Friends and admirers of author Edward Abbey expressed shock and sadness at the news of his death Tuesday, praising the eloquence with which the former park ranger defended the wilds against industrialism.
While one admirer sang songs and played the guitar in tribute to Abbey outside a local bike shop, longtime friend Ken Sleight stayed near his phone at the Pack Creek Ranch south of Moab, taking calls from reporters across the country while waiting for further word from Arizona on memorial services for the well-known writer.Sleight said Abbey's wife, Clarke, had called early Tuesday morning to tell him of the author's death.
"It was really a shock. It really hit me between the eyes," Sleight said. "I knew he was ill, and I was waiting for news of how he was." Sleight said he had talked with Abbey only a week ago.
The two men became good friends after meeting nearly 20 years ago at Lee's Ferry, where Abbey was a park ranger. Sleight, 59, was later a model for the character Seldom Seen Smith, who joins a small band of militant environmentalists plotting destruction of the Glen Canyon Dam in Abbey's best-known fictional work, "The Monkey Wrench Gang."
While in Moab last winter for an autograph party heralding release of his latest book, "The Fool's Progress," Abbey said the main character, Henry Holyoak Lightcap, was as close to being an autobiographical sketch of himself as he expected to ever produce. In the novel, Lightcap returns to his native home in the West Virginia, suffering miserably from terminal illness.
Sleight said the Abbeys were expected in Moab in April with their two children and and were making plans to begin building a house on property they bought last year near the ranch.
Sleight said some people perceived a gruffness and aloofness in Abbey that was actually a cover for a very sensitive being. He said the way Abbey was able to articulate what was happening to the desert wilderness made him a leader in the environmental movement.
"He was able to get people thinking and talking. He'd go out of his way to express an opinion that would cause a response. All his writings elicited a response from people," Sleight said.
"I think his legacy . . . is setting the standard for wilderness protection. He was visionary. He was way ahead of his time, and he was correct. He'll go down as one of the greats in the environmental movement, up there with Thoreau and the others."
Tuesday afternoon, local song writer Mark Doherty staged an impromptu one-man concert in memory of Abbey.
"He's one of the reasons I've been here, writing songs, taking people out into the wilderness, trying to teach them how to use it right," said Doherty, 31.Doherty moved to Moab from Gunnison, Colo. four years ago after reading "Desert Solitaire."
That book also turned David Whidden, 21, into an Abbey fan. A new resident of Calf Creek near Escalante, Whidden was in Moab visiting and paused awhile to enjoy Doherty's music.
"I thought that he really eloquently stated a lot of things most people don't want to hear or say," Whidden said. "He was a great asset to all of us on the planet."