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 bookworm! 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!
September 28, 2022
This week’s Worm takes us east, into the Llano Estacado and the traditional territory of the Comanche Nation. “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne tells the story of the “rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history,” and it is as good as historic nonfiction gets.
For 40 years, white settlers and the U.S. government sought to inhabit the unforgiving country of what is now West Texas, and for 40 years, the Comanches pushed them back. Said to be the greatest horsemen to ever ride and the fiercest fighters to ever defend native land, the history of the Comanche people in the late 1800s makes for riveting reading. Gwynne focuses his narrative on Quanah Parker, a war leader of the Quahadis who also bore the distinction of being the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman who had been captured as a child and assimilated into the tribe.
Well-researched and well-told, this book illuminates a key piece of U.S. and Indigenous history. Exciting, infuriating, and heartbreaking, the Worm recommends this to anyone interested in a better understanding of how the U.S. as we know it came to be.
This one showed up in my mailbox earlier this summer: “River Running” by Verne Huser. How is it possible that this bookworm has been guiding western rivers for over 10 years without the benefit of this excellent resource? It is pure, vintage fun (although a little Google-ing let me know that it’s been updated and reprinted since this first edition from 1975), chock full of useful info and great photos—including some classic Holiday triple rig shots (Dee Holladay even gets a mention in the acknowledgments section).
This is a definitive how-to text (for 1975), with an emphasis on keeping the rivers safe as much as keeping rafters safe, which was somewhat of a novel concept in the early days of recreational river running. Verne Huser was a river guide, naturalist, and environmental professional who passed away in Salt Lake City in 2021. I regret that I never knew him. Many thanks to @shainamaytum and her river-runner father for passing on this piece of history.
Okay #weeklyworm friends. Let’s have some real talk. Salt Lake City, where the Worm lives (and Holiday’s main office is located), just SHATTERED its previous record for number of days over 100°F: from 21 to 34. Last Wednesday the high temperature was 107°F, tying the all-time record high for the city. The “normal” temperature for the first week in September? 85°F. This seems like an opportune time to introduce you to “The Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia Butler.
Yep, it’s more speculative fiction—fiction that feels not only relevant but critical right now. It’s entertaining and it’s an excellent vehicle for considering some of the possible future scenarios we Westerners may face as a desert-dwelling society. Published in the early 90s, the book begins in the year 2024, where 15-year-old Lauren lives in a gated community in parched southern California, in a fragile, tenuous bubble of security in a world wracked with thirst and anarchy. When that bubble is burst, she embarks on a journey toward an uncertain salvation, bonding with other survivors. The book is frightening for how narrow the gap seems between its world and ours, but it is hopeful, too, as Lauren begins to envision a new future for human society.
As our own future unfolds before us, I think we should look not only to science, governments, and journalists for ideas and answers but to the fiction writers as well. Who knows what solutions these creative minds may offer? And if their imagined visions scare us, well, maybe a little fear will help lead us to positive action. The Worm hopes so, anyway.
This week’s Worm is brought to you by Josh Levine, river guide and reader extraordinaire: “We Swam the Grand Canyon: The True Story of a Cheap Vacation That Got a Little Out of Hand,” by Bill Beer. Josh writes,
“We love a good adventure story here at Holiday, but even seasoned river rats may find it difficult to imagine the adventure that Bill Beer and John Daggett swam during April of 1955.
“Equipped only with fins, PFDs, and leaking neoprene shirts, their camera, food, and sleeping bags floating along beside them in two (supposedly) waterproof bags, these two buddies—for the sake of a cheap vacation, some fun, and the desire to explore—are swimming through the Grand Canyon. The pair know each other well, having both been surfers, swimmers, and in the military together. However, they are soon overwhelmed by their undertaking.
“They are greeted immediately by the cold that will be in all 280 miles of their trip within the first few moments of hopping in at Lee’s Ferry. In some of the first few rapids in the canyon they are schooled in the ways of whitewater. They watch each other get swamped by waves, tossed around by currents and boils, and stuck on rocks. The two have each other’s back the entire time and learn to love the rollercoaster ride of swimming the rapids.
