Back in the last century, my husband and I visited the Grand Canyon. We were grad students at the time, and we cobbled the trip out of our spare savings because that year we decided that the Canyon was such an iconic space in the American landcape. It had come to occupy so cavernous a space in our imaginations.that we simply had to go see it.
That was before the days of non-stop air tours and the assault of recreational ATVs on the North Rim, before smog from coal-fired plants destroyed the endless sky, before the relentless march of what passes for civilization. We had brought along a point-and-shoot camera and we surrendered ourselves to the geological marvels of the canyon, hiking halfway down in a state of wonder.
A year after that trip, in 1983, the largest El Nino on record hit the western US. A massive snowmelt hurled runoff down the Colorado River, nearly bringing the Glen Canyon Dam to its knees.
The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko, is set against that tumultuous event. It is the nonfiction account of a secret, madcap trip by the captain of a little wooden dory who aimed to use the flood as a kind of slingshot, propelling his boat through some of the most dangerous whitewater on the continent.
For me, reading this book wasn’t just about connecting with the magic of the canyon, right from this epigraph quoting Wallace Stegner:
“It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such a wilderness as Christ and the apostles went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed… and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs.”
And it wasn’t just that in my old stomping ground, Farmington, New Mexico, they read this book and talked about it last October, which was how I heard about it in the first place.
And no, I am not usually a big fan of adventure nonfiction.
But I think what made me race through Fedarko’s book the way Kenton Grua and his team raced through the rapids of the flooded river, was the particular combination of craft and heart. Fedarko makes the characters come to life and take firm hold of the reader, precisely the way the heart-stopping beauty of the Grand Canyon’s landscape did for me all those years ago.
The one small reference that sealed it for me, was a quotation from another writer whose fiction, too informs in spades, and moves, all at once. Here is Fedarko, and look at who he’s quoting with reference to how Grua’s dubious exploit became a legend :
“‘Thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten but ‘Once upon a time’ lasts forever.” [Philip Pullman]