Issue 10: Braided cinnamon buns + Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Rich, buttery braided cinnamon buns and an iconic book about the wilderness of the American Southwest
Welcome to Good Book/Good Bread! Every two weeks, I recommend a book I love, and bake a delicious bread that fits with an aspect of the story. Haven’t subscribed yet? Sign up here!
This week: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey, and braided cinnamon buns.
Part 1: Good Book
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Setting the tone
A Horse with No Name by America, here.
In a nutshell
Desert Solitaire is a 1968 work of non-fiction chronicling Edward Abbey’s experience working as a ranger in Arches National Monument. Living in an isolated Park Service trailer during the late 1950’s when what is now Arches National Park had rudimentary road access and saw few visitors, Abbey is immersed in the plants, rock formations, animals and colour gradient of his desert home. Split into themed chapters, Abbey shares glimpses into his life in and around Arches, helping hard-scrabble cowboys move their cattle out of the desert in the spring, learning about geology, searching for a missing one-eyed horse up a slot canyon, and interacting with local characters.
Abbey also reflects on what he sees as the problematic industrialization of tourism, the effects of car culture on Americans, and the lack of appreciation for the natural world he sees from some park visitors. The latter is something he can’t understand as he marvels at the spectacle unfolding each night on his “33,000 acre terrace.” Abbey’s adventures in the book culminate in a long whitewater paddling trip down Glen Canyon, complete with the haunting observation that the soon to be constructed Glen Canyon Dam will flood most of the special sites he floats past.
This is a book full of amazing descriptions of nature, and sharply articulated observations about how we interact with and value the environment that are strikingly relevant today, despite being written 54 years ago.
Why I was drawn to this book
Five years ago, I was on a work trip in Salt Lake City. The conference I was at ended Friday evening, and our flight back to Canada was the next morning at ten am. My three colleagues and I drove through the night to Arches National Park, arriving in the dark. We sat on a cool slab of rock and waited for the sunrise to illuminate one of the namesake arches. Driving back in the morning and seeing our vast surroundings in the sunlight for the first time, I was regretful we were there so briefly and wouldn’t get to spend more time in the magical desert landscape.
Waiting for that sunrise
I’ve had Desert Solitaire recommended to me a few times over the years, and heard Edward Abbey’s name tossed around as an icon of outdoor writing, but I didn’t realize this book was about Arches until I came across a synopsis on a list of the best outdoor adventure books. I was interested in learning more about this place I experienced in such a fleeting but memorable way. I’m really glad I read it, and as the Pacific Northwest is starting to green and the snow melt floods the rivers, I’m dreaming of burgundy spires, prickly pear cacti and Mars-like landscapes.
Three things I loved about Desert Solitaire
1. The chapter on water
What made this book so enjoyable to read is how closely attuned Abbey is to the nuances of nature. This is best illustrated in a beautiful chapter titled “Water”, where he describes the desert as a place full of water in surprising places—you just need to know where to look. It might be found in temporary springs deep in the canyons, “known only to the deer and the coyotes and the dragonflies,” or it may be found on canyon walls, seeping out of rock formations. Storms and flash floods leave water, sometimes for weeks, in the potholes and basins formed over thousands of years in sandstone. Abbey tells us that he has learned to identify the scent of the cottonwood tree, which often signifies water nearby, and if not, at least offers shade from relentless sun. I loved that Abbey collected these hyper-specific details to present the dry, arid landscape as somewhere holding many pockets of life-sustaining water for those who take the time to explore.
2. Important issues are evenly interspersed with local stories and Abbey’s adventures
Desert Solitaire is a really balanced book, covering important issues like economic exploitation, land rights and environmental degradation, interspersed with Abbey’s personal stories and local legends. I found myself impressed with how spot-on some of his observations are with regards to the same issues today, while simultaneously depressed that it doesn’t seem like we’ve made a lot of progress in five-and-a-half decades.