“Bill and John are constantly hammered by the elements. Though their method of experiencing the canyon is different from most (it is now illegal to swim the Grand) they were still in awe of the place. Bill wrote, ‘Flowing with the river, looking out from only a few inches above the water, the very size, the immensity, of the place was astounding. But more overwhelming than its size was its beauty. . . . Suddenly we were so small that we didn’t matter at all. It was hardly important whether we continued or quit, whether we succeeded or failed, whether we lived or died. We were intruders who meant nothing, and all our thoughts and emotions of the past week were preposterous and presumptuous.’
“This book is a worthy addition to any library and singular chronicle of the canyon.” Thanks, Josh!
August 31, 2022
Here in the western U.S., when we think about water, we think locally. #WaterInTheWest is an ever-present concept that encompasses personal, political, scientific, and spiritual realms. We discuss and debate endlessly; we fixate on Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the dwindling Rocky Mountain snowpack. “The Big Thirst,” by Charles Fishman, zooms out—way out—to show that water is, in fact, a global issue.
From Australia to Georgia to India, from water treatment technologies (did you know you can make water so clean it’s toxic?) to the power of marketing to define our perception of water, and then all the way back, yes, to the west, this book traces a fascinating course through our relationship with our most valuable natural resource. I’m not sure I would call this a hopeful read, but it is nice to read about solutions being developed in other places—and to know that we’re not alone in our struggle.
Katie Lee, the Grand Dame of Dam Busting, has been on the Worm’s mind all week. Just a few days ago I was floating through the reemerging Glen Canyon, awestruck by the incredible transition of reservoir back to river. I thought of Katie and her book, “All My Rivers Are Gone” as I passed sandstone alcoves and walls painted with the white minerals of water long gone. Around each corner, I wondered what treasures lay beneath, yet to be rediscovered. Katie would have known. She would have rejoiced at seeing the waters recede, but the landscape left behind is not the Glen Canyon she loved.
The scale of the human-wrought change is astonishing. In certain areas, entire cliff faces are slumping into the water, geology happening at an unimaginably accelerated pace. My brief sojourn into what’s left of Lake Powell had an overwhelming feel of being present for an unrepeatable moment in history. It was beautiful, mesmerizing, overpowering.
If you haven’t read this book yet, you should. And if you haven’t run the mud rapids or the sediment delta or floated beneath Tapestry Wall or into Moki Canyon, you should. These few days put into sharp, clear context all of the hypothetical conversations about the future of Lake Powell. Whatever that future is, a reservoir full or empty, a canyon restored or ruined, Katie would want us to bear witness.
August 17, 2022
Here’s a #weeklyworm for the serious river history scholars: “Colorado River Controversies” by Robert Brewster Stanton. This book is an entertaining rehashing of some hotly contested pieces of river-running history. Did James White really run the Grand Canyon on a driftwood raft, two years before Powell? And what really happened at Separation Rapid, when three of Powell’s men left his expedition in 1869?
Stanton was the chief engineer of a survey expedition along the Green and Colorado Rivers to determine the feasibility of building a railroad through the canyons. This early river experience had an enormous impact on Stanton, and he spent the rest of his life thinking about the Colorado River. He wrote extensively about his own experiences on the river, although he struggled to find a publisher for his lengthy manuscript while he was alive.
Stanton developed an almost obsessive interest in “solving” the mysteries of James White and the incident at Separation Rapid, and felt that his own experience and his engineer’s focus on details made him uniquely qualified to uncover the truth. This book is the posthumously published result of his investigation, and features some fascinating interview material between Stanton and both White and Powell. Historical figures interviewing other historical figures! Fascinating!
This week, the Worm is going to the stars with two Indigenous scholars and astronomers for guides: “Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy” by Nancy C. Maryboy, PhD and David Begay, PhD. This beautifully illustrated text presents a traditional Navajo view of the night sky and its constellations. It describes the complex intertwining of Navajo life on earth with the cosmos above, and compares Navajo astronomy with the Greek (Western) view of the night sky.
