On The Page: The Secret Knowledge of Water

I didn’t discover the wonders of the desert until I was well into my twenties. My former partner took me to Moab and introduced me to its cranky bee-drinking bard, Ed Abbey. After that, I was hooked. The Colorado Plateau is actually considered a “semidesert” but I’ve also learned to love the Sonoran Desert and have learned to “not hate” the Mohave Desert. While mountains have my heart, it’s no accident that the mountains that I inhabit are so close to the desert and that I make regular pilgrimages to those parched lands.

Fellow Western Slope resident, Craig Childs writes about the deserts of the American West in a way that resonates with me more than anyone else, including Cactus Ed. Childs incorporates history, science, and landscape in a way that makes my Western loving nerdy heart sing.

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert delves into the intimate relationship between the desert and water. Throughout the book, Childs looks at both still water hiding in remote canyons to sustain life and the dramatic floods that rip through the arroyos and canyons of the desert tossing boulders.

I find myself getting pulled into writing like this both as someone who follows along with Craig on his adventures and seeing places through his eyes but also as someone who has walked (albeit more superficially) through some of the same landscapes.

The book opens with Childs discussing his exhaustive study of watering holes in just one range of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The Cabeza Prieta feels incredibly remote and has always seemed very dry to me; however, because I’m a hiker with a peakbagging problem, I have spent more time on the rocky spines of the mountains than probing the quiet canyons just below them. As is usual with Childs’s writing, the scene is made strikingly visible even to those who haven’t visited the locations he describes.

He discusses how ignorance of where to find water in some of America’s driest country can easily lead to death and gives the briefest outline of the history of traversing the El Camino Del Diablo. I was excited to learn more about Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and how he successfully traversed the Camino repeatedly by listening to natives of the area. (The peak for which he is namesake is one I really wanted to climb when in the Ajo area and is pictured below but then the western side of Organ Pipe National Monument was closed to the public; it’s since reopened, I guess it’s time to go back!)

After discussing hidden water holes in the southern deserts of Arizona, the scene shifts north to the Colorado Plateau. While some more standing water is discussed, the story shifts to moving water in the canyons surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Childs impetuously watches flash floods from close range and makes the reader imagine standing on hot desert rock when thunderstorms open up and let water course down the dry falls and canyons. (I was really distracted in this section by the fact that I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon. I’m going to have to figure out when to get down there…)

While I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I was still born in the northwest and learned to love the outdoor in the wet temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest so I am still fascinated with the extremes of the desert. The Secret Knowledge of Water was a book that gave me a deeper understanding of how life survives in the desert. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the southwest.

 

On The Page: No Shortcuts to the Top

I can’t remember where I picked up my copy of No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks by Ed Viesturs but it was on my bookshelf of “you must read all of these things before you’re allowed to buy any new books” so I started it a few months ago. Like of its kin, this was a pretty quick, easy, and inspiring read about chasing a BIG dream.

It had been awhile since I’d read a major expedition memoir and this was a memoir about a whole series of expeditions. This book was a really enjoyable read. Viesturs is candid and his story is human and suprisingly relateable considering that most readers will probably never attempt the world’s highest peaks. (It probably also didn’t hurt that the book was written with legendary outdoor writer David Roberts. Check out this article about Roberts in Outside if you’ve never read any of his work.)

Reading about Viesturs evolution of his 8,000 meter summits goal was really inspiring. It makes my county highpoint goals seem really tiny but the way that Viesturs spoke about his expeditions and goals somehow also struck home. I think this is the strength of No Shortcuts to the Top: that Viesturs speaks about the rarified air of some truly difficult, dangerous, and remote peaks

I was a little put off by the descriptions of Viesturs film projects (he was on the IMAX Everest documentary expedition that was on the mountain during the 1996 disaster. I’m glad that Viesturs was able to find ways to make his passion pay for itself but it all just felt a bit heavy handed towards the end.

 

On The Page: The Hour of Land

Not long ago, I reviewed Terry Tempest Williams Refuge on this blog: in short it was amazing and it made me cry. Back in December I also read When Women Were Birds which was similarly amazing (and I completely neglected to write a review here, I’m sorry!). I’ve been wanting to read The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography since it was released last year in time for the National Park Service centennial.

My personal relationships with the national parks is complicated given my love for lonesome spaces and lack of regulation combined with my dedication to adventuring with Sprocket. Because of that, I didn’t get deeply into the centennial. I adored Ken Burns’s documentary of the National Parks and I highly value them as an American asset, I’m just more personally connected to our National Forest and BLM lands. After our election, however, the differentiation between land management agencies seemed to matter a whole lot less than preserving our public lands—all of them.

