Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Research 19.1 (Spring 2009): 129-130. © 2009 Copyright by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


The dust jacket of Hard Road West promises familiar pleasures to John McPhee lovers, and so I picked the book up with great anticipation. McPhee’s works have greatly heightened the interest of writers and readers in the genre of creative nonfiction, and while for me, Keith Meldahl’s work does not quite reach McPhee’s stratospheric heights, for the right audience it is definitely a very good read.

The book is organized from east to west, forward in time, following in detail the wagon trail journey to the California gold fields. That human migration, driven by the search for geologic riches, provides the path for Meldahl’s foray into the deep geologic history of the landscape traversed. Human and geologic threads are coarsely interwoven, alternating sections describing how the rocks and the landscape came to be with sections on the human travails, choices, failures, and successes as the travelers navigated a beautiful but often unforgiving landscape. Occasionally, differences between the human landscape of the gold rush times and the present are also commented on.