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4.8 out of 5 stars
Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book blends history and geology, and the result is quite unique and fascinating. The book explores the geologic history of the American West while telling the story of how gold rush pioneers crossed that rugged landscape. The author writes clearly and well about geology, and has a knack for coming up with nifty analogies to explain geologic processes. The chapter titled Cordilleran Upheaval is great, like a crash course in how everything geologically from the Rockies to California came to be. The story of gold rush pioneers is told very well, with abundant first-hand quotations to explain what it was like to travel the "hard road west" in 1849. I came away thinking that the trip of the 49ers competes with Lewis and Clark as a great adventure story. The middle part of the book moves a bit slowly, but the earlier sections on the Great Plains and Rockies, and the final chapters on the Humboldt River, desert, and Sierra Nevada are terrific. Overall highly recommended for anyone interested in the gold rush or the American West.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I didn't have exceptionally high expectations when I picked up this book. I am a fan of Johm McPhee's superlative series of books on geology such as "Basin and Range". This author is not McPhee and his prose is not as polished nor as expressive. It is however very serviceable and he has a good grasp of his subjects and has blended history and geology and geography in a very workmanlike manner. He provides a good description of the terrain the emigrants encountered on the California Trail, the geological forces that formed it, how it affected their choice of routes, and how it contributed to the chalanges and hardships they faced in their travels. It has one advantage over McPhee in that the Geology is more up to date. McPhee's writing though still relevant is a little dated in the light of the latest geological studies and discoveries. I highly recommend this book. It would make a great companion for anyone planning a trip along the old California Trail.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is a really good book, a great read. The author is a gifted writer and he beautifully weaves the tales of the emigrant travels to California with the landscape geology that they had to cross. I am a big reader of geology books and this is one of the best that I have read. With all due respect to Mr. Mcfee who pioneered this genre (and I have also read and enjoyed over the years), I think this book is at least as good and maybe even better. First of all, Hard Road West uses numerous pictures and diagrams to explain complicated geological principals which are invaluable for understanding the geology. And Hard Road West lets the emigrants themselves tell the story though their travel journals. Its a wonderful approach and makes the geology jump out of the page as you follow the emigrants almost step-by-step through their many travel hardships crossing the west to reach California. He is a really fun writer and I look forward to many other books by him in the future. Highly recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2008
Format: Paperback
As we make our way west Mr. Meldahl enlightens us not only to the features we pass but how we ourselves came to inhabit our planet. As we absorb the latest gripping geology we imagine with regret how much this knowledge would have pleased the pioneers. I know and love many of these places and now my excitement is magnified by this narrative. The inclusion of the photo of his dog Scout is one of the author's brilliant human touches. The merging of interjected historical records, romantic and unromantic impressions of travelers then and now with broad but incisive academic detailing into an even flow of narrative is astonishing. Superb drawings, maps and photos supplement and enlighten the text. I cherish this book. John Weiler
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
If you like geology, you will love this. Not a quick read and all the better for it. This discussion of how the West was formed makes the travails of the travelers West in the mid-nineteenth century seem superhuman. Every other chapter enlivens the material with excerpts from emigrant diaries. These are memorable! The book is well sourced,has helpful photographs and drawings and has a glossary of geologic terms. I found it hard to put down and even inspiring.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2011
Format: Paperback
Starting out, I wasn't quite as thrilled with this book as I later became. I wasn't quite what I was expecting. I was thinking it was going to cover the journey of the gold seekers, but it could have just as easily been the migration of any group of people as it was generic is this sense. Actual historical gold rushers weren't even mentioned until the last chapter. But once I got over the fact that it wasn't tackling the subject in the way I was expecting, I really grew to love it.

M. gives us a step by step overview of the California trail and all the geology encountered along it. It's more a general geology review of the geologic provinces they traveled through (they- being any west bound emigrant)explaining the concepts behind the fold and thrust belt, the basin and range, the Snake River plain, the Sierra uplift, etc. The book is speckled though with writings of actual emigrants,and their observations of these features along the trail.

Although most of the geology was old hat, I was happy to have learned a few things. Most notably, I never quite grasped why the eastern Rockies, the stuff clear over in eastern Wyoming and Colorado were really there. I was happy to find the cause in these deep basement uplifts of the Laramide Orogeny. Hmmm, I wonder that we ever covered that in school? Also, surprised that I had never heard of the exhumation of the Rockies. All in all I feel like I better grasp why the Rockies are, excepting now I am wondering what the Ancestral Rockies are.
I also learned the sources of the gold that the 49's were after. I had never realized that they were blasting down old "fossil" stream channels that had drained Nevada before the Sierra had risen. On top of that there is a suture between the west side of the Sierra and an accreted terrane that hosted the Mother Load,- quartz/gold veins that filled the suture zone. I had before assumed that the load type gold was washed into the streams and that is what they were hydraulically mining.

Overall, a really good read. Well written, though at first, I though he was too into trying to copy McPhee in style. Even the cover says, "Fans of McPhee will find many familiar pleasures.." But I think he finally got into his own style and pulled out a great book. Could have been made better had he brought the actual personalities into it a little bit more...they were really only sidecars to the journey. Had the people had motives to get across the west, and stories to tell, it would have brought a little more depth to the story. Instead they seemed to be generic emigrants, commenting from their journals only on the topography of the land.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I did not know much about geology when I started, but I knew a lot after reading this lovely mixture of history and enthusiastic, clearly explained geology. The book is also a pleasure to hold and read. Excellent [though 'auriferous' has nothing to do with iron- 'fer' [aquifer, conifer]and ferr' are different roots].But that's trivial!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Great book, had just the right mix of history, geology and first person accounts. As someone who travels extensively all over the US, I often fly over many of the locations the emigrants travel, and I must say they were a hearty lot. A great read!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
John McPhee's Assembling California piqued my interest in the geology of the West--but this book fulfilled it. The writing is crystal-clear and easy to understand; the charts and graphics convey the details that McPhee's majestic and poetic prose just couldn't do. The only quibble I might have, and it's a tiny one, is that the geology tends to overwhelm the history. I can't praise this wonderful book enough.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Hard Road West would be the perfect companion for someone following the emigrant trail or an excellent resource for a teacher discussing the western migration. It is very readable and informative. There is also lots of information on the gold in California, its source, its mining and environmental consequences. It is also a good source of information on the geology of America west of the Mississippi River.
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