Intended primarily as a resource for Diné (Navajo) students and families to better understand their culture, it also meets middle school science and astronomy education standards. The authors write, “We hope that this book will help to promote the sense of wonder and awe that we all feel as we gaze at the sky overhead… The book fills a gap because nothing like it exists elsewhere.” If you’re already a student of H.A. Rey’s “The Stars,” this book will build on that knowledge, expand your perspective, and help you develop a deeper connection to both the sky and the earth.
A science fiction series in which GEOLOGY is the featured scientific discipline? Yes, please! “The Broken Earth” trilogy by N.K. Jemisin is currently making the rounds among the Holiday guides, and it’s high time it became an official #weeklyworm pick.
Imagine Earth with only one continent, one that is subject to frequent apocalyptic tectonic events, where human society has evolved with the singular purpose of preparing for and surviving these catastrophes. Add to this a uniquely talented group of humans who can control and interact with these tectonic forces, who are persecuted and often murdered as scapegoats for the destruction wrought by the earth. The trilogy follows a handful of these characters (“orogenes”) into a tectonic event that threatens to rip the earth and humanity apart once and for all.
This is maybe the best science fiction series the Worm has ever read. All three of these books won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, making N.K. Jemisin the first author in the history of the award to win for three consecutive years, and for all three books in a trilogy. These books are FIRE. Suspenseful and smart, heartbreaking and human, this series will change the way you think about the ground beneath your feet.
“Dinosaur’s Restless Rivers and Craggy Canyon Walls” by Wallace Hansen is a must-have for any geologically inclined river runner floating through Dinosaur National Monument. Crammed with excellent, easy-to-follow illustrations and diagrams, this guidebook features mile-by-mile explanations of the incredible rocks, faults, uplifts, and erosional features exposed through Lodore Canyon and along the Yampa River.
Impress your friends and your river guides with your rock knowledge! And it’s waterproof, so you can geologize even while running rapids (and holding on with both hands, of course 😉)!
This pick for #weeklywormwednesday takes us into California’s eastern Sierra Nevada, a landscape that, like the Colorado Plateau, has been shaped both by the presence and absence of water. “Miracle Country” is a powerful memoir of family and place by Kendra Atleework, winner of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award.
Kendra grew up in the Owens Valley near Bishop, California. Her story flows from her family’s relationship with the land, through the turmoil of loosing her mother at age 16, to leaving the place and finally returning. Woven throughout are stories of the Paiutes who were forcibly removed from the valley and William Mulholland’s infamous diversion of the Owens River to quench Los Angeles’ growing thirst. Drawing from the work of writers Mary Austin and Rebecca Solnit, Kendra’s prose is deeply personal and, like the mountains she calls home, strong, sharp, and beautiful.
“The Word for Woman is Wilderness” is kind of amazing. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Author Abi Andrews has crafted a gripping adventure story that also addresses complex philosophical, scientific, and feminist questions about humanity’s relationship with wilderness. The main character, 19-year-old Erin, travels from England to Alaska on ships, a dog sled, and by hitchhiking, and eventually arrives at a remote cabin in the Denali wilderness, determined to carry out a great feminist wilderness experiment.
Inspired by Chris McCandless (whose story appears in the book and movie “Into the Wild”), Erin wonders why it’s always the men who are celebrated for great solo adventures. She reads Thoreau, Ted Kaczynski, and Jack London, and contemplates the implications of the space race, moon landings, and Voyager 1 space probe. She imagines conversations with Rachel Carson and examines Indigenous conceptions of wilderness. Her journey twists and turns and is refreshingly unpredictable, and her conclusions echo those of Chris McCandless (who ultimately wrote that “happiness is only real when shared”) and another Worm favorite, Amy Irvine: humans need community as much as they need wilderness, and the two need not be mutually exclusive.
Wait—a skiing book recommendation? In July? It may seem a bit out of season, but for those of us who love frozen water as much as we love it when it flows, it’s always a good time to read about winter. “Powder Days” by Heather Hansman is a fascinating take on the past, present, and future of the ski culture in the United States.
