I’m running behind today because Heather Hansman (Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West) highlighted this beautifully written article about two women who journeyed down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1938. She writes, “This piece, which feels Iike a love story about the river, is so very good.”
If you’ve ever taken a long wilderness trip the article will transport you back into your memories and if you’re like me you’ll end up daydreaming, remembering the jumps into canyon pools, the flora growing around the springs, the routine that you settle into, the hot dry parts, and the small worry — that something could go wrong, and how you will deal with it — that is ever-present . The Grand Canyon cuts through the most magical place I know, the Colorado Platueu.
Put aside time this weekend to read, “The Wild Ones,” by Melissa Sevigny. Here’s an excerpt:
When an expedition arrived in the town of Green River, Utah, in the summer of 1938 with an ambitious itinerary in hand, local residents and veteran river runners were quick to shake their heads. The group planned to row the Green River 120 miles to its confluence with the Colorado, then drift through Cataract Canyon, the fabled graveyard of the Colorado, where whitewater and hidden rocks conspired to smash boats to smithereens. They would resupply at a landing site called Lees Ferry, near the Utah-Arizona border, and then enter the Grand Canyon, where the only way to communicate with the outside world would involve a long, grueling hike to the rim. Ninety miles downstream, they’d have one last chance to break—abandon the river—at Phantom Ranch. After that, there’d be no choice but to make the harrowing descent downstream to Lake Mead. If they did, they’d have traveled more than 600 miles by river.
“You couldn’t pay me to join them,” declared one river rat.
It was high summer, a season when broiling heat gave way to black, booming thunderstorms. The Green River was already muddy and swollen with rainwater. The Colorado ran at nearly full flood stage. In addition to terrifying rapids, the expedition’s members would face heat, hunger, and fatigue.
Not least among the journey’s many dangers, according to “experienced river men” who refused to give their names to the national newspapers covering the expedition, was the presence of women in the party. Only one woman had ever attempted the trip through the Grand Canyon. Her name was Bessie Hyde, and she’d vanished with her husband, Glen, on their honeymoon in 1928. Their boat was found empty. Their bodies were never recovered.
Unnamed sources told reporters that the two women in the crew were “one of the hazards, as they are ‘so much baggage’ and would probably need help in an emergency.” They were scientists—botanists, to be precise. “So they’re looking for flowers and Indian caves,” a river runner said. “Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know they’ll find a peck of trouble before they get through.”
In fact, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter had come from Michigan with much hardier plants in mind. Tucked into side canyons, braving what Jotter called “barren and hellish” conditions, were tough, spiny things: species of cactus that no one had ever catalogued before. Clover and Jotter would become the first people to do so—if they survived.
But the newspapers didn’t much care about that. Journalists crowed that the women had come to “conquer” the Colorado, and they fixated on the likelihood of failure. In the privacy of her journal, 24-year-old Jotter had a one-word reply: “Hooey.”
I’ve trekked the canyons of the Colorado Platuea with two women in my life, Mrs. Gulch the horticulturist, and my daughter who is working in plant conservation genetics. I remember Mrs. Gulch calming me down one day when I missed the exit to Harris Wash from the Escalante River. I was panicked and worried about our location. She reminded me that I was pretty expert at map and compass and would probably figure out where we were in due time. Not even close to, “so much baggage.”
Zach Ruffert on trumpet, Dance Hall Rock, May 2019.