Clyde Eddy must have been missing the war. He seems to have been one of those lost, dissatisfied former soldiers that Hemingway wrote about: a man who couldn't adjust to the everyday after spending his youth flying over France, photographing the enemy in his trenches, and listening to the bombs.
It's really the only way to explain the 38-year-old's decision, in 1927, to run the Colorado River from Green River, Utah, to Needles, Calif., at flood stage, in the torrid heat of the summer, with a crew composed mostly of Ivy League college boys. The improbable expedition succeeded where others had failed, and two years later, Eddy published Down the World's Most Dangerous River, a fascinating record of the journey and a unique portrait of one of North America's great rivers before it was tamed by the forces of reclamation.
Very few of the crew members, including Eddy himself, had any kind of river-running experience. As a guide, he hired Parley Galloway, son of Nathan Galloway, a Utah trapper and prospector, and a pioneer of Colorado River-running. Parley had spent considerable time on the river in Utah, but had never been through the Grand Canyon. The natives of Green River, from which the party pushed off on June 27, 1927, figured them for dead men, and were not shy with their warnings.
Forty-two days later, they went ashore at Needles, alive to a man, 800 river miles and hundreds of deadly rapids behind them.
During the high-water season, snowmelt and rainstorms upriver swelled and angered the muddy flow, making every move on the river potentially deadly. It was a different river then, before the Glen Canyon Dam destroyed the stretch through the Grand Canyon. Eddy's river was warm and roiling, red with the untold tons of dirt and rocks—the same kind of dirt and rocks used to carve the Grand Canyon. These days, the river is cold and greenish, with its once-teeming, verdant banks scoured, its natural power trapped behind the dam and held in Lake Powell, a playground for water-skiers and houseboaters.
The University of New Mexico Press and Avanyu Publishing have recently reissued Eddy's book under the new title A Mad, Crazy River. It is much more than an artifact of a lost time and a lost river, though it is most definitely that. Anyone curious about the Colorado as it once was will get much from Eddy's ruminations and wilderness portraits. But within this adventure tale, there is also the story of a man fighting another ancient battle: a drag-out fistfight with the expectations of his family, his contemporaries and his class.
On the 24th day of the journey, the party arrived at the mouth of Bright Angel Creek, near Phantom Ranch, and Eddy and several others made the trudge to the South Rim, expecting a load of supplies to be waiting there. Eddy picked up the supplies, and with them, he got a letter in which his father asked him if he would "ever grow up." At camp that night, Eddy pondered his future, seemingly much affected by his father's disapproval. It resulted in one of the saddest portions of the book:
"Well, maybe not, but I believe now that I shall, even to the extent of fixing on a new dream, a dream in which money and comforts figure largely," he wrote. "That seems to constitute growing up, the crowding out of romance and settling down to work and golf. But it will suit me to do that, at least it seems to me now that it will. I must realize that this is my big adventure and that now I must be content to work, and earn and save. It still is too soon to define the new dream, but it probably will take the form of comforts at home, security, automobiles, money, a trip to Europe sometime, or even a journey around the world when I am old."
Within months of finishing what he thought would be his final adventure, however, Eddy had already failed at "settling down to work and golf." He just didn't have it in him. Instead, he was back on the river helping rescue a lost film crew. Whether it was the bug of war, the lure of the river and the wilderness, or some deep flaw in his middle-class character, Eddy, unlike the river that he rode to glory, could not be tamed.