After Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, perhaps the greatest expedition in American history is the first running of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon back in 1869. At the time one-armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell and nine men put in near Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, the transcontinental railroad was only a few weeks old and the last big question mark on the map of America was downstream.
Befitting a crew that, collectively, had never run a single rapid, they got really drunk the night before setting out, and one recalls having "foggy ideas and snarly hair" on that first day on the water. And things would only go downhill from there, as the expedition became a test of human will against some of the worst that Mother Nature could throw at them.
Author Edward Dolnick, the former chief science writer for the Boston Globe, makes the most of the source material here, drawing on diaries kept by several of the men, as well as Powell's own diary and his later published account (Powell's dual accounts often vary greatly, and Dolnick attempts to reconcile them).
Dolnick also casts new light on a couple of enduring mysteries, including the question of what happened to three men who left the expedition near its end, when hope and food were running out. Using recently uncovered evidence, Dolnick suggests that Mormon settlers, not Native Americans, may have murdered them.
But when Dolnick paddles away from the historical record, his prose often gets stuck in strange little eddies. Most notably, he has a habit of employing bizarre analogies to drive home just how wild the river really is. He describes the waves as "like a sumo wrestler smothering a kitten." The boats are "bobbing in an enormous glass of chocolate milk while a titanic six-year-old stirs it with a giant spoon." And the river itself acts as if it's "toying with its victims like a Lothario trifling with his admirers' hearts."
But this story is just too good to be spoiled. In the end, after 99 days and 1,000 miles, six men, including Powell, made it through. While two of the men just kept rowing all the way to the Sea of Cortez, Powell observed that "I find myself penniless and disgusted with the whole thing." That sentiment didn't last, however, as Powell's heroics became the toast of the nation. Now, thanks to Dolnick's retelling, Powell can be remembered anew as one of the nation's greatest adventurers.