For those of you familiar with the Holiday River Expeditions Instagram account you already know about Susan Munroe’s Book Recommendations “The Weekly Worm”. Holiday’s lead interpretive guide also happens to be a book worm! Every Friday Susan is sharing a book recommendation on our Instagram and Facebook accounts. Her book picks cover a wide scope of topics including River history, Native and water rights, Geology, and some fun fictional reads.
Below is a compilation of all the posts so far! Check back as the list continues to grow!
January 21, 2022
The most striking thing about Ann Zwinger’s book, “Run, River, Run: A Naturalist’s Journey Down One of the Great Rivers of the American West,” is the sheer joy that fills her pages. She is undoubtedly a naturalist; the text is stuffed with detailed sketches of plants and artifacts, and the downriver narrative is peppered with observations of birds, insects, and river currents. But Zwinger is also a river runner. Not a very competent one, if you believe her self-deprecating jabs, but what she lacks in skill as a boater, she more than makes up for with wonder and appreciation for the Green River.
Zwinger starts her trip on the Green at the absolute beginning, hiking above glaciers whose melt water trickles down the western slope of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. She follows the nascent stream on foot as far as the Green River Lakes, where she climbs into the bow of a canoe and starts paddling, eventually switching to a raft for the rapids of Lodore Canyon and the miles beyond. Her voice is clear and scientific but easy-going, too. Her narrative meanders easily between history, ecology, geology, hydrology, personal anecdotes, and more.
The Worm loves that Zwinger chose to travel the Green River, the less-famous but no less magnificent counterpart to the Colorado. It truly is one of the great rivers of the American West, and Zwinger captures its majesty in an almost-immersive text. Readers will find themselves there, floating down river and through canyons, with the earnest Zwinger there to point and explain the myriad wonders of the riparian world as they drift by.
It’s poetry this week, friends! “Raging River, Lonely Trail,” by Vaughn Short, is poetry of the river, meant to be read aloud, preferably by a campfire, with the murmur of the river in the background. “A troubadour of the desert,” Vaughn’s verses were first crafted on trips with other river legends like Ken Sleight and Katie Lee. Some poems are gleeful retellings of epic river trips (“Seldom Seen and His Macho Crew”); others are personal musings (“A Boatman’s Prayer”). He pays tribute to Glen Canyon in the bittersweet, defiant, hopeful poem “Floyd’s Void” (the Worm’s personal favorite).Vaughn introduces each poem with a little back story, his thick Texas drawl almost audible in the anecdotes, adding a touch of memoir to the book. Pen-and-ink sketches by Joanna Coleman illustrate each piece.As the days grow shorter and colder, and spring fever sets in, crack this one open and conduct river-themed poetry readings for your kids, partner, or pets. The bouncing verses, sometimes ribald, sometimes nostalgic (always in rhyme) are fun to perform and conjure up warm nights in canyons and on sandy beaches. It’s a staple in Holiday’s library cans; on your next trip, ask your guides to share their favorite Vaughn verses.
“My Canyonlands: I had the freedom of it” is a relic straight out of the red dust of southern Utah. Author Kent Frost was something of a relic, too—a storyteller, river guide, and hiker with a passion for the desert.
The Worm admits to no small amount of envy of Frost. Born and raised in San Juan County in the early 1900s, he knew every rocky fold of Utah’s red rock country and was one of the first 100 recorded individuals to run the Grand Canyon, not to mention his getting to run Glen Canyon before it was dammed. He rowed boats for Norm Nevills and later started a backcountry guiding service with his wife, Fern. Frost was also part of the movement to create Canyonlands National Park.
This book is a delightful glimpse into a unique time in the history of southern Utah, told with the rambling but enthusiastic style of a born storyteller.
“Sacred Images: A Vision of Native American Rock Art” is a compilation of words and photographs celebrating Utah’s rock art and the humans who created it. Together, the stories and images offer a glimpse into a deep, rich world, alive with a potent history.
Much of the text consists of excerpts from interviews with members of Hopi, Ute, Shoshoni, and Paiute tribes. The interviewees don’t, in most cases, offer interpretations of specific images or panels. Instead, they tell stories of their culture, of their interactions with carvings or drawings, and their connections to the people who left images on the rocks. The stories are like small gifts, generous pieces of culture and history offered to the reader as a tool for understanding.
Photographed by Utah’s best, including John Telford and Tom Till, each panel seems to glow with secret life, inspiring a very white-person desire to go and find these artifacts to see them in person. The captions don’t reveal actual locations of rock art, only a general geographic area, and the Worm would encourage all rock-art enthusiasts to read these stories closely before visiting any sites, to better understand the reverence and attitude with which they should be approached. After all, these images are sacred.
