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The Grand Canyon Reader

Published : 2011-10-24

When was the last time you reread one of the books in your library?


After all, we play CDs (and mp3s) over and over, sometimes days in a row, and build up a DVD library so we'll have something to watch when there's nothing of interest on television (which is happening more and more these days, no?), but how many times do we reach up and pull down a book we've already read?

A few decades ago I read John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, a wonderous collection of stories touching on confrontations between the Sierra Club's David Brower and three who view natural resources primarily as consumptive materials. One of the gems in that book was A River, a narrative as only McPhee can spin it about a trip through the canyon on the Colorado River that matched the wits of Brower versus Floyd Dominy, the head of the dam-building Bureau of Reclamation.

After reading the book cover-to-cover, I stashed it away on a shelf.

I had forgotten about that story until I thumbed through The Grand Canyon Reader, a great new compilation of short stories, essays, and poetry regaling the Grand Canyon. Within the covers you'll find Ed Abbey, John McPhee, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez and more.

Rereading A River for the first time in almost 30 years was almost like reading it for the first time.

Mile 144.8 "Here we are," Brower says. He has the map in his hand. Nothing in the Muav Limestone walls around us suggests that we are anywhere in particular, except in the middle of the Grand Canyon. "We are entering the reservoir," Brower announces. "We are now floating on Lake Dominy."

"Jesus," mutters Dominy.

"What reservoir?" someone asks. Brower explains. A dam that Dominy would like to build, ninety-three miles downstream, would back still water to this exact point in the river.

"Is that right, Commissioner?"

"That's right."

The cloud has left the sun, and almost at once we feel warm again. The other passengers are silent, absorbed by what Brower has told them.

"Do you mean the reservoir would cover the Upset Rapid? Havasu Creek? Lava Falls? All the places we are coming to?" one man asks Dominy.

Dominy reaches for the visor of his Lake Powell hat and pulls it down more firmly on his head. "Yes," he says.

The story is classic McPhee, rich in detail, construction, and delivery. And it's just one of more than two dozen stories that take us from the canyon's rim to its river. There are even nine selections that bring the people of the canyon to life, whether they are horsepackers or Franciscan priests exploring the west in the 18th century.

Mr. Newman, in scouring more than 42,000 "writings about Grand Canyon written in the last 500 years," even came across one by Pedro de Castaneda, who in 1540 came upon the South Rim of the canyon, near present-day Desert View, in search of one of the "fabled golden cities" that General Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had gone in search of.

Among the stories we are treated to is Lava Falls by Bill Beer, who in 1955 swam the length of the canyon with a buddy, John Daggett, and lived to tell about it. Here's a snippet about his jouncing swim through Lava Falls:

The current grabbed my boxes and sucked them downward with a yank that nearly pulled my arms out of their sockets. I plummeted down after them, and when they reached bottom and stopped momentarily, my face was jammed into them and my feet were flung over my head in an unwilling somersault.

The river grabbed my boxes and jerked them downstream again and I spun after them like the tail of a kite. We, my heavy boxes and I, were rolled and whipped somewhere in the mad mass of spray and rocks between the bottom and the roiled surface. It was dark underwater in that muddy river and I couldn't see where I was, where I was going or even which way was up. All I could do was hang on to my gyrating equipment in a violent crack-the-whip game. The river I thought I knew so well, that I thought I had master, was sudden an angry giant pummeling and twisting me. It was trying to drown me in dark violence.

   The Grand Canyon Reader is rich in history, folklore, and the life of the river delivered in perspectives and voices that come at you from all directions.

There's a section of John Wesley Powell's journal describing the river and the effort he and his crew made to conquer it while exploring the "Great Unknown." This piece, Mr. Newman lets us know, "has remained the most widely read piece of Grand Canyon literature since it was published in 1875."

Too, we read John Muir's thoughts on whether the increasing ease to reach places such as the Grand Canyon (which he took a train to in 1902), was diminishing the rewards of experiencing them, are regaled by Ed Abbeys' thoughts of hiking into Havasu Canyon, and learn of the inspiration Terry Tempest Williams took from Stone Creek.

We even can read of Teddy Roosevelt's cougar hunt on the canyon's rim.

Mr. Newman has pulled together in one book a rich collection of stories that bring to life the river and its surrounding canyon, and keeps it alive.

Traveler footnote: This book comes in two forms, a $50 hardback, or a $19.95 paperback.


I love this book.  Because of your review I got it for Christmas.  Really smartly edited.  Thanks for adding to my love of the National Parks.

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