Emerald Mile Book Review by Nancy Green
Ready for a rollicking story that sets you on the edge of your seat – even though you know how this tale goes? We’ll get to The Emerald Mile – but first, some river history.
“A magnificent waterway had been sacrificed on the altar of a technology that enabled people to prosper without limits, without balance, without any connection to the environment in which they lived.” And so Kevin begins our in-depth review of how things got to a point in 1983 where pieces of plywood were all that stood between a catastrophe of inundation and snowmelt of record proportions.
Powell’s expedition, which certainly wins the audacity prize for river trips, did not have an auspicious beginning. Fedarko takes you right there along the Green, with “a squadron of bleary-eyed, rumple-haired men who had spent much of the previous forty-eight hours attempting to drain the entire liquor supply. The boatmen were not in the best of shape, faces unshaved, clothes disheveled, and were blowing off gas and fumes of bad whiskey.” Apparently not much had changed among boatmen over the years, as it was much the same when I started working at the canyon in the 1970s.
It was wonderful to read the entire quote from Ives, as usually only the first line is used.
“Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature, that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed……Excepting when the melting snows send their annual torrents through the avenues to the Colorado, conveying them with sound and motion, these dismal abysses, and the arid tablelands that enclose them, are left as they have been for ages, in unbroken solitude and silence.” One of the great wrong predictions about what the future holds for the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, except for the part about the melting snow torrents.
In a great attempt to help put things in perspective for The Emerald Mile, Fedarko’s comparison between the displacement of dirt to build the Panama Canal over the 15 years of its construction, to the same amount of silt moved by the Colorado in a fortnight at high flood is astounding. That’s setting the stage well for the 1983 debacle.
The hubris of mankind to continue to gouge and scrape, trying to contain the Earth’s waterways, was bound to have some impact. Even though engineers blithely ignored the fact that the weight of Lake Mead changed the surface of the earth and caused earthquakes after Hoover Dam was built, they could not ignore 1983 at Glen Canyon Dam.
The behind-the-scenes rundown of what was happening at that dam and in Denver was intriguing to those of us who were simply spectators watching the spillways blow house-sized chunks of material into the river, material which later proved to be part of the tunnels. We wondered what was going on inside the minds of those in charge at the dam, and it was a page-turner to now be in on those conversations. Down at river level, the Phantom Ranch employees were getting first person accounts of what it was like on that incredible water. Imagine floating up in a boat to touch the rooftop of Redwall Cavern. Kevin’s inclusion of Joe Sharber’s comment pretty much summed it up. At Crystal, Sharber watched a beaver waddling along the shore. “Oh, hell,” he said. “Even the beavers are portaging.”
The tension reading about the Emerald Mile’s speed run was almost unbearable, even knowing how everything turns out. Fedarko definitely pulled out that greatest skill of boatmen – storytelling – and made this reader stay up way later than usual just to get that boat to the Grand Wash Cliffs.
There were eloquent and poetic descriptions of the canyon, those transcendent moments we’ve all had on the river when our puny human existence becomes one with the larger universe. Those well-crafted sections helped us catch our breath between the dramas at the dam and on the river.
For me, who has lived half of my life at the canyon and read most of the books in this bibliography, it’s jarring to encounter Kevin Fedarko’s little mistakes that stop the flow of the story. Highway 89 has never been near the Lee’s Ferry Road. The Fred Harvey Company and Mary Jane Colter, architect, erected the Desert View Watchtower, not the National Park Service. The Grand Lodge on the North Rim is several miles from the North Kaibab Trailhead, not AT the trailhead, much to the annoyance and dismay of many a hiker. It’s important to get the facts right for those of us who, in Kevin’s own words, “have fully given yourself over to a landscape, without condition or reservation.”
Good story, The Emerald Mile, good storytelling. Read it to put yourself on the river when you can’t be there in person.
Written by Nancy Green, a 17 year employee of AzRA, a long-time resident of Grand Canyon National Park, retired school teacher for Grand Canyon Schools, and member of the Grand Canyon Historical Society.