Review: The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another of those books picked up off the coffee table at home: “Hey, who’s reading this?” And the daughter has found time … to READ. For fun.

Well, it’s a parent’s prerogative to borrow the book, take it on trips out of town, and generally be a nuisance, so I devoured this book. I’m not much of a white-water enthusiast, but I have purchased a seat on a few commercial floats and have enjoyed myself. My most memorable was a 3-day raft trip on the Rogue River in Oregon.

It was my last year as a primary care internal medicine resident at UCDavis in Sacramento. I was plowing through my final rotations as a trainee, looking forward nervously to being a full-fledged physician. As such, I had sought out a month-long rotation at a small internal medicine practice in Auburn, California, a reasonably rural town where Internal Medicine’s scope of practice is much broader than that in a metropolitan area with lots of specialists. A couple dozen surgeons and internists had cohered into a tight-knit community. I enjoyed my stay, found ways to be helpful, and began to relax: turns out I had learned enough in my 12 +4 (undergrad) +4 (med school) +3 (residency for internal med) years of schooling (twenty-three!) to be seen as a physician and be treated as a colleague by such a community.

It was with great surprise, that near the end of my month rotation, that my preceptor offered me a spot on their 3-day rafting trip through white water in Oregon. One of the surgeons had to cancel and I was to be the beneficiary. I rushed to my local Sacramento dive shop to rent a wet-suit for the trip, neglecting to mention that I was headed to Oregon. It was an oversight that I would come to regret.

So, 23 physicians set off on a sunny Wednesday, drove all day to our hotel, met our outfitters, and headed out to dinner to carbo-load. In the middle of the night, to our dismay, one of our number awoke with severe right lower quadrant abdominal pain. With a plethora of surgeons and internists, the differential diagnosis of his pain was a hotly debated topic. Nearly everyone palpated his abdomen, and eventually, his brother was elected to drive him an hour into town to be seen in the small ER there for a possible appendicitis diagnosis.

We suited up at our launch site, still talking about his misfortune, when the brothers showed up with huge grins. Turns out as they arrived in the ER, someone had a massive BM, which completely relieved the pain. Seems that excessive carbo-loading isn’t always the best idea.

We launched in 3 large rubber rafts and a couple of inflatable kayaks and proceeded to have a blast of a time. No pagers, no one on-call, great story telling, great meals, fantastic scenery, great friendships. And bailing. lots of bailing. And I volunteered for it all. You see, my wetsuit was the 1/4 inch-thick variety, intended for relatively warm water, not the much thicker version that Oregon weather and whitewater called for. Consequently I spent a large portion of that trip in teeth-chattering, drenching cold, looking for SOMETHING to do to get warm. I became Bailing-boy.

Near the end of the trip, our final overnight had an actual functioning sauna, and I spent enough time in that tiny shack to finally unclench the jaws, loosen the knots of muscle and return to the land of the living. Even 25 years later, I think fondly of that trip AND that warming hut.

But, I digress! The Emerald Mile is a fantastic read, and an instant throw-back for me to those days on the river. It is a dramatized documentary of the personalities among the renegade dory-drivers, the law-abiding dam-builders and the adventurers along the Grand Canyon. The ‘Emerald Mile’ was the prototype and the most famous among the wooden dories that the best river pilots would take down the Colorado River. It tells the story of the quasi-illegal speed run that 3 men in a wooden boat took down the 240 miles of Colorado river within the Grand Canyon, a legendary trip that took less than 2 days at flood stage, when the average guided tour for that distance could take 3-5 weeks.

The people you meet in these pages become your friends, your co-conspirators, your co-defenders of one of the greatest engineering feats in the world. This would be enough, but the lyricism of the writing elevates this to a book that embodies the spirit of the southwest.

Favorite Quotes from the book:

“We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we but pygmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.”

–John Wesley Powell, 1869, about the first exploration of the Grand Canyon.

Page 50. “On May 24, 1869, 10 men in 4 wooden boats plunged down an unknown river through the heart of the last blank spot on the map of the United States. 99 days later, and just shy of 1000 miles down river, six men and 2 boats emerged. They had run through 414 rapids and portaged or lined another hundred. In the process, they enabled America to take full position of this last, hidden landscape feature, while simultaneously laying the foundation by which that same landscape would eventually turn the tables and take possession of Americans who would fall under it’s spell.”

Page 81. “…the color of the river when it was rinsed in the morning light, the little tendrils of perfume that ascended from the brittlebrush flower just before the rain arrives, the quiet music the boat hull made when moored inside an eddy at night.”

“The place seemed to transmit a shattering reminder of the insignificance and irrelevancy of human affairs when set against the twin pools of deep time and geologic indifference.”

Page 110. “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 towards this thing that waited, invisible, just beyond the horizon. It was silent during those minutes, the only sound being the creak of your oars in their locks and the dipping of the blades as you made a few micro adjustments in the hope of putting your hull squarely on the one tiny patch of current that would insert you through the keyhole in the cosmos. Then in the final seconds, you would start to hear the dull, thunderous roar, and you would see the little fistfuls of spray being flung high into the air.”

“This, perhaps, was the most riveting moment of all, because by now all of your decisions had been made-you had done your homework and saw the point of balance between instinct and analysis, listening to the data flowing from both your brain and your gut, and know you were well and truly committed. This thing you were running down had no brakes, no rewind, no possibility of a do-over. You would ride the surge of your 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 dish out…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.”

Page 299. “What Wren was doing, in effect, was performing an act of supplication, a plea for hydraulic clemency, hoping the river might condescend to allow the Emerald Mile to surf through the chaos on the shining fortitude of her own righteousness.

No dice.”
CMIO’s take?

Carbo-loading: not always a good idea.
A float trip and unplugging from the world? Great.
Reading about the deep history of places near and far? Priceless.
Having seen the Grand Canyon merely from the south rim, I must return. Armchair travel can be good, but make sure that real-time travel is in your plans as well.

“We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore.”

Epic Poetry for the hearts of men and women: both River-rats and Informaticists.

View all my reviews

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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