While standing in Seattle’s glorious Elliot Bay Book Company (that I might be starting to forgive for moving from their Pioneer Square location), I caved and bought two hardcover books. It wasn’t really in my budget after Christmas but 2016’s book buying freeze was hard guys! I mostly stuck to it but oh man, there is little I like spending money on more than books. The Hour of Land was one of the books I picked up.

I waited until I was back in Colorado to start the book. On Martin Luther King day, after rambling around on some BLM land near Uravan, we got home in time to make lunch. Days off at home are not something I have very often any more so I built a roaring fire, grabbed a blanket, a pillow, and a cup of tea and cracked a new book.

This was one of those books that you alternately want to savor and one where you just want to just keep turning the pages because it is so good.

Tempest Williams speaks about a wide variety of national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites from Grand Teton to Alcatraz to Effigy Mounds to Gettysburg. Each of the parks can almost stand alone and they still fit together in a way that matches the despair about how our parks are handled and also the hope and awe inspired by them.

I jokingly said that my one hope for the book was that it wouldn’t make me cry. Of course it did. The Hour of Land is a beautiful look at the diversity of our parks and also the diversity of people who love them. As I probably should have expected, I loved this book. Our public lands are incredibly important and this book captures their beauty.

On The Page: Otto Mears and the San Juans

After reading Ouray my interest in learning more about local history was piqued and I dove right into Otto Mears and the San Juans by E. F. Tucker. I knew that Otto Mears was involved in the Rio Grande Southern and in the building of a lot of toll roads including one up and over Red Mountain Pass. Outside of that I’d heard that he was a little bit eccentric and that was all.

Otto Mears was into everything. Mears was born in Latvia (then part of Russia) before he was sent to live with family members in England and then to another family member in New York. When they sent him to San Francisco to live with yet another family member at age 11, he arrived to find that the relative had departed for Australia. From then on, Mears was on his own.

Mears eventually became an American citizen and served in the Union army during the Civil War. He was discharged in Northern New Mexico and used his money to enter business as a merchant. Mears slowly migrated north towards the Saguache area where he continued to operate businesses and became more and more involved with local politics.

As I’d learned in Ouray, Mears also got involved in Native American policy by both by accepting government contracts for supplies but later in helping negotiate treaties with the Ute Nation. As with most actions of whites towards Native Americans Mears actions when seen through a modern lens are really problematic. E. F. Tucker makes a good argument that while Mears was involved in the final expulsion of the Uncompaghre and Weeminuche bands from Colorado that he pushed for them to move directly to the reservation in Utah rather than settling near what is now Grand Junction because he believed that they’d be asked to move yet again. 

Mears briefly served in the Colorado legislature but didn’t stay long, opting to operate behind the scenes and start building his famous toll roads first over Poncha Pass and most famously over Red Mountain Pass, now the route of the “Million Dollar Highway” US 550. Later, he progressed to railroads including the Rio Grande Southern and a handful of smaller railroads servicing mines in the Silverton area.

Mears worked most of his life and only slowed down a little bit towards the end of his life. In his later years, as his wife Mary suffered from ill health, he traveled back and forth from Silverton to California. Aside from a couple of short stints in Louisiana and Washington, D.C. Mears spent most of his adult life in Colorado.

I loved reading about Otto Mears. I drive Red Mountain Pass regularly to access recreation and have come to love and appreciate the ridiculousness of its precarious position above the Uncompahgre Gorge. While Mears never stopped looking out for his own business ambitions, he was instrumental in the development of the San Juans.

 

 

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. Any money I make via Amazon goes to buy more books about the West so I can read them and tell you all. All opinions are my own.

On The Page: Ouray: Chief of the Utes

I have always loved learning about the area where I live. Growing up, I looked forward to the fourth grade study of Washington history very intently and continued to build my knowledge of the area into high school. I was initially drawn to Idaho’s Silver Valley by its history (mostly through reading Tim Egan’s The Big Burn) and then purchasing the cabin drove my research into the specifics of mine development in the upper valley. I have been pretty slow to develop my understanding of the history of the San Juan Mountain region. Lately, I’ve been doing better at delving into books, some of which I’ve talked about here recently.

One of the more enlightening things that I’ve read lately is Ouray: Chief of the Utes by P. David Smith. Inspired partly by the ongoing renovation of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, I picked this up at the library. I wanted to have some background knowledge before visiting the museum when it reopens this spring. (Recent political events have also inspired me to read more about not white men… I violated this by reading about Otto Mears so I guess I’m going to have to put Isabella Bird next…or perhaps Chipeta?)

Photo: Matthew Brady. Source: Library of Congress

The San Juans were settled relatively late, with the initial gold placer gold finds happening in the Eureka area (near Silverton) in 1860. Ouray spends some time discussing Chief Ouray’s early life but Smith wisely spends most the book discussing Ouray’s time as one of the leaders of the various Ute bands during the multiple treaty negotiations for the San Juan Mountain region and the Uncompaghre Valley.

