By Scott Thybony
Taking notes has become second nature for me. After scratching down a few observations in the field, I return and work them into narrative notes. They can end up being anything from a straight-forward record of events to stray impressions tied together into a storyline.
On recent trips to the Grand Canyon, these fieldnotes have included an investigation of paint smears on a cliff wall where the artist Louis Akin cleaned his palette more than 100-years ago. They’ve described the dramatic unfolding of the last monsoon storm of the summer and traced the story of an old inscription carved on a rock face by the orphaned son of an Arctic explorer who died of starvation on a disastrous expedition.
So field notations in all their variety interest me – the journals of explorers, the notebooks of artists, and the diaries of scientists. At times I’ve found myself deep in the back rooms of the Smithsonian Institution among file cabinets and specimen drawers, deciphering the faded pen and ink records they contain. The field notebooks have a rawness to them I like, a spontaneity not found in monographs and memoirs. One day I sat in the research library reading the diary of Charles Walcott, a geologist who spent three cold months in 1882 and 1883 studying rock formations below the rim of Grand Canyon. I was searching for descriptions of the landscape between Nankoweap and Vishnu Temple written when he was seeing it for the first time, unfiltered.
What I didn’t expect when I opened his diary was to encounter the human side of the geologist. Walcott, who would go on to become director of the U.S. Geological Survey and head of the Smithsonian, was 32-years old and had lost his wife six years before. As he rode the train west, he recorded in his diary a few routine observations and the normal chance encounters with other passengers. And then the tone of his writing changed. The scientist made a hurried entry beginning with the words, “Met a nonsensical girl . . .”. It ended with a bold flourish of the pen, the only flourish in the entire diary. And tucked between the pages I found a lock of fine blonde hair. Sensible geologist encounters nonsensical girl, and balance is restored to the world.
Once in the field, Walcott wrote about the geology, naturally, and the winter storms sweeping in, bringing snow and sleet. He mentioned the packers, who hauled in supplies and carried out specimens, and trails so difficult they lost a mule off the edge of one. He noted his frostbitten feet and water pockets freezing solid at night, forcing the men to place chunks of ice around the campfire to melt for the animals. Camped at the river he wrote about the crashing rapids sounding like Niagara Falls.
I took notes on his notes from the Grand Canyon, but that’s not what stayed with me when I left the archives. Walking down the street, I kept thinking about the wild flourish of the pen – and left between the pages of the diary, a single lock of hair, long forgotten.
A former river guide and archeologist, Scott Thybony writes books and articles for major publications. His interviews have ranged from astronauts to medicine men, while his travels through North America have resulted in award-winning magazines articles.