Lisa Michaels -
Grand Ambition: A Novel
March 25, 2005
About the Author
While on a hiking trip through the Grand Canyon, Lisa Michaels found inspiration for her novel "Grand Ambition" thumbing through a book she picked up in a Grand Canyon gift shop. Michaels has said she wrote her first novel "Split: A Counterculture Childhood," a memoir of her life growing up in the 60s, in preparation for writing the novel she longed to write, "Grand Ambition." Michaels has lived an exciting life of studying poetry in San Francisco and embarking on adventures similar to those of Glen and Bessie Hyde which she chronicles in "Grand Ambition" (Michaels has said that this is what sparked her interest in the Hyde’s story).
Michaels has written for such publications as Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times Book Review, and she is a contributing editor at the Threepenny Review. Her autobiography, "Split: A Counterculture Childhood," was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. "Grand Ambition," Michaels’ first fictional novel (based on true events), was named a Los Angeles Times Best Book, one of Booklist’s top ten first novels of 2001 and was nominated for a Bay Area Book Reviewers Association award in fiction. Michaels resides in Northern California with her husband and twin sons.
About this Book
In November 1928, newlyweds Glen and Bessie Hyde began a treacherous honeymoon adventure on the rapids of the Grand Canyon. They had hoped to set a new record -- that Bessie would be the first woman to run the dangerous stretch of the Colorado River. Swept up by America’s obsession with conquest, Glen and Bessie set out on the river in their homemade boat, only to vanish without a trace. When Glen’s father heard no word from the young couple, he launched a desperate search to find them, but was unsuccessful. "Grand Ambition" is a suspenseful account of what happened to the Hydes, based on the few known facts of their story.
Ron Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today we have a special program. We have two writers, both of whom have taken the same historical mystery as the subject of their books. Lisa Michaels has written the novel "Grand Ambition" about the disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde in the Grand Canyon in 1928. And Brad Dimock has written a non-fiction account entitled "Sunk Without a Sound" about the disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde in the Grand Canyon in 1928. Welcome.
Lisa Michaels: Thank you.
Ron Carlson: This is quite a confluence of interests that both of these books, you both have the same subject, the books would be published, the non-fiction, fiction, what, about six weeks apart. So it will be fun for all of Arizona to get to know this moment and the legend. So let's establish the facts first. Who were Glen and Bessie Hyde, Brad?
Brad Dimock: Well, they were a young couple, he was about 23, I think, she was about 20, and they came out of Southern Idaho. He came from a family that farmed potatoes. She came from back East. They were both real exciting people, I think. They were both pretty well educated, liberal arts, maybe been around the Bohemian set.
Ron Carlson: Right. She was a poet.
Brad Dimock: And off they went on a honeymoon voyage down the Grand Canyon.
Ron Carlson: Lisa, why did they want to go down the Grand Canyon on their honeymoon?
Lisa Michaels: That's a matter of conjecture, you know, and it's something that I was really interested in as a novelist, was why? Were they trying to get famous? It's the year after Lindberg flew across the Atlantic and was offered $100,000 to go on the two-a-day on the vaudeville circuit. So there's some question about whether they were in it for the fame and fortune and hoping to get out of their ranching life in Idaho and see the world.
Ron Carlson: And she would have been the first woman down the Grand, is that right?
Lisa Michaels: Right. I think Emery Kolb's daughter, he was a guy who had run the river before them, had run one rapid on the nose of somebody's boat and almost went in. But other than her, Bessie was the first woman to run the rapids of the Grand Canyon. So that was going to be their claim to fame. And whether they were doing it just for a lark and a great story to tell or whether they really hoped to get famous nobody is really sure.
Ron Carlson: And you speculated as a fiction writer in that regard?
Lisa Michaels: Yeah, I think their ideas may have changed as they Went along. When they left Green River, Utah, I don't think really much of anybody came to see them off, a few watermelon farmers. When they got to Lee's Ferry, a reporter came down from the "Coconino Sun" to interview them. By the time they got to Phantom Ranch there was kind of a big crowd coming to check them out. So they might have gotten ideas about what they could do with this experience as they saw the kind of reaction they were getting.
Ron Carlson: Now, their method is interesting in terms of how they did it, in that when we think of the Grand Canyon, at least when I do, I think of these pliable, inflatable huge boats and lots of people, but what was their method, Brad?
Brad Dimock: Glen had run the Salmon River up in Idaho a couple years earlier with his sister and used the craft of choice in Idaho and it was called a sweep scow. They're a monster of a boat. They look like a giant mortar trough made of heavy like pine planks. Theirs is 20 feet long, 5 feet wide, 3 feet tall, weighed about 2 tons.
Ron Carlson: Seriously?
