Given the headlines, I braced myself for what we might find as we turned off the highway in our 4-wheel-drive Ford F-150 Mapping Unit truck. Instead of entering Arches through the front gate, however, Henry wanted to take a back route through the original entrance Abbey had used. So we drove along Willow Springs Road, bumping and rolling over the rough dirt track for miles—4x4 required—until we encountered a lone sign: ENTERING ARCHES NATIONAL PARK.
There wasn’t another soul in sight.
I hopped out and breathed in the hot, dry air. Gnarled junipers and scrub dotted the desert. In the distance, buttes and mesas rose. A pale blue sky stretched to the horizon.
We drove on, searching for a spot some consider sacred.
Abbey had grown up in Pennsylvania, served overseas in the military, and earned a master’s degree in philosophy before landing his seasonal ranger job at Arches. He lived in a trailer inside the park with a view of the La Sal Mountains, several arches, and a balanced rock that, he wrote, “looks like a head from Easter Island, a stone god or a petrified ogre.”
It was here that he slid on his belly observing snakes; studied his favorite juniper, hoping to “make a connection through its life to whatever falls beyond”; and generally reveled in “the center of the world, God’s navel, Abbey’s country.”
The trailer is long gone, and no signs mark the site, but we hoped to find it. Henry had brought a grainy photo taken years earlier that purportedly showed the trailer and its surroundings. By studying landmarks, he thought he’d identified the site. He pulled off the road and cut the engine.
“I think it’s right up there,” he said, pointing to a dusty rise 50 yards away.
Careful not to trample sensitive soil, we walked up a narrow path. “I guarantee the people who made these footprints were looking for Ed’s spot,” Henry said. We saw something resembling a manhole cover over an underground tank, as well as an old waterline. Moments later, Henry pointed to a clearing: “I think his trailer sat right there.”
Indeed, the wide, flat spot matched Abbey’s description. Balanced Rock stood a quarter mile away, ever the rocky ogre. Several arches rose in the distance. And through the haze, the mountains shimmered.
I’d arrived. Like Walden Pond and a few other sites, this spot was hallowed ground for a certain kind of traveler. Abbey’s rendering of this wilderness had inspired in me, and countless others, I suspected, a deeper appreciation for the outdoors and fierce writing about it.
My reverie was short-lived, however. Henry pointed to the tops of cars breezing by a short distance away. “That’s the main road,” he said. “The one Abbey didn’t want.”
It was time to see what had become of “Abbey’s country.”