Was Edward Abbey A Mystic?

September 12th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Jack Loeffler And Edward Abbey Discuss Mysticism While Camped At The Strait Of Hell On The West Coast Of Sonora, Mexico

White Herons, Playa, Baja California, Mexico, copyright 1981 by Philip Hyde.

In his biography of Edward Abbey, Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey, Jack Loeffler described traveling, friendship and working with Edward Abbey on various environmental campaigns. In one chapter Jack Loeffler told a story about exploring and car camping with the “Thoreau of the West” and his wife Clarke Cartwright Abbey on the west coast of Mainland Old Mexico. “On a dirt road that extended from El Desemboque to Kino Bay,” Jack Loeffler and Edward Abbey made camp.

They dubbed their camp “Osprey Bay” because they could see “no fewer than five inhabited osprey nests…” and during the day they could see osprey aloft nearly all the time. To get to the camp they had traveled several hundred miles from the U. S. border. Their camp was across Estrecho Infiernillo, or the Strait of Hell, from Baja California with Tiburon Island and Shark Island a few miles out in the Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California. Nineteenth century explorers called the narrow passage between Mexico and Baja California the Strait of Hell because during high tide and low tide, in some conditions, treacherous currents and sand bars tended to obstruct navigation and still do today. “There we remained for the better part of two weeks, hiking, floating in the rubber raft, avoiding stingrays, eating, drinking cold beer and warm beer, and even considering thinking about working.”

Edward Abbey made forays for firewood. Jack Loeffler and Edward Abbey dug a fire pit and lined it with large rocks in which they put a giant stuffed Turkey that Clarke Abbey had wrapped frozen before the trip. In the evening after their first Turkey feast when “the sound of the surf lulled them into a collective reverie,” Edward Abbey and Jack Loeffler set out on a walk east toward the mountains a few miles away:

The moon was bright. The air was warm. There was no wind. The conditions were ideal for a nighttime stroll near the Straight of Hell. We spoke very little for the first mile or so. We finally crossed the main north-south road and followed a trail continuing east. We were able to walk abreast and listen to the night sounds.



“Do you consider yourself a mystic?”

“Wow, I have to think about that for a minute. Do you?”

“Consider you a mystic? Yes.”

Consider yourself a mystic.”

“I asked you first.”

We stumbled along the trail for a bit.

“Probably no more than you do,” I replied vaguely. “Is there any vestigial Presbyterianism left in you?”

“Oh maybe a remnant or two left over from my childhood… But I was asking if you were a mystic?”

“It’s ironic, when I was in college, I was one of the two professed atheists on the campus. It took me years to realize that my sense of atheism was mostly the result of semantics. I certainly didn’t and don’t believe in an anthropomorphic god in any biblical sense. It seems that somehow I’ve intuited the presence of some principle or urge that the English language, at least, isn’t prepared to define. I suppose any religious feelings I have stem from the way I feel about the Earth and about consciousness. I’ve suspected for a long time that the planet is the living organism and that life is the way the planet perceives. We’re just a step along the way. Humans, I mean. We’re really not all that important when you think about it.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” said Ed. “But what about a sense of purpose? I wonder if we have any purpose in a higher sense. It seems like you spend years trying to absolve yourself from your childhood biases. If you’re really interested, that is.”

“What about you, Ed? Have you ever had a sense of the mystical?”

“Well, as you know, I’ve always tried to follow the truth no matter where it leads. And intellectually, I’ve tried to come to terms with reality by examining the evidence of my own five good bodily senses that I was born with, using my mind to the best of my ability. But there was a time back in Death Valley where I had what I guess was as close to a mystical experience as I’ve ever had. That was years ago. I was a young man. I’ve never had anything quite like it since. As close as I’ve come is after I’ve been out camping somewhere for at least two weeks. It takes at least that long for me to really get into it and leave all the baggage behind.”

