Category: Biography

The Death and Burial of Cactus Ed

Cactus Ed vomited blood, then sat at his typewriter in Fort Llatikcuf. Fort Llatikcuf (to be read backwards) was the name he gave his home in southern Arizona. Cactus Ed knew he was dying, and wished to express his wishes for his final arrangements.

As a farewell message to all the people who loved and hated him, he typed, “No comments.”

Cactus Ed had authored several bestselling books during his lifetime. These books were very influential, and helped in the passage of laws for preservation of our wilderness lands. The next time you get distracted by the scenery and step off a cliff while hiking in some heart-stopping, untouched landscape, say a silent “thank you” to Cactus Ed.

Southern Utah was Cactus Ed’s favorite spot on earth. He fought hard to protect broken-up wildlands like this, found in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Cactus Ed was a controversial figure. He wasn’t just a man of words. He believed in direct action. His books promoted civil disobedience, and he was the original standard-bearer for the radical environmental movement. His work inspired the birth of anarchist environmental organizations such as Earth First! In fact, he was revered by Earth Firsters and often spoke at early gatherings of this organization.

His failing fingers managed to type that he wanted his body transported in the bed of a pickup truck.

Did you ever take a college course in literature? If so you may have been assigned to read the book, Desert Solitaire. The literary world considers it a classic of the American West. It’s Cactus Ed’s autobiography about several summers he spent as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument (now a national park), in Utah.

In many ways, Cactus Ed fought a losing war, as evidenced by this overlay of civilization (high voltage power lines), against orange sandstone formations in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Continuing with his dying instructions, he requested that he be buried as soon as possible, with no undertakers, and “no embalming, for Godsake.”

Before Desert Solitaire, Cactus Ed had written a novel entitled The Brave Cowboy. In 1962 it became the movie Lonely Are the Brave, starring Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau, with screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (who had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s, for being a communist). Kirk Douglas played Jack Burns, a roaming ranch hand who refused to join modern society and who rejected such things as driver’s licenses and draft cards.

Cactus Ed didn’t like draft cards. He was a World War II vet who got a college education in the late-1940s, funded by the G.I. Bill. In 1947 he publicly urged fellow students to rid themselves of their draft cards. That prompted the FBI to put him on their watch list. They kept him there the rest of his life. Many years later Cactus Ed learned about being on this watch list and commented, “I’d be insulted if they weren’t watching me.”

Capitol Reef National Park, from the mountains of Dixie National Forest. One could easily stumble off a cliff while enjoying this view. Thank you for such dangers, Cactus Ed!

He typed away. He requested that he have no coffin, just an old sleeping bag, and that all state laws should be disregarded concerning his burial. In his words, “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.”

In spite of Desert Solitaire, The Brave Cowboy, or the TV movie Fire On the Mountain, after his novel of the same name, he is best known by environmental activists for his novels, The Monkey Wrench Gang and Hayduke Lives!

These novels read like bibles and manuals for anarchists. They are fictional non-fictionals, because they are based upon true events. The true events were the ecotage, or ecology-motivated sabotage, surreptitiously committed by Cactus Ed and a band of his close friends.

Cactus Ed hated billboards. And he despised heavy earth-moving equipment, especially the bulldozer, that rips, tears, and levels the earth, allowing for the “progress” of “civilization” into wilderness areas.

He and his merry band of saboteurs stalked the desert night with monkey wrenches and a variety of other tools. They sawed billboards down, poured sugar into the gas tanks of bulldozers, and dismantled parts off of any and all earth-moving equipment they could find. On one occasion they discovered ignition keys foolishly left inside a huge bulldozer. They started that dozer up, put it in gear, and pointed it toward the nearest steep cliff. It crashed and burned 500 feet below.

It was a cliff like this that saw the demise of that monstrous bulldozer.

The old war veteran typed a little more with his dying fingers. He prescribed his funeral. He wanted gunfire and a little music. He stipulated, “No formal speeches desired, though the deceased will not interfere if someone feels the urge. But keep it all simple and brief.”

After that he wanted a big happy raucous wake. He wanted more music, including bagpipes, and it all should be gay and lively. He asked for “a flood of beer and booze! Lots of singing, dancing, talking, hollering, laughing, and lovemaking.” He also wanted meat, beans, chilis, and corn on the cob to be served.

He had suffered for a long time from esophageal varices, which are veins deep in the throat that can bleed easily. They are caused by cirrhosis of the liver. A few days earlier he had undergone surgery for these varices, but Cactus Ed sensed the operation was unsuccessful. He was right.

