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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
Published: University of Chicago Press an imprint of UChicagoPress on
ISBN: 9780226923291
List price: $17.00
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In my rating scheme, 5 star books are rare. Where a 3-star book has to deliver strong basic knowledge, a 5-star book has to make me think about a subject or issue much differently. This book is a a 5-star-a paradigm changer for me in the area of Paleo-Geography, or how the North American continent evolved over billions of years. Due to my background in college where I took a lot of elective geology courses, I consider myself to know more than an average layperson on the subject of geology but less than a professional geologist. In addition to the aforementioned college courses, I've read a lot of fairly technical materials on paleogeography events in North America's past such as the different orogenies that helped shape the current North American West. However, what I lacked was an easy way to "see" all of these processes occuring in sequence in a way that had enough detail to retain vitality important information, yet simple enough to be told in an easy to understand narrative that can be remembered as a story. This book accomplished this for me. Although there was little I hadn't read about before, the way it was presented made me "see" the evolution of the North American continent for the first time. The historical information about the immigrants and the trails is interesting as well. Very highly recommended.more
This book is a remarkable mixture of geology and US history. The author is to be commended for this unusual and satisfying study of travel along the Gold Rush trail in its geological as well as historical context. He claims he is one of the "rut nuts," people who seek out the wagon ruts of the trail itself , which started on the Missouri River and went through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and into the Sacramento gold fields. In about 20 years, between 1849 and 1869, roughly half a million people made the journey.Each chapter of the book alternates between a description of the travel in covered wagons, with quotes taken from the diaries of the travellers, and a geological explanation of the territory through which they sojourned. This mixture worked well for me, with the one type of material illuminating the other. The maps and diagrams were of great help, and the author's personal comments and sense of humor kept the text from being too dry.As the author explains, the fuel for the wagon trains was grass, which fed their animals. The migrants had to wait for enough grass to grow along the rivers in the spring before they could start out. This meant that May was the departure month, and that the trail had to follow the rivers. At the other end of the journey, the migrants had to climb over the Sierra Nevada passes before the snowstorms closed them in October. So there was a brief five month period to make the trip, which was just manageable. However, it meant crossing the Nevada desert in August, the most hellish time of the year. The description of this feat is indelible.The final poignant photograph of the book from 1869 shows the newly constructed intercontinental railway passing one of the last wagon trains.This is a unique and vivid work which will be appreciated by those who like practical historical background.more

Reviews

In my rating scheme, 5 star books are rare. Where a 3-star book has to deliver strong basic knowledge, a 5-star book has to make me think about a subject or issue much differently. This book is a a 5-star-a paradigm changer for me in the area of Paleo-Geography, or how the North American continent evolved over billions of years. Due to my background in college where I took a lot of elective geology courses, I consider myself to know more than an average layperson on the subject of geology but less than a professional geologist. In addition to the aforementioned college courses, I've read a lot of fairly technical materials on paleogeography events in North America's past such as the different orogenies that helped shape the current North American West. However, what I lacked was an easy way to "see" all of these processes occuring in sequence in a way that had enough detail to retain vitality important information, yet simple enough to be told in an easy to understand narrative that can be remembered as a story. This book accomplished this for me. Although there was little I hadn't read about before, the way it was presented made me "see" the evolution of the North American continent for the first time. The historical information about the immigrants and the trails is interesting as well. Very highly recommended.more
This book is a remarkable mixture of geology and US history. The author is to be commended for this unusual and satisfying study of travel along the Gold Rush trail in its geological as well as historical context. He claims he is one of the "rut nuts," people who seek out the wagon ruts of the trail itself , which started on the Missouri River and went through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and into the Sacramento gold fields. In about 20 years, between 1849 and 1869, roughly half a million people made the journey.Each chapter of the book alternates between a description of the travel in covered wagons, with quotes taken from the diaries of the travellers, and a geological explanation of the territory through which they sojourned. This mixture worked well for me, with the one type of material illuminating the other. The maps and diagrams were of great help, and the author's personal comments and sense of humor kept the text from being too dry.As the author explains, the fuel for the wagon trains was grass, which fed their animals. The migrants had to wait for enough grass to grow along the rivers in the spring before they could start out. This meant that May was the departure month, and that the trail had to follow the rivers. At the other end of the journey, the migrants had to climb over the Sierra Nevada passes before the snowstorms closed them in October. So there was a brief five month period to make the trip, which was just manageable. However, it meant crossing the Nevada desert in August, the most hellish time of the year. The description of this feat is indelible.The final poignant photograph of the book from 1869 shows the newly constructed intercontinental railway passing one of the last wagon trains.This is a unique and vivid work which will be appreciated by those who like practical historical background.more
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