Heather’s first book, about the Green River and water in the western U.S., was featured in a previous Weekly Worm and, along with this one, firmly cements her in my list of cool-outdoorsy-folks-I’d-like-to-hang-out-with. Heather (like the Worm) has been both a ski bum and a river guide, and her personal experience adds a layer of authenticity to what is already a well-researched and well-thought-out book. She asks hard questions and does not shy from the answers, especially around climate change, mental health, and inequality as they appear in and relate to the ski industry.
If you’re a skier, or maybe you have ski bums among your friends and family, this book will give you insight into how and why the ski culture evolved the way it has. If nothing else, it’ll definitely get you dreaming of soft turns and deep powder . . . soon. Very soon.
“Wolfkiller: Wisdom from a Nineteenth Century Navajo Shepherd” is a rare piece of work. Using a mix of parables and first-person recollection, this book describes one Navajo man’s upbringing and gradual understanding of his culture and the wisdom of “the path of light.”
Compiled from first-person interviews conducted during the course of a life-long friendship between Wolfkiller and Louisa Wade Wetherill (who operated a trading post near Monument Valley with her family in the early 1900s), Wolfkiller’s story includes moving descriptions of hiding from white soldiers in the canyons of Arizona and New Mexico, and eventually being marched to Bosque Redondo on “The Long Walk.”
Publishers in the 1930s were unimpressed with the book, but Louisa’s great-grandson found the manuscript in the family archives and it was finally published in 2007. The final edition also includes gorgeous black and white photos from the Wetherill family collection.
The Worm owes her appreciation for Ellen Meloy to two fellow river rats and readers: @roscoesnerk and @anthropologue. Jessica Hahl, the lovely brain behind @anthropologue, was the first one to push this one across a table to me, and she’s here to tell you why:
“Ellen Meloy is a remarkable writer that we lost too soon. Anthropology of Turquoise was the first book of hers that I read, shortly after beginning my first river season along the San Juan River. In reading the first essay, I found myself flying with Meloy along Comb Ridge and, realizing we had once stood in the same spot on that immense monocline, I was hooked. Exploring color as the primary entrance to Place was a fascinating journey into language, culture, science, physiology, and so much more. I may have already been obsessed with turquoise (it’s been my favorite color since I was a teenager), but this gave me words and theories to justify that devotion, beyond “it’s pretty.” I learned so much from this book, and so much of it is kept on the inside of my heart, next to Braiding Sweetgrass (which you may recognize from a previous weekly worm.)”
The disappearance of Bessie and Glen Hyde in 1928 during their honeymoon river trip on the Green and Colorado Rivers has been the subject of much speculation and debate over the years. The couple was last seen at Hermit Rapid in Grand Canyon, and although their boat was later discovered downstream, Bessie and Glen were never found. “Sunk Without a Sound” by Brad Dimock digs deep into the history of the so-called honeymoon couple, but it also includes a personal layer. Determined to understand as much as possible about the Hyde’s trip, Dimock built a replica of the 20-foot wooden sweep scow that was Glen’s chosen craft and actually ran it through Grand Canyon with his then-wife, Jeri Ledbetter, also an experienced boatman. The Hyde’s story is compelling, but it’s the modern story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Exhaustively researched and entertainingly presented, this is the Worm’s pick for the definitive treatment of a delicious, real-life river mystery.
This is not a fly-fishing story. This is a love story. The fly fishing is merely the frame on which Norman Maclean weaves his story of family, relationships, and the way that we try—and fail—to help the people we love. “A River Runs Through It” is a short, poignant memoir about one summer on the Big Blackfoot River in western Montana and about Norman’s brother, Paul. Maclean’s voice is as clear and reflective as the water of the river he and his brother ply with their hand-tied flies and rods. His understated humor rises to the surface in unexpected splashes of wit, and a quiet, wondering reverence for life flows like deep water through each anecdote. It is a beautiful story.
If you enjoy fly fishing, you will appreciate the loving detail with which Maclean describes flies and casting and the art of reading water for fish. If you don’t, you’ll probably still enjoy the descriptions, so full of joy are they, and gracefully intertwined with descriptions of moving water, geology, and the pleasures of being outside with the people you love.