In 1896, in a handmade wooden boat called “The Panthon,” George Flavell and companion Ramón Montéz floated from Green River, Wyoming, through Grand Canyon. It took them 65 days, and they ran all but six of the hundreds of rapids without a single upset. They had no life preservers, no airtight or watertight compartments in their boat, and not a single scientific or government-sponsored goal. They were the first people in history to run the river just for the fun of it. And almost no one knows who they are. River guides know the name “Flavell” because of the rowing technique ol’ George invented (pushing a boat downstream while also facing downstream). But Ramón Montéz, one of river history’s great underdogs, literally disappears from history after this trip. Even this book, “The Log of the Panthon,” Flavell’s account of their trip, languished in obscurity until its publication almost 100 years after it was written. It is a fun, fast read, full of humorous observations and ringing with the joy of the journey. The men even get to spend a couple of days hanging out with Pat Lynch, the hermit of Echo Park. This may be a history book, but it’s the fun kind of history book.
Joyful and heartbreaking, irreverent and poignant, hilarious and tragic: “The Milagro Beanfield War” is one of the Worm’s all time favorite books. It’s worth not only a read, but multiple rereads. Based in a small town in northern New Mexico, it starts with Joe Mondragon, a fed-up dirt farmer, illegally diverting water onto a bean field. Begun as an impulsive act of frustrated futility, the bean field becomes the symbol of a simmering grassroots movement, and Joe finds himself as the reluctant leader of the growing resistance against the bureaucratic and capitalist forces that would just as soon plow the whole town of Milagro (and its bean fields) under on the path of progress.
Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting, but the fight here is about more than water: the bulldozing of a people and community rich in spirit and superstition, if not much else. Complete and complicated, the characters on both sides of the war are beautifully human, flawed, and unforgettable. There’s also more than a little magic realism to the novel, just in case your interest isn’t piqued yet. There’s a talking, cigarette-smoking coyote and an arm that is amputated by butterflies. There’s also a pebble-tossing mother, a fantastically destructive pig, and parking tickets. Lots of parking tickets. Yeah, you’re just going to have to read it.
Bonus Worm: if you’ve read this book, look for the other two in Nichols’ New Mexico Trilogy–“The Magic Journey” and “The Nirvana Blues.”
Dead pool: 1) the level at which a reservoir’s water cannot be drained by gravity; 2) when a reservoir’s level falls to the elevation of a dam’s outlet works; 3) a science-based book about water in the West by James Lawrence Powell; 4) a possible future for Lakes Powell and Mead that makes western water managers very, very nervous. Pick any of the above definitions, and you’ve got a compelling subject for discussion or investigation. For the Worm’s purposes, we’ll stick to number 3. “Dead Pool,” the book, covers the history of dams in the West, then launches into an intensive dissection of the data and models that offer a glimpse into possible futures for the semi-arid lands. The situation is changing fast.
I don’t believe there is a book being written today that could possibly keep up with the fluctuation of water (and its management) in the West. Published in 2008, this book is certainly missing details of the last 20-plus years, but like “Cadillac Desert” and “Where the Water Goes,” and others featured here, “Dead Pool” is an important piece of the growing body of work that documents the rise and fall of Powell, Mead, and the West’s entire system of rivers and reservoirs.
Ah, if only we had a boat. Many an adventure has been launched, for better or worse, with that exact sentiment. William Ashley conceived of round craft wrapped in bison hides to float through northern Utah’s rich trapping grounds. William Manly dug up an old ferry boat and attempted to run the Green River to the California gold fields. Nathaniel Galloway, the Kolb brothers, and Bus Hatch were at the forefront of river running as recreation.
“If We Had a Boat,” by preeminent historian Roy Webb, is the story of these and the many other characters who first dipped oars into the turbid waters of the Seeds-ke-dee, as the Indigenous Crow and Shoshone people called it. Engaging, entertaining, and elucidating, this is a must-read for any student of river history.
(Hint: it’s also a great resource for any Holiday guides working on their interp challenges, too!)
Okay, so this book is a departure from the Worm’s usual fare of river- and desert- and American West- and environment-related recommendations. But it is an exceptional book about an exceptional woman who led an exceptional life, and we thought it worthy of making an exception. Consider the strength of the blurb on the cover alone: Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying that this book is “written so well . . . that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” So, yeah. “West with the Night,” by Beryl Markham, is the memoir of a British-born woman and pilot who grew up in Kenya and became the first person to fly nonstop from Europe to America. Markham’s life spanned nearly the entire 20th century, and the book is full of beautifully crafted episodes that are nothing like what a 20th-century woman was supposed to be doing with her life. Nearly being trampled by elephants, training racehorses, and sleeping in a Benghazi brothel are just the beginning. “West with the Night” will take you on an unforgettable trip to Africa and into the mind of a remarkable human being.