Abbey inserts some fantastic anecdotes and adventure stories in between these important issues. He recounts a local legend in Moab of a wealthy man who owned a few uranium claims and struck up a partnership with a down-on-his-luck prospector. After sending the prospector deep into the desert to a remote claim, the wealthy man promptly takes up with the prospector’s wife, and eventually flies out to the prospector’s camp to kill him. In the end, both the wealthy man and the prospector end up dead, flung over the canyon rim in a murder plot gone wrong. The long section on Abbey and his friend’s river trip down the Colorado in cheap inflatable rafts, wearing jeans, with little research on what to expect and without lifejackets is terrifying and hilarious. I really enjoyed this balance in the book between the serious and the outrageous.
3. Abbey is hyper opinionated
This book does not suffer from a lack of point of view. Abbey is sharp, witty, and readily peppers his narration with his opinions on a vast range of topics in a sometimes searing manner. Developers represent “the monomania of small and very simple minds in the grip of an obsession,” while many park rangers are “lazy, scheming loafers” and victims of Washington bureaucracy. He advocates for outlawing cars in national parks, instead letting the tourists walk, or ride “horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs—anything.”
Abbey’s often barbed point of view stood out for me because a lot of the more recent outdoor non fiction I have read tends to follow a more journalistic style, where the author is the observer and translator of facts into a compelling story. Or, in more memoir style outdoor non fiction, I find the opinions are communicated a lot more gently than in Desert Solitaire. I don’t think one approach is superior, but I found it really refreshing and fun to be led along in Desert Solitaire by Abbey’s abrasive and frequent opinions. That being said, there are definitely a few opinions of his throughout that haven’t aged well in the time elapsed since published.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
If you like Desert Solitaire, read this:
The Last Season by Eric Blehm
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach
Seasonal Disorder: Ranger Tales From Glacier National Park by Pat Hagan
Part 2: Good Bread
Braided Cinnamon Buns from Richard Bertinet
Why this bread for this book?
One of the most distinct aspects of Abbey’s writing in Desert Solitaire is about the geology in Arches, and he frequently notes the effect of the differing light quality throughout the day and seasons on the ancient rocks. I thought these braided cinnamon buns were a good match for Desert Solitaire because the many different earth tones of the dough during different stages of the baking process reminds me of many of the colours found in the desert. From the pale, soft dough just mixed to the rich brown of the cinnamon butter—even darker once carmelized—to the warm, nearly orange hue once baked, the colour palette of these buns could be straight out of Abbey’s beloved desert.
This recipe is by Richard Bertinet, and can be viewed here. I am a big fan of recipes that involve braiding, because they always look beautiful when baked, and it’s a fun challenge to braid dough. Most cinnamon bun recipes involve rolling out the dough into a rectangle, spreading the cinnamon filling over it, rolling it into a log and slicing. This recipe is pretty similar, except instead of rolling the dough into a log, you fold it over itself and then slice it into thin strips. Using a sharp knife, you make two slices into each strip, not cutting all the way to the end. This leaves a three-stranded piece of dough that can then be braided, rolled into a ball, and tucked into a muffin tin. Once you do a few it’s easy, and you’ll speed through the rest.
I made just one adjustment to the recipe. It calls for fresh yeast, which I’ve never seen and wouldn’t know where to buy. Instead, I used 2 1/4 tsp of instant yeast, and I activated it in the milk before mixing everything together in step 1. I’ve made these both on a cookie sheet and in a muffin tin, and I’d definitely vote for the tin as it helps them hold their form really nicely. Once you remove the buns from the oven, the butter from the filling will solidify and they will stick to the tins, so you’ll want to transfer them to a cooling rack pretty quickly.
With vanilla ice cream
Frozen, and then baked at 375 F for 20 minutes
Tucked into your work bag to bring you back from the brink at 2 pm
New book I’m looking forward to reading: Return to Solitude by Grant Lawrence
Bread I’m looking forward to baking: Savory babka with ricotta and herbs from NYT Cooking
New album I’m looking forward to listening to while doing both of the above: We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong by Sharon Van Etten