“Can you describe what happened back then?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not something that’s easy to remember intellectually. It was more the way I felt. As I recall, I felt like I wasn’t separated from anything else. I was by myself at the time. It was as if I could almost perceive some fundamental activity taking place all around me. Everything was alive, even the rocks. I was part of it. Not separate from it at all. I wept for joy or something akin to joy that I can’t really describe. It was a long time ago. It’s not something that can be remembered in the normal way, or at least normal for me. The only time I can get close to it is out camping. I don’t get to do that enough. Not nearly enough.”

See a video of Jack Loeffler on the role of artists in environmental activism… Or, read more about Edward Abbey and how he met and wrote Slickrock with Philip Hyde in the blog post, “Who Was Edward Abbey?



  1. Greg Boyer says:

    The Earth being a living organism, that’s not mysticism, that’s common sense. Something that we seem to have lost in the hysteria of the Old Testament beliefs about mans place in Life.

    I once experienced that “Oneness”. It was in the Sierra Nevada at night as I was observing the Milky Way. Impossible to describe the sense of comfort and belonging. The ultimate “high”.

  2. Hi Greg, thank you for your comment and sharing your experience under the stars. In that section of Jack Loeffler’s book on Edward Abbey, the discussion between the two of them goes on to whether either of them had used drugs to reach that kind of “high.” Jack Loeffler had done Peyote with the Native Americans and described some of his transcendent experiences with that, but Edward Abbey had not done any more drugs than trying pot a few times with little effect. As many are aware, Edward Abbey’s drug of choice was often alcohol, but his experience in Death Valley was as he said, “On the natch.”

  3. Steve Sieren says:

    It’s a wonder if the nature photographer of today and or the nature lover has some sort of connection or union with the Earth. There are so many distractions with cell phones, satellite radio, and Ipads, it’s very likely that one might not connect with his / her surroundings. I was raised Christian but never was forced to believe anything I didn’t want to and learning at a young age on my own accord that there were too many different beliefs from so many different people in the world, this was a little confusing but I felt more of connection on trip to Yellowstone one family vaction.

    A powerful waterfall can drain out every other sound and thought in a person’s mind.

    I feel this connection so often it’s just part of the reason I photograph landscapes. I’d imagine this is what happens and hooks most photographers that are mindful of their beings (as the buddhists would mention). As they were saying, are we significant to the Earth as humans? We haven’t been around longer then the previous beings before us, so it’s always a great question.

    It seems that the beaches on the mainland part of Mexico haven’t changed much at all. I experienced it for the first time this past June. A little closer to where the Colorado River is supposed to hit the ocean. Our beer was warm by the 2nd day out there, we tried to cool in the wet sand but the tide went out so far we weren’t able to find some of it. And in only a 3 day span we had 3 friends stung by sting rays. One of the guys had to remove himself from the group for hours to deal with the pain alone. Our driver was bit by a sidewinder while he was removing many of them from under the tents. I ended up getting some kind of food poisoning too. Despite all of the unfortunate circumstances I would definitely return to the same place, maybe with some kevlar socks!!

  4. Hi Steve, this expression of your feelings and thoughts; as well as experiences on the Mexican beaches is much appreciated. I identify with your sense of connection with nature as being the reason to photograph landscapes. You seem to do such a good job of getting out into the wilderness though, much more than I do for long periods of time these days. I am lucky to live right in the remote mountain woods, or I wouldn’t get out there that much any more. I am going through this phase of my life longing for it to change again to allow for more time outdoors in nature. I just don’t feel myself without it. Your experience in Mexico sounds a bit more wild and wooly than anyone would ask for. Crazy that a sidewinder rattlesnake bit your driver. Did your driver head for civilization, or what did he do?

  5. Sharon says:

    I would love to see that beach, David. It sounds wild and beautiful. I spent Friday morning alone on a beach here as Hurricane Katia passed east of us. The waves were just incredibly beautiful. I believe this awesome world was made for us and we aren’t insignificant and I felt extremely grateful for this gift. I also felt the responsibility we have to cherish and protect this amazing planet we have.


