Try this: Put your right hand in your pocket and leave it there all day. Most of us wouldn’t even make it through lunch. In that condition, would you embark on one of the most hazardous adventures ever conceived? What kind of man volunteers to fight in America’s bloodiest war, gets horribly maimed, and then decides to spend his life engaged in active, perilous exploration? And yet, that’s not the most interesting aspect of John Wesley Powell. What truly intrigues me is the unfathomable complexity of the man. He had more job titles than anyone in American history: soldier, scientist, professor, geologist, geographer, anthropologist, sociologist, director, explorer, and my personal favorite; river runner.
It would be easy to idolize the man, and many writers have produced unabashed hagiographies. But Powell is much too complex for that. In some ways he truly was a great American. There is no question that he was physically courageous; that’s how he lost his arm and how he ended up dangling off a cliff high above the Colorado River. He was way ahead of his time in how to conceptualize our relationship to both water and land. And he was more liberal than his inhumane contemporaries when it came to the relationship between the dominant culture and Native Americans. He was, in many ways, a visionary.
But he was never able to escape the brutal racist assumptions of his day, and anthropology has unceremoniously dumped all of his writing and ideas. He was vainglorious, exceedingly ambitious, and never missed an opportunity to toot his own horn. He exaggerated his achievements, sometimes took credit for other people’s work, and could be vindictive and dictatorial. I’m not sure I’d actually like to go on a river trip with him, based on the journals of the other men on his two trips down the Grand Canyon. It is probably safe to say that he was a brilliant, iconoclastic, think-outside-the-box SOB. In other words, a very fascinating guy.
The opportunity to follow his wake down the Green and “Grand” (i.e. Colorado) Rivers will allow us to ponder all these complex facets of Powell and his times in situ. Thanks to “America’s greatest idea” (the national parks), the landscape of the Grand Canyon is largely the same today as it was when he first gazed up from the river and marveled at that sublime chasm. And thanks to the Bureau of Reclamation and some of Powell’s other ideas, the river itself is nothing like it was in Powell’s day. In other words, the history of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River reflect the complexity of Powell; you have to take the good, the bad, and the ugly as one unit.
As we go down the river, I’m going to pretend that Major Powell is sitting on my raft in a chair strapped to the cooler, and we’re going to have a long conversation. The entire party will join us in this conversation, and we can all ask Powell how we should solve the myriad problems facing the Colorado River Basin. I think he’ll have some ideas.