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Entertainment & Arts

Book review: ‘The Grand Canyon Reader’

The Grand Canyon Reader

Edited by Lance Newman

University of California Press: 256 pages, $50, $19.95 (paper)

The vicarious pleasure of armchair travel is a well-explored genre for books, transporting the reader without ever opening a door. What such books do, when they are thoughtfully presented, is to share the excitement and immediacy of exploration while sparing the reader the discomfort.

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In “The Grand Canyon Reader,” Lance Newman’s editing challenge was to illuminate an iconic place while offering a glimpse of something new. There is no lack for musings on the subject. From a varied bibliography spanning 500 years, Newman sifted through 42,000 writings about the Grand Canyon before selecting 27, including essays, poems and journal entries.

A Colorado River guide, Newman calls on the usual patriarchs of the natural world: John Muir, Wallace Stegner, John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, among others — all giants, and all writers who understood that to study nature was to study ourselves. But the book blossoms best when sharing intimate, overlooked travel tales and reminiscences from obscure 19th-century explorers, modern-day trekkers and Native American elders. And all the stories retold in “The Grand Canyon Reader” explore some facet of the connection to a place both ancient and otherworldly.

In an excerpt from the book “Downcanyon,” naturalist Ann Zwinger tells of a cold November morning and trudging up the Bright Angel Trail after two weeks of camping along the Colorado River. With each step bringing her closer to the South Rim and “civilization,” Zwinger compares herself to Rip van Winkle, having left the world behind.

Cresting the trail and stepping into a busy parking lot — enveloped in layers of outdoor garb and hauling a massive backpack — Zwinger begins to feel out of place as she encounters the inevitable swarms of tourists belching out of buses: “Out of one of the clusters of people stepped a nice-looking, neatly-dressed, middle-aged woman, a question obvious in her face. I paused, uncomfortably conscious of how derelict I must appear. ‘Excuse me,’ she began, ‘is there anything down there?’”

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The book devotes itself to answering that question.

Newman organizes “The Grand Canyon Reader” effectively, beginning with the section “The Rim,” from which authors stand and consider their own insignificance. In “The River,” the reader descends 6,000 feet to the canyon floor and the realm of the canyon’s powerful shaping force, the Colorado. The last section, “The People,” has the feel of miscellany but does allow us to hear from disparate voices.

No matter who is telling the story, each author recounts a formative experience that forever fused his imagination to the Grand Canyon. Some come to find themselves. From Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” we go on a trip to Los Angeles with friends from the University of New Mexico. The group makes a quick stop to check out the great gorge, commemorating the moment by shoving a car tire over the edge and watching it bounce into the abyss.

Intrigued, Abbey tells his friends to wait for him while he walks down into Havasupai Canyon. Abbey emerges five weeks later to discover that he’s profoundly changed and that his friends have pressed on.

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There are stories of those who go to the Grand Canyon to test themselves. One involves two buddies who, in 1955, lacking funds for a float trip in a boat, decide to swim the length of the Colorado as it roiled through the canyon. Unbelievably, in this era of stunt vacations, the feat has never been repeated.

Some tell stories of finding the essence of our national character in a place. There is a long tract from outdoor enthusiast Theodore Roosevelt, who explores the region while hunting its wildlife. As president, Roosevelt fell hard for the Grand Canyon, famously admonishing the people of the then-Arizona territory in 1903 not to allow more mining and grazing along its rim. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it,” he said. “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

In his essay, “A Cougar Hunt on the Rim of the Grand Canyon,” Roosevelt rants against “wanton destruction” of the “public domain” and calls for the preservation of wildlife and land for the use of future generations. That philosophy launched federal conservation efforts that led to the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916 (three years later, the Grand Canyon became a national park).

Most of all, the stories tell of the delight and wonder that is the Grand Canyon. One enthusiastic dispatch comes from the account of George Flavell, who, with a companion, navigated the river in a rowboat in 1896. Flavell’s log entry upon arriving at the fabled rapids in Marble Canyon: “Ha ha! We are here!” His last entry, after completing the exhilarating, life-threatening adventure: "…all we made from such a long and dangerous trip was our escape. Still it is worth half of a life (such as I lead) to see such a place.”

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The timelessness of the canyon means that the excitement continues, more than a century later, and “The Grand Canyon Reader” takes us along for the ride.

julie.cart@latimes.com


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