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 Wednesday Susan shares 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!
November 29, 2023
“Alone on the Colorado” is an exciting, unforgettable travelogue and a vivid depiction of 1930s Utah and Colorado. Our memoirist, Harold Leich (Hal), set out to be the first person to run the entire Colorado River, from Rocky Mountain National Park to the newly forming Lake Mead. Hal navigated the upper canyons of the Colorado River—several of which are now under reservoirs. He portaged much of Gore Canyon but ran Westwater in its entirety (maybe only the third or fourth person to do so). It’s when he gets into Cataract Canyon, though, that the story really gets good.
Hal’s adventure is entertaining on its own, but he’s also a great writer, reflecting (from the safe vantage point of middle age) on the specific, breathless exhilaration that belongs only to youth, the rush of doing something that you know is dangerous but absolutely convinced that you are invincible. Older, wiser Hal writes about his younger self with a wry grin and a shake of the head, grateful and amazed that he survived.
November 22, 2023
Here it is, your annual Happy Thanksgiving reminder from your friend the Worm that you really, really need to read “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This book is absolutely packed with wisdom, any passage of which could be tacked onto one’s bedroom wall as words to live by, but because it’s Thanksgiving, I’ll just stick with this piece from the Thanksgiving Address. “We are thankful to our Mother the Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love, and respect. Now our minds are one.”
Hallelujah, thanks be, and pass the beans.
November 15, 2023
“Brave the Wild River” by Melissa Sevigny is delightful, a triumphant account of the historic 1938 expedition from Green River, Utah, to the newly forming Lake Mead. Although the media of the time was more interested in the scientists’ gender than the science itself (modern readers will scoff and boo at the prevailing sexism of the time), Clover and Jotter’s botanical survey is still referenced today as the ONLY survey completed in the canyon before the massive changes wrought by Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams.
Using the diaries and letters of Clover, Jotter, and their companions and guides (Norm Nevills and Don Harris among them; Buzz Holmstrom makes a cameo appearance as well in a handful of endearing episodes), Sevigny brings each person to vivid life along with the adventure of running rapids and the interpersonal drama. And she does not neglect the plants, which also play a leading role in the book.15
November 8, 2023
Well, friends, it’s snowing in the Wasatch, so it’s time to think about water in a solid state. It’s also this book’s 2nd birthday this week! Two great reasons to remind you to check out “Powder Days” by Heather Hansman. This book is a compelling exploration of the history of the ski industry and the origins of ski bum culture.
A former ski bum herself, Heather digs deep into the past and present in an attempt to envision what the future of skiing might be, especially in the face of climate change and shifting skier demographics. Anyone who’s spent a winter or two chasing snow will relate to Heather’s stories. I challenge you not to smile knowingly, longingly, at her descriptions of the epic turns and crystalline moments that keep so many of us coming back to the mountains, season after season. Get stoked for the ski season, and learn a little something while you’re at it.
November 1, 2023
”The Only Good Indians” is a slow-burn Halloween special and a bonus book to crown the Worm’s October celebration of Indigenous authors. If you like horror, this is the best horror book you’ll read this year. Four American Indian men are stalked by a secret from their past, a secret that has come to life and is looking for revenge.
Stephen Graham Jones is a Blackfoot Native American and a fantastic writer. His prose creeps with suspense and is punctuated with moments of shocking gore. The characters—even the ones who don’t survive the first chapter—are lovable, flawed, and human. The reality of what is chasing them is revealed slowly, until you’re breathless to understand. And, once you do, it becomes harder to tell who is the victim, and who is the hunted.
October 25, 2023
Every week this month, the Worm is featuring a book by a different Indigenous author. Natalie Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, and her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Postcolonial Love Poem” is rooted in Colorado River and Plateau. Even though this is a fairly recent #weeklywormrerun, it’s so darn good, I’m telling you to read it again. Start with “How the Milky Way Was Made.”
“My river was once unseparated. Was Colorado. Red- fast flood. Able to take anything it could wet—in a wild rush— all the way to Mexico. Now it is shattered by fifteen dams over one thousand four hundred and fifty miles . . . To save our fish, we lifted them from our skeletoned river beds, loosed them in our heavens, set them aster— ‘Achii ‘ahan, Mojave salmon, Colorado pike minnow. Up there they glide gilled with stars. . . . making their great speeded way across the darkest hours, rippling the sapphired sky-water into a galaxy road. . . .”
October 18, 2024
“The Missing Morningstar and Other Stories,” by Stacie Shannon Denetsosie is this week’s literary treat. Denetsosie is a member of the Navajo Nation and a resident of Logan, Utah.
Each story in this debut collection is distinct and immediately engrossing, featuring strong characters that spring off the page fully formed within a few carefully crafted sentences. I was moved by how powerfully Denetsosie conveys the humanity of her characters and the reality, difficulty, and beauty of modern Indigenous life. There is an art to short stories, and she nails it.
Denetsosie writes of life on the reservation and the impacts of settler-colonialism. She writes about family and culture and lovingly illustrates the landscape of her homeland: the red rocks and blue sky of the desert southwest. This book is brand new, published less than a month ago by SLC local non-profit publisher Torrey House Press.
October 11, 2024
In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, the Worm presents “As Long As Grass Grows” by Dina Gilio-Whitaker. This book is not an easy read, but it’s an important one, especially for those of us who are privileged to make a living on public lands—lands available to us because they were stolen from Indigenous people.
Gilio-Whitaker is an Indigenous activist and educator, and her book is a compelling, unflinching history of the Indigenous fight for environmental justice “from colonization to Standing Rock.” She packs an incredible amount of information into this rather slim text (less than 200 pages), and her delivery is clear, precise, and unflinching. It’s a powerful read.
The Worm has highlighted Indigenous texts similar to this, and I’ll repeat the same idea as in my other recommendations: it is uncomfortable, even painful, to absorb some of this history and to recognize the role that we—all of us—have in it. But if we are truly going to do right by these lands and their original caretakers, it is absolutely essential that we continue listening, learning, and trying to do better.
October 4, 2023
It’s banned books week! And Indigenous People’s Day is next week, so we’re doing a #WeeklyWorm twofer: a banned book written by an Indigenous author.