Brad Dimock: No means of propulsion. All it had was a rudder off the back and a rudder off the front, and it boggles the mind that someone who is used to rowing or running a motorboat how you would even make it do anything at all.
Ron Carlson: Right. And you built one of these?
Brad Dimock: I did.
Ron Carlson: Okay. I want to talk about that boat in a second, but let's finish their story. You talk about the progression down through the Grand Canyon, starting in Green River in October, and then what happened? I mean, what, as far as we know -- we know they were seen at Phantom Ranch and then what are the facts that we know about their disappearance after that?
Lisa Michaels: Very little is known about it. They didn't show up when they were supposed to and Glen's father, R.C. Hyde, mounted this exhaustive search to try and find them. He got the Army to fly planes between the walls of the Canyon. This is 1928, so it was a first in aviation to have a plane go into the inner gorge. And they spotted the scow 12 miles from the end of the big whitewater. They had gone, what, 400 miles and they had 12 miles to go? And their boat didn't show any sign of an upset. All their belongings were intact, her diary, a camera with photographs they took of themselves.
Ron Carlson: That really makes it a mystery, doesn't it, the thing being untouched like that?
Brad Dimock: It's like they were abducted or something. They just vanished.
Ron Carlson: There was quite a search after that.
Lisa Michaels: Yeah, he got the Indians to track for them on the mesas. He got a pair of scrappy, what, prospector types to take a leaky boat down from Phantom Ranch to try and see signs of their progress along the way. They found their footprints in the sand and signs of fire rings along the way. But they never found them. So nobody really knows. And it's -- I think why as a novelist I was so attracted to it is that there's so many big blanks in the history that can never be filled in.
Ron Carlson: Right. Exactly. You talk about your interest in it. You're -- excuse my language, but you're an old river runner, and you've been in and around the river a long time and you knew -- when did you first hear the story of Glen and Bessie Hyde?
Brad Dimock: I probably first saw it on my first river trip in 1971. There's a classic river map that page by page has little teeny photos with maybe two sentences, cryptic little sentences, and there's this haunting little picture of Glen and Bessie Hyde. And then as I got more and more into the business, I would hear different renditions, and as I read more, I would find little accounts, but it was never really gone into in detail anywhere. It was kind of a mysterious but captivating story.
Ron Carlson: And how did you open your research, then? I mean, you didn't decide to write a book based on looking at that map, but it just kept coming back for you?
Brad Dimock: Well, I built this replica of the scow, my wife and I did, really on a lark, not with the intention --
Ron Carlson: You built a big boat on a lark?
Brad Dimock: Yeah.
Lisa Michaels: And a little rum had something to do it with.
Brad Dimock: And a little rum. We agreed to do it over a rum drink, and then as our permit came to do our private trip in Grand Canyon, we said, "Well, hell, let's do it."
Ron Carlson: How much did your boat weigh?
Brad Dimock: Two tons.
Ron Carlson: Was it a model of Glen's?
Brad Dimock: As far as I can tell, it was exactly the same boat, built of rough-cut pine. We had a lot of photographs of their boat and a lot of photographs of the historic ones from Idaho that he was modeling it after. Talked to some people who had run them. And then going with photographs we knew he was 6 feet, she was 5 feet, so you could actually measure, and a year or two after our trip when I saw a movie of the Hydes' boat as it was found and one of the rescuers stepped aboard, the way it moved... "My God, that is our boat." It's an exact replica.
Ron Carlson: And I just want to follow -- so you built this boat and you took it down the river.
Brad Dimock: Right.
Ron Carlson: Where did you go, from where to where?
Brad Dimock: We went from Lee's Ferry to beyond where their scow was found.
Ron Carlson: And was your boat manageable? I mean, you talk about how unwieldy this big boat is even when these two sweeps, but it's difficult.
Brad Dimock: The real problem was I didn't really have a very good grasp of the theory of how that thing ran, and in Grand Canyon they run very poorly. So to learn the theory, when there's very little clue as to what's supposed to go on, I had a very tough time, and I was rescued a few times.
Ron Carlson: Was it just the two of you on the boat?
Brad Dimock: Yeah, but at the last minute, I was either not going to do the trip -- I got so spooked -- or a friend of mine agreed to escort us in his little fast motorboat and save our lives when necessary, and so he did that, and he did save us a couple times.
Ron Carlson: I see. This book -- both of these books -- oddly enough these two books are OneBookAZ this year, and so what we have is one subject Arizona in these two books. Lisa, where did you first have your interest sparked? I know that there's a great deal of mystery and it is a legend, but where did you first hear of Glen and Bessie Hyde?
