As I see it, there are two major classifications of non-conformists.
One class includes all those individuals who embrace non-conformity out of ego gratification: they wish to be considered "unique" even when they are as common, personality-wise, as dirt. This desire usually results in a person who strives to embody The Rebel (as in "rebellious") to feed that ego: one could call this type of non-conformity "exhibitionism." This type of non-conformist will shave his head and pierce his nose and would be at home in a circus freak show. There are millions of The Rebel non-conformists in the world, and they all act much the same. Now and then they even form groups just to show each other how not conforming they are--- wearing clothing and behaving indistinguishably from their peers. The Hell's Angles used to be like this (before they mellowed out); "Punk Rockers" are another such group. "Rappers" are another example. Yet another example: millions of non-conformists who wear their baseball caps backwards so that they will look like all the other non-conformists.
Then there are the non-conformists who make no conscious effort to not conform, but do so out of their essential nature. They shun joining groups because they understand, innately, the danger inherent in group "thinking." (Which too often in history spawns "mob mentality" which in turn spawns evils such as riots, lynching, wars, and religion.) This type of non-conformist requires a rational, valid reason before she or he will engage in a group / social behavior: they are therefore generally loathed, misunderstood, reviled, and even abused by the majority (i.e., the conformists).
(It is hardly worth adding that nearly 100% of conformists believe they are non-conformists. The tiny fraction of conformists who recognize and accept their conformity are to be praised; the others are to be pitied for their lack of self-knowledge.)
What happens when the latter type of non-conformist runs up against Organized Conformity (i.e., GOVERNMENT)? When this happens, the non-conformist has no choice but to be an anarchist, out of self-defense. I consider it a self-evident fact that abusive government engenders anarchy: it is the natural response to tyranny. It is also, I think, the appropriate response.
The chief problem facing the non-conforming anarchist is that the Government almost never understands the fact that it is abusive and therefore deserves criticism and opposition: the individuals steering the juggernaut of Government do not understand that the system they build, enforce, and defend is often abusive, debasing, insulting, enslaving, tyrannical, and contrary to ethical, decent, rational behavior. Government, being a product of mob mentality, is fundamentally anti-individuality. There can be no formal redress, rectification, or remedy by the Government because the Government does not comprehend the fact that it is abusive and dehumanizing, and therefore sees no reason to cease its abuse.
Which brings us to Edward Abbey's brave cowboy, John W. Burns. Burns' friend Paul Bondi has been convicted of refusing to register for The Draft. In the face of the Government's mandate that every American male within a certain age bracket must register for the Selective Service ("The Draft"), the Government cannot understand that Bondi does not object to war as much as he objects to the Government forcing people to participate in war when they do not wish to: two vastly different issues. As Bondi discovered, the official forms and documents required to object to The Draft only covers people who object to war, and not people who object to the tyranny embodied by The Draft: there is "no check box" on the form one may fill in noting that objection.
Burns and Bondi object to the fact that the Government believes it somehow has the "right" or "authority" to order a citizen to engage in behavior regardless of the citizen's wishes. I will note that it is almost always the case that a Government's response to the refusal of a citizen to obey orders usually includes (1) astonishment, (2) rage, and (3) violence.
Burns is a mythic, even mystical, figure: he embodies the liberty and freedom from governmental abuse, interference, and meddling that American citizens once, but no longer, enjoy. He is free to live on the land where and how he chooses; he does not carry any identification; he obeys only his own ethical dicta and his own conscience. Burns harms no one and he therefore expects (and demands) that everyone leave him alone, unmolested and free.
Burns is engaged in herding sheep in the desert when he reads about his friend Bondi being incarcerated for "draft dodging." Burns considers it a point of honor to rescue Bondi by breaking him out of jail. Burns does not know that Bondi more or less "chose" to be incarcerated by making his refusal to register for The Draft widely known. Bondi is therefore engaged in a protest, and it has cost him two years in prison.
While in jail Bondi comes to understand that the cost of his protest may be greater than his conviction to his brand of anarchy: his wife and son also pay a price by his absence. He comes to understand that his protest and incarceration will have no positive effect, and will have resulted only in suffering for him and his family. By the time he reconsiders his protest, it is too late: he is already in jail, waiting for transport to prison.
Abbey strongly makes the point that issues of anarchy are never black-or-white, never simplistic. One can stand by one's convictions and still do the "wrong" thing; one can stand by those convictions and achieve nothing worth achieving. Burns, when he learns of Bondi's protest, calls Bondi "foolish."
Burns manages to "break in" to jail by first stuffing his boots with two bastard files, and then taking a beating in a bar fight. He is dragged into jail and arrested for "disorderly conduct." Bondi, stewing in despair and self-doubt, hears Burns singing somewhere in the building and feels a nearly religious ecstasy. Burns' very presence gives Bondi hope, as if Burns were his "savior."
Burns, being essentially an archetype, sees things too simply: for him, solutions are clear-cut, obvious, and to be enacted upon. While in Jail, Burns tells Bondi that the two of them are going to break out and run away into the mountains to live like free human beings. Bondi is dismayed at such a simplistic, even childish, "solution." Bondi has a family--- what of them? Simple, states Burns: take them to the mountains with us! Burns outlines a naive, even farcical, life where Bondi's son is educated in hunting, trapping, and log cabin building (here in the twentieth century).