“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is a young adult thriller based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, written by Angeline Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Daunis Fontaine is the eponymous daughter of an Indigenous father and white mother, struggling to honor both her white and Chippewa heritage. When she witnesses the murder of her best friend and the subsequent suicide of the shooter, life as she knows it disintegrates. Daunis is pulled into the ensuing FBI investigation, and she begins to uncover long-hidden secrets that threaten to tear her—and her community—apart.
Ojibwe language and traditions are woven seamlessly through the book, portraying the culture without ever feeling like teaching. This was Angeline Boulley’s first book, and it skyrocketed to the top of the NY Times bestseller list and won a series of awards for young adult literature.
The book was “removed for review” from the Brandywine School District in Niles, Michigan—in the traditional homeland of the Chippewa—for concerns about sexually explicit material. The book includes non-graphic scenes of consensual and non-consensual sex, and addresses the disproportionate levels of sexual violence inflicted on Indigenous women. It offers an accurate representation of Chippewa culture and the reality of young people living in Sault Ste. Marie.
September 27, 2023
This week’s Worm celebrates Avis and Bernard DeVoto, two of the United States’ greatest and perhaps least-known conservationists. “This America of Ours” by Nate Schweber is a fantastic tribute to this husband-and-wife team who fought to save public lands during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the McCarthy era.
River runners may recognize Bernard DeVoto’s name in the context of the campaign against Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument, but the dam story is only one chapter at the end of a lifetime of advocating for public land. Bernard was a journalist and writer. Avis was his editor, fact-checker, and researcher. Together, they exposed (and stopped) a massive land grab that would have sold off the bulk of the West’s public lands, and built a powerful grassroots coalition in a time when careers and lives were ruined for being on the wrong side of the ruling political powers.
As a student of river history and the places where it intersects with U.S. history as a whole, this book connected so many dots for me. It places the Echo Park dam controversy into a broader, national context, and fills in the history of political dealings whose impacts are still being felt today. I devoured this book over a weekend, and closed it with a powerful sense of gratitude for the DeVotos and their work, and for Schweber for bringing them to such vivid life.
September 20, 2023
“Water is the first medicine, Nokomis told me. We come from water. It nourished us inside our mother’s body. As it nourishes us here on Mother Earth.
Water is sacred, she said.” So begins “The Water Protectors,” by Carole Lindstrom. This book for young readers is a gorgeous tribute to the Indigenous-led movements across North America in defense of our most precious resource. Michaela Goade’s Caldecott-Medal-winning illustrations provide powerful visuals as the book’s protagonist rallies her people to fight a black snake that threatens to destroy everything her people hold sacred.
Inspired by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, this book is a fantastic introduction to the idea that water is life, and that it’s up to all of us to fight to protect what’s most important to us.
September 14, 2023
“River House” by Sarahlee Lawrence starts in Peru, on a river in flood stage, with a young woman and a raft, and the question, “How the hell did I get here?”
The book is a memoir, and Sarahlee is a strong, compelling narrator. The tension that begins in the rain in Peru remains as a strong undercurrent as Sarahlee unfolds her story. She doesn’t shy from hard things, from traveling the world as an international river guide, to building a cabin by hand on her family farm, to facing her father’s demons and her own.
Her writing is beautiful, rich, raw, and real, and the Worm can relate to Sarahlee on a number of levels. If you’ve ever struggled to find the balance between taking flight and coming home to roost, this book is for you.
September 6, 2023
The Worm is just the teensiest bit envious of some her Holiday friends and coworkers who are running Cataract Canyon (the Worm’s favorite) with @glencanyon_institute and writer Craig Childs this week. Craig is the author of a number of #weeklyworms, including this classic: “House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest.”
Craig Childs is an inexhaustible adventurer with an enormous capacity for curiosity and wonder and a gift for translating that wonder into words. In this episode, he’s following the trail of the humans who lived on the Colorado Plateau 1,000 years ago and left behind the tantalizing remnants of their civilization. From Mesa Verde to Chaco Canyon, Keet Seel to Mexico, follow Craig through dust, sage, and flash floods to a better understanding – or maybe just more questions – about the cultures of the desert southwest.
August 30, 2023
There’s this place west of the town of Green River, Utah. If you know about it, you probably don’t want me to mention it here. Worthy of national park status, but still mostly under the radar of the average tourist, the Swell is a public land paradise. This week’s Worm is about that paradise: “The Greater San Rafael Swell: Honoring Tradition and Preserving Storied Lands” by Stephen E. Strom and Jonathan T. Bailey.
The book features gorgeous landscape photos and tells the story of the Swell from its geological beginnings through its human history, both ancient and modern. But it’s not a guide to the place so much as a guide to the politics of the place. The Emery County Public Land Management Act, passed in 2019, was a monumental win for land preservation and forward-thinking management and is a great case study for anyone interested in public land policy. This book tells the story of how diverse stakeholders came to walk together on the land and talk—and listen—to each other and find a compromise. It’s an inspiring example of how to get important work done, and how wilderness advocates, ranchers, miners, hikers, bikers, and ATV riders can find common ground.
Pick this one up for the pictures, but keep it on your shelf as a hopeful reference, a bright point on which future land policy decisions can be modeled.
August 23, 2023
It’s #WorldWaterWeek, friends! And this week’s Worm is all about that very substance. But, instead of more hard-hitting nonfiction about the very real water-related issues facing the West (and the world), we’re trying a different angle: “The Water Knife,” an action-packed suspense novel about southwestern states ravaged by climate change and fighting over every last drop of the Colorado River (it really is fiction, I swear).
Colorado author Paolo Bacigalupi has done his homework on the Colorado River Compact and pursues some of its implications toward their logical ends. He crafts a chillingly plausible future in which states are pitted against each other in an endless series of water wars and where the rich relax in hotel oases while the poor line up at unreliable public taps and water refugees try to sneak into Vegas and California.
The World Water Week conference website invites attendees “to rethink how we manage water,” and asks, “Which ideas, innovations, and governance systems will we need in a more unstable and water scarce world?” The Worm’s not sure how to answer those questions, but she’s hoping that a week spent with some fun (and provocative) fiction might spark some new interest and some out-of-the box thinking. Solve problems AND be entertained!
