Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Edward Abbey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edward Abbey. Show all posts

Friday, February 3, 2017


 So I went walking in Death Valley last month.  It’s something I do every two or three years, and of course I see the ironies of complaining that it gets ever more crowded and less wild each time, but it’s what I do.  And I’ve been going there for 30 years, long enough to be able to justify some grumpiness about change and decay.

There was snow on the high ground in Death Valley when I was there this time, and some of the main roads were closed, and some were still washed out from last year, which made the various trails and attractions that were accessible more crowded than ever.
Echoing Edward Abbey, I have been known to rail against “industrial tourism,” not least because it reduces vast, diverse landscapes to a series of sites and trails, scenic overlooks, points of interest, and so on.  You’re told what to look for; you’re told what to see.  Giving these things names – the Devil’s Cornfield, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point - only adds to the problem. The “attractions” become a kind of checklist that you can tick off and have done with.
    So yes, visitors flock to these designated sites but more than that, it means that a lot of visitors see nothing except those sites; the 3 million acres of Death Valley are perceived simply as territory you cross on the way to the next attraction.
    Now, I’m not a complete misanthrope, and when I’m walking in the crowds of New York or London I’m very happy to consider myself part of teeming humanity.  But when I’m in the middle of 3 million acres of desert then I think it’s reasonable to want a little space to myself.

But the beauty part of this form of industrial tourism is that if you choose to go somewhere that hasn’t been designated as a tourist site then chances are you’ll not see another soul.  And so I found myself stopping the car in various unmarked bits of land, pulling off the road and parking, then just walking off into the desert, walking for as long as seemed natural, and then turning around and walking back.  I was to say “walking off into some unremarkable bit of desert,” but the fact is, all of Death Valley is remarkable.  You’d have to be as insensate as a rock (or a moody adolescent) to set foot in Death Valley and not experience a profound sense of the gorgeously threatening grandeur of the earth.

 I ended up here:

      And here:

And here:

    I think I could probably just about find my way back to these places, but maybe I couldn’t, and in any case it doesn’t seem to matter so very much.  It is, as they say, all good.  The fact that these places don’t have names – Nicholson’s Loop, for instance – is all to the good, if you ask me.

Still, I think there are some questions to be asked about whether a walk needs a destination; and I don’t have an absolute answer.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good journey’s end, a peak or a ruin or a scenic overview, I do: but they never seem either necessary or sufficient for a good walk.  And in my miscellaneous walking this time in Death Valley I did find myself thinking about two lines from the Dylan song Isis “She said where you been?/I said no place special.”  But maybe that line doesn’t apply to walking since there’s no such thing as “no place special,” because all places are special one way or another, although that’s not to say that they’re all equal, or equally interesting. 

A walk around the rim of a volcanic crater whether alone or in the company of others probably has more going for it than a walk round the parking lot at K-Mart, but that’s no reason only to walk around craters. 
You can see how a man might tie himself in knots with these matters.

Anyhow, on the way back from Death Valley, coming through Yucca Valley, I did a walk I’d been promising to do for a while, in the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, which consists of a “modest” 25,500 acres, and the walk was modest too, about two miles in each direction up through Pipes Canyon to something known as the Olson Ruins. The map you pick up at the Ranger station has them as “Olsen Ruins” but most sources have the name as Olson.

I think you know I like walking in ruins, though I hadn’t done any research about these particular ruins.  And so I walked up a clearly marked and perhaps slightly too well kept trail  (a ranger told me they had high school “volunteers” to keep it in good condition), past petroglyphs, Joshua Trees that had been burned in the Pioneertown fire some ten years back, past willow beds, through small scattered patches of snow. 

Compared with Death Valley the landscape was tame, and there were one or two other walkers but fewer than you’d have found on any recognized trail in Death Valley.

And in due course there were the ruins, picturesque to a degree, and a reasonable journey’s end, but nothing on the grand scale – just somebody’s house, the roof and windows gone, and most of the walls gone too, though there was one room you could actually walk into, that was completely intact, and the corners of the cabin were more or less solid - you could see the chicken wire construction.

As I said, I hadn’t researched the Olson Ruins, but once I got home, I did. The story goes that the cabin belonged to an onyx miner named John Olson who’d been mining since the 1920s.  He was still there in 1945 and one day he encountered a young man living rough in the desert, a man in his early 20s (sources seem uncertain about his exact age) named Edward E. Emmery, a soldier recently returned from Burma who had just (oh the irony) deserted from Fort MacArthur.

Olson, in his mid 70s, invited Emmery to stay in the cabin, and conditions must have been crowded, and the two guys must have been in each other’s way.  But that doesn’t seem much of an explanation for why, a few days later, Emmery shot Olson and fled the scene, returning to the open desert, taking food from the cabin with him..  

Four days later Olson was still alive and was discovered by friends and taken to hospital, but he died there. Emmery was caught a few days after that.  Emmery claimed the shooting was accidental, but nobody believed him, and he was charged with murder.  I haven’t been able to find out what happened to Emmery.

A cabin makes a good destination for a walk (there are quite a few in Death Valley – and indeed a book about them), a ruined cabin is even better, but a ruined murder cabin – ah, that’s the stuff.  I’m sure they’d get more visitors if they named it The Olson Murder Ruins, but I’m very glad they don’t.

