The Missing Ed Abbey NBC News Segment, From 1985

Towards the end of Edward Abbey’s One Life at a Time, Please, there’s a curious little essay called “TV Show” that’s loosely in the form of a television script, although I’ve always remembered it by the subtitle, “Out There On the Rocks.” When I read this delightful little essay—part travelogue, part deadpan frontier humor, part poem about our place in the world—I assumed it had been broadcast and quickly wrote a short note to Ed Abbey, care of the Henry Holt publishing company in New York City, asking how I could get a copy of this segment. Back in the days of three networks plus PBS, long before streaming video and YouTube on every cell phone, it was a special treat to see your favorite cult author on television.

When the author in question is consistently anti-television, it was even more rare. So I dropped my note in the corner mailbox and promptly forgot about it, as an earlier and very earnest letter to Ed Abbey from the high-school version of myself had been politely ignored years before.

The surprise was very real when the mailman delivered a postcard stamped TUCSON AZ many months later, with an image of City Lights Bookstore on one side and a brief handwritten message from Abbey himself on the other. I knew his handwriting, because years earlier I’d brought a rucksack full of my precious dog-eared Abbey paperbacks to a book signing he did in La Jolla, California, in 1984. He signed them all, as I jabbered inanities, and then he politely asked that I let the rest of the people have a chance to get their own books signed.

The postcard said I should write to some guy at NBC, to find out about getting a videotape of the segment. Abbey never mentioned it had never aired.

Some 25 years later, the segment was posted on a video site by the man who conceived and realized the short film with Ed Abbey—I saw the discovery posted on Metafilter. It turns out the segment had never been broadcast, because a network newsman refused to let an “eco-terrorist” appear on a network news magazine. That was the name on my postcard. “Ask him,” Abbey had written.

It’s a perfect little film, funny and sad and so casually done that it takes several viewings to realize how much choreography was involved. (The multi-angle scenes of Abbey recklessly driving his old red Cadillac convertible and the Charlie Chaplin-style dash across a national park service road busy with traffic are done with a kind of rollicking Western style that makes me again long for a movie version of The Monkey Wrench Gang that had been made during Abbey’s lifetime.) Ed Abbey is a complete natural on camera, and it’s hard not to imagine him as the host of some alternate-reality nature & travel series.

Anyway, here’s the video, because I’ve been thinking about it.  Ned Judge, the television news director and/or producer who put this together with a script written by Abbey, is a hero for finally making this video available after a quarter century in the vaults.

If you read my two-year-old comment on the Metafilter post, you’ll see how memory changes over time … my memory, at least. One day I’ll find the postcard, in whatever box of precious valuables somewhere in the garage buried beneath the baby clothes and Christmas ornaments and old computers I’m scared to donate because they’re filled with old tax returns and sex letters, and then I’ll put it here for everyone to see, especially me.

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