August 16, 2023
“On the Loose” by Terry and Renny Russell: a celebration of being young and free in the wilderness. Poetry, photography, and some words in favor of conservation. I’ll let Terry and Renny take it from here.
“We leave: part of ourselves.
We take: sand in our cuffs, rocks, shells,
moss, acorns, driftwood, cones, pebbles,
But is the picture a tenth of the thing?
Is it anything without the smell and salt
breeze and the yellow warmth when the fog lifts?
Oh! But I got all that, too.
It is exposed for ever on the sensitive
Of my mind.”
August 9, 2023
This week we’re going back to the source: the primary material from the first known descent of the Green and Colorado Rivers, the 1869 Powell expedition. Published in 1988, “The Great Unknown,” by John Cooley presents the journals and letters written by Powell and his crew during their trip—the first time that these materials had been gathered and presented as a cohesive narrative. Cooley provides some framing and commentary for the individual journal entries and letters, but the men’s writing largely stands by itself.
Readers familiar with the story of the expedition will recognize the key plot points; what this book provides that is different, and that the Worm found fascinating, is the crew’s day-to-day commentary and descriptions of the journey. Jack Sumner, a trapper and mountain guide, and George Bradley, an Army veteran, are the most prolific writers, although other voices are heard as well. I’d met each of the crew in other biographies, but it was interesting to get to know them directly, in their own words. Bradley, in particular, wrote with a surprisingly sensitive tone, reflecting on his own emotions as well as each day’s events.
If you’ve read the official Powell account and wondered about what was REALLY going on, you can get it all here, written in the midst of the adventure.
August 2, 2023
There’s a general idea that the history and culture of Native people in the United States ended with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. This book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” by David Treuer, is a direct and compelling rebuttal of that idea, and it’s one of the best books the Worm has read this year.
Treuer, who is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, writes about reading the famous book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown. Treuer says he felt dismayed by the book’s assertion that “the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed,” and he “came to conceive of a book that would dismantle the tale of our demise by way of a new story.” The result was this, a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, a powerful push back against the prevailing narrative of the modern Indian. It’s a celebration of all the ways that Native cultures have, in fact, thrived, despite the centuries of colonization, assimilation, and brutal erasure.
Part memoir, part history book, and part journalism, this book describes the last 128-ish years of Native and U.S. history. Personal anecdotes and detailed historical context make for a fascinating, enlightening work. This feels like the sort of book that should be required reading for all U.S. citizens as we work to be better, more inclusive, and better educated humans.
July 26, 2023
Last week, Holiday and the Worm lost a very dear friend. Tim Porten, or “TP,” was a consummate river rat and fellow bookworm. We consistently connected over whatever river book we were each reading. He introduced me to a number of books, and I like to think that I returned the favor. I’ve been thinking all week about how best to memorialize the bookish side of TP. What book would TP most want you to read? The answer I’ve settled on is – all of them! He loved reading and learning and would offer you a long list of suggestions with concise descriptions and context, telling you why a book is important, and where it fits in the oeuvre of the Colorado Plateau and its rivers. Essentially, he’d do the same thing I’ve been doing here with this weekly recommendation. If you know, you know, I guess.
So, in honor of TP, I’m suggesting you start with “The Doing of the Thing.” It’s the biography of Buzz Holmstrom, one of TP’s (and my) heroes. Buzz was a self-taught boatman and boat builder, best known for his 1937 solo trip from Green River, Wyoming, through the Grand Canyon. Buzz, like TP, was quiet, introverted, and shy of the spotlight. But, also like TP, he was a thoughtful and intelligent human who felt a deep love and respect for the river and its canyons.
Reflecting in his journal near the end of his trip, Buzz wrote, “I find I have already had my reward – in the doing of the thing.” TP understood the doing of the thing; he knew how to be present, open to the subtle and surprising moments of joy along the river. I will miss being able to share the joy of the river and river reading with him, but will keep his memory alive—and keep learning—by continuing to share books with you all.
July 12, 2023
The Worm is still floating on the vibes of last month’s trip to the cool, clear, forested streams and rivers of Montana. And, to honor those waterways, she’s flashing back to this #weeklywormrerun, “A River Runs Through It,” by Norman Maclean.
Although the Worm isn’t much for fishing (what worm would be?), the beauty of Maclean’s novella transcends simple love for a hobby. He writes about fishing, but it’s the river—and the way the river connects him with his family— that he loves. This coming-of-age story will appeal to anyone who’s ever sat next to a river and gotten lost (or found) in the swirls and ripples of moving water.
July 5, 2023
This week’s Worm is “The Big Burn,” by Timothy Egan, the story of “Teddy Roosevelt and the fire that saved America.” It was 1910, early in the history of the newly founded U.S. Forest Service, when one of the biggest wild fires in U.S. history burned over 3 million acres of forest in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Egan puts the firefighting action at the center of the narrative, but Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, are at the book’s heart. United by a common vision of conservation—unheard of in the early 20th century—the two men believed in the idea of public land as a resource to be preserved for all citizens. This book describes the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and provides context for the agency’s continued management strategies.
Before coming to Holiday, the Worm worked as a wildland firefighter for the Forest Service and grew up recreating in the national forests of her native New Hampshire. This book was a much-needed and fascinating history lesson. We owe much to Roosevelt and Pinchot. And, even though the mountains of the Colorado Plateau are still wet and green with last winter’s epic snowpack, all that moisture fuels growth, and growth means an abundance of fuel when this year’s fire season finally gets going. Six out of 10 fires in Utah are human caused; here’s your reminder to recreate carefully! Only YOU can prevent forest fires!
June 27, 2023
After 12 years of running the Green River through its parched desert canyons, the Worm finally got a look at the river’s beginning, and WOW, is it lush! Naturally, as I dipped my oars into the clear water flowing out of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, I was thinking about a book: “Run, River, Run,” by Ann Zwinger. Zwinger hikes, canoes, and rafts the entire length of the Green, from the first droplets trickling off Fremont Glacier to the quiet but powerful confluence with the Colorado in Canyonlands National Park.
The Green River is a critical piece of the larger Colorado River system, and the upper Green feels particularly vital. Upstream of any dams, the water is naturally cold and clear and meanders through countless oxbows, creating unparalleled marsh and meadow habitat. The bird and wildlife watching is spectacular.
