Kim Heacox: Incense and Insurrection

The VW hippie van smelled of incense and insurrection. Neil Young sang on the tape deck. Issues of Rolling Stone lay about, dog-eared, coffee-stained. The heater blasted on full. The woman driver snapped gum with her big teeth as we rolled south into Utah.
In military fatigues and wire-rim glasses, the guy who looked like John Lennon asked about me, the frozen  hitchhiker still thawing out. I told him I was a runaway writer from Spokane. “Read this,” he said as he thrust into my hands a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang, the comic eco-novel by Edward Abbey.
Okay, this Abbey, I’d heard of him. Novelist Larry McMurtry said he was the Thoreau of the American West. No small mantle. I cracked it open as the miles rolled by and a million ideas rumbled through me, planted there by Abbey’s satire and savage wit, his flowers and thorns, his double helix of anger and joy, his unabashed love of a threatened American landscape. As for Samuel Johnson’s observation, “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better,” Abbey responded, “Well now, that should keep him busy for a while.”
What then to write? What to say? Do I entertain or inform? Describe things as they are or as they ought to be? Ask the reader to celebrate or agitate? It’s risky business to conjure up words, ideas, rhetoric; to dabble in the art of
persuasive theory. Imagine no heaven, countries or possessions, as John Lennon did. Strive to unfold the folded lie, as Edward Abbey did. Be the voice of the voiceless, the brake on the wheel. Explore those truths that are not self-evident. Don’t write to be popular; write to illuminate, to shine a light. And with light comes heat. Therein lies the hard beauty. If you want easy, sit on the sofa, watch the game, shout at the TV. If you want hard… well, that’s something else. Question authority, the flag, the king, the coach, the governor, the president, the priest. Embrace the poet and the poor. Sleep on the ground. Volunteer at an orphanage. Throw away all your gadgets but one. Practice sacredness. Stop the control of nature for the benefit of man; instead, control man for the benefit of nature. How?
Imagine no growth. As Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
suppose we could grow our economy forever if we had six more Earths. Plunder one planet after another. Probably not a good idea though. Bad manners. Take heart, I tell myself. The U.S.A. still has more public libraries than it does McDonald’s. 
Across the Colorado Plateau he was everywhere and nowhere, this Abbey, this river rat, desert dweller, half rascal, half ghost, a storied man, a phantom, a dusty Huckleberry Finn with an attitude and a beard. Outside Moab I pitched my pup tent near the Colorado River and felt a pup myself, an apprentice to strange shapes and eternal processes. In a Moab cowboy café I met a nine-fingered blues guitarist who said he knew Abbey. Meaning he knew a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy named Ken Somebody who inspired one of Abbey’s fictional characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang, and this Ken, who floated rivers with Abbey, described him as a fiercely loyal friend.
Nine Fingers and I jammed down by the river that night, our hands warmed by a large fire. Other musicians came and went, sandal-footed women in long dresses and wool sweaters, whiskered vets in military fatigues and tattered coats, the shoulder stripes ripped off, faces half in firelight, half in shadow, eyes still lost in the jungles of Vietnam.
Sometime later, I showed Nine Fingers a photo of the Beatles, an end-of-summer image taken on John’s estate thirty miles outside London, in a northern field of fireweed, the blossoms fading. It was the last picture made of the four men together.
“Look at that,” Nine Fingers said, pointing not at the Beatles but at the flowers surrounding them. ”Fireweed. It looks like McKinley Park.” 
“Mount McKinley National Park, in Alaska.”
“You’ve been to Alaska?”
“I was born there, in Fairbanks, two hundred miles from the Arctic Circle.” He had the frostbitten toes to prove it, he said, from what he called “time in the mountains.” Maybe he’d lost his finger there, too; I never asked. He added that he’d go back one day. “Once you’ve lived in Alaska, it ruins you. It ruins everything. Every other place that used to be vast and wild seems small and tame and crowded, like all these postage stamp parks and boutique wildernesses in Utah and Montana and Colorado and the rest of the lower forty-eight. Pretty places; nice for photography and meeting girls, but surrounded by too many roads, too much agriculture, too many people. I’m telling you, man, it’s dangerous. It’s incredible. Alaska is what America was.”
“A time machine?”
“Yeah. It’ll steal your heart and shape your imagination like nothing else.”
(This is continued from Kim’s previous guest posts on May 7 & 14. Follow him over the rest of May as he journeys from Spokane to Alaska, via the Beatles and Edward Abbey.)

Kim first came to Alaska in 1979 as a ranger with the National Park Service, working summers in Glacier Bay,
Denali and Katmai. He is the author of several books, most recently “John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire.” His forthcoming memoir, “Denali Heart,” will be published in February 2015. Portions of this blog will appear in that book. Kim lives in Gustavus, where he volunteers as a music teacher at the local school. Visit him at

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