The two, with the help of two Dine' (Navajos), cut their jail cell's bars with the two files smuggled in via Burns' boots. Just as escape is possible, Burns is called away to another brutal beating by the sadistic jailer. While he is being beaten in a distant part of the jail, the two Dine' escape and Bondi is torn with indecision: can he really stand two years of dehumanizing misery in prison? Should he escape? Or should he stay in jail and go to prison?
Burns is returned to the jail cell, bruised and bloody. Since he is mythical, he has accepted the role of a scapegoat for his friend Bondi: he takes a beating to get into jail, and takes a beating to escape--- both for the sake of friendship. Since Burns is an individualist, he accepts Bondi's decision to stay in jail and go to prison for two years: they say their good-byes, and Burns escapes.
Just as Bondi's protest has achieved nothing good, Burns' actions have achieved nothing valuable. It has been for both of them a pointless exercise. However, they were bound to their convictions and to their ideals (by their very natures as individualists, as non-conformists, as innate anarchists) to go through with those actions. Being who they are, they had no choice.
Throughout the book there is another character named Hinton who drives a big rig. He is on the highway delivering a load of toilets. On the side of his trailer the words "AMERICA BUILDS FOR ....." and the reader is left to fill in the blank as if it were a question. Indeed, that question is vitally important for American citizens to answer: just what the hell *ARE* we building for?! As Abbey once wrote, "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."
Hinton represents the industrialization, mechanization, growth-for-the-sake-of-growth insanity America has been caught up in for the last two hundred years: he is driving a forty-ton iron-and-steel monster while he is nauseated, sick, and feverish. Periodically he stops to vomit along his route. He asks himself why he has not quit the job; he talks himself into quitting after finishing the delivery, and then accepts the fact that he will continue to be a truck driver the rest of his life.
As Bondi is left behind in jail, Burns makes his run, on horseback, for the mountains. The farther Burns runs, the closer he comes to Freedom, and the closer Hinton and his load of toilets comes to the city where Burns and Bondi are.
Now enter the law, in the form of Sheriff Johnson. He is a good man, caught up as an actor within his society who obeys and sees to it that other citizens obey. His wife treats him like a child; his deputies are stupid, base, violent, and childish--- even to the point where they read comic books at their desks in the office. Sheriff Johnson is charged with apprehending Burns.
The reader comes to understand that Sheriff Johnson is desperately in need of a little of what Burns stands for: a bit of re-humanization; some revitalization of his elementary, animal nature.
When Johnson is in the desert seeking Burns, he pauses at a small spring, kneels in the damp sand, and like a penitent, as in supplication, he bows down his head, drinks from the clear cool pool of water, and then stays kneeling in that position for several minutes. In front of him, while he kneels, is an "alter of stone" which borders one side of the spring. After his several minutes of numinous reverence, he rises to his feet and is relieved to note that none of his deputies had observed his solemn, even pious, behavior.
Burns is at home in the mountains. He kills and butchers a doe, and is interrupted from the processing of the doe by Sheriff Johnson's presence in the area. Abbey shows that yes, in fact, Burns is very capable of living exactly as he said he chooses to: for Burns life lived wild and free is indeed a valid option. Johnson's deputies consider the wilderness a miserable hell, while Burns considers it heaven: Johnson lives in the middle: not totally "wild," and not totally "civilized."
Burns' escape through the desert and into the mountains is brutal. The route is too rough to ride on his horse, so he leads his horse on foot. His boots, meant for horseback riding, fall apart and his feet are injured. He is cold, hungry, thirsty, and in pain. For a brief moment he suddenly feels himself an alien in the mountains: as if the rocks and trees and very dirt reject his presence; resent his trespass.
In one last mighty struggle, Burns races to enter the concealing safety of a forest at the mountain's peek. Since the sun has set and it is growing dark, he has a very good chance of getting away. He makes it to the forest just as a deputy sheriff hauls out a machine gun and rains a hail of bullets around Burns. The Brave Cowboy has made it to the top of the mountains, in the forest, in concealing darkness: Sheriff Johnson calls his forces back to the city, giving up the chase.
Inevitability; fate; the reality of American history catches up to Burns in the guise of Hinton and his load of toilets. Just twenty miles to go in his delivery, Hinton has lost control of his big rig: he sees a man on horseback on the highway and cannot avoid the collision.
Burns coughs up blood while dying in Hinton's lap. Burns calls out to his friend, who is at that moment being removed from jail and taken to prison, "Paul, where the hell are you?" Burns' last words, before he dies, are "Paul, you got to come with me."
The reader, I hope, will be left with the understanding that the two chief characters in the novel are not Burns and Bondi, but Burns and Hinton: the former represents what America has lost, and the latter represents *HOW* America lost it. Burns acts on instinct; Hinton acts against and in spite of instinct. Burns knows exactly where he's been, where he is, and where he's going: Hinton has no idea what he's doing, nor why: he just blunders on insensate. Burns is Nature; Hinton is blind, sick, senseless, ravening Industrialization.