Zwinger is a gifted naturalist (and illustrator—her detailed drawings of plants and animals enliven the text) and the joy she takes in her river journey shines through her writing. If you can’t make the drive to the southern slope of the Wind Rivers, this book will take you there.
June 21, 2023
The Worm’s up north this week, checking out some Montana rivers for a change, so she’ll let the inimitable Vaughn Short speak. This book of poetry is a classic around any river campfire. This is from the prologue:
“Come – let me tell a tale.
Let me speak to you
Of raging river – lonely trail
Of misty mountain rising blue.
Of whispering pine on skyline crest,
Campfire casting warming glow
Of canyon wall with eagles nest
River flowing far below -
From down a ridge a poor will’s call
Of hazy buttes in barren land,
Snow fed stream o’er waterfall
Of twisted tree and blowing sand.
Should these fumbling writings here
Take you far from street and town
Bring back some memory that’s dear
Then I’m pleased I set them down.”
June 14, 2023
Of all the historic figures who lived in and roamed through the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers, Ann and Josie Bassett are among the Worm’s favorites. Born in Brown’s Park (where we begin our trips through Lodore Canyon) around the turn of the 20th century, the Bassett sisters were raised to rope, ride, and shoot, and were not above rustling a beef or poaching a deer or two.
These capable frontierswomen fraternized with Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. Josie was married five times. Ann stood trial for cattle rustling twice. And author Grace McClure brings them—and the landscape and culture that shaped them—to vivid life in her book, “The Bassett Women.” It’s a fascinating biography of two memorable women. The next time you’re rattling down the road to the Gates of Lodore, imagine living here, on the edge of nowhere, before roads and state lines, and think of Ann and Josie.
June 7, 2023
The Worm is stepping away from the river this week for a wee sojourn in the woods. “Barkskins,” by Annie Proulx, is almost as thick as the forests it memorializes. The story begins with two indentured French woodcutters who arrive in eastern Canada in the late 1600s and are charged with clearing the thick forest for their feudal lord. One man runs away and become a timber baron. The other marries a Mi’kmaw woman and stays. The descendants of these two men pick up the narrative, and we follow them through more than 300 years, up to modern times.
The cast of characters numbers in the dozens, but Proulx builds each one completely, describing their traits and (mis)adventures with vivid detail. Some characters’ stories last throughout multiple chapters; others are gone within a page or two, but each moves the story forward in time and contributes to a powerful sense of historic continuity and cause and effect. These intricately conceived characters, however, are only vehicles for the real narrative: the story of The Forests, their Indigenous inhabitants, and the destruction and assimilation of both. It’s a brilliant piece of historical fiction (or perhaps it’s best described as “ecological” fiction).
This book has stayed with me since I first read it a couple of years ago. It makes me long for a way back, to undo our history, or at least for a clear way forward, one that heals both the land and its people. A powerful, absorbing novel. Two worms up!
May 31, 2023
If you’ve ever gazed up at the walls of one of the Colorado Plateau’s spectacular canyons and wondered, “What kind of rock is this, and how did it form?” then Ancient Landscapes is the book for you. Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney take you on a full-color, illustrated tour back through time. Visit Utah when it was located on the equator, when it was the east coast, or when it resembled the Sahara Desert.
This is a great reference book for anyone interested in geology, and it makes a gorgeous coffee table book, too.
May 24, 2023
“Postcolonial Love Poem,” by Natalie Diaz, stopped me in my tracks. Each word in this Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of poetry has been carefully considered, weighed, and slotted into place with masterful precision. Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the edge of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. The desert and the river, along with Diaz’s culture and life experience, are the foundation for her work. Her poems are powerful, at once furious and inquisitive, reverent and outraged.
Many thanks to @annarosiiiina, who put this on the Worm’s radar. Anna says, “People should read it to try something new and different. It was definitely not what I normally read, but I really enjoyed reading a poem or two a day and seeing the different perspectives on the water and land use, especially.” The Worm couldn’t agree more. These poems kept me up past my bedtime, reading page after page, eager to follow Diaz’s visions. They captured my imagination, challenged my worldview, and roused my Colorado river–soaked spirit.
May 17, 2023
High water is on everyone’s mind this season, but if you want to read about a REALLY big water year, “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko is the book to choose. This is required reading for Holiday guides, and the Worm can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s the story of three boatmen who ran a wooden dory through Grand Canyon on a flow of 72,000 cfs and lived to tell about it.
The story of these three guides and their illegal bid to make the fastest journey through Grand Canyon is the centerpiece of the book. It also provides one of the best historical overviews of the policies, decisions, and circumstances that led to that historic flood and historic journey. Fedarko, who spent time working as a Grand Canyon boatman, writes beautifully about the canyon and the odd, gifted souls who chose to spend their lives working in its depths. The first chapter of the book is quite dense—there’s a lot of history to this tale—but if you can power through all that background info, you will be amply rewarded with an unforgettable adventure story.
May 3, 2023
It’s river season again! And the Worm is launching—today!—on a spring-swollen Green River, preparing to float into “a region of wildest desolation.” She’s heading out with this year’s cohort of new Holiday guides for five days of dedicated training on all things river running. And this book, “Raven’s Exile,” by Ellen Meloy, will be in her ammo can.
Ellen spent almost a decade of summers running Desolation Canyon with her river ranger husband, Mark, and she learned the canyon by heart. She lived in its silty waters, breathed its gritty wind, and flowed through its side streams until she could tell the canyon’s story almost from its own perspective. Majestic and poetic, hilarious and absurd, this book is one of the Worm’s all-time favorites.
To learn more about the late Ellen Meloy and her singular vision of the desert world, check out the #EllenMeloyFundForDesertWriters (and congrats to the most recent award recipient, Zak Podmore, another #weeklyworm favorite!)
April 26, 2023
“This Land is Their Land,” by David J. Silverman. The subtitle says it all: “The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.” This is a Native-centered exploration of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of first contact between Europeans and Indigenous people all along the northeastern coast of what’s now the United States. It’s not a light read, but it’s exactly the kind of history that the Worm loves, one that digs into the details and tries to provide both sides to a story to show the big picture of what was *really* going on.
