way our Yosemite trips were a kind of training ground for that kind of trip although we never did a genuine desert hiking trip.
I often talk now about being ‘hard-wired’ to the English outdoor experience and it’s unique environmental problems : mainly that it’s soggy and cool enough for exposure and hypothermia to be genuine problems. I know that we first went out hiking with that mindset and it just doesn’t work even in relatively cool Yosemite. There we learnt to strip our kit back to bare essentials but instead to really focus on speed and water. Water, and shelter from the sun is essential. ‘ One evening out on the trail we got into our camp, just by a small spring, hot tired and dusty. I thought about leaving the job of filtering up our next day’s water until the next morning. We were glad that i didn’t because by the next morning that little spring had dried up and it was another couple of hours walk to the next one….which might also have dried up.’
It’s hard to convey the strangeness and sheer scale of the place but look…..when i lived in Lincolnshire we would routinely drive the 200 miles or so over to North Wales to get some ‘mountain’ time. I remember that being a big deal for me and my climbing mate Dave in his clapped-out 850cc left hand drive beetle. To overtake we would have to pull out a bit and then let me guess whether we could make the pass…..i , being a biker was used to machines that actually accelerated when the throttle was twisted…..unlike the beetle which needed to think a while and breathe deeply a while before creating enough power for an overtake.
Well, that trip, 200 miles and 6 hours or so, is guess what ?…… 200 miles is also about the length of the grand canyon and that’s just basically one deep and steep sided valley running through the rock out there. The only other way i can think of to convey the scale is to say that when we flew out of Los Angeles on the way home we seemed to be flying across nearly featureless, at that height, sere brown/grey desert/rock for a couple of hours.
Edward Abbey, or ‘Cactus Ed‘ to his friends regarded his home patch as being the 4 corners states of California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Lots of it is desert, much of it is bare rock and vertical, nearly all of it is serious hardcore wilderness beyond anything we have anywhere in Europe let alone cool, soggy south-western England. Death valley is there,as is the Mojave desert, there is a lake below sea level and the grand canyon is just one canyon out of many canyons, it’s huge, harsh, hot, mainly dry and a very serious place to play at being an outdoorsman in. It can have a very ‘trippy’ and hallucinatory quality, no surprise that peyote ceremonies were a big part of local culture. While mainly desert and deserted now, there was a people and a culture living there, often in dwelllings carved out of the soft sandstone.
This town….is nothing but a ghost town (the specials) Bodie, California.
Back to Cactus ed and his books though, as so far all i seem to have done is relate a few of my own experiences and reactions to the small slice of place and time that i saw there.
There are 4 of Abbey’s books that i would like to suggest as great reads and 2 that i regard as essential reading , those books really introducing Abbey’s 2 major themes : the place itself as seen and experienced over time by him and secondly an anarchic, rebellious romp cum instruction manual about how to deal with the place as it is slowly destroyed by logging, strip mining, mining for coal and uranium, roads and mass tourism.
Abbey himself didn’t just visit and wander about like a modern backpacking tourist and then post selfie’s about it on instagram. He worked several years in the Canyonlands national park as a seasonal ranger, living in a hut/trailer out on an exposed ridge of rock miles from the road for 6 months a stretch . Before or after that he worked as a seasonal fire lookout on the north rim of the canyon itself, had several other seasonal jobs and lived in several locations around the 4 corners states. Of course he wrote about it all extensively in a whole series of books.
Probably, in my opinion, his best book is ‘Desert Solitaire’ in which he just writes about living, essentially alone, and working as ranger in the canyonlands national park as it was then. It’s a good introduction to the land and the language : mesa, playa, butte, slot canyon, arroyo, wash, maze and fins, juniper, sagebrush, cliff cactus, rock wren, gila monster, javelina and so on… The book is based on just one working season out there from late spring to early autumn and a few of the incidents, like teaming up with the other rangers to go find and recover the body of a tourist, lost and dead from dehydration on the canyon rimrock.
Mono lake (wish you were here)
His other essential read, and his second major theme, is ‘The monkey wrench gang’ and it’s possibly better known than ‘Desert Solitaire’. It would be a spoiler to explain the characters and what they get up to. Enough for now to say that 3 of the characters are a surgeon, a nurse, himself as a polygamous jack-mormon and river running guide who likes his women and his liquor. The 4th main character i will leave you to find for yourself. I won’t tell you any more about the book except that it’s part romp and part instruction manual. Essentially it’s Abbey’s great theme that the places he loved were being systematically destroyed by an ugly combination of logging companies, mining companies and such like acting in collusion with the state, the forest and parks service and wealthy ranchers : basically the American ‘greedocracy’
As i remember it i read one of his books on the flight home from Yosemite one time after a later trip to the high sierra. By then the place itself and work like Abbey’s had totally transformed my own practice…..but that’s another story.