The Worm’s favorite section of the Green River gets star treatment in this gorgeous, intensively researched book by James Aton and Dan Miller. “The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green” attempts to *cover* everything, from natural history to geology and human history from the Clovis Paleoindians to modern river runners. This one is a little too big to fit in an ammo can or dry bag, so the Worm recommends reading this one twice: once before your Deso trip and once after.
The first reading will pique your interest in the place and the second will provide clarity. It’s a great reference book, and the photos alone are worth multiple visits.
Buzz Holmstrom: the first person to successfully run every rapid on the Green and Colorado Rivers from Green River, Wyoming, to the Hoover Dam. Buzz is a personal hero to this river-running Worm, not least of all because his 1937 solo run can never be repeated; he ran the river before Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon Dams (that lucky dog). “The Doing of the Thing,” by Vince Welch, Cort Conley, and Brad Dimock is a poignant, exhaustively researched biography of a gifted and deeply introverted man who taught himself how to build boats and run rivers. Buzz struggled to find his way in the world of dry land, but on the river, his soul seemed to find peace and fulfillment.
If you’ve done a Holiday trip, you’ve probably heard of Buzz. One of his journal entries is a favorite reading of many guides, including this line: “Some people have said I conquered the Colorado River. I don’t say so. It has never been conquered and never will I think. Anyone who it allows to go through its canyons and see its wonders should feel thankful and privileged.” Well said, Buzz.
The Worm’s Halloween special! A novel not of the river, but of the West: “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy. This book is dark. Like, 3:30 in the morning dark. The kind of dark that makes you not want to get out of bed even though you have to pee because you know that SOMETHING is waiting for you behind the door. It is also one of the Worm’s Top 10 Favorite Books. It’s dark, deep, and devastatingly good. “Blood Meridian” is loosely based on the historical Glanton Gang, scalp hunters in the U.S.-Mexico-Texas borderlands in the mid-1800s. The protagonist is “the kid,” a runaway from Tennessee. The antagonist is one of the most frightening and enigmatic characters in modern fiction: the Judge. How these two (and the rest of the gang) roam across the landscape, working with and against each other, committing unspeakable evils, is described in the sparse, exquisite prose of one of America’s master storytellers.
If you don’t like reading about violence and depravity, you should not read this book. But if you’re looking for a spooky fall read, this one will provide plenty of shivers up your spine, and give your literary brain some seriously profound themes to ponder.
Last week the Worm recommended a geological tour of Canyonlands and Arches—red rock country. This week we’re wiggling north to Utah’s other red rock: the Uinta Mountains. “The Geologic Story of the Uinta Mountains,” by Wallace Hansen, explains the dynamic forces that first created the Uintas, then molded them into the range that we know today. The highest east-west-running mountain range in the Lower 48 (including Kings Peak, the highest in Utah!), the Uinta Mountains are impressive not only for their peaks but for the canyons and faults that split their bulk.
If you’ve ever floated the Green River through the Gates of Lodore, you’ve stared up at the heart of the Uinta Mountains, scarlet walls that sparkle with quartz crystals. This book explains, among other things, why the river cut into the mountains instead of going around. Give this book a look before your next river trip and impress your guide with all your geology knowledge!
Ahhh, red rock country. It’s a tough place for a moisture-loving invertebrate to squirm, but for this Worm, Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are endlessly fascinating. Slick rock fins, brilliant orange spires, and jumbled canyon walls demand to be explored and admired. And for those who want to go even deeper into the rocks, there is this book: “Canyonlands Country” by Donald Baars. This is a comprehensive (and readable!) tour through geological time as seen in southeastern Utah. From the deep-seated basement faults groaning thousands of feet below today’s landscape to the oceans that built the walls of Cataract Canyon and the wind-swept desert preserved in the arches of Utah’s most famous park, Baars uses simple language to explain the how and why of wonderland. It’s a nice thin tome, too—stick it in your climbing bag on your way to Wall Street or tuck it in your ammo can before you launch on that long weekend in Labyrinth Canyon. With a glossary for the trickier terms and seven “tours” of the more popular attractions, “Canyonlands Country” is a must-have reference for all red rock lovers and rock nerds.