The Worm grew up in New England. I attended field trips to Plymouth Plantation and learned the happy Thanksgiving story, of pilgrims and Indians meeting and sharing. I spent time visiting an aunt who lived on Nantucket Island and learned only about the history of the white whalers and sailors who’d lived there. I even remember dressing up as a Native American for a school presentation, and probably for Halloween one year. I was not taught to question any of this and didn’t meet anyone I knew to be Native American until probably after college. None of this means I’m a bad person. I just never heard the whole story.
It can feel uncomfortable to be asked to re-imagine or change one’s understanding of things, especially when new understanding brings feelings of sadness or guilt. But as someone who loves to read and loves to learn, it feels only natural that my own knowledge and understanding of the Thanksgiving story—and all of our country’s history—should grow and change, as I do. Why wouldn’t we want to understand more, especially if understanding helps us to be better, more considerate humans?
April 19, 2023
“Refuge” begins in 1983: a historic snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains melts and floods Salt Lake City, rushing into Great Salt Lake, which begins to rise. Over the next four years, the lake reaches a historic high. It floods highways, industrial infrastructure, and Terry Tempest Williams’ beloved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.
As the waters rise, Terry also faces the loss of her mother. The story of Diane Tempest’s battle against cancer unfolds along with the story of nature’s struggle to balance itself in an environment that has been drastically altered by humans. Great Salt Lake and its birds are the backdrop and structure for this deeply personal narrative.
This book is breathtaking, and feels especially relevant now, 40 years later, as another historic snowpack stacks up in the Wasatch. This time Great Salt Lake is at a historic low, desperate for the water that runs out of the mountains—if our thirsty city will allow it to get that far. Read this one if you love birds. Read it if you live in the Salt Lake valley. Read it if you’ve ever lost someone you love, and want to learn how to find solace in an inland sea. I promise you will not be unmoved.
April 5, 2023
Life on the Mississippi – The Worm was recently reminded of this classic on a recent visit to see her parents in New England, the last place she expected to run into anything to do with the Mississippi River and its most famous biographer. Did you know that Mark Twain (born on the Mississippi as Samuel Clemens) lived in Hartford, Connecticut for nearly 20 years? The Worm did not. But turns out that the house he had built for his family is still there, and now a National Historic Landmark and museum. Add that to the list for the next visit back east!
And in the meantime, if you haven’t read this #weeklywormrerun, this is your reminder that it is an absolutely joyful trip down the river, as seen from Mark Twain’s memory lane, as he describes his days as a riverboat pilot. Any boatman will laugh ruefully at his descriptions of his overconfidence and lessons learned the hard way. And any lover of the river will appreciate his elegiac treatment of the wild, free-flowing Mississippi before it was dredged, diked, and dammed. Two Worms way up for this one.
March 29, 2023
“The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in the last year. It is about climate change. It is also, surprisingly, optimistic, and I find it surfacing in my mind at least once a week. The book begins with a heat wave in India that kills over 20 million people and then follows the repercussions of that event into a not-very-distant future in which we might actually save the world.
There are a handful of main characters whose journeys we follow throughout the book, but much of the story is told through fictional eyewitness accounts from the front lines of the climate crisis. These are interspersed with shorter, nonfiction thought-pieces, including explanations of economic theories, the ongoing mass extinction event, and (in one unforgettable chapter) a list of the 19 largest organizations currently burning and selling fossil fuels.
The smaller pieces enlarge the reader’s understanding of concepts such as neoliberalism and entities like the World Bank, and how they are connected to the climate crisis that both we and the fictional characters are facing. The result is a powerful, thought-provoking book that left me with a better understanding of the world around us. If you’re worried about our future, this book offers some powerful and enlightened reasons to hope.
March 22, 2023
Happy World Water Day, folks! Since 1993, March 22 has marked the day on which we celebrate this life-giving element, and raise awareness of all those who do not have access to it. Although many of us living in the desert southwest are privileged to have easy access to clean drinking water, it’s something we should never take for granted. Indeed, it’s something we should consider on a daily basis: where does our water come from, and how does it get here?
In honor of this international day of awareness, the Weekly Worm invites you to go beyond the politics of water and marvel at the element itself and its almost magical qualities. “The Secret Knowledge of Water” by Craig Childs is a reverent exploration of water by one of the West’s most inquisitive writers. Childs visits water in the most unlikely places, including an underground lake on the North Rim of Grand Canyon and a stream bed in northern Mexico that is dry by day but flows with life by night.
March 15, 2023
Today’s #weeklyworm recommendation comes from the Worm’s partner and fellow Holiday guide, Dave Snee! Dave teaches fourth grade in the winter, and this is one of the books that his class reads together: “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” by Grace Lin.
Minli is a young girl who lives on the edge of the Jade River, at the foot of Fruitless Mountain, where nothing grows, and villagers struggle to survive. Distressed by her people’s suffering, Minli decides to seek the Old Man of the Moon to ask how she can bring fortune to her family. She embarks on a magic-filled journey and eventually reaches the Old Man of the Moon. I won’t give away what she learns, but I will say that it involves dragons. And rivers.
There are pieces of Chinese folktales woven through Minli’s story (including one you may recognize if you’ve ever been a Holiday stargazing trip with Tom Beckett!), along with exquisite full-color illustrations also done by Grace Lin. It was a Newberry Honor Book in 2010. If you know Dave, you know that he’s almost never wrong, and this is no exception. Highly recommend it, especially if there are young readers in your life.
March 7, 2023
Happy International Women’s Week! The Worm absolutely loves this book. I get all fan-girl about these incredible river guides who quite literally opened the way for me and all of us female guides today. The book is broken up into 16 chapters and profiles 11 Grand Canyon river guides who were among the first women to professionally row and motor boats through the Grand Canyon. If you haven’t read this #weeklyworm rerun before, today’s a great day to start (or to buy it for any amazing female boater in your life).
There’s one piece that has stuck with me that I’ll share with you here, from Becca Lawton, who started her Grand career in 1976: “You know, I’ve done a lot, but there’s been nothing like holding those oars in my hands and putting my boat exactly where I wanted it. Nothing.” Yeah. I know exactly what she means.