When i got back from the second or third trip out there i saw and experienced my own local ‘wilderness’ as nothing of the kind although still supremely important. It all felt small, constrained, tamed. No bears, no cougar, no scale and distance, far too many people in too small a space.
I’ll tell you one more story in this post and then wrap things up.
In those days we lived in a tiny terraced cottage in a ribbon housing estate on the outskirts of Plymouth (we still live in a terraced cottage but much older and in a village). The great thing about living there is that once outside the door i only had to walk a hundred yards and i was in the outdoors….sort of. The trail system that i would walk out onto nearly every day was a side branch of a tributary of the Plym itself. Go down a bit and then turn left and the trail would eventually follow the river all the way up to its several springs on Dartmoor. Mooch around the forest trails and i would be in an area of mature plantation/mixed forestry and that was my local playground and bushcraft practice area. I learnt my basic tracking skills there, practiced my shelter building and firecraft. I would often stay out at night with minimal kit. Frequently i made the walk through the forest and along the river my route to work, after a frenetic day running the ICU it was a balm to walk home that way even in the dark…..no bears see !
After one or other trip we came back to find the whole area being clear-cut and logged-out. It changed overnight from mainly peaceful to something like a war zone but with continuous howling chainsaws and big machinery lumbering about. I was pretty upset about it all as i remember.
One night…..i was walking home, the loggers had all gone home and the big machines were parked on the forest road. I quickly shucked off my rucksack and made sure nobody was around. With my torch i had a quick look around the engine bay of one of the big bulldozers and underneath and knew….and knew that i knew….how to not just disable but completely destroy that engine : and all from reading ‘the monkey wrench gang’
As Cactus ed would say “Everyone needs a hobby”
The last word then.
So, from Abbey road (Lincolnshire) via Abbey road studio (London) and some awesome music to Edward Abbey’s strange trackless road, and back again. ‘Hmm’….there and back again sounds familiar….he did write a book called ‘Abbey’s road‘ by the way
My journey with Ed and to the badlands of the south=western USA was a bit like being one of Tolkien’s Hobbits from the (Lincoln) Shire enjoying the small woods and little rivers of home and by an arduous trek arriving at the black gates of Mordor. Well, Death valley that night felt a bit Mordor- like : harsh, stony, dusty-dry and unforgiving. When we walked into Mordor though it was some part of the ‘maze’ ...trippy and psychedelic as much of the canyonlands experience is. the Orcs were off their tits on (peyote) LSD and the smoke from mount doom was just Sauron and his band enjoying a great big bong, all to the sound track of a Pink Floyd number. However, and as i pointed out recently, maybe iv’e been sniffing too much glue recently.
*”The last time Ed smiled was when I told him where he was going to be buried,” says Doug Peacock, an environmental crusader in Edward Abbey’s inner circle. On March 14, 1989, the day Abbey died from esophageal bleeding at 62, Peacock, along with his friend Jack Loeffler, his father-in-law Tom Cartwright, and his brother-in-law Steve Prescott, wrapped Abbey’s body in his blue sleeping bag, packed it with dry ice, and loaded Cactus Ed into Loeffler’s Chevy pickup. After stopping at a liquor store in Tucson for five cases of beer, and some whiskey to pour on the grave, they drove off into the desert. The men searched for the right spot the entire next day and finally turned down a long rutted road, drove to the end, and began digging. That night they buried Ed and toasted the life of America’s prickliest and most outspoken environmentalist.”
Post edit 1.
This was one of those posts that, started enthusiastically, had me tinkering away with it night after night, taking it down, re-writing, scheduling it again….and again. Eventually i kind of gave up trying to get it right and just went ahead with scheduling it for the blog. I did realise early on that there was far too much me and far too little Edward Abbey and i kept trying to find short pithy sections of one of his books to add in so that you can read his words rather than mine. It’s easy enough though to get any of his books and i will stand by my choice of Desert Solitaire and/or The monkey wrench gang.
Post edit 2.
I was consciously trying to link the post to music from the Abbey road studio’s. It kind of works to link my journey from the ‘shire’ in a Bilbo Baggins-esque kind of way with Edward Elgar or perhaps Ralph Vaughan Williams and their very ‘English’ music. The desert and the high desert mountains are much harder to encompass musically i think. The real sound out there is a kind of silence although there are sounds : often just wind moving over rock and in the pines….a few animals and birds, rain storms when they come. The place is other-worldly, trippy and hallucinatory though. I did think of doing a long sequence of photographs as a slide show and add a backing track…..most likely the first track from ‘Dark side of the moon’, that’s a very personal impression though.
Last, last words (oh please)
“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
One of my American readers pointed out that Colorado and not California is the 4th of the 4 corner states. I guess that because it’s the one i have actually been to and been briefly into death valley then it was one of Abbey’s states. My mistake and i guess that’s just ‘Californication‘ eh…..would have been neat if that one had been recorded at Abby road….i have no idea.