Big Water, Big Dreams

The Emerald Mile: the Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon
By Kevin Fedarko
432 pages, hardcover: $30.
Scribner, 2013.

When did we get so petty? At a time when we're faced with huge issues—a changing climate, a healthcare crisis, a democracy threatened by money in politics, the legacy of unpunished deception on Wall Street, we keep going small: denying science, attacking reproductive rights, manufacturing fiscal crises. When did we give up? And more important: How can we become big again?

A time-honored way to reset one's worldview is to look for inspiration in tales of heroism – what writer Cormac McCarthy calls "old stories of courage and justice." I found such a tale in Kevin Fedarko's book, The Emerald Mile: the Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon. On its surface, it's about 1983, the year so much snowmelt swamped the Colorado River Basin that it threatened to overrun Glen Canyon Dam. Yet even as that catastrophe was brewing and the dam was releasing biblical volumes of water, an eccentric, massively talented, hugely energetic, obsessive-compulsive river guide named Kenton Grua and two of his friends risked jail and death by sneaking The Emerald Mile—their wooden dory—into the maelstrom, just to see if they could row the 277-mile canyon in under 48 hours.

As in many great stories, the actual subject is largely metaphor. The book is about much bigger things: gigantic acts of human creation, such as Glen Canyon Dam—an engineering marvel that, love it or hate it, marked the heyday of ambitious infrastructure in the U.S.—and even more tremendous natural landscapes, like the Grand Canyon itself: a mile deep, so large that you could dump the Pyrenees into it and no peaks would rise above the rim. And ultimately it's about the extent of human dreams and madness, including Grua's secret plan to launch into the biggest flood in 30 years.

As Grua and crew blasted into Crystal Rapid, a ranger named John Thomas saw them. Their trip was illegal, and the National Park Service had closed that rapid due to an extremely dangerous "explosion wave"—the very one they were headed for. But although Thomas was a ranger, he was an old-school boatman, too, and he "knew exactly who it was and what they were doing." Thomas wondered: "Was it possible that a measure of what had been lost—the thing that had defined the essence of this place," the canyon's unconstrained freedom and self-expression—was happening right in front of his eyes? In those few seconds, he was in moral whitewater. Should he honor the act and the canyon, and thereby breach his obligations as a ranger? Or should he stop the run? Thomas walked away –– a grand gesture in itself. It makes a reader wonder: When was my last grand gesture? When was the last time I hung everything on the line for the sake of a shaky and hopeful vision?

Even as Grua plunged into the river, engineers at Glen Canyon were struggling to prevent an overflow that would flood the powerhouses. The discharge was destroying the outlet channels, which were spitting out car-sized chunks from the sandstone walls that supported the dam; it was as big a problem as you can imagine. But then again, everyone in this book is under duress: physical, legal, existential, moral. Sort of like, well, most of us today.

Why engage in the world in such an expansive way, putting our lives, perhaps our souls, at hazard? The Emerald Mile reminds us that we were meant to think big. We might fail catastrophically in the process, but we might also realize our dreams. What if, for example, we crowbarred money out of politics to reestablish democracy? What if we ended poverty? What if we stabilized the climate?

The gateway to Dante's Inferno famously reads: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Grua pitched himself into a literal hell as an act of grace, all for a deeper connection to the place he loved. Was that place hell to Grua? A more recent translation of Dante better describes his mission: "Forget your hopes, they are what brought you here." When the time came, Grua could only act. Writer Barry Lopez calls this uncomfortable balance between fear and accomplishment "the cusp on which human life finds its richest expression." Fedarko says that "only by steering himself unflinchingly into those places he most fervently wished to avoid ... could a man hope to arrive at the place he truly needed to be."

Can we meet the challenges of our time? It's just a question of our willingness to throw ourselves unconditionally into the maw, into our own personal Emerald Mile. Only there can hope be forged anew.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.