Canyon Readings: More Favorites

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on November 4, 2010

There's a lot of great reading about the Canyon, and as my obsession with it continues, I'm making my way through more and more of it. Here are a few more of my favorites:

The Man Who Walked Through Time. I’d never heard of this book, or the author, Colin Fletcher, until I saw his obituary in the New York Times. He’s given much of the credit for starting the ‘backpacking craze’ in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, although there was so little lingo developed back then that he was often described as an 'inveterate' or ‘compulsive walker’. This 1968 book tells the story of his now 50-year-old hike along the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon. On a 1963 visit to the South Rim, he was struck by the idea of ‘walking’ end to end, a powerful enough vision that he planned comprehensively for this journey. His book chronicles all aspects of the trip, including his discovery of fellow walker Harvey Butchart, whose grand obsession with the canyon would make him a legend in years to come. Just months before, Butchart had completed such an end-to-end journey, and his help was invaluable to Fletcher (who, as a former British paratrooper, was no slouch in the self-reliance department).

Fletcher chronicles his preparations, his equipment, his habits, and his fears during the trip. He and Butchart correctly perceive that the largest challenge in completing the trip will be finding paths through the canyon’s tortuous granite chasms, where shelves that allow foot travel may be hard to come by. This brings Fletcher face to face with his largest fear: swimming (which comes as a surprise). On several occasions, he’s forced to blow up an air mattress and dogpaddle for quarter-mile stretches upstream when no footpath can be found. The care and practice he takes before launching on these parts of the journey sum up his meticulous planning: this is no wild, unprepared, adrenaline junkie, or a naïve back-to-nature type who is over his head in this dangerous, austere, and beautiful environment.

But all this work is to enjoy the journey. It’s the experience in the canyon that he’s after, and not a notch on his hiking stick. He spends over two months alone on this trip, narrowly making one of his three supply drops, and reflecting throughout on the environment, the wildlife, and his own life and experience. At the time of writing, several years after the trip itself, the Department of Reclamation is pushing for a series of dams on the Colorado, which Fletcher finds hard to fathom, and the closing chapters ruminate on just what it is that drives us to change our world in such dramatic and disastrous ways.

Fletcher went on to write many more books on ‘backpacking’, as it came to be known, but I can’t imagine that they top this one: part do-it-yourself manual, part nature writing, part adventure story. Much like the title, the book is equal parts timeless tale of time in the Canyon, as well a glimpse back into an era when hiking and exploring along the Colorado was a rare and glorious undertaking.

How the Canyon Became Grand. I picked this book up at North Rim bookstore on my first visit in 2006, buoyed by the recommendation of the clerk who called it ‘a fantastic read’. It was one of those rare books that (metaphorically) picks up a familiar object and reorients it, giving you some now-obvious insights that you’d never seen before. Author Stephen Pyne is a historian/fire scientist at Arizona State, and he traces the evolution of Western attitudes towards the Canyon, beginning with the initial amazement and bafflement of 16th century Spaniards. The Canyon overwhelmed their sense of perspective, leading to an abortive attempt to hike from the South Rim to Colorado, abandoned after several hours when they found themselves hardly any closer to the river’s edge. 250 years later, US Navy Lieutenant Joseph Ives, who after succeeding in locating the near mythical canyon, predicted that his expedition had "been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality."

How did it turn from perceived wasteland into icon of wilderness? Pyne’s claim is that an aesthetic for appreciating the canyon required the discovery of geologic time, which happened partly in the canyon itself. He traces this through the work of Powell, Gilbert, and other geologists, in parallel with the increasingly realistic paintings that eventually make sense of the canyon’s contradictory combination of broad vistas and nearly vertical walls.

Pyne’s book opens with the observations that this mile-deep gash in the earth remains invisible until you’re within yards of the rim’s edge. This ‘inverted mountain’ is hidden in a way that no mile-high vertical summit never is, and thus the Canyon never dominates the surrounding territory in a way that the nearly San Francisco Peaks do. But Pyne’s book gave me a great understanding of how it came to figure so significantly in our cultural and scientific understanding, rising from wasteland to jewel over less than a century.
Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon, Arizona, 86023
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