At some point in our lives we will all be faced with becoming John Wesley Powell in one way or another.
I’ve always admired the famous explorer John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). He was one of the first explorers to run the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869.
He was an explorer, geologist, professor and ethnographer. I admired him in many ways. However, he also had a darker side. I always wanted to emulate only his better qualities. But on March 22nd of this year, I’ve come to be like him in a way that I never intended to. And that terrifies me!
A river trip is one of the ultimate geographical journeys. A river trip through the Grand Canyon takes it to another level.
A journey down a river can be a symbol for or journey through life. Like rivers, our lives have a starting point (headwaters). Our lives, like rivers, often take sinuous paths through the landscape, passing through place after place only once until we reach the end of our route. Sometimes the water is calm and flows slowly. Other times, there are wild rides through big rapids. The destination may not be as significant as the journey.
I relate to Powell since we both had a penchant for exploring, although the world was much more wild at the time of his explorations than were mine. He spent four months walking across Wisconsin in 1855. I’ve spent at least that much time walking the Pacific Crest Trail, parts of the Appalachian Trail, and other long distance trails, but with the walks spread over many years. In 1856 he rowed the entire Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The following year, he rowed the entire length of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to its confluence with the Mississippi. In contrast, my longest water trips were only one week; a 150 mile canoe trip down the lower Stikine River from Telegraph Creek, B.C. to Wrangell, Alaska, and one-week sea kayak trips through various fjords in Southeast Alaska. It seems he was much tougher than I was.
We did have a few other things in common. We both became college professors later in our lives; he in Geology and me in Geography. We both were fascinated with landforms; their patterns on the landscape and the processes which form them. We both care about conservation and land preservation for future generations. We both were interested in studying other cultures. But that is where our similarities end.
There was a darker side to Powell which I did not want to emulate. While he did publish an ethnography and classification of Indian languages, and studied the effects of acculturation on aboriginal peoples, he had a paternalistic view toward native people. It is no coincidence that the timing of his geologic expeditions overlapped with the time of imperialistic military ventures associated with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Powell advocated for resource exploitation and Native removal from their lands. This is where our outlook on the world bifurcates. Maybe we were both products of the times that we lived in.
There were other major differences between us. Powell was a veteran who fought in the Civil War for the Union Army. I have no military experience, as the Vietnam War and the compulsory draft were over just before I was of age to serve. Powell was shot in the right arm during the Battle of Shiloh and had most of his right arm amputated. Which means he did his epic 3 month river expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers with only one arm. I had two arms for my river and sea kayak expeditions.
That is, until this March 22nd. That was the day I became like John Wesley Powell in a way that I never wanted to.
While taking a short training ride on my bicycle for an upcoming trip, I slowed the bike down to get around a gate blocking the paved bike path. I could not get my foot loose from the toe clips and crashed and fell hard on my left side. Foolishly, I instinctively stuck out my left elbow to protect me from the fall. The sickening sound of my humerus bone shattering was an explosion in my ear, and I felt excruciating pain from my elbow to my shoulder. I lay on the ground writhing in pain while hoping that someone might be walking their dog or riding their bike to come by and help. Now I know how helpless a turtle flipped upside down on his shell feels. I wriggled on my back for more than 10 minutes. Finally, someone saw me, came over, and called the paramedics.
The injury was more severe than a simple broken bone. It was a compound fracture in five places, where the head of the humerus bone split in half. After a four and a half hour surgery, two metal plates and countless screws installed, I was sent home from the hospital on the fourth day. Over a month later my arm is still mostly useless. In the blink of an eye, I became a one-armed man like J.W. Powell. It could happen to any one of us.
Daily life is a challenge having only one arm. I wondered, “How did Mr. Powell pilot a raft down the mighty Colorado with only one arm?” He surely was a much tougher man than I will ever be!
Fears of what my life might look like from now on begin to consume me. What if I am never able to paddle my kayak again? Are my days of camping, hiking, and exploring in the outdoors gone forever? With just one functioning arm I can’t even tie my own shoes, let alone set up a tent. Forget about being able to cut a piece of meat at dinner. Other things one cannot do with just one arm include completely toweling off after a shower, practicing archery, folding clothes well, shucking corn, threading the belt loops on the pants you are wearing, uncorking a bottle of wine, trimming your fingernails, opening a lid on a jar, flossing, using loppers to trim bushes in your yard, signaling a touchdown in football, peeling potatoes, using a broom and a dustpan at the same time, popping a pimple, clapping in applause, serving in tennis, slicing a baguette, driving a stick shift, and cleaning the armpit of your good arm, among other things. Tie your own arm behind your back for one full day and I’m sure you will come up with many more examples. It is both humbling and scary when you realize just how fragile our existence really is. What it really does reveal is that no matter how independent you might think you are, we all depend on help from someone else from time to time.
All of this makes me appreciate John Wesley Powell even more. Not only did he lead the first government expedition down an uncharted dangerous river through lands where the natives were often hostile, but he made a couple more scientific expeditions down the Colorado. The 1869 trip proved the river could be run. That made him a national hero. The subsequent expeditions in 1871-72 were accompanied by photographers, artists, cartographers and other scientists. From riverside camps, Powell would often scale vertical cliffs with his one arm, to take rock samples and find perches for the artists to document the extent of the canyon country. What he could do with one arm was unbelievable.
But Powell made his first down the Colorado a full seven years after losing his arm. Maybe at first he was just as scared about his disability as I am about my own now. Maybe it took him a few years of living with his disability to adapt to it and overcome his fears. He certainly still did need help from others though. Somebody had to tie his shoes for him each morning before they got back in the boat. Somebody else was peeling the potatoes and cleaning the fish he was eating at camp.
Which makes me realize that we ALL have a disability in life to overcome or adapt to. You may have two good arms, but possibly have some other type of physical impairment. Or, your challenge might be psychological or economic. You might be handicapped by having to be a caretaker for someone in your family who would be lost without your help. Or you might be a minority living in a society dominated by a different culture. That doesn’t make you the disabled one, but it sure may handicap your ability for upward social mobility. Which is why John Wesley Powell’s trip down the Colorado should be on the top of our minds if we are to ever form a more perfect union in our country.
Historically, we are in the middle of a very big set of rapids on our downriver journey. Rising inflation, ongoing issues with global and domestic supply chains, disasters associated with climate change which increase in frequency as well as severity, vitriolic hate speech in our society combined with hyper-partisan rhetoric, scenes of death and destruction in Ukraine, fear of global thermonuclear war, social and economic upheaval are all boiling up all around us. It seems that we may be smashed by any of these rocks amid the rapids. We’re desperately looking for a back eddy to find a safe haven and some calmer water. But even if we manage to find one which affords us a brief rest, we will still have to finish running the river. And we’ll need to channel our inner John Wesley Powell to do it.
But simply mustering up grit and courage from within is not sufficient enough. We’ll have to learn to rely on one another too. There are just some things we cannot accomplish by ourselves. We will have to be open to accepting the helping hand of others, while at the same time doing all we can to help ourselves AND each other. If we learn to take the best lessons from Powell while eschewing any similarities to the ethnocentric and imperialistic views that he held, we will again have hope for the future.
Although I only have one arm at the present time, unlike Powell I still have two hands. With a long road of physical therapy ahead of me, I still have hope of regaining most of the use of my arm. Even if I eventually do, I will remember the lessons from Mr. Powell and be more empathetic towards my one-armed fellow citizens. As long as they will strive to do the best that they can with their one good arm, I will be happy to tie their shoes for them. I will also happily shuck the ears of corn that we can dine on together.