The year was 1965. That was the year I fell in love with baseball and history.
It happened in Miss Tomlinson's fifth-grade class at Crestview Elementary School in Merriam, Kan. We had the Kansas City Athletics, but they were a last-place mess that went 59-103 that season of '65. The only highlight was Campy Campaneris playing all nine positions against the Angels on Sept. 8. I was searching for a baseball team that I could love. Miss Tomlinson had a passion for baseball, so when she wheeled that 14-inch black-and-white TV into class so we could watch the Dodgers play the Twins for the World Series, I was in heaven.
Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale beat the Twins in seven games, but I found myself cheering for the Twins. Minnesota had names like Mudcat Grant, Zoilo Versalles and Harmon Killebrew, but they also had an outfielder from Cuba named Tony Oliva. I could not keep my eyes off the way Oliva ran the bases and swung the bat. From that day forward my Little League jersey bore Oliva's No. 6 and my dad bought me a "Tony O" glove for Christmas. Life was good.
1965 was also the year Miss Tomlinson had the reading game. Whoever read the most books from September through May received 10 packs of Topps Baseball cards with that old, red, dusty, stale gum and your choice of any book from the Crestview Elementary book fair.
I read 72 books that year. Some were about sports, but most were about American history. I was fascinated with the discovery of America. From Plymouth Rock to the Louisiana Purchase to the great trailblazers of the West, I read them all. Lewis and Clark were my first heroes, but then I pulled out a faded blue book from the school library about a young man from Wisconsin named John Wesley Powell.
Powell was born in 1834, went to three different colleges to study his passion of the natural sciences. As a young man he walked across Wisconsin and later rowed down the Mississippi from Minnesota to the sea. Powell fought for the Union Army during the Civil War and lost his right arm when he was hit by a minie ball at the Battle of Shiloh.
Despite the setback he did not let it affect his incredible determination. He would rise to lieutenant colonel by war's end, then accept an assignment as professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Powell's thirst to answer the questions of nature led him to put together a series of expeditions into the Rocky Mountains and around the Green and Colorado rivers.
He put together a team of nine men, four boats and food for 10 months, and headed down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado and on through the Grand Canyon. His party went through 931 miles of the most amazing wild lands and challenging white water rapids in the world.
This week I am following Powell's journey for 88 of those miles with my buddy Bruce Falls and a group called Outdoors Unlimited. Bruce and I left at 4 a.m. Saturday to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and took a shuttle to Marble Canyon lodge for introductions and orientation.
The river journey began Sunday morning from Lee's Ferry and will end at Phantom Ranch.
We will hike the same trails and explore the same archaeological sites and raft the same river that Powell went through 141 years ago.
I have wanted to raft the Colorado since reading that book about Powell. I remember one clear quote from that faded blue book said by the great explorer himself:
"The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resource of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail."
Today we raft the mighty canyon with Powell's words on our minds. The only thing that might make the trip even more exhilarating would be to travel with the old explorer himself; and maybe be joined by Oliva and Miss Tomlinson in our raft.
Following in hero's adventuring footsteps
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