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Tucson Weekly Grand Adventure

A Canyon Journey Unites Essays by Women Writers.

By Mari Wadsworth

AUGUST 10, 1998:  Writing Down the River, photographed and produced by Kathleen Jo Ryan (Northland Publishing). Cloth, $29.95.

IN 1869, JOHN Wesley Powell made history when he and six of his nine crewmen emerged, battered and awestruck, after 99 days at the hands of the then-engorged and untamed section of the Colorado River that cuts through the Grand Canyon. This would be the first of two such journeys...and the beginning of a legacy of discovery that continues today, as legions of tourists, thrill-seekers and naturalists descend the canyon each year in search of their own historic journeys down the muddy, mysterious red river.

Photographer Kathleen Jo Ryan's love affair with the Colorado River began a solid decade ago; and in 1998, after the passage of her 50th birthday and five trips through the canyon, she and 15 women writers of her choosing have pooled a wealth of words and images into Writing Down the River. Avid readers won't find anything new here about the canyon's history or topography, but Writing Down the River does offer a personalized, respectful homage to two landscapes: the external beauty of river and canyon; and the internal quagmire of pain, love, memory and mortality. The book is a risky venture, in both the experience and the retelling; and ultimately one must respect its courage in the face of both.

The essayists include familiar names like Denise Chávez, Linda Ellerbee, Barbara Earl Thomas and Ann Haymond Zwinger; and if individually their contributions seem only to scratch the surface of their experiences, taken as a whole the collection succeeds by assuming a character much like that of its subject: smooth in some places, rocky in others; at times zinging by on liquid prose, and at others languishing on an eddy of sentimental reflection.

To focus too intently on the perceived flaws of any one section is to ignore the beauty of the whole--which, I think, is the unifying theme of the river experience itself. In her own way, each participant implores us to let go and enjoy whatever goodness life offers.

The images by Ryan are the lifeblood of the book. Her full-color plates reflect the eye of the insider--the changing faces of the river, from placid turquoise to a torrent squall of brown; the brilliant red of sunset on the South Rim, and the blue light of a monsoon afternoon mid-river near Nankoweap. A herd of adolescent big horn, a sandy coil of rope, passengers leaping like lemmings from a craggy lip over the river; a triptych of water, granite, and petroglyph: all combine to give the reader a vicarious, and seductive, glimpse into a journey that, for all the inspiration to share it, will forever belong to the initiated alone. As it should be.

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