Taking the Abbey road: It's one rough ride

The author and environmentalist who hurled the 'Monkey Wrench' at urban sprawl left only his battered truck as a memento.

Postcard: Moab, Utah

March 10, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

MOAB, Utah -- Edward Abbey's pickup truck runs as good as it looks, which is to say not good at all.

And the mostly blue rig isn't much for comfort, either, unless you delight in finding the gummy, silvery residue from old duct tape stuck to your backside and hands and feeling the occasional poke from a wayward spring looking for an escape route.

Still, the truck rumbles to life most days (except when it doesn't care to), providing a welcome reminder of its one-time owner, the prickly iconoclast of red rock country who died 13 years ago this week.

It's tough to pigeonhole Abbey, the part-time National Park Service ranger who turned to writing and produced eight novels, including Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, and hundreds of essays over the course of his 62 years.

He bristled at categories. In his book The Journey Home, he groused: "I am not a naturalist. I never was and never will be a naturalist. I'm not even sure what a naturalist is except that I'm not one."

'Thoreau of the West'

Novelist Larry McMurtry tagged him the "Thoreau of the West," but Abbey was more confrontational than the writer who gave us Walden Pond and urged civil disobedience.

"Throw a rock at something big and glassy. What have you got to lose?" he counseled.

Indeed, his 1975 classic The Monkey Wrench Gang glorified four environmentalists who sabotaged bridges, dams and construction sites in an effort to reverse the tide of urban sprawl in the West.

Abbey's biographer, Jack Cahalan, acknowledges the author's sentiments might seem out of place in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but says Abbey distinguished between sabotage and acts of terrorism.

"He wasn't flip about it. It was his master's thesis in the late 1950s," says Cahalan, who lectured at Goucher College Thursday night. "Abbey concluded that even his favorite anarchists had not justified violence against human beings, and he remained solid in that belief."

It's a wonder Abbey's truck is on the road and not a scavenged shell in the desert. But there it is, bouncing along near Arches National Park where Abbey once worked, looking like a prop for the Monkey Wrench Gang, license plates proclaiming: EDSRIDE.

Behind the wheel is Wayne Hoskisson, a retired medical technician and distant relative of Brigham Young, another character from Utah's past.

"He was a pretty unusual man himself," says Hoskisson of his great-great-grandfather. "Brigham Young had beer in his home, but he probably wouldn't have much cared for Ed's drinking."

Proud new owners

Hoskisson and his wife, Gail, paid too much for Abbey's truck three years ago. About $26,000 too much. Blame Gail Hos-kisson's admiration for Abbey. Or the white wine, an un-Abbey-like drink if ever there were one.

Abbey bought the Ford F-100 series pickup in 1985, 12 years after it rolled off the Detroit assembly line. Nobody knows for how much.

He had it until his death on March 14, 1989, in Tucson, Ariz. Friends wrapped him in his tattered sleeping bag, tossed the bundle into the back of someone's truck and took him out to the desert he loved. In an ending he crafted and no doubt relished, Abbey was buried, illegally, on public land in a location known only to a handful of people.

During the four years he owned it, Abbey managed to put a hurtin' on the ugly blue truck, inside and out.

About the only thing of real value is the 53 cents Abbey left in the ashtray. The heater doesn't really throw off much warmth. The radio? Might work, except there's no antenna.

The headlights sag earthward, like a face in need of a lift. Right in the middle of the bumper and radiator frame is a nice, round indentation, sort of like what would happen if some fool put up a sign in front of your favorite saloon and you didn't notice as you parked.

Red dust gums up the fuel line, "Abbey didn't believe in gas caps," Wayne Hoskisson says. "We don't know why."

The back window of the cheap metal truck cap has decals and bumper stickers: NRA, Project Wild Utah, a "Turista 1986" sticker from the Mexican government, just as Abbey left them.

In the hole in the hood where the Ford insignia ought to be is an old silk carnation -- red at one time, now a muted, dusty crimson -- put there by his widow, the fifth and final Mrs. Abbey, just before she donated the truck to an environmental group for a fund-raiser.

And that's where the Hoskissons and EDSRIDE found each other.

The price of immortality

On the night of Aug. 18, 1998, Gail Hoskisson went to an upscale restaurant in Salt Lake City intent on buying Abbey's truck, which was parked on the sidewalk outside.

It was an uncharacteristically cool summer night for the city. Thunderstorms threatened and winds gusted.

The organization that she volunteered for -- the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance -- was holding a silent auction, and Abbey's truck was the big attraction. Hoskisson was intent on spending no more than $6,000 of her own money. Other fans of the author agreed to stake her to another $2,000.

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