“Breaking into the Current” by Louise Teal, a celebration of women guiding in the Grand Canyon.
I’d like to describe this book as “fun,” because it is a fast-paced, suspenseful, read-it-in-a-weekend kind of book, and I did really enjoy it. But it’s not fun. It’s terrifying. “Dry,” by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman, is about what happens when Arizona and Nevada turn off the water taps, leaving Southern California utterly without water. This is fiction, but it leans heavily on the realities facing the Colorado River basin: drought, wildfire, and state and municipal mismanagement of limited resources.
This young adult novel follows a sister and brother and an unlikely band of companions who must navigate the growing emergency as society disintegrates into a thirsty mob. Humans are capable of both great generosity and wild savagery, and both are on display throughout this book. There’s a bit of a bright note, in that this is framed as a temporary emergency—you just have to survive long enough for help to come—but the real dangers beneath the fiction will take more than a few days to resolve. This is a good one to pick up when you (or the young readers in your life) need a fast, exciting read that will also make you think about who we are, and where our water comes from.
“Down North to the Sea: 2,000 Miles by Canoe to the Arctic Ocean,” by Alden Hayes, was a surprise and a treat, handed to me at a recent dinner party by the author’s stepdaughter. It’s a great first-person account of six college-aged friends and their 1938 canoe journey through Yukon Territory down the Mackenzie River to the Beaufort Sea and UP the Rat River to the headwaters of the Yukon River and into Alaska.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the trip was to look for archaeological evidence of Paleo-Indians, but it’s the modern inhabitants of the Yukon who become the main characters. The six companions paddle, float, portage, drag, and motor their way through the long, sunlit days of an Arctic summer. Alden’s descriptions of the environment and the daily details of the expedition link together rich interludes in which the boys are wined (or, “rummed”) and dined at trading posts and remote villages. The trappers, traders, and miners, both white and Indigenous, are portrayed as hearty, resourceful, and generous people.
Alden went on to work as an archaeologist (among other things), gaining some small fame in archaeological circles for his work with the National Park Service, particularly at Mesa Verde. And, as a fun bonus story (and an example of how small the river running world is!), he and his stepdaughter (who was 16 at the time) were passengers on a somewhat infamous Bill Belknap sportyak trip through Desolation Canyon in 1983. The river was so high that a guide ended up hiking out Rock Creek and calling for help from the Tavaputs Ranch. A large motor boat was brought in to rescue the sportyaks and passengers. Clearly, the Arctic canoe trip only whetted Alden’s taste for river-related adventures.
The seven states of the Colorado River Basin have just missed the second deadline in 6 months to come up with a plan to reduce their use of the Colorado River’s water by nearly 1/3. The states’ ongoing failure to realistically confront the West’s dwindling water supply carries a number of risks, but one of the biggest is the threat of dead pool—the level at which water can no longer move downstream from Lakes Powell and Mead.
The New York Times featured this story in its podcast, “The Daily” last week, and the Worm figured it was a good time to revisit this #weeklyworm rerun. “Dead Pool” by James L. Powell explains what dead pool is, why it matters, and how we got to where we are today. And, everyone should listen to the Daily episode! It’s an excellent summary of the situation and it explains just why the states are struggling so hard. Check out the link in our bio for the podcast, and stay tuned for more!
“This is no place
The Worm is revisiting her favorite picture book this week, dreaming of the orange and red lands of summer as illustrated on the pages of “The Desert is Theirs” by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall. This gorgeous, Caldecott-medal winning book is a poetic tribute to the people, plants, and animals who call the desert their home. And a visual treat for anyone who’s getting tired of white, white, white…❄️ (okay, not really tired of all this frozen water, but winter really should consider expanding its color palette 😄)
If you’re like the Worm, after you read The Big Rock Candy Mountain (last week’s post), you’ll be struck with a sudden urge to enroll in grad school so you can talk western literature with people who know more than you do. “All the Wild That Remains” is the next best thing. On the surface, it’s a fantastic dual biography of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Turn a few pages, however, and you’ll see it’s also about us, the readers of Abbey and Stegner, and about work that they left for us to do.
David Gessner moves easily between the life stories of both men, writing their paths to fame and exploring the modern incarnations of the environmental issues that they confronted. He interviews the people who knew the, and people who picked up where they left off, including Doug Peacock, Tim DeChristopher, and Wendell Berry. On a trip to Dinosaur National Monument, he even spends time with “legendary river runner and provocateur” Herm Hoops.
Gessner travels through the landscape that the two men knew best: Arches and the Utah desert, Salt Lake City and the Stegner homestead in Saskatchewan. He’s personable and readable (add him to the list of folks I’d like to grab a beer with), and he effectively humanizes these two icons of western writing and western advocacy, balancing his star-struck-ness with a journalist’s objective gaze. He clearly read extensively for this book project, and succinctly summarizes many themes and ideas that both inspired and were inspired by Stegner and Abbey. Highly recommend.
Wallace Stegner was a key figure in the fight to keep dams out of Dinosaur National Monument. He was a writer, a teacher, and prominent environmental advocate. Before all that, though, he was a young boy growing up in the West in the early 1900s, moving with his family from Washington to Saskatchewan to Montana and finally to Salt Lake City as his father chased boom and bust and the fading idea of manifest destiny across the western landscape.
“Big Rock Candy Mountain” is the story of that childhood. It’s written as a novel, but it is largely autobiographical. It’s nearly epic in its scope, but its power builds along with its page count. Stegner poured his formidable talents into this book, placing his family—and his father, a domineering and tragic character—against the myth of the west and the idea of a “big break” just over the next horizon. There are some beautiful vignettes of a boy’s life on a prairie homestead, and later, of a cross-country journey, in which a young Stegner processes the beauty, potential, and rawness of life and landscape. It’s a long one, but worth sticking it out to the end. Take it from the Worm.
As snow continues to pile up in the Rocky Mountain west, skiers rejoice, boaters dream of high water, and western water managers start fantasizing about “the drought” being over. So far, the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries are showing above-average snow packs, which IS cause for celebration, but the winter isn’t over yet, and our over-allocated river system is going to need more than just one good winter to take the pressure off.
