"Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” —Theodore Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon
That hasn't stopped us from trying. This week marked the 100th anniversary of the designation of Grand Canyon National Park, and over the century that followed, many attempts have been made to dam it, mine it, develop it, and even run a gondola more than 3,000 feet down into it. Many efforts have been rebuffed, while others have been accommodated or remain pending. Still, the canyon's stunning, irreplaceable beauty has survived because people care about it, and will fight to protect it.
To celebrate the centennial (not to mention the millions of years since the Colorado River first began carving an ancient, uplifted seabed), here are a handful of books about the canyon, a few of its iconoclastic denizens, and the equally awe-inspiring country that surrounds it.
Powell was a one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first known expedition (at least the first one known to white people) down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon, in 1874. While his mission was scientific, Powell's team endured deadly rapids, famine, mutiny, and ambush. This is an adventure story of the highest order.
More than a century after Powell, flooding on the Colorado River forced dam operators to release millions of gallons of water in order to prevent a potentially catastrophic failure. River guide Kenton Grua saw it as an opportunity to attempt to set a speed record through the Grand Canyon—in a a small wooden dorie christened The Emerald Mile. Aside from being illegal (and arguably insane), the ride was incredibly dangerous. Not only is Fedarko's book (another) classic Grand Canyon adventure, it's a manifesto on its complex, often contentious history.
It’s no surprise that many books have been written about the Powell, and several are frankly great, including Powell's. I don’t care: To my mind, there’s always room for more. Ross’s entry is more than biography; aside from recounting the legendary adventurer's feats in the canyon, recasts Powell's prescient observations of southwest ecology and his bureaucratic career in the context of today’s West.
Who doesn’t like reading about the politics of water management? (Nobody answer that.) There’s more out there than you might expect, and as things, uh, change, more are coming. Marc Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert is the obvious place to start, and there are a thousand directions to go from there. Where the Water Goes explores the Colorado river from its headwaters to its premature end, and all the lawsuits, diversions, and dams in-between.
In "Western" literature, no two writers presented such antithetical personas as Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey: Stegner, the buttoned-down professor and family man dedicated to discourse and process, vs. Cactus Ed, Stegner's former pupil and irascible, impatient anarchist, who fought all development as despoilment. But is this accurate? Gessner wasn't sure, so he lit out to the land they called home (if not always), searching for the truth beyond their iconic images. All the Wild That Remains is an entertaining, illuminating travelogue, as well as a thoughtful examination of the complicated men and their legacies across changing landscapes.
Speaking of Abbey, no list of this sort would be complete without at least one entry from Cactus Ed himself. There will be no such entry in this list. Instead I'll include Irvine's Desert Cabal. Do you remember when Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville, her deliberate, 18-track, song-by-song rebuttal to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St.? (No? That's okay, but it holds up.) In similar fashion, Irvine takes a modern view of Abbey's controversial, crotchety classic, challenging a book she admires, even for all its intentional offensiveness.
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Though many great books have been written about the Canyon, it still impossible to capture its beauty in words. Award-winning photographer McBride (along with Kevin Fedarko, mentioned above) walked the entire 750-mile length of Grand Canyon Nation Park in order to capture these spectacular images of previously unrecorded views.
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