A little fiction for your Friday! “The Water Knife,” by Colorado writer Paolo Bacigalupi, hits unnervingly close to home, describing a not-so-far-fetched future in which water is power and it is every state for itself. Bacigalupi takes today’s debate over the Colorado River’s water and who gets to use how much of it and turns up the heat. He describes a Southwest ravaged by climate change in which the Union has dissolved and states fight each other over remaining water allocations, with California as the supreme power, waiting for its moment to simply take it all. The plotline is taut, the characters sympathetic, and the suspense made all the more tingly by the idea that none of this is truly out of the realm of possibility.
“The river’s rhythm runs through my veins. Runs through my people’s veins.” It runs through our veins here at Holiday, too. Inspired by the Indigenous-led movements to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, Carole Lindstrom’s “We Are Water Protectors” is a clear, bold rallying cry, calling on citizens of the earth to speak for its most precious resource. Written and illustrated by two Indigenous women, this book is a gorgeous, proud celebration of the interconnectedness of all things.
The pictures (Michaela Goade won the Caldecott Medal for her illustrations) flow like water from page to page, linking animal and human imagery. We are all related (even worms!), and we all have a responsibility to “fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
When you think fossils, you probably think of tyrannosaurus jaws or triceratops skulls. But much of the fossil life preserved in the rocks of the Colorado Plateau is much smaller. Ever seen a crinoid or a brachiopod? Did you know that plants, worm burrows, and even mud cracks can be fossilized? “Life in Stone” uses colorful illustrations, crisp photography, and easy-to-follow explanations to take readers on a journey through more than a billion years of life on the Colorado Plateau. Christa Sadler, a geologist, educator, river guide, and “earth science storyteller” has created a comprehensive–and fun!–fossil text book for aspiring paleontologists, curious river runners, and anyone who has ever picked up a rock and wondered at the story hidden within.
Through the Colorado River Delta, along the border via the Rio Grande, down the Little Colorado River, and up (and down) the recently freed Elwha River, Zak Podmore paddles, observes, and writes. “Confluence” is the deeply personal result of these singular experiences and a life lived on the water. In each section of this book, Zak relates the details of the landscape and the complicated issues facing it. As he travels, he reads. Ideas from various philosophers are carefully woven into the narrative as Zak works to understand his experiences.
Like the various philosophical texts that Zak studies, this book merits multiple reads. The ideas and experiences presented in it are those of a deep thinker and require similarly deep reading to fully absorb. This a beautiful, stirring book, one that this Worm is pretty sure is going to stick with her for a while.
Two-worms-for-one special! “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey, and “Desert Cabal” by Amy Irvine. Both written by passionate defenders of Utah’s red rock wilderness, 50 years and several cultural shifts apart. One is a classic, the other is the answer to that classic. Read “Desert Solitaire” first. Written in the 1950s and 60s while Abbey was a ranger at what was then Arches National Monument, this memoir is a celebration of wilderness and a polemic against development that deserves its status as a classic. But. 50 years later, Amy Irvine pulls up a chair at Abbey’s desert grave, pours some whiskey, and proceeds to catch Mr. Abbey up on what’s been happening in the world—and his beloved desert—since he’s been gone.
Irvine’s work is exceptional: sparse, thoughtful, pointed, and personal. She describes her own relationship with the desert, commiserates with Abbey on certain points, and sets him straight on others. “Desert Cabal” follows, chapter by chapter, the structure of the older book, leading to Irvine’s final conclusion, that the time for solitaire, for Abbey’s rugged individualism, has passed. What is needed now is a cabal, a “group gathered to conspire, to resist.” Community, with all its complicated entanglements, is the answer to protecting the places that we love.
With all the publicity that Lake Powell has been getting (currently at 31% of capacity and dropping), the Weekly Worm wanted to take a minute to consider the silver lining of this ongoing water crisis: the reemergence of Glen Canyon. “The Colorado River through Glen Canyon before Lake Powell” is a thin but powerful historic photo journal that shows exactly what awaits beneath the diminishing waters of that infamous reservoir. Brilliant color photography and excerpts from the writings of those lucky enough to see it before it was drowned give us just a taste of the sandstone curves, shady grottoes, hanging gardens, and sinuous caverns that are slowly reappearing as the water recedes.
Putting politics aside, speaking as a river runner, this Worm thinks it is fascinating to watch Glen Canyon (and the lower extent of Cataract Canyon, further upstream) come back to life and to see the river reclaiming its channels. Every year we get to run more rapids in lower Cataract and see more of the “Dominy Formation” (the sediment left behind when the reservoir was at full pool) being washed away. The people of the arid west need water to survive, and proactive management, conservation, and creative problem solving is needed. But in the meantime, let’s take a minute and give thanks for the opportunity to see Glen Canyon come back to life.
“Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” by Wallace Stegner is meticulously researched, insightful, and important. The Worm recommends this book to anyone seeking a better understanding of Western politics and history, especially as these relate to John Wesley Powell. But there are some caveats. This book is first and foremost a Powell biography, but Stegner also traces the reverberations of Powell’s expeditions and political career into the mid-20th century. The first half of the book follows Powell on his 1869 trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers; the second details Powell’s political career.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t do a little bit of skimming to get through this book, especially the second half. This book is not an easy read. BUT. If one were to read only one part of the entire book, it should be Part III: Blueprint for a Dryland Democracy. Stegner outlines Powell’s vision of how to address the unique challenges (aridity!) facing western settlement and expansion. Powell’s plan was far ahead of its time, almost completely ignored by his contemporaries, and brilliant in its foresight. It’s worth a read just to spend some time smacking your forehead at the greed and short-sightedness of 19th century leaders whose decisions and policies continue to haunt the West and shape our everyday lives.
The Weekly Worm is traipsing through the desert after Craig Childs again. This time he’s seeking “The Secret Knowledge of Water.” This is a spell-binding, mystical, yet scientific book about the most precious of resources. Childs’ inexhaustible curiosity about the natural world—and its extremes—leads him by foot and by rickety truck to natural potholes in rocky canyons, into an underground lake on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, and deep into the Sonora Desert where dry stream beds fill and flow after dark.
This may be my favorite of Craig Childs’ books. It is beautiful and stirring and makes me feel like magic is real, and closer than any of us believed possible.
For a biography, this book reads an awful lot like the script of a Western movie. “The Bassett Women” by Grace McClure brings to life the real Wild West and two of the greatest characters to live through it. Our heroines, Josie and Ann Bassett, grew up the daughters of homesteaders in Browns Park, in what is now northwestern Colorado, along the Green River.
Tough, intelligent, capable frontier women, the Bassett sisters fraternized with Butch Cassidy and ran (and rustled) cattle. Ann stood trial for cattle rustling twice. Josie was married five times, chased one husband off with a frying pan, and was rumored to have poisoned another. Grace McClure brings together interviews, oral histories, newspaper articles, and library archives to create an engaging and credible account of the lives of the Bassett sisters and the atmosphere of life on Colorado’s western slope in the early 1900s. Ann and Josie are two of the West’s greatest characters. The Worm says it’s worth getting to know them.
“A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country” is THE indispensable guidebook for all your desert wanderings. You’ll find a battered copy of this in each and every Holiday library can. It’s the guidebook the guides use. Identify flowers, insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and more. Read about chert and biological soil crusts. Skim the geological descriptions of the Colorado Plateau or learn about desert varnish. David B. Williams’ writing is easy to understand, and the illustrations by Gloria Brown and Todd Telander are worthy of tearing out and framing (but maybe don’t). Whatever your questions about the landscape and its inhabitants, this book knows the answers. If you can’t take a Holiday guide with you, take the next best thing!
“Cataract Canyon: A Human and Environmental History of the Rivers in Canyonlands.” A very specific book about a very specific canyon and, in this Worm’s opinion, the definitive text on that canyon. Authors Robert Webb, Jayne Belnap, and John Weisheit write in precise, fascinating detail about the history, geology, flora, fauna, and hydrology of the infamous Cataract Canyon as well as the sections of the Green and Colorado Rivers that drift slowly into its crumbling maw. Cataract is a place of legendary rapids and tales of ill-fated expeditions, and this book contains plenty of juicy river lore along with the science. It also includes contemporary photographs that match images taken by historic explorers that allow comparison of rocks, rapids, vegetation, and other aspects of a dynamic river corridor. It’s an incredibly useful reference text and quite enjoyable to read straight through, too. (And it’s sized just right to fit into a “fat 50” ammo can!)
For this Weekly Worm, I’m going to let the book speak for itself. “The river knows everything. One can learn everything from it. . . . They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, of perpetual Becoming. . . . I reviewed my life and it was also a river.”
“Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse. Spoiler alert: it’s the river. It was always the river. The river knows everything.
The original book about water in the West: “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner. Although it was written in the 1980s, this book is still relevant and instructive to understanding the context and history of how the Colorado River and its tributaries are managed and utilized. Anyone who lives in one of the seven Colorado River basin states (bonus trivia question: who can name all 7?) and cares about rivers—or the sustainability of their water supply—should read this book. (And, yes, then they should go and read about a dozen other books that provide more up-to-date information, but those are for another week’s Worm.)