As might be expected, the discovery of riches on lands granted to the Ute tribe (a loose confederation of approximately seven bands) lead to the US government continually renegotiating treaties with the tribe and shrinking their holdings. I am curious to see how the Ute Indian Museum presents the story of the tribe (the redesign of the museum features input from the Southern Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Tribe, and the Northern Ute Tribe) because Smith’s interpretation of Ouray is extremely favorable.

The portrait painted by Smith is of a man that fought hard for his people while grasping the futility of the situation. While the story clearly shows a man that was able to coordinate diverse interests within the larger Ute Nation the picture seems entirely too cut and dried to me. Ouray himself was promised a salary for the remainder of his life while the reservation became smaller and smaller and predicated some negotations with the government on their willingness to search for his son who had been abducted by the Sioux. His actions (and the actions of his wife Chipeta) during and after the Meeker Massacre were certainly admirable―they welcomed the surviving women from the Indian Agency into their home while the recovered from the ordeal. Certainly, Ouray was a man of his time that did the best that he could with what he knew.

This book served as a great introduction to Ouray’s life. I was fascinated to learn that the hot springs that are now Orvis Hot Springs were considered holy to the Utes which lead to them attempting to hold onto the land that is now Ridgway for a long time. I’m sure that forming a complete picture of the man is difficult given the circumstances but I’m looking forward to reading more about his life.

1873 Treaty Negotiations

 

P.S. Can someone buy me the complete catalogs of Wayfinder Press and Western Reflections? My local history knowledge requires it…

This post contains affiliate links with Amazon. All opinions offered here are my own.

On The Page: Uncompahgre

Last spring, I devoured Muriel Marshall’s Uncompahgre: A Guide to The Uncompahgre Plateau in just a few evenings. I had put off writing a review of it hoping to have some time this summer to drive the plateau from north to south along the divide road from Whitewater to Highway 62 as described in the book. And then I started working all the time…

Uncompahgre: A Guide to The Uncompahgre Plateau

Sadly, that drive never happened this summer (although I did make a rather hair-raising muddy drive across the Plateau from Montrose to Nucla this fall) but I did want to return to this book before it faded into the recesses of time.

 

Uncompahgre Plateau

Marshall does an excellent job in this book of blending history, geology, and a travel guide all into one. The guide starts by describing the drive up to the plateau from Highway 141 near Whitewater. Heading south down the Divide Road, the reader learns more about Fathers Escalante and Dominguez, about Fort Uncompahgre, and Antoine Robidoux.

Muddy Jeep

As major side routes are encountered, Marshall describes where they go and why they came to exist (and make me realize that I have tons of exploring to do along the Plateau).

Driving the length of the Uncompahgre is still on my list. And you can bet when I go, I’ll be taking my copy of Uncompahgre with me. Just reading it without even driving the route really helped me to make sense of how the far West End fits in with the rest of the Uncompahgre Valley. For anyone curious about the history of Western Colorado this would be a good read and for anyone who has spent some time between Grand Junction and Moab it’s a great one.

On The Page: The Western San Juan Mountains

Not having internet at home has been excellent for diving into some deeper reading material. I recently dived into The Western San Juan Mountains: Their Geology, Ecology, and Human History. Edited by a professor of geology at Colorado’s Fort Lewis College, The Western San Juan Mountains has three sections exploring each of the topics mentioned in its subitites. Each section is divided into chapters written by experts in their fields (most authors hold doctorates).

The Western San Juans

While the book isn’t necessarily written for an academic audience, it is detailed and uses a significant amount of technical language (particularly noticeable in the geological section). The chapters all conclude with a reference section. These reference sections pose an immense threat to my book buying ban but that’s a personal issue of mine. I found it more than readable but for some readers it might be a sort of dense slog.

The geological section was probably the most condensed broad sweeping geological overview of the San Juans (or at least their western portion) that I’ve read so far. I definitely want to do more to make this all fit into an organized schema in my mind but knowing more about the deep history of my home mountains makes me really happy.

The biological section was detailed (and contains one chapter that will probably make an appearance as a reading in my biology class next fall) and as someone inimately aquainted—ahem, scratched to bits—with the “mid” elevation horrors of Gambel oak (more commonly known as “scrub oak”), I found it interesting if not particularly groundbreaking. The human history section was more adequately covered by Exploring The San Juan Triangle, recently reviewed on this blog.

The Western San Juan Mountains, published by University Press of Colorado, is probably only of interest to big old nerds like me. Since this is my blog, I’m assuming that at least some of you fall in my camp and, in that case, you might really enjoy this book before a visit to the region. Each of the sections could be read separately which means that it can be fit into a busy life before a trip. Theoretically, each chapter stands alone but I think they made a lot more sense when grouped with the other chapters in their section.

