Like most boys of his generation, Ed Abbey played cowboys
and Indians and loved watching Western movies; the difference
was that he took them seriously enough that he eventually
moved west and devoted much of his life to writing about the
West. Abbey told Publishers Weekly in 1975, just
after The Monkey Wrench Gang hit the shelves,
"I'd always been strongly drawn by the Western
landscape, mostly because of the movies." Ed
Mears remarks, "We had those in high school and he loved
them." A majority of the movies listed in the High
Arrow, Indiana High's newspaper, during Abbey's years
there were titles such as "Wagon Track West,"
"Frontier Badmen," "Ride, Tenderfoot,"
"Canyon City," "Call of the Rockies,"
"Light of Sante Fe," and "Sage Brush
As Abbey wrote in The Fool's Progress (1988),
"What I always really wanted to be, like most American
boys, was a free-lance cowboy... a movie-type cowboy"
(69). Howard Abbey remembers going to Westerns in Indiana
with his brother: "They had two or three features every
weekend, the Ritz. I remember Ken Maynard and Buck Jones and
Tex Ritter." Tom Mix, one of the cowboy screen icons
whose films convinced Abbey that he had to go west, was also
from Western Pennsylvania.
Much later, in a 1985 lecture at the University of
Montana, Abbey admitted that for awhile after he moved west
as a young man, he remained brainwashed by the movies:
"Like most new arrivals in the West, I could imagine
nothing more romantic than becoming a cowboy -- nothing more
glorious than owning my own little genuine working cattle
In the same lecture, Abbey had the audacity to attack the
cattle industry while speaking deep in its geographical
heart, showing that the author of The Brave Cowboy (1956)
had developed a different attitude: "'Cowboys do it
better,' they like to say. And that's true -- ask any cow. I
know some of you resent that remark, but I don't hear anybody
denying it. I can testify from my own boyhood on an
Appalachian farm that country boys are a weird species."
The episode from his life most frequently repeated in
Abbey's writings was his hitch-hiking and rail-riding trip
west during the summer of 1944, between his junior and senior
years at Indiana High. In a great many different places in
his writings and in interviews, Abbey cited this as the key
formative experience of his life: "I became a Westerner
at the age of 17, in the summer of 1944, while hitchhiking
around the USA. For me it was love at first sight -- a total
passion which has never left me."
Perhaps his best known essay about this experience is
"Hallelujah on the Bum" in The Journey Home: "In
the summer of 1944... I hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to
Seattle.... On the Western horizon, under a hot, clear sky
sixty miles away crowned with snow (in July), was a magical
vision, a legend come true: the front range of the Rocky
Mountains. An impossible beauty, like a boy's first sight of
an undressed girl, the image of those mountains struck a
fundamental chord in my imagination that has sounded ever
He saw the beautiful red-rock desert and canyon country of
the Southwest for the first time while riding the rails with
hobos. He got arrested in Flagstaff, and finally abandoned
the rails in Albuquerque in favor of a bus ticket home.
Rim, in Canyonlands National Park region of Utah (above),
was a favorite haunt, while Quebec Run Wilderness
Area in Fayette County (below) is
wild by Appalachian standards.
Hitch-hiking west was an Abbey family
tradition that had begun with his father, who gave Ed $20 and
wished him well on his journey. "The thing about this
heading west business," Bill Abbey explains, is that
"my dad did that. Then Ed did that hitchhiking,
railroading thing. Then Howard did it, I guess a year after
Ed did it. I'm pretty sure my brother John did it. I did it,
when I was in high school too -- hitch hiked across the
country one summer. Nancy of course, couldn't do such a
thing. But every one of us boys did that. It had to be
something about how our father did it, so we have to do it --
sort of a rite." Adds Nancy Abbey: "I envied my
brothers so much. To me that would have just been the most
exhilarating experience. And I didn't have the nerve to do it
on my own." After he returned to Indiana High, Judy
Moorhead stresses, Abbey "really had a claim to fame
because he hitch-hiked out West and was back in class in
Abbey also had a claim to fame at Indiana High because he
wrote about his trip in a striking series of seven articles
in the High Arrow during his senior year. Abbey liked to
recall later that he had flunked his journalism class twice
in high school, explaining that "I couldn't get
basketball scores right." It's true that all of his
Indiana County transcripts -- elementary through high school
and his year at IUP -- list high grades in English but
spottier performances in other areas such as math and
science, including "C"s in botany and zoology at
IUP. This perhaps confirms Abbey's later insistence that he
was no "naturalist," despite frequent critical
pegging of his books as such. Abbey began his junior year as
High Arrow features editor, but lasted only two months. His
1944-45 High Arrow accounts of his trip west show that from
an early age he was a better writer than editorial
journalist, and they are particularly exciting to compare
with the World War II pieces from three years earlier, for
the High Arrow articles show a writer in the process of
finding his true subject and voice. "Abbey Walks 8,000
Miles By Adroit Use of Thumb" announced the first
Around the last of July I began to feel an itchiness
in my feet that could not be diagnosed either as
athlete's foot or abstinence from soap and water. It was
the wanderlust, pure and simple. So I decided to act, and
promptly, for in a month the gaping jaws of free
education would be demanding their annual sacrifice. Two
days later I packed a toothbrush and a notebook in a
small grip, walked a few blocks out the western end of
Philadelphia street, and began hitch-hiking in the
general direction of Seattle, Washington.