Reisner details the tragedy of the Teton Dam collapse, the theft of the Owens Valley water by Los Angeles, and the race between the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build as many dams as possible during the “golden era” of dam building. It will make you laugh, cringe, and cry, and it just might make you pay a little closer attention to where your water comes from.
Katie Lee was many things: citizen of the Colorado Plateau, singer, activist, historian, taker-of-nude-pictures-in-Glen-Canyon. She was also a writer. “All My Rivers Are Gone” is as bright and fun as Katie was, and revives not only the canyon that Katie loved, but also her own incomparable, indomitable spirit. The book includes stories from trips through Glen Canyon mixed with poems, journal entries, reflections, and conversations with other river runners.
Katie’s words smoothly blend these different pieces together and what emerges is a powerful eulogy for a place that she fought most of her life to see resurrected. We all know that reading about a place is a pale substitute for experiencing it. But “All My Rivers Are Gone” does a better job than most at providing something beautiful to tide us over until we can experience the magic of Glen Canyon ourselves.
Have you read “Cadillac Desert” yet? Ready for a more recent update? “Where the Water Goes” by David Owen is a good place to start. The subtitle, “Life and Death Along the Colorado River” should be a clue that this book takes a narrower focus, following the Colorado River from its headwaters to its (many, many) ends in the diversions, reservoirs, fields, and cities that depend on its water. This is a fast, fun read, an easy but educational trip through the ever-evolving issues and challenges of the modern Colorado River system.
History + nail-biting true story of the fastest-ever run through Grand Canyon = “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko. This book has been required reading for our guides for the last several years, and the Worm would make it required reading for all of our guests, too, if she could! Don’t worry—as history books go, this one is pretty easy. It will keep you on the edge of your seat as it tells the tale of three Grand Canyon guides who launched a wooden boat under the cover of darkness to run a historic flood—and lived to tell about it. Learn about the perfect storm of circumstances that led up to the summer of 1983, when the standing wave in Crystal Rapid was 30 feet high, the river was flowing at 90,000 cubic feet per second, and Glen Canyon Dam almost failed. #youcantmakethisstuffup
Here’s a Worm pick for a Book That Looks Great On Your Coffee Table AND Is Fun To Read! Renny Russell has created a magnificent work about one of the Colorado River’s lesser-known characters, Harry Aleson. Including historical photos of Aleson and Russell’s own artwork, “Rebel of the Colorado” is a tribute to a man who loved the desert and its rivers. Harry Aleson is perhaps best known for his association with Georgie White Clark. The two swam the Colorado River through Grand Canyon and completed a number of other river expeditions.
“Rebel of the Colorado” includes a lifetime of adventures, most told in Aleson’s own words, through letters and journal entries. Author and illustrator Renny Russell was featured several Weekly Worms ago for the book he wrote with his brother, “On the Loose.” Russell knew Aleson personally, and credits him with introducing Russell and his brother to the slickrock country of southern Utah. This Worm is proud to own an autographed copy of this limited edition work of art!
“House of Rain,” like all of Craig Childs’ books, is intimately, exhaustively researched. Childs is a tireless desert wanderer; in this book, he follows, step by actual step, the movement of the Ancestral Puebloan people and their contemporaries and attempts to solve the mystery of their supposed “disappearance.” Childs walks across the southern Colorado Plateau and beyond, exploring from Chaco Canyon to Mesa Verde, from Comb Ridge to Antelope Mesa, and along the Mogollon Rim and into northern Mexico. He swims flash floods and participates in archaeological digs and camps out in ruins on solstices and equinoxes in pursuit of a personal understanding of the cultures that shaped the land that he calls home.
“Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” So spoke the Water Rat, and so this Worm agrees. Meet Mole and Rat, Badger and Toad, and follow them on their adventures down the river, into the Wild Wood, and across the countryside. “The Wind in the Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame, describes a world of pastoral delights and a society of animals with their own particular civilization and above all, appreciation for the landscape in which they live. This is a classic children’s book (that isn’t really a children’s book), but adults will also appreciate the loosely woven episodes of Toad’s mischief, Rat’s idylls on the river, and the curious Mole’s wanderings. Grahame must have been a boatman at heart. He brings the river to life, too, dwelling on details that anyone who’s ever been on a river trip will recognize with a knowing smile and a grateful sigh.
