by Kevin Fedarko, 2024

Cover photo for A Walk in the Park bookJust a few weeks ago I came across a book review in The New York Times of A Walk in the Park: The True Story of a Spectacular Misadventure in the Grand Canyon, a book about two ill-prepared hikers determined to go the length of the Grand Canyon on foot (almost 800 miles). Their trek was complete with hilarious stories of tripping into cactus bushes, accidentally sleeping on top of an ant hill, and being so out of shape that “every part of me—feet, hips, neck, shoulders, legs—aches directly to the bone,” and “the bottoms of my feet looked as if someone had fired a shotgun into them.”

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Actually, the end-to-end hike through our most scenic national park was not the whim of a couple of college-age dropouts, it was serious business: proposed by National Geographic to one of the hikers in 2015 because of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Pete McBride, a photographer for Nat Geo for years, was pitched the idea. When he accepted, he knew that he wanted adventure writer Kevin Fedarko, consummate storyteller and long-time friend and collaborator, as his hiking companion. Kevin was a veteran whitewater rafter on the Colorado River, so he already knew the Grand Canyon from that perspective. Pete was certain they both could make the transition to being long-haul trekkers, just by getting out there and hoofing it. Pete would take the photos and Kevin would write the “article” to be released the following year in commemoration of the Park Service’s anniversary.

What I didn’t realize I would get with this book was not only an epic retelling of their debacle/adventure—what should have taken a few months turned out to take almost a year to complete—but a well-researched dive into the entire history of those who came before them. The early explorers of the Grand Canyon, including early through-hikers, but more importantly, Native American tribes who owned and inhabited the land long before White settlers came along to take it from them. In particular, he educates the reader on the history of the Havasupai and Hualapai tribes, inhabitants of the Canyon for hundreds of years before the US government got involved. Both tribes were tricked into giving up their lands, and both were successful in regaining some portion of control back over lands they used to own, using wildly different methods and having wildly different end results. The contrast between these two tribes and how they now manage their tribal lands is fascinating and reason enough to read the book.

Fedarko became remarkably conversant on the geological and biological landscape through which he was hiking, sounding much like a well-rounded master naturalist. As a geologist myself, it warmed my heart to hear a nongeologist treat my old friends the Vishnu Schist, Toroweap Limestone, Kaibab Limestone, Hermit Shale, Bright Angel Shale, and others with a loving and knowledgeable touch. But he didn’t just do that well. Whether he was describing the sedimentological layers they were tramping across, or the trees and shrubs, or the flowers, or the birds, or the mammals, or the petroglyphs, I was awestruck at his ability to observe and appreciate the natural world, to understand and elucidate it, and to make you feel like you were right there with him. Even his description of a particularly radiant starry night left me hitting rewind over and over, making me feel like I’d never looked at stars properly before.

Kevin and Pete would ultimately triumph in their goal, but not before suffering innumerable mishaps, great pain and discomfort, medical emergencies, and a near-death experience. We also meet and are grateful for the more experienced team who helped and guided them along the way, and without whom they wouldn’t have completed this journey. They traveled through the Canyon surviving both freak snowstorms and times when it became a “demented inferno,” up to 112ºF, when all water sources dried up and they were reduced to extracting water from sands and potholes with a syringe. The shocking level of hardship they endured, running out of food, water, and medical supplies, is enough to frighten anyone away from backcountry camping without a “phone a friend” option at the ready.

If you enjoy adventure stories filled with heavy doses of self-deprecating humor, true grit, natural wonders, historical context, and ultimately, triumph, you will love this book.

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