REVIEW: "The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon" by Kevin Fedarko

  • Posted on: 17 January 2015
  • By: TedG

The Emerald Mile begins with the surreptitious launching of a boat onto the Colorado River on the night of June 25, 1983. This is the beginning of the titular “fastest ride in history through the heart of the Grand Canyon.” The launch takes up the first five pages of the book. From there, readers should brace themselves. Not because you will be hurtled into the maelstrom of the fastest ride, but because you will then go back to the year 1540 and proceed through all of the Grand Canyon’s history, hearing nothing more about the 1983 speed run until page 181. There are 176 pages of backstory provided about exploration, geology, fluid hydraulics, and the culture of river rafting before the reader even comes back into the year 1983. And then you go for another 70 pages before arriving on June 25th. Granted, at 354 pages total, it works out that half the book is about the 1983 speed run, but you will feel the weight of time upon you by the time you beach your book at the end because you will have read through pages that are as layered and heavy as the geology of the Grand Canyon itself.

There. I used an entire paragraph to express what Jack more succinctly stated during our discussion: “it’s not the straight adventure story that it’s billed to be.”

Seemingly unnecessary detail notwithstanding, The Emerald Mile is an engaging story about the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, boats, and people. Oh, it’s also about the dams that confine the river and how, in one moment of poor calculation by its operators, water being withheld had to be let free, providing a trio of raftsmen the opportunity to set an unbreakable record for traversing the 280 miles through the Grand Canyon. This variety of perspectives––the environmentalist fight to preserve the canyon and the river, the engineering marvel of building and maintaining a dam, and the thrill and spirituality of rafting––was one positive aspect noted by the group. We also appreciated Fedarko’s skill in crafting very descriptive writing about the canyon and the river. The reader gains a good appreciation for what it’s like to be on the water down there, hurtling through standing waves and sweeping into eddies, pulling up to shore for the night, and watching light play across the canyon walls. Perhaps such detailed writing is a necessary adjunct for actually being there. The reader spends a lot of time learning and developing mental images of water and rock and how they move (or don’t) so that he more fully understands what makes the canyon and the river so special.

Having been on a rafting trip through the canyon, Jack told us that it was the trip of a lifetime, one he hopes to do again with his grandkids. And because he had been there and done that, he felt the book was a very good representation of that experience. As a canoe-man, myself, and a boat enthusiast generally, I could identify with what Fedarko had to say about boats and being in them, and how such experiences influence the way a person thinks and acts in all aspects of life.

The taste of that joy was absolutely intoxicating, a kind of drug, and perhaps the most potent part of the charge lay in the irrevocability of the moment when you untied your boat, and you and your partners peeled out into the current above a rapid in a tight and graceful little arc like a formation of miniature fighter jets. For a minute or two, you would find yourself drifting on a flat and glassy cushion of serenity as the current slowly gathered its speed and heft beneath the bottom of your boat and you drifted toward this thing that waited, invisible, just beyond the horizon.

…This, perhaps, was the most riveting moment of all because by now all of your decisions had been made. …This thing you were running down had no brakes, no rewind, no possibility of a do-over. You would ride the surge of adrenaline and surf the watery crescendo that was about to explode before you, and you would accept the consequences, good or bad, along with whatever gifts or punishments the river was prepared to dish out. There were lessons there, insights a man could put in his pocket and take out later … tiny compass points to steer by during those seasons when the river that was your life turned turbulent and ugly. You could learn things about yourself that you would never learn in civil society. And if you were lucky, you might navigate to a place that would enable you to glimpse, however obliquely, a bit of who you truly were.

Average score for Interest was 4.5, Readability was 4, and most would read something else by Fedarko; three of us were less certain but probably would.