What do Neil Armstrong and John Wesley Powell have in common?
Today, the raft journey through the Grand Canyon is one of the West's great white-water
thrills. It's hard to imagine just how daunting the trip must have been in 1869,
when John Wesley Powell first decided to attempt it. Back then, the canyon was utterly
unexplored. It existed on maps only as a blank spot in the southwest. Powell was
a geology professor from Illinois who had lost his right arm as an officer during
the Civil War. Despite this handicap, he got together nine men, mostly his own friends
and relatives, and transported four wooden boats to Green River in Wyoming. Waving
goodbye to a few well-wishers by the riverbank, they set off to face 1,000 miles
of unknown river. The challenge was extreme. The intrepid group had to learn how
to ride the rapids as they went, with their clumsy boats regularly overturning.
They subsisted on a diet of dry biscuits for much of the time. Three men became
so discouraged they decided to hike out through the desert. They were never heard
from again, and are presumed killed by Indians. But Powell and the others would
emerge unscathed at the southern end of the Grand Canyon, three months after their
trip had begun. Powell became a national celebrity, as famous in the United States
as Neil Armstrong would become after walking on the moon – a feat that occurred,
coincidentally, exactly a century later.