If you saw a boulder impossibly perched on the side of a mountain, with little holding it back from a free fall down the side, what would you do?
That’s the scene in a short essay by Michael Branch at High Country News. Branch and three hiking buddies playing hooky come across an “immense rock” just barely holding onto the mountain. After scanning the mountain side and canyon with his “binocs,” Branch puts fears about hitting a human to rest, and the group is left to wax philosophical about the situation, invoking Sisyphus and a divine plan to help them in their decision: To roll or not to roll.
When the three American hikers can’t decide they turn to the Frenchman among them—“a scholar of environmental literature [named] ‘Francois’”—who replies simply, “Whenever I am uncertain…I abide by this principle: WWEAD.” Don’t worry, it meant nothing to the other three hikers, either, who all looked to Francois for an explanation. “’What would Edward Abbey do?’ he explained coolly.”
(I’ll give you a spoiler alert here, because I’m going to give away the ending by telling you the hikers’ decision If you want to read the essay first, go here.)
And with that cool proclamation, the four men move with confidence toward the rock, intent on pushing it down the mountainside, confident they’re living in the spirit of Cactus Ed. As Branch watches the scene, he feels a great weight lifted, or thrown downhill, rather.
Each impact elicited a collective gasp or cheer, and I can't begin to explain how cathartic it was to watch that boulder fly. I felt as if I had been rolling a boulder up a mountain my whole adult life, and had only now decided to simply step aside and just let it go. I was Sisyphus unbound, and I had a Frenchman's love of Cactus Ed to thank for it.
Now, I don’t think I would have chosen to push the rock, but the scene does inspire a sense of freedom—the kind that (maybe) can only come with a certain amount of irresponsibility. What interested me more than the decision they made, though, was the course they took to get there—invoking Abbey as their reckless guide.
I can’t say that I’m an Abbey expert by any stretch of the imagination, but reading his letters over the years in Postcards from Ed (Milkweed Editions), I can’t say that I’d be so confident in the fact that ol’ Ed would have chosen to push the rock. And I’m not alone in being a little less sure than the hikers. In the comments section (a portion of websites I often try to avoid), a debate around the question of what Abbey would actually do was in full swing when the post went up.
Christine Petersen wrote, “Do you really think Abbey would be proud of you for choosing that particular act to commit—and write about—in his name? Sorry, but this piece just sounds self-indulgent.” While Shelley McEuen responded, “I think even Abbey had a sense of humor. Wish I could have seen the boulder cascade down the hill.”
Other comments get to the contrary figure that was Ed Abbey. One man writes:
I once asked Ed Abbey after a lecture, "Is the real Ed Abbey the man who preaches environmentalism or the one who writes about how he rolled tires off the cliffs into the Grand Canyon and carved the initials of himself and his girlfriend into aspen in the La Sal National Forest?" Ed said not a word, just smiled impishly and enigmatically, and moved on to the next question.
And another scolds his fellow commentors:
[E]vidently people create their own version of Abbey to suit their own sets of values. Abbey defended throwing beer cans out of car window, and definitely was into rolling rocks to hear the sound. He writes about the delights of pushing giant tractors full of oil and diesel fuel off canyon rims to see them tumble to the bottom. Abbey purist or leave--: his first day on the job in Arches he killed a rabbit with a rock just to see if he could. So if you're going to speculate on what Abbey would have said, be sure you've actually paid attention to what he did say.
So, what would you have done? Left the boulder for future hikers to marvel at or give the darn thing a shove and watch with glee for a handful of seconds? And, do you think you’d be making the same decision as the impossible-to-categorize Cactus Ed?
Source: High Country News
Image by Krikit<3, licensed under Creative Commons.