Hard Road West
History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail
Hard Road West
History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail
“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 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.”
John Mack Faragher | Truthdig
"Meldahl has succeeded admirably in interweaving two compelling historical narratives. One is the overland migration of settlers heading west to California in the 1840s and 1850s. The other is the geological history of the North American continent, particularly as it has slowly moved west over the last 200 million years. The resulting narrative structure alternates seamlessly between vivid accounts of the 19th-century journey and lucid explanations of the geological events that shaped the landscape traveled. Meldahl makes profuse and effective use of firsthand quotes from journals and letters, historical and contemporary photographs, and geological diagrams. 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. This book allows us to experience vicariously the last time in history that travelers across North America had to confront, personally and physically, the features of the landscape on a daily basis. Highly recommended."
“Fans of John McPhee will find many familiar pleasures in Hard Road West. Keith Meldahl is equally adept at explaining the science behind the western landscape as he is at evoking the personalities and emotions of the people who struggled to cross it. His love of the land and his admiration for the emigrants shine from every page.”
Alan Cutler, author of The Seashell on the Mountaintop
“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.”
Will Bagley, author of Blood of the Prophets
“For many, the Gold Rush required a transcontinental trek of epic proportions. Here now is documented the geographical and human struggle of that heroic journey, mile by mile, across barriers of land and endurance that stood between—and frequently vanquished—a generation and its dreams.”
Kevin Starr, author of California , A History
“Hard Road West is an amazing book. It opens up a whole new dimension of the California Gold Rush and travel on the overland trails. Historians should read this book—they will never look at overland migrations the same way.”
Malcolm J. Rohrbough, author of Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation
"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."
Frank L. DeCourten, professor of earth sciences, Sierra College
"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."
Don Buck, former professor of history, DeAnza College
“Keith Meldahl’s Hard Road West is an outstanding book and a welcome addition to the literature of the California Gold Rush. Many emigrant accounts describe the challenging landscape of the western United States and the difficulties encountered in crossing it, but explanations of the origin of that landscape for the general-interest reader have been lacking. This book fills that need by clearly and thoroughly describing the geological processes that created and shaped the American West. Meldahl keeps scientific jargon to a minimum, using everyday language and familiar examples to provide a geological story that can be understood by any thoughtful reader. Excellent maps and appropriate photographs, along with Meldahl’s ever-present humor, enhance the book. Selected excerpts from emigrant diaries illustrate their reactions to the geological features they encountered. Meldahl shows how geology is responsible for these features from the very location of the trails they followed to the curious features that intrigued them and the many hurdles that confronted them. Finally he explains the combination of geological processes necessary to concentrate the gold they cam to find, the reason for their trip in the first place.”
Charles W. Martin, professor emeritus of geology, Earlham University
“[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."
"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."
Stephen K. Donovan | Geological Journal
"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."
Lynne M. Clos | Bone Bog Journal
"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."
Andrew Aldrich | University Press Books
“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.”
"[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."
Charles W. Martin | Overland Journal
Table of Contents
1 An American Journey
2 Between Winter’s Chill Brackets
3 Ascending the Plains
4 Exhumed Mountains and Hungry Rivers
5 Black Hills and Bent Rock
6 To the Backbone of the Continent
7 Cordilleran Upheaval
8 Most Godforsaken Country
9 The Bear and the Snake
10 A Breaking Up of the World
11 Most Miserable River
12 The Worst Desert You Ever Saw
13 Into the Land of Gold
14 Contingent History