John Mack Faragher
Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trailby Keith Heyer Meldahl
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In 1848 news of the discovery of gold in California triggered an enormous wave of emigration toward the Pacific. Lured by the promise of riches, thousands of settlers left behind the forests, rain, and fertile soil of the eastern United States in favor of the rough-hewn lands of the American West. The dramatic terrain they struggled to cross is so familiar to us now that it is hard to imagine how frightening—even godforsaken—its sheer rock faces and barren deserts seemed to our forebears.
Hard Road West brings their perspective vividly to life, weaving together the epic overland journey of the covered wagon trains and the compelling story of the landscape they encountered. Taking readers along the 2,000-mile California Trail, Keith Meldahl uses the diaries and letters of the settlers themselves—as well as the countless hours he has spent following the trail—to reveal how the geology and geography of the West directly affected our nation’s westward expansion. He guides us through a corrugated landscape of sawtooth mountains, following the meager streams that served as lifelines through an arid land, all the way to California itself, where colliding tectonic plates created breathtaking scenery and planted the gold that lured travelers west in the first place.
“Alternates seamlessly between vivid accounts of the 19th-century journey and lucid explanations of the geological events that shaped the landscape traveled. . . . The reader comes away with both an appreciation for the arduous cross-continental wagon journey and an understanding of the events that created such a vast and difficult landscape.”—Library Journal “[Meldahl] draws on his professional knowledge to explain the geology of the West, showing how centuries of geological activity had a direct effect on the routes taken by the travelers. . . . Meldahl provides a novel account of the largest overland migration since the Crusades.”—Science News
“[Meldahl] draws on his professional knowledge to explain the geology of the West, showing how centuries of geological activity had a direct effect on the routes taken by the travelers. . . . Meldhal provides a novel account of the largest overland migration since the Crusades.”
"It is the inclusion of so many poignant voices of those who struggled to survive the journey that lift the book far above the standard and reveal the beating hearts behind the frontier landscape. This is a surprisingly affecting history and a solid geologic analysis of the Gold Rush Trail."
Stephen K. Donovan
Lynne M. Clos
“Geologist Keith Heyer Meldahl’s innovative new study, Hard Road West, challenges historians to broaden their temporal perspective and consider the impact of long-term geological processes on the course of the California gold rush. In eminently readable prose, the book interweaves two very different stories of westward movement. The first is the epic journey of the North American continent, which has been inching west since its break from Eurasia and Africa roughly 220 million years ago. . . . This landscape constitutes the setting for the book’s second story: the unprecedented overland migration precipitated by the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. Meldahl uses emigrant writings as well as his personal experiences hiking the trail to illuminate how wayfarers understood and responded to the many topographical challenges of the 2,000-mile journey. . . . Meldahl’s work serves as a vivid reminder of the extraordinary nature of this episode in America’s westward expansion.”
Charles W. Martin
"Among the best books I''ve read in the past five years."--Ben Schwarz, Atlantic
“Meldahl is skilled at offering understandable explanations of scientific concepts. He writes very well and, in the tradition of the best 19th-century accounts, he does not hesitate to put himself in the story. . . . Here’s a book that not only informs but is fun to read.”
“Western historians and trail rut nuts alike have good reason to rejoice that Keith Meldahl stopped to ponder a California Trail marker on the Forty-Mile Desert and asked, ‘What’s this all about?’ Hard Road West creates an entirely new look at one of America’s greatest stories, combining perceptive scientific observations with brilliant, engaging, captivating prose to tell the tale of America’s road to gold. From now on, I will happily recommend Meldahl’s unique work as the best introduction to the epic story of the Oregon and California trails.”
"Keith Meldahl has woven the threads of history and science together to create a fascinating story of discovery and adventure in the American West. His accounts of the westward migrations along the California and Oregon trails capture both the thrill of geological discovery and the captivating human history of this unique and magnificent landscape. Historians and geologists have long shared an equal passion for the bold and stark lands of western North America, but until now no one has managed to unite those perspectives so thoroughly and effectively as Meldahl."
"In Hard Road West, Keith Meldahl has skillfully woven together the geology of the 2,000 mile-long overland trail and the emigrant experience recounted through their own words. You get two histories packaged together, one evolving over eons of time and the other compressed into a few decades, all told in a most engaging way. The author has an unusually effective way of explaining complicated geological forces at work with the use of apt analogies and metaphors. The general-interest reader will surely enjoy these intertwined histories."
"[Hard Road West] takes topics that can be highly technical and even tedious and turns them into an engaging story of moving continents, mountain building and destruction, volcanic activity, and gold deposition. . . . The book is beautifully written. Scientific jargon is kept to a minimum. . . . A book that every trail enthusiast, or anyone looking for a delightful way to learn the basics of geology, should have."
"Hard Road West is a field trip between hard covers, perhaps the best I've seen. . . . It is lively, well written, well illustrated and well produced. . . . It is a story of human endeavour that will appeal to many."
"I found this a fascinating book and difficult to put down once I'd started. . . . All in all, if you are looking for a different sort of book and have any interest in western history and geology, this melding of the two can't be beat."
"What is really special about Hard Road West is the deftness with which Meldahl suynthesizes perspectives from his may excursions . . . the words of the emigrants themselves through their jouornals and memoirs, and a perspicuous account of the tectonic science. The reader comes away with a deeper intellectual and emotional contact with this landscape as well as a more visceral sense of the trqagedies, triumphs, stupidities, and sublimities involved in the frontier encounter."
"Among the best books I've read in the past five years."
- University of Chicago Press
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Meet the Author
Keith Heyer Meldahl is professor of geology and oceanography at Mira Costa College.
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