“Downriver,” by Heather Hansman, is a great, informative read that focuses specifically on the Green River and the role it plays in fulfilling the water needs of the Upper (and Lower) Colorado River Basin. A journalist and former river guide, Heather paddles the length of the Green and parses the complex ecological and political systems that control its flow. Mid-winter is a perfect time to pick up this #weeklyworm rerun. It’ll not only get you stoked for river season, but it will make you a better-informed boater, just in time for spring runoff.
January 4, 2023
This week’s book is “Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods,” or, the answer to the trivia question of where the Worm (and several other Holiday folks) has been traveling these last 10 days: the Río Usumacinta in Chiapas, far southeastern Mexico! The Usumacinta delineates the border between Mexico and Guatemala for a large portion of its length, traveling through a dense rainforest full of Maya ruins, howler monkeys, tropical birds, vibrant greenery, and the descendants of the ancient Maya people.
Christopher Shaw’s book is part travelogue, part anthropological study. The author is a former river guide from the Adirondacks who canoed the Jataté, Lacantún, and Usumactina Rivers in the early 90s, at the peak of the Zapatista uprising. It’s packed with whitewater adventure and a detailed overview of the history and culture of the Maya. This book was a great travel companion, providing depth and context for the landscape through which we floated.
The Usumacinta is also threatened by a proposed hydroelectric dam, which would flood several ruins and rapids as well as displace many residents. Our trip was outfitted by @sier.rarios, who runs trips on endangered rivers all over the world with the goal (like Holiday) of inspiring people to advocate for their protection. We’re grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know this one. Also, many thanks to @germaniac79 and Josué, for showing us all the best lines and the biggest whirlpools!
If you’ve ever been on a Desolation Canyon trip, you’ve floated past the mouth of Range Creek Canyon and its inviting cottonwood shade and expansive, cobbly beach. It’s a coveted campsite, hard to get, a place where groups like to lay over and hike or stretch hammocks between trees. It’s also the entrance to an archaeological treasure chest. Guarded for decades by rancher Waldo Wilcox, who, unlike his contemporaries, left all the “Indian things” right where they lay, Range Creek and its wonders are the primary focus of this book.
In “The Lost World of the Old Ones,” David Roberts travels through Range Creek and Desolation Canyon with Wilcox and the archaeologists who later acquired the land. Deso, which is the ancestral home of the Ute people, was also home to the Fremont cultural group, contemporaries of the Ancestral Pueblo cultures of southern Utah. Roberts tells the story of this place and its people—ancient and modern—with a journalist’s keen eye, and an adventurer’s fascination. It’s the next best thing to hiking the canyons, and just might inspire a few new side hikes on your next river trip. (Trivia teaser! The Worm is still on vacation, in search of some different, even older Old Ones…but where?)
For as long as I’ve been running rivers, I’ve heard about Georgie White. She’s a legend, equally loved and hated, and she was everywhere in the early days of commercial river running. I’ve pointed out her inscriptions on the walls of Labyrinth and Cataract Canyons, seen her plaque in the River Runner’s Hall of Fame, and read about her in countless other river history books, but this is the first dedicated biography I’ve come across, and I devoured it.
I already knew that Georgie swam sections of the Grand Canyon with Harry Aleson in the 1940s and piloted gigantic, motorized rubber rafts (frequently right through the middle of the biggest holes she could find). I knew that she wore leopard print and drank Coors beer, and her trips had the reputation of being a bit loose and rowdy.
I didn’t know that she taught herself how to run whitewater, or that it was she who made Grand Canyon accessible to the masses, pioneering the tourism industry as we know it today. She was a passionate advocate for wildlife, and she ran “share-the-expense” trips through some pretty gnarly whitewater in Alaska, Idaho, Canada, and Mexico. I didn’t know that her passion for the river would strike such a familiar note in my own river-runner’s heart.
This book by Richard E. Westwood is a simple biography, nothing fancy, but it tells the story of Georgie, in her own words and as seen through the eyes of those who knew her best. If you weren’t lucky enough to meet her in person, the “Woman of the River” comes alive again, here. Two Worms up.
This week’s Worm takes us to East Africa in the late 1800s, into the fascinating and uncomfortably colonial culture of Victorian England and its class of professional explorers: “River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile,” by Candice Millard. The book is excellent: thoroughly researched, engaging, and intricately woven. Richard Burton (brilliant linguist) and John Hanning Speke (ambitious aristocrat) are the central figures in the search for the source of the Nile. British soldiers and traveling companions turned bitter enemies, their personal triumphs and failures are what drive the structure of the book. It’s a great adventure story, too, full of vivid descriptions of the hardships the Englishmen and their African expedition members endured. Although it’s never stated explicitly, the Worm detected a subtle underlining of the absurdity of white explorers trudging feverishly through the African interior “discovering” lakes and rivers with perfect entitlement. Millard provides a historical overview of East Africa at the time with an emphasis on the horrors of the East African slave trade, and, as much as possible, gives credit to the African expedition leader, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, without whom Burton and Speke would have been lost. The epilogue, in particular, calls out the contributions of countless native people to mapping and “discovery” throughout history.Although it’s the human figures, not the river, that take center stage in this book, it’s fun to spend some time on a totally different continent, in a totally unfamiliar watershed, and Burton, Speke, and Bombay (as written by Millard) make excellent tour guides.
“How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell is a deliciously chewy book. It’s a call to action (surprising, I know, considering the title). Doing nothing, it turns out, takes quite a bit of thought and energy, but, Odell argues, it is a powerful path to creating a more connected, caring, and healthy society.
Odell takes her readers on a wide-ranging journey through history, philosophy, and art, and she argues against the conventional notion that we only have value related to our productivity. She examines social media and the commodification of our attention, but spends even more time exploring the history of the commune movement of the 1960s and other examples of “refusal in place,” such as Henry David Thoreau, Diogenes of Sinope, the Civil Rights Movement, and Herman Melville’s fictional character Bartleby.
If you’ve been on a river trip before, you understand the way that such an experience takes us away from the things that usually demand our attention. With no cell service, no emails, no internet (!), we are free to do anything—or nothing. The typical result is that our eyes are opened to the world immediately in front of us. It becomes okay to spend entire minutes simply observing the movement of the water or the play of light across the canyon walls. Odell’s book tells us that we are not doing “nothing. We are doing the most important something there is: living fully, present and engaged with what is immediately in front of us.
