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An Abbeyfest dispatch from Why, Arizona

I loved them all. But one was lovelier than any other. For all its harshness, loneliness, cruelty and cunning, one desert haunted me like a vision of paradise. Still does, though now I live here. I mean ... the Sonoran Desert. --Edward Abbey, Cactus Country

On Friday afternoon, I pulled into the gas station in Why, Arizona. Although it was early October, the temperature was 99 degrees. Why Arizona? This is a question I've asked myself many times since moving to Tucson a year ago.

But why Why? It's on the way to Organ Pipe National Monument, where I was going for Abbeyfest VIII--the eighth annual gathering of members of an Internet list devoted to Edward Abbey. The abbeyweb ensnares libertarians, anarchists, activists and desert rats. Although I've been a member for five years, this was my first Abbeyfest.

Driving into Group Campsite No. 2, I saw a big mesquite tree. It provided the only shade in sight. Hanging from it was a beautiful black flag with an embroidered red monkey wrench.

There were three people sitting under the tree: Abzugg, a woman I knew from the abbeyweb; her husband, Hayduke; and a man named Doc.

Doc isn't a member of the abbeyweb--he doesn't even own a computer. He read about Abbeyfest IV in a newspaper and has been abbeyfesting ever since.

Looking around, I tried to understand why Abbey loved this desert best of all. I looked at the saguaros and their skinnier, more sociable cousins, the organ pipes. How could the man who captured the beauty of the Colorado Plateau in Desert Solitaire love this desert more?

We sat and chatted about other abbeywebbers, Abbey and the heat. About 5 p.m., a truck raced toward our campsite. We all looked to see which of our tribe had arrived.

But it was a Park Ranger who leaned out the window and warned us, "A police helicopter's going to land here in a few minutes. It could get dusty."

Yikes, we thought. Is it the monkey wrench flag?

About 30 seconds later, a Blackhawk helicopter with a Homeland Security logo landed about 100 yards from us. A couple of people in camouflage jumped out, carrying a few bales of something.

The bird took off, and we choked on the dust. After a few minutes, Doc called out, "What's going on? A pot bust?" A camouflaged woman with a rifle said, "Yup. We caught a bunch of aliens with 45-pound bales of marijuana." She came over to chat.

"They'll spend six months in jail, tops. Then they'll be sent back to Mexico." She sounded disappointed and apologetic. I looked at her M-16 and decided I would not share my feelings about the war on drugs.

Later, other abbeywebbers showed up. We told Seldom Seen and Rarely Sober about the chopper and the weed. We toasted the Swede who created the abbeyweb.

As Abbey said, "What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote." It was great to shoot the breeze with folks who love the Southwest and its most eloquent lover. To paraphrase Jerry Garcia, a friend of the desert is a friend of mine.

What draws us out of the desert is the search for shade. If I was going to sweat and listen to police helicopters overhead, I might as well be in Tucson. I said goodbye to the rabble-rousers in the gravel and headed home.

Why Arizona, Ed? Driving over Gates Pass, the sun was going down, and the Tucson Mountains were glowing. I almost understood. Maybe the love for this desert grows slowly, like a saguaro.

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