Just ten days before he left this world, on March 4, 1989, all was going well. Cactus Ed had entertained a gathering of fans by reading to them passages from the first draft of his book, Hayduke Lives!, a sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang.

About a week later he had the surgery, and on March 14, 1989, Cactus Ed bled to death from his throat.

He died at Fort Llatikcuf among family and friends. Before the rigors of mortis set in, these friends dutifully wrapped his corpse in a sleeping bag and loaded it into the back of a pickup truck. They drove him into the Cabeza Prieta desert, to one of Cactus Ed’s favorite secret spots. They buried him there, in an unmarked grave. The only hint they’ve given as to the exact location of this tomb are the words, “you’ll never find it.”

But his friends say they did carve a marker on a nearby stone that reads:

EDWARD PAUL ABBEY
January 29, 1927-March 14, 1989
NO COMMENT

Later that month about 200 of Cactus Ed’s friends gathered near Saguaro National Monument near Tucson, Arizona, and held the wake he requested. A second, much larger wake was held in May of that year, just outside his beloved Arches National Park, and several notables spoke at that wake.

Cactus Ed left behind a wife, several ex-wives, and five children from different marriages. And as for the afterlife, he left us this message from his book, Desert Solitaire:

“If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture – that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”

The Dirty Devil river, near Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Cactus Ed hated the Glen Canyon Dam, and often railed against it. He bemoaned the loss of scenic Glen Canyon and its tributaries, such as the Dirty Devil river, which were swamped by the dam(n)’s Lake Powell. This photo was taken after a long drought that caused Lake Powell to recede and that resurrected the Dirty Devil to it’s prior magnificence.

Samuel Wilson

Samuel Wilson, 1766-1854

Samuel Wilson, 1766-1854


Samuel Wilson was a middle child, born the seventh of thirteen children. He came to this world near Boston, Massachusetts, on September 13th, 1766. And he was a solid American, the descendent of one of the oldest families of Boston.

But when he was a boy his family did what many American families have done. They moved, searching for greener pastures. And so they left Massachusetts and resettled in New Hampshire.

Around the same time, our nation was born, and war came to the colonies. There are many things that can kill children before they reach adulthood, and war is one of them. Samuel took the risk. He joined the Revolutionary Army at age 14. But seven months later the war ended and he returned home alive, a war veteran at age 15.

Adventure has also been known to kill people at a young age. But Samuel was willing to take that risk, also. At age 22 he caught the traveling spirit, and he and his brother, Ebeneezer, headed west on foot. They settled in the pioneer town of Troy, New York.

Samuel and Ebeneezer teamed up in Troy and started a family business. At first they invested their sweat and energy into making bricks. The hard work didn’t kill them, and after this success they moved on to the laborious trade of meatpacking.

Then the brothers made a risky business decision. They leased some land along the Hudson River and built a dock. Now they were able to ship meat to buyers downriver, and throughout the country. And the risk paid off. The two men prospered. Soon their business grew so large it employed about 200 people.

Samuel Wilson became rich.

Many men wait until they’ve proven themselves before they start a family. At age 31, Samuel’s new fortune emboldened this rich bachelor to travel back to New Hampshire and marry Betsey Mann. She was the daughter of Captain Benjamin Mann, a Revolutionary War hero who fought at Bunker Hill. Samuel brought Betsey back to Troy, and they began adding new little Wilson citizens to the town’s population.

Prosperous family members tend to attract other family members. And so it happened with the Wilsons and the Manns. Many of their numerous extended family members relocated, so that before long the town of Troy was abustle with brothers, sisters, in-laws, nephews, and nieces of Samuel and Ebeneezer. Samuel didn’t mind. In fact, he liked it when his little nephews and nieces saw him on the street and called out to their uncle. He was an affable man, and very family-oriented.

In fact, his avuncular ways were popular even with those who were not related to him. Samuel Wilson had become a beloved pillar of his community.

And then war broke out again. In 1812, the new United States declared hostilities against their old enemy, Great Britain. Britain was testing the muscles of our young stripling nation.

Our military began recruiting, and the ranks of our army and navy swelled. With all these new recruits came a new need. Food. The U.S. Government had to feed its growing military forces.

We often associate prosperity with peace. But it’s also quite available with war, at least for those who are strategically positioned. And Samuel and Ebeneezer were in just such a position. They subcontracted with a man named Elbert Anderson, from New York City, to provide meat from their meatpacking operation for troops in New York and New Jersey.

