An Interview with David Gessner

In his latest book, All the Wild That Remains, David Gessner follows in the footsteps of two great environmentalists, Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, from Stegner's birthplace in Saskatchewan to the site of Abbey's pilgrimages to Arches. His homage to the West and to the two writers who celebrated and defended it inspires and entertains while asking important questions about our role in cultivating a meaningful relationship with the wild. Gessner agreed to discuss some of our own questions about the intersection of ecology and travel, of wandering and the wild.


Longitude. What inspired you to write a book about both Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner?

Gessner. I moved west in 1991, when I was thirty, after an operation and radiation treatment for testicular cancer back in my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.  I lived in a cabin in the mountains that fall, and like a lot of people before me, fell in love with Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Abbey would prove a gateway drug to Stegner, and over the next seven years I would explore both the places and literature of the West. When I moved back East I took many of their ideas with me, and I had always wanted to get back out West and back to Abbey and Stegner.

Longitude. What first drew you to the American West?

Gessner. The practical answer is going to grad school. The bigger answer is the mountains, the desert, the rivers, the overall landscape. “The West faces you like a dare,” wrote Wallace Stegner and one of the best things I ever did in my life was take that dare.

Longitude. You write that Stegner’s dream was of a western community working for a common good; Abbey’s vision was “a solitary one, a dream of retreat.” Part of Abbey’s appeal is that he understood the “lost art of lounging,” while “work is always a touchstone for Stegner.” How did these two very different temperaments and visions help shape your own view of the West?

Gessner. I, like a lot of people, was attracted to Abbey and the idea of luxuriating in the great landscape. I still am. But beyond the romance Stegner shows the reality, not just of the West but in our lives. And for me, as for most people, work is what I do for most of the day. Work was a kind of salvation for Stegner and it is for me too. That that work can be meaningful, and can reach out to others, is a perhaps more grown-up ideal than lounging. Though, as I say, I still like to lounge a little too.

Longitude. Window seat or aisle? (We ask all our writers this, but perhaps for you “hybrid or electric” is more appropriate?!)

Gessner. Well, I plead guilty to flying around out here for my book tour. And I chose aisle seats (bad leg) as I always do. But that was a mistake! I ended up craning over the passenger in the window seat to look out at the landscape, including the dry, dry Mad Max desert around Albuquerque, the mountains coming into Salt Lake, the great sprawl of Phoenix.

Longitude. As a traveler who cares deeply for the environment how do you reconcile mobility with the inevitable carbon footprint attached to it?

Gessner. I have not reconciled it. Dan Driscoll, my friend in Boston (who helped green the banks of the Charles River), said: “We are all hypocrites, but we need more hypocrites who fight.” I’m a fighting hypocrite. Still part of this society (of course) but pushing a vision that may help change the society.

Longitude. You write of Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: “If a traditional plot can be at all ascribed, it might be that the protagonist has found paradise here, alone in the desert, and that the forces of progress are marching forward to make sure that paradise is lost.” How do you weigh progress against preservation of such paradises?

Gessner. There are, of course, economic realities that can’t be ignored.  But too often we compromise and rationalize as we cut up the last wild places. We talk too much about the import of growth, which Abbey compared to the growth of the cancer cell. We need to draw a line somewhere. To take a stand to save the remnants of the wild.

Longitude. In the course of researching the book, you end up following in the footsteps of both Abbey and Stegner. Which landscapes most powerfully hold the legacy of these two writers for you? Where should the Abbey or Stegner pilgrim go?

Gessner. Of course all beginning Abbey fanatics go to Arches, but they might want to venture a little further and camp in Canyonlands. Better yet throw a tent up on BLM land.  As for Stegner, I was most moved by walking into Harper’s  Corner in Dinosaur National Monument (in both eastern Utah and western Colorado). This was land that would have been flooded by a dam had not people like Stegner stopped it. Land that would have been desecrated but that was saved.

Longitude. What advice would you give to eco-conscious travelers on how to enjoy the West without ruining it for the next traveler?

Gessner. We celebrate the West as a place of freedom. But one person’s freedom can intrude on another’s. An all-terrain vehicle can destroy someone else’s day but so can a mountain bike. Find your private and free space and respect the space of others.

Longitude. Which books would you recommend to a first-time reader of Abbey or Stegner?

Gessner. Abbey: Nonfiction: Desert Solitaire Fiction: A Fool’s Progress Stegner: Nonfiction: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian Fiction: Angle of Repose (Though for some Crossing to Safety is an easier way in.)