House of Rain by Craig Childs (Back Bay Books, 2006)
A few years ago my sister Alia and I took a road trip to visit some archaeological sites in the southwestern United States. I used to be a geologist and she’s an archaeologist (although her area of expertise is considerably more Roman and more volcanic), so driving around the desert looking at ruins sounded like a good time to us. We went to Mesa Verde to tour the cliff houses (with—I kid you not—the most ill-informed volunteer ranger in the entire National Park Service), to Hovenweep to wander around among the towers, to Chaco Canyon to cling desperately to the barren rock with our fingernails while a windstorm tried to blow us away. Look, it was a really powerful windstorm. We couldn’t even sit outside at our campsite because the wind kept blowing our beer bottles over, and that was beer we had backtracked twenty miles to buy at a lonely gas station on US 550.
But we braved the wind to see all the ruins we could see and did manage to visit most of the great houses of Chaco. I bought this book in the visitor center during one of our breaks from all that blowing. It’s been on my bookshelf ever since; I more or less forgot about it after I got home. Now that I’ve read it I wish I had done so when the places we visited were fresh in my mind.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Doubleday, 2009)
Before I talk about this book, I have to talk about the maggots.
I read nonfiction books about interesting things that strike my fancy because I like learning everything I can about our world, and I write about them here because I figure there’s a chance somebody else might want to learn those interesting things too. Knowledge is a good thing! There is no bliss in ignorance; there is only ignorance.
I really, really, really could have done without learning in gruesome detail how maggots can infest living flesh and the fine details of how the afflicted person has to pick them one by one out of their own rotting wounds to survive.
I didn’t need to know that.
On that note: the Amazon.
Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (Chronicle Books, 2013)
In February 1959, nine hikers died in the Ural Mountains. Seven men and two women, all except one were university students, and all were young, fit, experienced and well-prepared mountaineers. There is a bit of a mystery surrounding their deaths, the sort of thing that shows up from time to time in creepypasta forums or conspiracy theories, but the mystery isn’t about what happened to them. The what is simple: injuries and cold killed them. It took a while for the search teams to find them, but all nine bodies were eventually recovered and identified, the causes of death determined. Death by exposure and hypothermia in the Ural Mountains in winter is commonplace, not mysterious, but the story has endured.
Even the landscape carries a reminder now: The pass was later renamed after Igor Dyatlov, the young engineering student who led the trek. The original name of the location is, in fact, Dead Mountain, in the language of the indigenous Mansi people, but it’s only called that because it’s a barren peak with nothing growing on it.
A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by James Horn (Basic Books, 2010)
Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee Miller (Penguin, 2000)
The story of what happened to the colony of Roanoke is one of those odd enduring myths in American history. Roanoke certainly wasn’t the first or the last colony in the Americas to fail miserably. (Both the French Huguenots and the Spanish Jesuits beat the English “planters” in the “Establish A Colony, Everybody Dies” game by more than a decade.) Roanoke stands out in American lore because its 115 people supposedly vanished without a trace (if by “without a trace” we mean “actually there were all kinds of traces, some of them literally carved into trees”). That mystery allows for all kinds of interpretations, ranging from the mundane to the (hilariously) supernatural, often with a focus on the colony itself rather than the context in which it failed. Understandable, from a narrative perspective, but not terribly robust from a historical perspective.