My latest reading adventure down a rabbit hole (a slot canyon?) took me to southern Utah. A recent New Yorker article on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a re-read of my account to my trip to Zion this past spring led me to a blogger’s tale of a hike on the Hayduke Trail, a little-known hiking route named for an Edward Abbey character. The Hayduke is less a trail than a string of paths and backcountry suggestions brought together into a guidebook. It is a brutal 800-mile path that connects six national parks, one national monument, and a bevy of other designated public lands across southern Utah and northern Arizona, from Canyonlands to Bryce to the Grand Canyon to Zion. After 65 days on trails and rafts, this traveling party found the jaunt up to Angel’s Landing in Zion a lazy jog up an overcrowded molehill. I am in no way ready to go on a hike like this, but it’s fun to dream.
This southern Utah kick led me to pick up a book I’ve long wanted to read from an author who has been on my mind often this year: Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, a biography of John Wesley Powell. Powell is best known as the one-armed Civil War veteran who was the first man to sail down the Colorado River. His journey began at Green River in modern-day Wyoming and made its way down through countless canyons before going through the Grand, every day an adventure down rapids in uncharted territory. If Powell’s story ended there, he would be an explorer second only to Lewis and Clark in his importance to the story of the American West.
Powell, however, was much more than that, and over half of Stegner’s account is devoted to his life on dry land. He brought a nineteenth century encyclopedist’s enthusiasm to his pursuits, with a fervent belief that he could collect enough information to build a better understanding of his world and thereby guide it toward a more sane society. His first ventures west were eclectic expeditions of family and students that just collected every specimen he could manage. He was the godfather of the U.S.Geological Survey, that meticulous attempt to understand the land and it bounties, and his efforts laid the foundation for the Bureau of Reclamation, which devoted itself to making much of the West as inhabitable as possible while preserving the rest. Powell’s pet interest in ethnography—the recording of details of the indigenous peoples of the West—was a staple later in his career, even when political winds in the west blew against him. His resistance to a notion that the West could be settled seamlessly made him his share of enemies.
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian sets out to puncture the mythology of the American West. Over half of those supposedly hardy pioneers failed and moved back east or faced worse fates. And that was in the more fertile Midwest, before white settlement reached the 100 degree longitude line beyond which rainfall became far rarer. “[T]he romanticizing of the West…led to acute political and economic and agricultural blunders, to the sour failure of projects and lives, to the vast and avoidable waste of some resources and the monopolization of others,” Stegner writes. “There was too little factual corrective, too little allowance for swiftly changing times, and trouble ensued when people ignorant of the West and needing to know a lot about it mistook imagination for observation and art for life.”
In spite of his recognition of nature’s limits, Powell was no Malthusian convinced that humans were doomed in the face of nature. On the contrary, he was at his core a believer in science and progress: “The revelation of science is this: Every generation in life is a step in progress to a higher and fuller life; science has discovered hope,” Stegner quotes from an 1882 lecture by Powell on Darwin. Blind optimism on this order suffered significant setbacks beginning with the First World War, but both Powell and his twentieth-century interlocutor seem aware that political roadblocks and the vagaries of human nature do not undermine the logic behind the path toward understanding and better politics.
There is a middle ground between naïve hope in human progress and resignation to human limits. It recognizes that humans can adapt and even tame nature, but never in full. It sees in humans a capacity for works of both incredible construction and incredible destruction, of genius and idiocy. It seeks complete understanding, even when it recognizes the impossibility of achieving it. This is the Powell mindset, the Stegner mindset, and a mindset that is not hard to inhabit at the tail end of an arduous hike through canyon country, a simultaneous sense of awe at the nature that surrounds the hiker and a sense of conquest upon summiting peaks. (John Muir: “Double happy, however,is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach.”) Yes, it is somewhere in this realm that happiness lies.