- American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean by Michael Engelhard
A paean to both the American Southwest and the Far North, American Wild consists of a series of twenty-five loosely connected essays describing the author's outdoor adventures in Arizona, Utah, and Alaska. Engelhard divides the collection into two parts, each addressing one of these regions.
The essays deal with a wide variety of outdoor activities, such as backpacking, river rafting, mountaineering, bicycling, and berry picking. They also engage more abstract and personal issues, such as industrial development, climate change, Indigenous culture, blind dates, and cross-country moves. Both literally and figuratively, Engelhard covers some well-worn literary terrain. In "Homes on the Range," he ponders his nomadic tendencies, wondering, like Kerouac, why Americans embrace "such restlessness" (4). In "Vermilion Light," he declares his preference for backpacking, highlighting, like Thoreau, the many advantages of walking. Willing to take risks with his writing, though, Engelhard offers fresh insights into these familiar themes and subjects. Thus, with respect to restlessness, he contends that "the nomad's commitment to places, like that of the whale or the crane, can match Thoreau's or Wendell Berry's in every way" (4). Alongside his thoughts on the importance of deceleration, he comments on the historical figure John Doyle Lee [End Page 366] and his homestead, thereby turning his essay into a kind of "trail-side memento mori" (76).
Not all of Engelhard's experiments are quite so successful. In "Tough Times on Denali" he focuses more on his experiences in base camp than those on the mountain, rendering the essay somewhat anticlimactic. And in "Least Force Necessary" he tries to animate the confrontation-with-a-bear story, an obligatory feature of Alaskan writing, but for some reason—perhaps because of the circumstances of the encounter—his philosophical approach feels a bit overdone.
Still, American Wild contains some outstanding essays that readers interested in the Southwest and North will certainly appreciate. A tribute to Edward Abbey, "The Last Fifteen Miles" describes Engelhard's attempt to "reconstruct" the loss of Glen Canyon by touring the dam facilities and hiking down to the Colorado River at its foot. At turns irreverent and nostalgic, the essay criticizes the severe costs of industrial development in the American Southwest. Employing a self-deprecating tone absent from most of the other essays, "Mating Dance under the Midnight Sun" details Engelhard's fruitless attempts to impress a date during an ill-fated kayaking trip on Alaska's Koyukuk River. In addition to furnishing some welcome comic relief, the piece adds dimension to the persona the author constructs throughout the collection. "In the Wake of Skin Boats," perhaps the book's best essay, describes a sea kayaking trip to Kenai Fjords National Park, skillfully weaving together descriptions of outdoor adventure, Indigenous culture, and colonial history while showcasing their interconnectedness.