If you’re looking for a book that will blow your mind and heart wide open, “Braiding Sweetgrass” is the one. Robin Wall Kimmerer is “is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.” She is also an unbelievably talented, heartfelt, and earnest writer. Blending Indigenous understanding with the scientific method and stories from her own life, she weaves a collection of essays that are as thought-provoking as they are beautiful. My copy of this book isn’t the most clean or crisp. This is because I’ve been carrying it around with me since I received it as a gift several years ago (thanks, @anthropologue!). It’s lived in my dry bag, my ammo can, the back of my truck, in backpacks and purses and totes. This is a book that lives with me, alongside me, and I have been consuming it in small bites, savoring each essay and story, wearing its pages out (but not its ideas) with my hands and my heart.
“A Green River Reader” is the all-you-can-eat buffet of river reading. A scoop of Wallace Stegner, a pinch of Kit Carson and John C. Frémont, a taste of Ann Zwinger and Ellen Meloy, a little David Brower on the side, and a hearty serving of John Wesley Powell to round out the meal. Simply put, this book covers an enormous amount of culture and history on the Green River (from 1776 through 1996) in a surprisingly short number of pages. This is the book you can read in pieces, hopping from excerpt to excerpt, and still come away with a pretty good understanding of the river’s story. This one’s a staple in most of Holiday’s trip libraries, but why wait till you’re on a trip to check it out?
I know, you’ve been WAITING for the Worm to get around to recommending this book. Here it is: “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey. THE classic novel of the Utah desert; this is a fast, fun piece of fiction about a small group of concerned citizens determined to protect the red rock wilderness they love. Edward Abbey was a ranger in Arches National Monument in the 1950s (before it gained park status) and was unapologetic in his anti-development stance. This book doesn’t directly discuss politics, but it does set up a clear good versus evil narrative and leaves little doubt about who Abbey thinks the heroes are.
For nearly a decade, Ellen Meloy spent her summers rafting the Green River through Desolation Canyon with her river ranger husband. “Raven’s Exile” is the product of those dozens of river trips, and it is a joy to read. Ellen uses wit, humor, and precise, poetic description to transport readers into a raft, slowly descending the silty waters of the Green. She links history and water policy with tales of the day to day magic and trials of river life. Anyone who’s ever cowered in a tent in Desolation Canyon in a wind storm (or a cloud of mosquitoes) will laugh out loud at Ellen’s descriptions of the exquisite discomfort to which we subject ourselves in the pursuit of wilderness and beauty.
Tragically, Ellen passed away in 2004, but The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers keeps her legacy alive. Each year the fund offers a $5,000 award to an exceptional writer whose work “reflects the spirit and passions embodied in Ellen’s writing.”
THE groundbreaking account of the 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers. Written by the trip leader himself, John Wesley Powell, “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons” is an important read for anyone interested in river history. Even the Worm has to admit that this book is a little dry in parts, a little bombastic in others, but it is nonetheless an engaging account of first impressions and hard-won lessons from what was, at the time, a totally unknown part of the United States. A special, squirmy shout-out to @kh.chris for the background image from a corner of the Colorado River that Powell didn’t get to see.
We’re going extra Wormy (that means Nerdy) this week with a book about geology! Don’t be intimidated, though, this book is all about the pictures. “Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau,” by Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney, features over 100 full-color paleogeographic maps of the Colorado Plateau (where we at Holiday spend most of our time running rivers).
These maps illustrate what the plateau may have looked like at various times in Earth’s history. The book also includes explanations of how the landscapes and rocks we see today were created. There’s even a picture of Cambrian-era “worm” burrows, so you know this Worm is into that!
The subtitle for this one is “Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” and they aren’t kidding. It was 1912. Roosevelt had just lost his bid for re-election. Instead of sulking at home, he led an expedition to complete the first descent of an unmapped river in the Amazon. And almost died on the way. Candice Millard’s book, “The River of Doubt,” is a true story that reads like a thriller. It is riveting, describing the incredible hardships the expedition endured. It’s also a book about the Amazon jungle itself, full of facts and descriptions that boggle the mind. Take it from the Worm – you don’t want to miss this one.
Oh, how I love this book. A series of essays published in 1949, “A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There” is remarkable not only for its brilliant, beautiful prose, but for being at the forefront of a new understanding of ecology and the natural world. Aldo Leopold was a forester, ecologist, philosopher, conservationist, and gifted writer. This book includes keen observations of animals and ecosystems and stories about specific adventures. It presents solid, methodical arguments for the value of wilderness. Aldo’s words are so convincing that it’s hard to believe that humans could have failed to heed them.