Thanks to Marlena for introducing the Worm to this quote from this book on a river trip last summer: “I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually, the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.”
They called him the “Grand Old Man of the Colorado,” but Bert Loper was everywhere. He dug irrigation ditches in southwestern Colorado as a teenager in the 1880s and worked in the coal, silver, and gold mines in multiple western states. He was rowing the San Juan River in the 1890s, mining for gold with Misters Honaker and Mendenhall, and he even lived, mined, and farmed in Glen Canyon. Bert was one of the few people in the early 1900s who had run Cataract Canyon more than once. He just might hold the record for the most UPSTREAM miles traveled on the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, ferrying people and gear between mining claims and dam survey sites. He ran Westwater Canyon with Ellsworth Kolb in 1916—the first documented descent of that canyon. One of his boats still rests on the rocky shore of the Grand Canyon.
He is perhaps most famous for two things: rowing and dragging a boat for 162 miles upriver from Lee’s Ferry to Hite, in the middle of winter, alone, and for dying at the oars in his 80th year in Rapid 24½ in Grand Canyon. But as this deftly woven biography illustrates, Bert Loper’s story goes much deeper. Born in 1869, in the same summer that Powell was making his famous descent of the Colorado River, Bert’s life is entwined with the history of river running and the advent of the “modern” era of boating as we know it today. One of the first truly professional boatmen before it was a recognized career, Bert Loper was the link between the days of Powell and the days of Georgie White and river running as tourism.
“The Very Hard Way” is a long book for a long life, but writer and boatbuilder Brad Dimock makes every page and every detail an interesting one, and the book—like the life—is worth the time.
The Worm may be cheating a little bit with this one. This book is actually FIVE books, bound together to form one impressively large tome, with an equally weighty title: “Annals of the Former World.” It’s John McPhee again, that great observer of personality and character. In each of these books (Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, Assembling California, and Crossing the Craton), McPhee journeys across the United States in the company of geologists whose passion for the continent and the rocks that compose it is almost religious in nature. Traveling via the Interstate Highway system, it is the rocks exposed in road cuts that gradually unfold the story of our continent.
If a 600+ page anthology of geology books sounds off-putting, each of the five books can be purchased (or borrowed) individually. And really, this is creative nonfiction at its best. McPhee absorbs the knowledge of his subjects and travel partners and uses his gift for storytelling to translate science facts into what is a rather riveting narrative. “Why,” he asks, acknowledging the seeming contradiction, “would someone who majored in English choose to write about rocks?” And then goes on to highlight some of the delicious and almost erotic terms used in geology: intertonguing members, meteoric water, welded tuffs, fatigued rock, and drowned rivers. “Geology,” he writes, “was a fountain of metaphor.” This book won the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction in 1999, and you won’t have to turn too many of its pages to understand why.
It’s the Worm’s (Susan Munroe’s) birthday tomorrow, and my gift to you is “The River Why” by David James Duncan. There are few books that bring me as much joy as this one. Gus Orviston’s profound journey of self-discovery by way of rivers is an unforgettable read. This book will make you laugh out loud and chase your housemates around so that you can read them passages, although you may struggle to get the words out between giggles. On the surface, this is a story about a young man who loves (and lives) to fish. But, like Gus, the main character, this story has deep undercurrents. When you’re done giggling you may find yourself—like Gus—moved to tears by the beauty of the world and its people as described by David James Duncan.
Gus is a fly-fishing prodigy who leaves behind his wacky, well-meaning family to fulfill his “Ideal Schedule” (which consists of fly fishing and little else) and soon finds a deep emptiness that countless hours of angling cannot fill. The people he meets in his self-imposed hermitage and the relationship he develops with the nature around him become the vehicles for Gus’s eventual, reluctant enlightenment.
I hope you’ve noticed the Worm’s judicial use of phrases like “my favorite book ever!” so you’ll know that when I say that this book is one of my top 10 favorite books of all time, you’ll know I mean it. Just picking up my weathered copy to write this review gave me a shiver of pleasure and longing to rejoin Gus, flicking his rod and reading the waters of an unnamed Oregon River. Cannot recommend highly enough.