Abbey's articles recount such episodes as swimming in the
Mississippi River in the middle of the night, explaining to
the governor of South Dakota that he was from Home,
harvesting wheat with Indians, listening to a cougar's growl
while hitchhiking at night near Yellowstone, and playing
cards while riding the rails. They also show a good ear for
boys wanta play a little game of poker or
said "New York," pulling out a pack of cards.
At the same time "Bleary-Eyes" pulled out his
pack, the greasiest, dirtiest, most wrinkled and
pock-marked set of cards I have ever seen.
glared at New York and spoke in the low, ominous tone men
use when they are not sure of themselves.
boy, don't yuh like mah cahds?"
said New York and he started to deal.
Trying to change the subject, I motioned toward the
Negro, now awake and looking at us. "What about
him?" I said. "Maybe he would like to
a nigger," said Bleary-Eyes, "an' I ain't
playin' cards with no nigger. Besides, this is thuh white
section of thuh boxcar an' I don't allow no niggers here.
He gotta stay where he is."
stared in disbelief at the man and couldn't speak. The
words from his pitiful little brain hung in the dusty air
between us and separated me from him.
"I had a couple of good teachers in high
school," Abbey recalled late in life to Jack Loeffler,
"who introduced me to Hemingway, Thomas Woolf, Sinclair
Lewis. I read a lot. I read and read and read probably
hundreds of books during my teenage years."
Those teachers included Raymond Munnel at Marion Center High
and Mary McGregor and James Nix at Indiana High.
Feathersmith, the teacher who tries to guide Abbey's
autobiographical protagonist in Jonathan Troy, was
probably modelled on both Munnel and Nix.
Next section: IUP, Abbey's Indiana Novels, and
Indiana People and Places
 Quoted by John F. Baker, "Edward Abbey," Publishers
Weekly, 8 Sept.1975, 6.
 Wagon Track West was advertised in the 29
Sept.1943 issue of the High Arrow on p.4; Frontier
Badmen, 10 Nov.1943, 6; Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride, 17
Nov 1943,4; Canyon City. 12 Jan.1944, 4; Call of
the Rockies, 22 Nov 1944, 4; Light of Santa Fe, 20
Dec.1944, 3; and Sage Brush Heroes, 28 March 1945, 4.
I am grateful to Darlene Marco, Indiana Senior High School
librarian, for making back issues of the High Arrow available
 Abbey, "Free Speech: The Cowboy and his
Cow," One Life at a Time, Please (New York,
 Abbey. lecture at the University of Montana, 1 May
1985, Abbey collection, University of Arizona Special
Collections, Tucson, box 27, tape 6. I am grateful to Clarke
Cartwright Abbey for her permission to study, copy and quote
from the Abbey collection, and also to Roger Myers, Peter
Steere, and their assistants in the Special Collections
Department of the University of Arizona Library for all of
their invaluable and copious assistance.
 "Ed Abbey: Tearing... Down with Words,"
interview, Econews, Jan. 1981,6. Here are a few of the
other places where Abbey repeated the same kind of statement:
"How It Was," published in both Beyond the Wall (New
York, 1984), 51, and in Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of
the Southwest, with Philip Hyde (New York, 1971), 18; his
1981 preface to Black Sun (1971; Santa Barbara, 1990,
n.p.); David Petersen, 'A Conversation with Edward
Abbey," Basin and Range, Aug.1985, 10); The
Fool's Progress, 145; "Forty Years as a
Canyoneer," One Life at a Time, Please, 123;
James Hepworth, et al., "Literature of the Southwest
Interview" (Feb.1981), 126; Resist Much, Obey
Little, 126; and introduction to The Mountains of
America, from Alaska to the Great Smokies (by Franklin
Russell; New York, 1981), 6.
 Abbey, "Hallelujah on the Bum," The
Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1977;
New York, 1991), 1,2.
 Abbey, lecture at IUP, 9 Dec 1976, Abbey
collection, box 8, folder 2.
 "Abbey Walks 8,000 Miles By Adroit Use of
Thumb," High Arrow, 8 Nov 1944, 4.
 "Abbey Finally Arrives Home," High
Arrow, 10 May 1945, 3. The other articles in this High
Arrow series were "Ambitious Aching Arm Aids Abbey's
Ambulation," 22 Nov. 1944, 2; "Vagabond Lover Has
Drink With Governor," 20 Dec. 1944, 2; "Cougar Toys
With Gastronomic Picture of Footsore Ed Abbey" 28 March
1945, 2; "Abbey Hitch-Hikes to Jail After Viewing
Blue Pacific," 11 April 1945, 3; and "Abbey On Last
Lap Towards Home," 25 April 1945, 2, 4.
 Abbey, interview with Jack Loeffler, 1 Jan.1983,
Tucson, Abbey collection, box 27, tape 4.