We’re just going to keep on worming with this trend of one week’s book inspiring the next week’s book…it started with David Lavender’s “River Runners of the Grand Canyon,” then we spent some time with Kim Crumbo (a pretty accomplished river runner in his own right) and his “River Runner’s Guide to the History of the Grand Canyon.” And talking about our friend Kim naturally led to this classic: Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” (Check out last week’s worm to see why).
It’s a Weekly Worm rerun, but I’m here to say that if you haven’t read it yet, it’s still on the required reading list for anyone who’s ever lived in or visited Utah. It’s a fun, fast read, more like a blockbuster movie than a book, with unforgettable characters and plot twists galore. You’ll never look at the Utah desert in quite the same way.
Last week’s Grand Canyon history book told stories of the river runners. This one is FOR the river runners: “A River Runner’s Guide to the History of the Grand Canyon” by Kim Crumbo. Mile by mile, Crumbo directs our eyes to the walls, side canyons, trails, and shoreline, pointing out details we would otherwise miss and telling us stories of the characters and cultures that have shaped—and been shaped by—the mighty canyon. He also devotes space to the stories of the Indigenous cultures that have lived in and near the canyon since long before David Lavender’s river runners came on the scene.
Discovering this book while researching other #weeklyworm titles felt like uncovering buried treasure. Kim Crumbo is a bit of a legend at Holiday. He was Dee Holladay’s first paid boatman, and remained a dear friend of the company long after he moved on to a career as a Grand Canyon park ranger and dedicated advocate and activist for the wild lands of the desert southwest and its wild creatures. He was also famous for being one of the personalities who inspired the character of Hayduke in Edward Abbey’s book “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Abbey wrote the forward to the first edition published in 1981, and said it “should be a standard part of the Grand Canyon river runner’s ammo box library.” It’s out of print now, but you can still find it in various places online (and at the Salt Lake City library! But you probably shouldn’t take that copy on the Grand with you.).
The back of the book states that Crumbo donated all his income from the sale of the book to @grandcanyontrust, so if you want to contribute to a good cause after buying a cheap copy, maybe send a little dough their way. Mark it “In Memory of Kim Crumbo.”
The Worm is heading down the Big Ditch this week with historian David Lavender and a whole raft of adventurers, legends, entrepreneurs, thrill seekers, scientists, and straight up river rats. “River Runners of the Grand Canyon” is an engaging compendium of more than 100 years of humans floating through one of the West’s most iconic landscapes. He begins with a nod to Tiyo, a young Hopi man who takes to the river to find answers in the underworld, and ends with mention of the three boatmen who’d just set the record for the fastest run in 1983 (this book was published in 1985). Lavender uses the larger context of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River to link each historic figure to the next and to carefully locate each one in their own time. Through each chapter, he details the shifting culture of river running, from exploration to exploitation to recreation.
Lavender’s book draws from thousands of pages of primary material, and the result is one of the better general Grand Canyon river history books I’ve come across. Powell’s there, of course, and Stanton, along with Buzz Holmstrom and Georgie White, but so are lesser-known characters like Hum Woolley, Clyde Eddy, and Claude Birdseye. A thick stack of photos in the middle of the book adds texture to the descriptions. This book will bring the excitement and wonder of a river trip into your short, November days, and (if you’re like the Worm, anyway) will inspire new determination to spend those long winter nights reading (and learning) about all those river runners who came before us.
November 2, 2022
“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, the true story of the men’s U.S. rowing team that competed in the 1936 Olympics—in Nazi Germany—is absolutely fantastic. In a sport dominated by privileged East Coast elite (think Yale and Harvard), the University of Washington crew team was already a long shot. The team was composed largely of working class boys, some raised in Seattle’s Depression-era shantytowns, who spent their summers as loggers, farmers, and construction workers, and their school years giving everything they had to their team.
Along with rich characterizations of each team member and their growth over time, Brown constructs a detailed history of the U.S. during the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis overseas. The book’s tension builds over the course of the team’s four-year quest to make the Olympics, and by the time they actually arrive in Germany, you’ll be on the edge of your seat with the rest of the U of W fans.
Suspenseful, heartwarming, and human, this is a classic underdog tale that, once read, will stay with you forever.
October 12, 2022
The title of this book, “Death of a River Guide,” carries some obvious weight. It’s upsetting to read those words, but the story begs to be told. Who is this river guide? How did they die? What happened?
The answers to those questions are revealed throughout the course of this evocative novel by Australian author Richard Flanagan. Despite the title, it is life—vibrant and vigorous—that fills these pages. Aljaz, the river guide in question, is leading a trip on the Franklin River in Tasmania when a passenger falls overboard and Aljaz goes to his rescue. As the black waters of the Franklin claim Aljaz, he finds himself strangely conscious, visions of his own life and the lives of his ancestors carrying him beyond his body and into the wildness of nature and all of humanity.
The story flows smoothly, yet insistently, pushing and coaxing with whispered enticements, just like a river. It captivated me almost immediately, not least of all because it let me relive my own experiences with the Franklin: dipping my toes into its water, listening to it hum through moss-covered cliffs. Swipe to see its black waters (and said toes) for yourself.
Continuing with last week’s theme of Western history and the humans who made it, the Worm brings you “Blood and Thunder,” by Hampton Sides. At the center of this book are the Navajo people and their fight to keep their land, along with Kit Carson, the frontiersman, soldier, and Indian agent who attempted to take it from them.Carson is a complicated figure, hero and villain, a man who perhaps understood and respected the Indigenous tribes better than any of his contemporaries, yet was willing to follow orders that amounted to genocide of those same tribes. Sides examines the depths of Carson’s contradictions and plays them out along with the story of Carson’s rise to fame against the backdrop of the Mexican-American and Civil Wars and the Navajo’s Long Walk.
This is an eminently readable, sweeping historical narrative that, along with “Empire of the Summer Moon” and “Undaunted Courage,” have helped me to add more pieces to my understanding of the puzzle of U.S. history: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the many pieces that still impact our lives today.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
“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).
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!)