Happy Earth Day, Earthlings! This seemed like an appropriate day to remind you all that if you enjoy naturalist non-fiction and haven’t read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” you should!
First published in 1962, this is “the classic that launched the environmental movement.” This isn’t hyperbole. Written for the public rather than scientists, “Silent Spring” provided easy-to-understand evidence of the damage that pesticides inflict on the environment. Carson’s book resulted in government investigations of approved technologies, inspired communities to organize against aerial spraying of pesticides, and famously resulted in a ban on the use of DDT in the U.S. (although it is still manufactured for export).
This book is fascinating and frightening. Carson lays out example after methodical example of the impacts of industrial society on the environment. More frightening is the sneaking suspicion that even now, 60 years since the book was published, modern humans continue to ignore the consequences of our choices. Progress has been made, but “progress” on other fronts continues to contaminate and devastate our natural world.
If you haven’t read this book since Ecology 101 in college, it’s worth a re-read. Carson’s prose is lyrical but precise, and the ideas she challenges and the ones she proposes continue to feel relevant, infuriating, and inspiring.
“Down the Great Unknown,” by Edward Dolnick is one of the best Powell biographies that this Worm has wiggled through to date. Whereas Powell’s own account of his journey (“The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons”) tends to exaggerate the nobility of the scientific work and downplay the hardship, this book gives you the juice!
Drawing heavily on the journals of the other men on the trip (George Bradley and Jack Sumner in particular), Dolnick’s well-researched work fills in the details behind the scenes. The personalities and fortitude of the other men shine through their own words, as does the antipathy that some came to feel toward their leader. Dolnick also does a great job of putting the expedition into historical context. Instead of the usual two-sentence nod to Powell’s military service and loss of his arm, Dolnick dedicates two chapters to describing the horrors of the Civil War battlefield and field hospital where Powell was lucky to survive and undoubtedly learned some life-long lessons in enduring hardship and calamity.
Engaging and entertaining, this book plays on the suspense of the journey into what was truly unknown, and makes a great beach read, especially on a Lodore, Desolation, or Cataract trip.
In between the heavy pages of history and flights of fiction, it’s nice to include something short and sweet. A literary palate cleanser. When I say this in reference to the poetry of Mary Oliver, however, “sweet” does not mean saccharine or easy, or even light. It is more that her writing can be savored like a piece of dark chocolate: a handful of lines to sketch whole worlds of ideas, something read in a few short moments but providing nourishment for an entire day.
Mary Oliver writes of life and nature, and does so in such a heartfelt, personal, and encouraging way that even her poems about death feel uplifting. I love to share her verses with passengers on my river trips. I love to hand a book of her selected poems to a guest and invite them to choose a passage that speaks to them. I love to savor her careful words, to carry them with me, words of wonder and careful thought.
This winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award published at least 30 books of poetry in her lifetime, but “New and Selected Poems: Volume One” is a good collection to start with for someone interested in making her acquaintance.
“River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan,” by James Aton and Robert McPherson, is an excellent reference text for the enigmatic and enchanting San Juan River. Beginning high in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, the San Juan flows through the Four Corners region and then west into Utah. It is the second largest tributary to the Colorado River (after the Green), and has a long, rich geological and anthropological history.
Aton and McPherson trace the history of the river and the Four Corners Region, beginning with the ancient humans (whose mark still lingers on the landscape) and modern Indigenous tribes, then moving all the way through the arrival of white settlers and the Mormon pioneers and the river’s current role in the larger Colorado River storage plan. Published in the year 2000, the book’s treatment of “recent” political and environmental issues is now a bit dated, but the concepts are still relevant, and the book makes for a good cultural mile marker along the road of time.
For avid students of history and landscape, this book is a good cover-to-cover read, but it’s also a great reference for more casual travelers through the San Juan’s canyons. If you’re lucky enough to sign on to a San Juan River trip (something that a warming climate and shrinking snowpack is making more difficult every year), you’ll find this book in Holiday’s portable library can. Or, pick up your own copy and head out to do your own exploration
A #weeklyworm twofer: Testimony (Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness) and Red Rock Stories (Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands). Two collections of essays and ideas, 20 years apart, both written out of an urgent need to speak for a land that cannot speak for itself.