  6. Very well said, Sharon. I enjoy your blog posts about your ocean photography adventures. I am glad you were safe from the Hurricane.

  7. pj says:

    Interesting post. Mysticism is a much abused word. To me it’s simply a connection to the whole living being we call life, or nature. One we can recognize but can’t explain or define, like the awakening experience of zen or taoist disciplines. It’s a knowing that goes beyond words or thought, and obviously much easier to grasp out in the wilds.

    With that I realize I’ve already tried too hard to explain it… too many words.

  8. Dear PJ, your words are excellent. Mysticism is a much abused word. My father was much better at avoiding spiritual jargon than I am. I believe I’ve read too much about too many religions and am too absent minded to remember to replace all the jargon I have at least read, perhaps not retained, but definitely read. Sometimes more words are more creative. Otherwise we would have no novels, only short stories. As Edward Weston said, “Rules are made to be broken,” even Zen rules. “Everything Zen, everything Zen, I don’t think so.” Think about that for a while.

  9. Steve Sieren says:

    He said he retracted his hand in time to where it just possibly nicked his finger, meaning it was completely stuck to hand. At the time I didn’t believe it but he wouldn’t show anyone his after he showed it to me pretty much in the dark at a quick glance. We had a large group and most of the people didn’t seem to be bothered by it but I thought it was serious. He wore a glove over the bite for the rest of the trip. I saw him a month later and he said his arm went almost completely numb from but he is fine now. Quite a few people decided they didn’t want to go to the natural wild parts of Mexico anymore and Tiajuana may be safer for them.

    David, for you nature is around the corner and is probably in view from the window so it’s a lot harder to be disconnected from it. I still want to collect one of those indian rubarb photographs from the plumas creek area this fall if I get the chance so I may be in your neck of the woods.

  10. Thanks for returning, Steve. The Indian Rhubarb show will begin any time in the next three weeks. I have some extraordinary locations already scouted I could show you.

  11. pj says:

    I actually think about that quite a bit.

    True enough… words are a good thing. They’re a vital tool but sometimes limiting. Occasionally they fall short.

  12. I agree, PJ. Words can let us down when it comes to communication. Yet, your words on your blog seldom fall short as you sometimes say they do…

  13. Brought a smile to me this afternoon. I especially like this statement, “As I recall, I felt like I wasn’t separated from anything else. I was by myself at the time. It was as if I could almost perceive some fundamental activity taking place all around me. Everything was alive, even the rocks. I was part of it. Not separate from it at all. I wept for joy or something akin to joy that I can’t really describe. ”

    Thanks for sharing. I always learn something from your blog.

  14. Hi Monte, thank you for your comment. Edward Abbey’s words are so poignent, aren’t they?

  15. Greg Russell says:

    I’m seeing a trend in my own thinking, and the thinking of others, towards a true contemplation of our relationship with the earth. This post is really well received David.

    One of the things I think about often is religion and how it plays into the big picture. I like the description above, of only being an atheist in the strictest sense of the word. By that definition I am indeed an atheist, but I do have belief in some sort of higher power, a “unifying force.” Its an abstract idea, but the more I look around me, I see that oneness more and more.

    I hope this makes sense. PJ’s words never seem to fail him…mine often do.


  16. Hi Greg, I find in talking to people who call themselves atheists that many do believe in “something,” but not the “God” they were coerced to believe in. Interesting what you observe about “oneness.” I feel you’re on to something both in words and otherwise…

  17. Mark says:

    I agree with Monte above. That paragraph is particularly powerful. It makes you think how long we need to be able to feel that way, it doesn’t come that easy.

  18. Hi Mark, I appreciate your comment. That’s right. I notice though that the more gadgets and devices I unplug from sooner, the faster I get “there.” If I disconnect from all electronic devices, machinery and man made objects of any kind abruptly and allow complete silence, I notice a change in my way of being sooner.

Leave a Reply