The Promise of the Grand Canyon by John Ross

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Promise of the Grand Canyon:

A lot of heartache just to explore a big hole. 

Quick synopsis:

A partial biography of John Wesley Powell focused on his exploration of little-known parts of the Grand Canyon. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

John Wesley Powell took on a crazy exploration of the Grand Canyon. He had one arm at the time.   

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Powell was a super smart dude. Many of the things he extrapolated and hypothesized turned out to be true. Most impressively, he clearly identified the massive problems with water scarcity in the American West which is still a huge challenge today.  

My Take on The Promise of the Grand Canyon:

This is easily the type of book which can get boring when not handled right. If you focus too much on the rock nerdery of Powell then you can really get caught in the weeds. Ross does a really good job by sticking to the exciting parts but not ignoring the science altogether. 

Powell does make himself a pretty interesting subject. Ross gives a short biography of Powell before his exploration of the Grand Canyon, including losing his arm in the Civil War. You would think that would be enough to make someone stay home and enjoy their other arm. Not Powell! 

I am still not quite sure how he did 90% of the things he did while only having one arm. One of the most famous anecdotes about him is while he was scaling a cliff, he got caught and hung by his one arm until one of his fellow explorers helped out. It makes me feel like a very lazy person just reading it. 

The final section of the book digs into the science of everything and how Powell was able to come to many of his conclusions. This part of the book was presented simply but still made me feel dumb.  


Great book with a great story that the author makes very approachable even for non-science nerds (like me!). Buy it here!

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