“Testimony,” produced in 1996, was in response to a bill that would have opened up enormous tracts of Utah’s designated wilderness areas to development. The resulting chapbook was distributed to every member of U.S. Congress and Senate, and entered into the testimony heard on the legislature floor. The bill was eventually withdrawn, and President Clinton stated that the collection of essays influenced his decision to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
20 years later, another critical juncture for Utah’s red rock country: the creation of Bears Ears National Monument. Again, a group of concerned citizens addressed the issue the best way they knew how, through writing. “Red Rock Stories” was sent to Washington D.C., and another historic act of preservation was inaugurated.
The impetus for the books alone makes them worth a look, but the essays and poems contained within stand under their own power, written in earnest love for a place and with eyes toward the future. Ellen Meloy, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Amy Irvine, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, and Bruce Babbit, among others, express their own sense of why these places matter and why they should be preserved. They are thin books, but powerful, easy to tuck in an ammo can to be savored in small sips.
“The Stars: A New Way to See Them” is hands down the best star-related resource that this earth-bound Worm has found. Written and illustrated by H.A. Rey (best known for creating Curious George), this book connects the dots of the constellations in an intuitive way, making them easier to recognize and learn. Instead of vague geometric shapes, this ingenious illustrator makes the shape of the Great Bear actually resemble a bear, lumbering through the cosmos. Sagittarius the Archer draws a clearly defined bow and aims it at the heart of Scorpius, whose giant tail curls into a deadly, star-tipped point. The book also includes star charts, stories about the constellations, and covers the basic science of our universe in easy-to-understand terms.
I’ve spent many a night lying on my boat on the river’s edge, gazing into the glow of the Milky Way, using a red light (red lights don’t destroy night vision like white lights do) to compare the images in this book with the sky overhead. Pick this one up before your next river trip or summer camping excursion. Read some of the star stories while it’s still light out, then see how late you can stay up, tracking the progress of the constellations through the glorious dark with H.A. Rey to guide you.
Planning a road trip along some beaUTAHful red rock roads this spring break? Tuck “Roadside Geology of Utah” in your glove box on your way out of town. In honor of International Women’s Week, the Worm wants you to meet the three gifted geologists behind this excellent reference book: the late Dr. Halka Chronic and her daughters, Felicie Williams and Lucy Chronic.
Full of colorful diagrams and photos of Utah’s many spectacular geological features, this book follows major and minor roadways across the state and provides mile-by-mile explanations for the dramatic formations and panoramas that unfurl along the way. It opens with a comprehensive overview of basic geology concepts and terms, presents a geological timeline of major events in Utah, then zooms in closer to discuss the Colorado Plateau before exploring specific regions and routes.
I’ve brought this on a dozen road trips since it was introduced to me, and on every trip it teaches me something different. I feel lucky to live in a state with such a dynamic and varied geology, and so much of it exposed and open to study and contemplation. It’s easy to appreciate the geology of the national parks and river canyons, but if you want a more complete picture of this great state and its great geology, pick this book up the next time you’re at the Moab Rock Shop!
John McPhee is one of the Worm’s favorite nonfiction writers. He has a gift for observing people and distilling their nature into concise yet absolutely complete character studies. In “Encounters with the Archdruid,” it is the nature of four individuals, as well as nature itself, that come to life under McPhee’s astute gaze. There is the Archdruid, David Brower, one-time head of the Sierra Club and committed conservationist, and there are the three who encounter him: a miner, a resort developer, and a dam builder.
McPhee describes three distinct encounters, but from this river-runner’s perspective, the best of the three is when Brower (the person credited with preventing the damming of Grand Canyon) goes on a rafting trip through that very canyon with Floyd Dominy (the person who wanted very badly to dam Grand Canyon). Their repartee is quick, sharp, and delightful to read. McPhee layers in the back story of the fight over the dams, and the larger issues of water use in the West. It’s an excellent character study and an engaging primer on the foundations of American conservation.
