- Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River by Max McCoy
At the book's outset it looks like Max McCoy is going to take us on a fairly predictable trip down the Arkansas via kayak, or by jeep or on foot where he can't float, and tell us the natural history of this major river that rises in the Rockies and eventually joins the Missouri after crossing the plains of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and on into Arkansas.
Very soon it becomes apparent that is not, broadly speaking, where we're headed. McCoy uses the natural eastward flow of the Arkansas River as the prime organizing principle for his narrative, but we soon begin to realize that, just like biographies of complex individuals, the life story of this river contains a mix of tragedy, heroism, humor, and, in McCoy's case, the opportunity to confront and wrestle with personal demons and failings.
Max McCoy is a writing and journalism associate professor at Emporia State University in Kansas. He was raised near the Oklahoma border in Baxter Springs on a tributary of the Arkansas and recounts early formative experiences fishing with his dad on area streams that led to his fascination with watersheds. Born in 1958, he's spent a career in journalism, with stints in near-by Missouri and overseas in Japan. He's best known for his western fiction work and for his reporting on hate groups and serial killers.
So this work is a departure for him. Perhaps his motivations for taking up the challenge to traverse a watershed from top to bottom are in response to the fact that he is now entering his seventh decade, and the road ahead is shrinking as the rear view expands. There is nothing like a harsh physical challenge to make you feel alive, if you survive it.
Because McCoy views the world through his hard-edged journalist's eyes, he tends to seek out and highlight stories that end in tragedy or are tinged with the scent of human failings.
If we can think of a river as a person with an infinite set of stories, then McCoy sees this river's personhood through his own filters, emphasizing aspects of its history and bringing to the fore both historic and contemporary events that strike him as pertinent, telling, and reflective of our common social reality in the age of Trump (whom he reviles).
We learn of kayak drownings, the ill-fated Pike Expedition of 1806, the Sand Creek Massacre, Dodge City's Boot Hill, where lonesome cowboys and soiled doves are buried, the recent plot by white nationalists to blow up a Somali convenience store, and the region's earthquakes that are now commonplace due to the underground disposal of the residue waters caused by fracking— and a few unsavory shoreline encounters with guntoting yahoos thrown in.
McCoy is a gifted storyteller, and his take on his subjects veers away from the tendency of journalists to [End Page 47] maintain some bogus sense of "objectivity." We know who he is and where he stands in relation to his subjects. And the Arkansas, like the author, is full of interesting stories made more compelling for the scars.