On The Page: Refuge

I picked up a copy of Terry Tempest Williams Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place at a garage sale quite while ago. (You’ll remember I’m on a book buying freeze until I finish the books I’ve acquired and not read…) When I picked it up the other day, I must have been in the perfect frame of mind to be open to it.

Refuge

In this memoir, Williams discusses her family’s experience with cancer through the lens of the Great Salt Lake’s historic high levels in the 1980s. Somehow, Refuge seems to be about Williams’s connection to the Lake, her relationship to her family, historic sources of cancer, and the saga of the rising lake all at once.

I’ve read Ms. Williams book Red and really enjoyed it and I raved about the short but profound The Open Space of Democracy but found Refuge to be incredibly powerful. The writing was raw but accessible. I felt carried along with Williams emotional journey as her mother and her grandmother faced cancer.

Maybe I’m becoming soft in my old age but Williams honest look at relationships throughout the book made me cry multiple times. It was the sort of book that you’d have to put down after each chapter and ponder it awhile but at the same time, you were drawn right back in wanting to know what came next for her family.

On The Page: Sandstone Spine

I am a mountain girl at heart but having some time in the desert has become really key to my happiness. While looking at maps of the deserts of the 4 Corners region, I’ve traced the length of Comb Ridge with my finger, marveling how far it extends. Browsing the adventure travel section of the library, I found Sandstone Spine: Seeking the Anasazi on the First Traverse of the Comb Ridge by David Roberts.

Sandstone Spine

Knowing a little bit about the terrain of the area, I was impressed that someone would have done this (although I still dream about The Hayduke Trail which is even more impressive). Traveling with two friends, the author describes the slow going over the tricky terrain, tensions of traveling in a group, and ruins found throughout the ridge.

My bar for a good travel book is one that either makes you see an area you know in a different light or desperately want to travel to a new area. I’ve spent some time around Comb Ridge both on the Butler Wash side and on the Comb Wash side but never really explored the canyons of the Ridge. This book makes me want to go wander canyons so badly.

Roberts very lovingly describes the Anasazi and Basketmaker ruins that he, Greg, and Vaughn explore along their trek. He pulls in just touches of his understanding of the history of the human occupation of the area, mentioning Robert S. McPherson’s work as well as some of his earlier books (it also made me want to revisit Craig Child’s House of Rain).

Sandstone Spine excellently combines history, travel, and human history for a very readable book. I am also excited for fall desert season. Anyone up for adventure?

Backside of Comb Ridge

 

This post contains affiliate links that help fund 3Up Adventures. All opinions are my own.

On The Page: Coyote America

Last spring, I placed myself on a book buying freeze to try and save money and also to force myself to finish reading everything I’ve bought that has just been decorating my shelves. I still can’t resist browsing books, though, so the only safe place to do that is the library. On the new book shelf, I found Dan Flores’s Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History.

Coyote America

I was quickly grabbed by Flores’s exploration of coyote’s mythological representations in America but was pretty much whole-heartedly sold on the genetic discussions of how coyotes diverged from wolves. The scientist in me really loved this since I’ve heard a lot about the connections between wolves and dogs but lots less about the connections between wolves and other canids.

A large amount of the book was devoted to the (very interesting) story of how wildlife managers tried to remove coyotes from the ecosystems after wolves had been largely eradicated. Current research by government scientists surrounding coyote behavior and control was discussed. While Flores’s personal disagreement with some of the research was apparent, but since his biases seemed to be for more stringent science with a stronger advocacy for ecosystem effects align with my own, I didn’t really mind. (For some more interesting coyote reading, check out this piece in High Country News about Wildlife Services.)

Another piece of this book that really reached to my heart was the acceptance that “coyote” isn’t always pronounced “ky-oat-e” but sometimes it’s a “ky-oat.” When I was growing up, I knew that some people said “ky-oat-e” but in my house it was most often “ky-oat” and I was never self conscious about it until a friend in college pointed it out. In the most rural parts of the west, it’s also “ky-oat” with things being more mixed in western cities, and then the east coast being nearly only “ky-oat-e.” Somehow, Flores’s casual mention of what pronunciation people used really helped me to connect with them and their perspectives.

I really enjoyed this book. My summer has been crazy and all over the place but Coyote America inspired me to read when it just hadn’t been a priority. Flores’s book is great for readers no matter where you live. Urban and rural residents have distinct relationships with coyotes but they’re all discussed in the book. If you’re at all curious about coyotes, check this book out. I enjoyed it a lot.

 

This page contains affiliate links that help support 3Up Adventures in my adventuring and book buying habits. This book was checked out from the wonderful Ridgway Public Library and all opinions are my own.