If you’re unfamiliar with David Brower, this book is a must-read. And if you are already familiar, you’ll know that it’s worth meeting him again through McPhee’s excellent writing.
Clifford Duncan: Ute tribal official, medicine man, museum director, artist, trained lay archaeologist, U.S. Army veteran, and leader in the Native American Church. Holiday has a boat named in his honor. Clifford worked with Dee Holladay to build an Indigenous perspective into Holiday’s interpretive program. So I was excited to come across “One Voice Rising,” a book in which Clifford’s singular voice is preserved for all time.
This book isn’t a biography, or even a memoir, not really. It is a stream-of-consciousness recounting of a life lived between two worlds: the Indian world, and the white world. The narrative floats from moment to moment, place to place, much the way that memories surface and sink in our consciousness. Journalist Linda Sillitoe interviewed Clifford over the course of nearly two decades, and his voice is translated almost verbatim onto the page. Clifford Duncan speaks directly to his readers about spirituality, assimilation, culture, healing, and life.
Vivid black and white photos by internationally acclaimed photographer George R. Janecek supplement the text. Janecek spent 25 years documenting Clifford Duncan and the Ute reservation. Photos of ceremonial items, daily life, and powwows warrant as close a study as the words.
Having heard Clifford Duncan’s name often throughout my Holiday career, it was an honor to finally meet him, even posthumously. His words will float with me on future trips through Desolation Canyon, and his ideas—through this book—will continue to challenge and enlighten readers.
Most people know that Mark Twain was a pen name for Samuel Clemens. But how many of you know what the pen name’s original meaning was? (Here’s a hint: Twain spent four years working on and eventually piloting steamboats on the Mississippi River. If you’re still not sure, you’ll probably figure it out by the end of this book.) “Life on the Mississippi” is all rambling anecdotes from the golden era of the Mississippi’s steamboats, stitched together with Twain’s sharp wit, satire, and observations made as an older man returning to the river after the Civil War.
What I enjoyed and related to the most was the descriptions of Twain’s learning to read the river, of judging ripples on the water’s surface, of learning every inch of a landscape and marking its change from season to season. I had not known that Mark Twain was such an accomplished and astute boatman. River guides will grin with recognition as he describes the early days of his career and the unique learning curve that goes with navigating a river.
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day . . . there never was so wonderful a book written by man.”
This is the story of one of the most epic river trips in United States history, a transcontinental expedition down (and up!) some of the biggest waterways in North America. From 1803 to 1806, Lewis and Clark and “The Corps of Discovery” navigated up the Missouri River and down the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean. Charged by Thomas Jefferson with the responsibility of exploring and mapping the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, the expedition also made scientific observations and collected specimens of plants and animals that had never been seen east of the Mississippi River. “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose vividly recreates what it would have been like to travel with the Corps of Discovery. He uses Lewis and Clark’s own writing to expand on the expedition leaders’ personalities and characters. Their journey is almost unimaginable in today’s globalized society, and this book is a fascinating trip not just across a “new” landscape but into a different world. Whatever you learned about this history in elementary school, it wasn’t nearly as complete and compelling as this account. Mostly the Worm likes reading with her eyeballs, but this book makes an excellent auditory experience. Take Lewis and Clark with you while you clean your house or do yard work; their exertions and challenges are sure to make your dishes and weeding seem easy!
There have been five major extinction events in the history of the planet. Today, argues Elizabeth Kolbert, we are living through the sixth. And unlike the last five, this one is our fault.
From mastodons to great auks to Neanderthals, Kolbert traces the history of species that have been erased from the planet during the reign of homo sapiens. She recounts the development of evolutionary theory and details the ways that humans have dramatically (and speedily) altered the planet.
Although based on what is not a particularly uplifting hypothesis, “The Sixth Extinction” makes for excellent reading and food for thought as we move deeper into the Anthropocene. And it does leave the reader with the teensiest bit of hope, that maybe humans will turn their extra-large brains to solving, rather than exacerbating, this ongoing problem.
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.
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!)