Balancing the pulls of domesticity and wilderness

How I take inspiration, and cautionary advice, from Ed Abbey’s family misadventures.


In a moment of contentment, Edward Abbey reads with his fourth wife, Renee Downing, at a Forest Service fire lookout on Aztec Peak, Arizona, in the Sierra Ancha Mountains in 1978.
Buddy Mays

The birth of my daughter has me thinking about Ed Abbey.

Not the Abbey of legend — Ol’ Cactus Ed, shooter of televisions, defender of wolves and wild rivers. Not the Abbey whose books first spoke to me as I raged against the confines of Los Angeles as a teenager; not the Abbey who convinced me to work seasonal jobs in state and national parks for 10 years; and not the Abbey whose exhortations to “explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers” I received as scripture from a desert prophet.

No, I’ve been thinking of a different Abbey. The melancholic, often deeply unhappy Abbey who struggled to balance the opposing pulls of domesticity and wilderness. The Abbey who fled one marriage only to immerse himself in the troubles of another, then another, then another, then another. The Abbey who drifted from one seasonal park job to the next in large part because, as his biographer Jack Loeffler remarked, “in his endless oscillation between solitude and society … he was rarely totally happy in either set of circumstances. Always longing, forever turbulent, never at peace.”

This is the Abbey who speaks to me now.

For a decade, I worked in some of the most beautiful and remote places in the world: Kachemak Bay State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park. Living apart from what Abbey dubbed the “clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus,” I was responsible only for myself and what fit into my car. Each spring I’d throw myself into a new place, and spend the summer building trail. When the long days shortened to wintery nubs, I’d travel or work in some sunny elsewhere.

The nomadic life has its drawbacks: constantly applying for new jobs, making friends only to leave them, rarely earning much money or receiving benefits. It’s a life predominantly enjoyed by 18- to 25-year-olds, but it’s one that a 29-year-old Abbey entered with a wife and two children. He’d convinced himself that sustaining both a family and a seasonal, wilderness-based life was “within the realm of concrete actuality.” Three marriages later, he admitted, with characteristic candor, “My wives got sick and tired of the constant moving around and the poverty-level income.”

For a decade, my girlfriend, Kelly, and I both gloried in the independence of the seasonal life. We worked in different parks and places, apart almost as often as we were together. But eventually we accepted that our biggest regret would be to let our rambling detract from what the distance and the desert had taught us to truly value. So we married. And so I left my beloved Southwest and followed Kelly to the Pacific Northwest, where we have remained for an unprecedented four years, and where we recently welcomed our daughter.

Here, too, my life mirrors Abbey’s. When Abbey was 34 — the same age I am now — he followed his second wife and two children from Albuquerque to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he worked, miserably, in a welfare office cubicle. Like Abbey in Hoboken, I now sit inside most of the day, switching my gaze between the glow of a computer screen and the rain dripping from the eaves outside my home office. Like Abbey, I long for simple days on naked rock under desert sun. For Abbey, those simple days became, like the “black sun” in his 1971 novel of that name, “a blinding and terrible beauty which obliterated everything but the image of itself.”

Here, then, the biography of the man whom I’ve consciously or unconsciously emulated for 20 years becomes a cautionary tale. For Abbey abandoned his second wife and two children and headed off, in his words, to “exile in the desert.” Like the desert prophets before him, Abbey was willing to sacrifice — repeatedly — his children, his wife, and even what he admitted was significant happiness to his uncompromising love of place, his idea of how life should be lived. Even in this, I find something to emulate: the belief that one should not — one cannot — compromise what one holds most dear. This is exactly why, no matter how often I secretly admire or perversely envy Abbey’s life, no matter how often I scheme and dream of ways my family can live in what remains of our nation’s wild areas, I will follow Abbey no further down his particular rough and lonesome road.

Instead, at the end of a long day, Kelly brings our daughter into my office, and we three stand and look out at the rising moon. I sound a low howl, Kelly adds her coyote yips, and my daughter looks from one of us to the other, beaming bright, and I’m as happy as I ever was alone and free on a desert trail.

Nathaniel Brodie’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction,, The Humanist and other publications.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • in Southwest Colorado. $60K plus costs.
  • with six+ years of experience, broad knowledge of home and facilities maintenance. 207-805-4157,
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Government Affairs Manager that is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to support...
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • The Central Colorado Conservancy, a nationally accredited and state certified land trust, is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to guide the Conservancy into...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time, Lake Tahoe West Senior Project Lead. Position is responsible for working with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to...
  • Forever Our Rivers Foundation seeks a driven and creative individual to lead this national movement for river health. Deadline 6/14/19.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • 7/12-7/14/19 in Taos, NM. With over 21 workshops and keynote speaker, poet Arthur Sze.
  • Badlands Conservation Alliance is seeking an Executive Director. For job description visit
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • at RCAC. See the full description at Apply at [email protected]
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival,
  • Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.
  • Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...