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'My People'
Edward Abbey's Appalachian Roots in Indiana County, Pennsylvania

by James M. Cahalan

Part II, Section 3 : The Attraction of the West and Abbey's Summer 1944 Trip

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."[34] 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 Heroes."[35] 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 outfit."[36] 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."[37]

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."[38] 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 since."[39] 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.

The White 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 September."

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."[40] 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 headline:

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.[41]

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 dialogue:

          "You boys wanta play a little game of poker or somethin'?"
          "Sure," 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.
          Bleary-Eyes glared at New York and spoke in the low, ominous tone men use when they are not sure of themselves.
          "Whatsamatter boy, don't yuh like mah cahds?"
          "No," 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 play."
          "That's 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."
          I 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.[42]

"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."[43] 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


[34] Quoted by John F. Baker, "Edward Abbey," Publishers Weekly, 8 Sept.1975, 6.

[35] 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 to me.

[36] Abbey, "Free Speech: The Cowboy and his Cow," One Life at a Time, Please (New York, 1988), 9.

[37] 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.

[38] "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.

[39] Abbey, "Hallelujah on the Bum," The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1977; New York, 1991), 1,2.

[40] Abbey, lecture at IUP, 9 Dec 1976, Abbey collection, box 8, folder 2.

[41] "Abbey Walks 8,000 Miles By Adroit Use of Thumb," High Arrow, 8 Nov 1944, 4.

[42] "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.

[43] Abbey, interview with Jack Loeffler, 1 Jan.1983, Tucson, Abbey collection, box 27, tape 4.

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