They stamped each barrel of meat with the initials “E.A.–U.S”. “E.A.” stood for “Elbert Anderson”. But what did the “U.S.” stand for? Nowadays it’s easy to assume it stood for the United States. But this was 1812. Our country was still very young, and so the initials “U.S.” were not quite so obvious to the average citizen.

One day a visitor to Troy asked a dockworker about the meaning of the “U.S.” initials. This dockworker was very familiar with the popular and avuncular Samuel Wilson, so he jokingly replied, “Why, Uncle Sam Wilson! It is he who is feeding the army.” Several bystanders overheard him, and they repeated the joke.

There was no internet in those days, but the phenomenon of things going viral is nothing new. It happened even back in 1812. And so it occured with the Uncle Sam joke. It went viral and spread all the way up and down the eastern seaboard. Before long, anything owned by the government and bearing the initials “U.S.” came to be called “Uncle Sam’s”.

And that is how Uncle Sam became the symbol of the United States.

Samuel Wilson died in 1854, at age 87. But Uncle Sam as a symbol continues to live on. His life is a fitting symbol of our country, because it represents the fortune that any American can achieve, with a willingness to take some risk, hard work, and a little luck.

In 1961 the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as the origin of Uncle Sam. And in 1989, Samuel Wilson’s birthday, September 13th, was designated by Congress as “Uncle Sam Day”.

Happy Veteran’s Day to all who have served and fought over the years for our beloved Uncle Sam!

Move Over, Andy

Daguerrotype of Andrew Jackson a few months before he died, in 1845, at age 78. Looks like all his hard living caught up with him.

Daguerrotype of Andrew Jackson a few months before he died, in 1845, at age 78. Looks like all his hard living caught up with him.

Andrew Jackson is getting kicked to the back of the $20 bill by a short little black lady. The Treasury department has announced that in 2020 our 20’s will grace the face of Harriet Tubman on the front, and Andy Jackson on the back.

How could this happen to ol’ Hickory? Why he’s the general who whupped the British in the Battle of New Orleans. He killed a man in a duel. And he carried that same man’s bullet embedded in his chest, near his heart, for the rest of his life. He fought Seminole Indians, and wrested Florida from Spain. And he rendered President John Quincy Adams completely feckless in a bitter political feud, that led to his own election as president.

You didn’t want to mess with Andrew Jackson. Unless maybe you were Harriet Tubman. So what did this little (5’2″) lady do that was so much tougher and greater than our seventh president?

Harriet Tubman (1922-1913) at age 73, looking tough as ever. She even kept Death scared away until the age of 91.

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) at age 73, looking tough as ever. She even kept Death scared away until the age of 91.

Well first, she was born a slave. Just to survive that experience must require a lot of toughness in your bones. Then in 1849, at age 27, she escaped and made her way to Philadelphia. Now she had it made. She could live the rest of her life in freedom and peace. This was admirable of her, but not good enough for Harriet.

This escaped slave decided to return to her former home in Maryland and assist other slaves in traveling the “Underground Railroad” to the North. And she spent the next decade sneaking back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line, again and again, rescuing hundreds of people from slavery. She put her life at great risk doing this, because if she had been caught they surely would have hanged her.

When the Civil War broke out Harriet could have sat back and let the Union army finish the job of manumission. But instead she joined the army. She led a band of scouts in and around South Carolina, mapping unfamiliar terrain for the Union, and performing reconnoitering missions.

She was also the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. On June 2, 1863, she guided three steamboats through the Combahee River in South Carolina, and liberated over 750 slaves from plantations along the shore. Most of these slaves joined the Union army, fortifying the cause.

She spent more than two years working for the Union army, conducting raids, scouting Confederate territory, tending to liberated slaves, and nursing wounded soldiers.

After the war she became active in the women’s suffrage movement.

Our government dragged its feet in recognizing Tubman’s contribution to the war effort. But in 1899 she was finally granted a pension. Ironically it was in the amount of $20 a month.

Andrew Jackson was indeed a tough character. But he owned hundreds of slaves, so he couldn’t have had life that rough. Imagine being Harriet Tubman. Consider what she went through, wading through swamps and cold rivers, stumbling through the dark with slave hunters on her trail. Risking everything for the freedom of others, with no thought for her own personal fortune or advancement. It’s hard for me to think of any great Americans in history who did more for the cause and spirit of freedom than her.

When I weigh these two great Americans, I must agree with the Treasury department. I will feel very proud of my country when I see Harriet Tubman’s face on our currency. So move over, Andy.

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