One of the best interludes takes place in the Colorado River Delta in 1922, before dams dried it up. Aldo writes, “For the last word in procrastination, go travel with a river reluctant to lose his freedom in the sea.” I love the description of this lost world, full of green lagoons, jaguars, and steamy backwaters. This one is a must-read for anyone interested in a holistic vision of the natural world.
“River House” by Sarahlee Lawrence: a powerful, poignant memoir that redefines the idea of adventure and home. By her early 20s, Sarahlee had traveled the world as a river guide. But, drawn back to her family’s ranch, she discovers that building a home may be an even greater adventure. The Worm (aka @susanmtraveler) flipped open this book on a whim and didn’t look up until thirty pages later, completely transported by Sarahlee’s descriptions of traveling and running some seriously gnarly whitewater.
She describes (better than any other writer I’ve discovered) the specific experience of being a young woman who isn’t afraid to say yes, but sometimes becomes very afraid of the things she said yes to. I could also relate to the challenge of “working toward a rare balance between wings and roots.”
Two worms way, way up.
“On the Loose” by Terry and Renny Russell is a collection of scribblings, quotes, and photography. It represents the meandering minds of two young men overflowing with life and convinced that there is no better way to be than free and in the wilderness. Published by the Sierra Club and lovingly endorsed by David Brower, this book is a treasure from the early days of the environmental movement, but it’s not political. It is a celebration, a study in gratitude and amazement that the world holds such wonders and these brothers are lucky enough to live in it. Renny and Terry were river runners, too. Tragically, Terry died when his raft flipped in a rapid in Desolation Canyon, but @russellrenny still lives in New Mexico, writing, painting, bookbinding, and boat building (link to his website in bio).
This week’s Worm is a colorful and poetic tribute to the beauty of the arid southwest and the beings—humans, plants, and animals—that call it home. Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall’s work of art, “The Desert is Theirs”, was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1976. Vibrant images wrap around sparse text that mixes Indigenous tales with the wondrous adaptations of the desert’s native creatures. Worms can’t survive in the desert, but they sure do like reading about it! Check this one out in a Holiday library can on your next trip!
Women are too cool to have just one day dedicated to their awesomeness. So the Weekly Worm is calling it International Women’s Week and highly recommending “Breaking into the Current” by Louise Teal, a celebration of women guiding in the Grand Canyon. This book profiles eleven women, all groundbreakers in the historically male-dominated raft guiding industry, all fascinating human characters defined by far more than their gender.
Woven through each woman’s story is the Grand Canyon and its unique draw on all river runners. Louise Teal was an AZRA guide herself, and writes with firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to take up the oars and row into uncharted territory.
Today is Read Across America Day so we’re sharing this week’s book recommendation a little early! Here’s a little fiction for your Tuesday. Because forests are part of a healthy river ecosystem, too. This week’s Worm suggests you wiggle deep into the dirt and the lives of nine humans whose stories branch and intertwine over decades. “The Overstory” by Richard Powers will all but compel you to make a pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest and the last old-growth forests in our country. We are all connected, it says: humans, forests, rivers, planet. Mystical, enchanting, and heartbreaking, this book is equal parts human drama and quiet revolution. It’s one of those books that you’ll still be thinking about, like I am, months later.
“Down River: Into the Future of Water in the West” by Heather Hansman showed up in my mailbox a couple weeks ago (thanks, @msuhalfstep!). Paddling a pack raft from the Green River‘s source to its confluence with the Colorado, Heather explores the varied and often conflicting interests of those who depend on the Green’s water. It’s a nuanced look at one very specific waterway, and one river runner’s attempt to understand what the future might hold for the Green and what it will take to get there. Not gonna lie, the chapter about climate change kept me up at night, but as someone who cares deeply about the desert rivers where I live, work, and play, I appreciate Heather’s unflinching look at reality. And it’s always fun to read about places I love: Lodore, Desolation, Stillwater. Two worms up!
In honor of this week’s snowy days, we’re kicking off our new weekly feature with a book about the stuff that makes our rivers flow. “Shaped by Snow” is by one of our own, local SLC writer and skier Ayja Bounous. It’s about her deep love for winter in the Wasatch and a deep concern for the changing climate that is making those winters (and the river seasons that follow) disappear. This has been one of those weeks that makes it easy to forget that Utah’s snow is an endangered species, but Ayja urges us to carefully consider the role we all play in its future. (P.S. – It’s the Weekly Worm! Holiday guide and unapologetic bookworm, Susan Munroe, is taking over our Fridays with her best picks for river-related reading. Worm on!)