Press "Enter" to skip to content

River Odyssey by Gerald N. Callahan

Review by Ken Wright

Outdoors – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

River Odyssey: A Story of the Colorado Plateau
by Gerald N. Callahan
Published in 1998 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87081-469-9

RIVER ODYSSEY is really a mid-life odyssey

In the days I was carrying around and reading River Odyssey, several friends asked me how the book was. I would tell them quickly “it’s really good,” but beyond that I had a hard time explaining why I liked it.

This is an odd book. It’s odd in the sense that although it’s an “outdoor” book full of wild-county excursions, it’s not the type of “outdoor” writing you expect to see on the market these days.

Into Thin Air — or any of the other testosterone-and-endorphin-cocktail books that are being served up today from corporate publishing houses — this book ain’t.

The two most frightening things that happen in this book are a wrong turn in Aravaipa Canyon and a prostrate exam.

And the prostrate exam is just as relevant as the hiking in this book. As much as River Odyssey is A Story of the Colorado Plateau — recountings of Callahan’s journeys told with a distinctive and effective vividness and lyricism — that quality writing is really just a medium to carry the author’s thoughtful paeans to life, land, family, friends, and the interconnectedness of all those. It is really one man’s mid-life story on the Colorado Plateau.

That story is told through essays and poems about normal, average, uneventful, beautiful jaunts laced with very intimate thoughts and experiences not gussied up for the market. Callahan is not afraid to discuss his foibles and weaknesses, nor is he afraid to drink and cuss and smoke cigars. Adding to the feeling of intimacy, the book is illustrated with snapshots of scenery and friends and family posing at overlooks, like everyone’s vacation photo album.

Still, rather than getting your heart pumping, River Odyssey gets your mind pumping. For example, even though early in the book Callahan talks about panicking and freezing on a rock face while climbing with friends, his thoughts on the event aren’t aimed at the 18-to-25-year-old mostly-male young-professional adventurer-traveler target audience: “Once you’ve done something like that you’re never quite the same,” Callahan reflects. “Once you know you’re capable of that level of insanity, of that depth of despair, of placing those with you in that sort of danger, the John Wayne bullshit just doesn’t work anymore.”

Callahan’s link to the landscape of the West runs deep. He was born in Salt Lake City and now is a biologist teaching “creative science writing” at Colorado State University. But more relevant to the story, Callahan was nearly scalded to death as a kid. Ever since he has felt a connection to “watermarked” landscapes, which, if nothing else, describes the Colorado River country.

The book that records Callahan’s explorations of this country is also an exploration of himself at mid life as he interacts with a landscape that becomes itself an active, interactive and self-willing character. “I’ve come to that point in my life where I can no longer recall the reasons I began most things, the point where all directions look the same and every choice seems equally senseless,” Callahan writes. “I drink too much, I play with myself too often, I eat like myocardial infarctions and colon cancer don’t kill middle-aged men, and every morning I swear I’ll change, but nothing ever changes. Except times in the desert, and especially except times in the desert near water.”

As this passage shows, River Odyssey has another weakness — from a marketing standpoint, anyway. Callahan never hands the reader grand and succinct revelations; instead he offers only observations and ideas that take thinking on the reader’s part, and that will lead to different conclusions and reactions from different readers. Again, though, this is perhaps more reflective of mid life, when the right questions become more important than the right answers.

“Death is in our genes, and it’s there for a reason,” Callahan muses at one point. “I, of course, have absolutely no idea what that reason is. But… Death is a gift.”

So here’s my stab at a marketing summary for this book: Fine writing by a landscape-loving Westerner exploring mid-life values.

As such, River Odyssey is not for everyone, but this is also what makes this book refreshingly odd: it is “outdoor writing” for those of us who love the West and who go into the backcountry for subtle, philosophical, personal, and ├Žsthetic reasons, and who aren’t finding writing that is speaking to us in the mainstream “outdoor writing” market. It won’t spend any time on the New York Times bestseller list, it won’t be converted into a TV movie or mini-series, and you won’t be seeing this one excerpted in Outside magazine soon.

Thank goodness. It does, though, show exactly why we need to keep alive the small and university presses, like the one that put out River Odyssey.

And that’s why I like it.

–Ken Wright