Outside magazine, January 1998
One Round River: The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot, by Richard Manning (Henry Holt, $25). One of the nation's nastiest environmental battles has been shaping up in western Montana, where Colorado-based Canyon Resources Corporation plans to dig an immense open-pit gold mine not far from the headwaters of the Big Blackfoot River, the beloved trout stream so indelibly portrayed in Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. Though capable at times of Maclean's quiet lyricism, Manning is at heart a noisy troublemaker, the kind of stick-to-your-guns iconoclast all too rare in American journalism these days. Nine years after his controversial departure from the environmental beat at the Missoulian — hastened by his highly critical articles about the state's timber industry — Manning has now focused his fury on the proposed gold mine, which threatens to drain the local aquifer, alter the shape and flow of the river, and pollute the soil and water with cyanide, arsenic, and other toxins. "I would kill someone in a heartbeat if I thought it could stop that mine," Manning declares. Hopefully, it won't come to that: A company shakeup and the lowest gold prices in years have some experts predicting that the mine will fold before it opens. Meanwhile, Manning's book — a work of hard-hitting integrity, despite some excesses — provides a passionate rendering of a river and its disputed worth.
The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands, by Nicholas Clapp (Houghton Mifflin, $24). The lost city of Ubar, buried somewhere in Arabia's sprawling Empty Quarter, has for centuries been a destination reached only in dreams of avarice. Extolled in the Arabian Nights as a city of "infinite riches," Ubar rose during the glory days of the Roman Empire and is thought to have been the center of the world's frankincense trade before it supposedly sank beneath the sands some 1,500 years ago. It's no wonder, then, that rumors of Ubar's buried wealth beckoned to the likes of modern Western explorers Bertram Thomas and Wilfred Thesiger. What is surprising is that a documentary filmmaker and map aficionado from Los Angeles would be the one to find it. In the early 1980s, Nicholas Clapp was on assignment in Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, when he first heard legends of Ubar, and he soon set about poring over ancient charts and manuscripts. But he didn't stop there. Clapp managed to convince NASA officials to help pinpoint the site of the city using the space shuttle's radar-imaging capabilities; he enlisted a former CIA operative whose Mideast expertise provided detours around political and cultural obstacles; and finally, in 1990, he put together an expedition led by British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Not only did Clapp find Ubar — a discovery hailed by the American press as one of the top three scientific achievements of 1992 — but he also solved the mystery of its disappearance: Parts of the walled city had literally collapsed into a sinkhole. "Of all the sites in the ancient world," Clapp writes, "Ubar came to...an end identical in legend and reality." He found no gold, but Clapp's tale of triumph proves that today's cutting-edge desert explorer should possess a genius for historical research and technical ingenuity — not to mention a tolerance for scorpions, carpet vipers, and 120-degree heat.
"Sick": A Cultural History of Snowboarding, by Susanna Howe (St. Martin's Press, $23). Sherman Poppen had a sick mind — "sick," as in boarder lingo for cool, smart, or inventive. But the Michigan engineer had no idea of the havoc he was about to wreak when, in 1965, he bound two skis together, creating a crude surfboard for the snow. He proudly dubbed it the Snurfer — a toy that he marketed as "the Hula-Hoop of wintertime." But faster than you can say "Powder Sucks," the novelty evolved into a subcultural obsession in the seventies, an "extreme" phenomenon in the eighties, and the fastest-growing winter sport of the nineties. And next month in Japan, snowboarding will become a full-fledged Olympic event. Journalist and snowboard freak Susanna Howe dares to take all this seriously — but not too seriously. She talked to hundreds of athletes and entrepreneurs, from pioneer designers Jake Burton and Tom Sims to present-day stars Victoria Jealouse and Kris Jamieson, and has assembled a breezy narrative that's part oral history, part pop nostalgia, and part analysis of the "hype cluster" that has overtaken the sport. According to Howe, however, the wild old days of brazen attitudinizing are gone: Snowboarding "is no longer an identity-forming image," she concludes, "it's just something people do." If so, her highly readable book gives us as an authentic and suitably rude scrapbook of the sport's wastrel youth.
The Monkey's Bridge: Mysteries of Evolution in Central America, by David Rains Wallace (Sierra Club Books, $25). Geographically speaking, Central America is the weird kid on the terrestrial block. Neither a continent nor an island, it is one of only two "land bridges" on earth (the other is the Sinai). It's also a relative newcomer, having risen from the ocean floor a scant three million years ago. In his 14th book, distinguished naturalist Wallace describes how the creation of this bridge triggered a staggering event that has been called the Great American Biotic Interchange. Ancient North American plants and animals (felines, camels, mastodons, and magnolias) rushed south while South American species (giant ground sloths, armadillos, hummingbirds, and cacti) headed north, transforming life on both continents and creating a glorious gumbo of ecosystems in Central America itself, where 7 percent of the earth's species now live on less than 0.5 percent of its surface. Like the tropics themselves, Wallace's attempt to encompass this evolutionary drama is dense, dizzying, and occasionally overwhelming. "An active land bridge is harder to contemplate than an Amazon or Arctic," the author cautions in his introduction. "It is mixed, blurred, unfinished." True enough, but by book's end, Wallace's instructive narrative has made the picture infinitely more clear.
Photograph by Clay Ellis