Monday, May 25, 2015


I’ve been thinking about walking in gardens.  It seems a very tame, Sunday-afternoon kind of thing to do, doesn’t it?  A garden seems like no place for a serious walker.  Gardens are supposedly benign places of order and tranquility, right?

Well, only up to a point.  Think of the gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, think of the Garden of Earthly Delights (above): these are places where some less than tranquil stuff definitely went on, and I expect the walking there wasn’t very tranquil either.

Back in the day, I worked in the Botanic Garden in Cambridge - that's it above though I'm not sure it looked much like that when I was there.  My fellow gardeners were an interesting bunch, and at least a couple of them were recovering from breakdowns, and working as a gardener was supposed to be a  kind of therapy.  It wouldn’t have worked for me.  I was young, and not much in love with peace and tranquility – I found the work hard and immensely tedious and it drove me, though only in the colloquial sense, nuts.   I didn’t last long.

And I’ve been wondering lately whether a garden may in fact be a place of anarchy and chaos rather than order, and whether walking there might be an act of subversion rather than, say, a stroll in the park.

For one reason and another I was in Utah last week and I went to the Gilgal Garden in Salt Lake City.  It’s a kind of public sculpture garden, in the middle of a suburban area where the other houses have perfectly ordinary suburban gardens.  The state declares Gilgal a “visionary art environment,” which I suppose it is.

It was created by a Mormon businessman, a masonry contractor named Thomas Battersby Child, Jr. (1888-1963).  It has a dozen more or less symbolic sculptures and 70 stone slabs engraved with biblical verses, quotations, and lines of poetry.  Many, but by no means all, are Mormon texts.  There are lines by Thomas Carlyle, for instance, and praise for Queen Victoria.

Child began work on Gilgal Garden in 1945, when he was 57, wealthy, a local figure, and a Mormon Bishop.  He, and his crew, kept working on the garden, until the time of his death.

It is, no doubt about it, wholly eccentric and downright comical in places, but the overall effect is not absurd, and if the general intention is spiritual, at the very least it seems to represent Child’s own interpretation of his religion.  There’s perhaps something a bit William Blake about this: “Each man must create his own system or else he is a slave to another man’s.”

Here for example is a Sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith, he of the latter day golden tablets.

You might well interpret it as saying that Mormonism is the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, but intention isn’t everything.  It looks like a lark.  And is it just me or does that face bear a passing resemblance to Margaret Thatcher?

 And here’s the shattered giant from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, as described in the Book of Daniel. “This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass.  His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.  Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.”
But you know there’s always going to be something a bit laughable about a giant foot sitting in a garden.

My favorite sculpture (below) is by Maurice Brooks and titled “Monument to the Trade,” showing Child himself – a stern and solid man it appears, and also one who owned a pair of brick trousers.

The garden is too small to offer a very strenuous walk, and yet as you wander its paths it does feel like you’re on an adventure.  Who wouldn’t want that?  And it must be said, at least when I was there, nobody else was.
About 230 miles south east of Salt Lake City you’ll find the Arches National Park, a stunning, much visited and (let’s face it) severely overcrowded attraction.  In the free brochure and map you get after you’ve paid your entrance fee you can read, “Arches National Park is a great family park where you can walk to many features.  You can see much from a car, but the special aura of time, silence, and scale may elude you.”  I’ll say.

Driving the park’s roads can be like edging along a traffic jam, and I’ve walked down streets in London and New York that aren’t much more crowded than some of the designated trails.  Even so, you’d have to be made of stone not to see the beauty and grandeur of the place, and if you go there you just have to accept that in some circumstances beauty and grandeur have to be experienced in the presence of others. 

And so it was, as these photographs prove, taken at the Devil’s Garden.  I admit I was chiefly attracted by the name.  There’s not much peace and tranquility there and not much room for subversion either, though this Japanese woman’s pink trousers do seem satisfyingly out of place.

The Arches visitor center does however have an information board with a quotation from that famous subversive, Edward Abbey (1927 -1989):

Abbey is one of those narrowly known but passionately appreciated writers, a novelist best known for The Monkey Wrench Gang, essayist, journal keeper, lover of wilderness and solitude, denouncer of “Industrial Tourism,” and by some accounts one of the fathers of the modern conservation movement, not least for his book Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.  The local bookshop named Back of Beyond, in Moab, the town nearest the Arches has two sections devoted just to Abbey, one for new books, and another, considerably bigger, for used and rare.

Abbey was a park ranger at Arches in 1956 and 1957, but didn’t come back for a third year because he was already finding it over developed even then.   He believed that adversity was good for the walker and the explorer of the desert.  He was in favor of dirt roads and difficult trails.  One can only guess just how much venom he’d spew over the present arrangements, but I dare say he wouldn’t be very surprised.

There are various other Abbey quotations that might have might have been put on that board at the visitors center, for instance, “walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thorn bush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”

Nor was Abbey much of a believer in the consolations of the garden, “Paradise is not a garden of bliss and changeless perfection where the lions lie down like lambs (what would they eat?) and the angels and cherubim and seraphim rotate in endless idiotic circles … the paradise of which I write and wish to praise is with us yet, the here and now, the actual, tangible, dogmatically real earth on which we stand.”  And, of course, walk.