Lisa Michaels: I was about to set off on a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon with my husband, I think it was in the late '90s, and I stopped off at the gift shop at the rim and picked up this book "River Runners of the Grand Canyon" by David Lavender that has a chapter on each of the pioneer runners of the Grand Canyon, and it had a brief chapter on Glen and Bessie that sort of recapitulated the known facts, but more than that, it had this photograph of them, and we haven't said yet that they're incredibly beautiful people, and they're wearing their aviatrix cool clothes with their wool fedoras.
Ron Carlson: They look like they're already in the movie.
Lisa Michaels: Yeah, exactly. It's very like Amelia Earhart kind of wear. She was lovely and he was handsome, and they were young, and nobody knew what happened to them. I think I might have just closed the book and not thought about it much after that except that this hiking trip turned out sort of disastrously. A freak blizzard blew up and it snowed down at the river and we couldn't find the trail out and my husband got frostbite and I got hypothermia and I just started thinking about this couple that had been married for six months and went on what was probably the most terrifying trip of their life when they were in a pretty young marriage, and I was interested in exploring that, of just the dynamics of, you know, two people in a state of extreme duress who don't have a lot of miles in their marriage, and so it just sort of sparked my interest after that, watching a little bit of what happened between my husband and I when we really thought our lives were at stake.
Ron Carlson: Right, right, right. So you had a very real-life -- you both had very real-life connections to the material and the place. Brad, what was your first step in terms of making a book? If I went down the Colorado River in a scow, it would all be about me and surviving, I hope, but did you go down in the scow thinking to use that as the counterpoint in your book to keep it afloat?
Brad Dimock: No, I hadn't even thought of a book when we did that, and I didn't think of it for probably another year after that. "I went, you know, I should -- time to write another book." I could gather the few facts about the Hydes and make a little pamphlet and put my input in there. And so I launched into the research, and I'm a complete obsessive, and I ended up spending a year and a half, close to two years, doing research all over the country, finding out who these people really were, and then tracking down these wild stories that began to circulate after they'd been gone for 50 years of, you know, maybe she killed him or maybe he killed her. And there were these tales of --
Ron Carlson: I want to talk about some of those, the legends of the book. So your book starts before -- I mean, actually goes back a generation or two, brings it forward through the mystery itself and the aftermath. There's been other claims as this legend has got other feet and gone different ways.
Brad Dimock: Right.
Ron Carlson: Let me remind everybody we're talking with the writers Lisa Michaels about her novel "Grand Ambition" about the mystery of Glen and Bessie Hyde and Brad Dimock who has written the non-fiction account called "Sunk Without a Sound." Both of these books are OneBookAZ selections for 2005. Where did you start with your fiction account? I mean, Brad, let me ask you this, when you were finished, how much research did you have? Can you quantify it for me? Did you have five or six folders or a file cabinet or --
Brad Dimock: I have -- archivally they measure it in feet. I have about four feet. It's a pretty good file.
Ron Carlson: Exactly. I want to ask you, what was the most surprising hard data that you came up with? I know you start with newspaper accounts and so on, but you research letters and went around digging. What did you find that turned you in a way that might have been a surprise to you?
Brad Dimock: I think it was the story of his father, what a magnificent character he was. You know, he's the star of the movie, I think. And he looks like James Coburn, too. He's really handsome. But he and his brothers were major characters in Spokane, the founding of Spokane, and he had this just wild life that -- his nephew called him a "plunger," you know, his economic cycles were just remarkable. And he's just a fascinating character, and he moves clear through the story and goes well beyond it and is --
Ron Carlson: Lisa, you use R.C. in your book as a dominant role the way Brad is suggesting. But first, where did you start with your research? When did you say, "Okay, I'm going to write a book," and where did you start?
Lisa Michaels: I went to the Huntington Library in Pasadena. That's where the papers of Otis Marston, this amateur historian who gathered all this primary source material on the pioneer runners of the Grand Canyon, it was actually his source material that David Lavender had used to write that book. He was somebody who had a lot of time on his hands, was probably about as obsessive as Brad, but he couldn't write his way out of a paper bag, and he wrote this unpublishable manuscript that's there in the Huntington. So I went expecting to find this totally disorganized box in this beautiful library, because the Huntington has quite a reputation, and instead I went into this ugly little room with, you know, vinyl tables and all these graduate students doing their research on Shakespeare, and they handed me this immaculately organized box in which Marston kept a carbon copy of every letter he wrote. "Are you in fact, Greta Granstedt, Bessie Hyde's friend from Los Angeles?" "No, I'm not, but you might try here." And each letter was filed in chronological order with the reply behind it. So I read on the edge of my seat. And people told me, "You can go look in that collection but you're not going to find anything that Lavender didn't find." Well, it was a treasure-trove for novelists. There were all these little one-liners. One was Greta, this character, Greta was in an inferior western that just -- right away you have a character. She went to Hollywood and made a lot of bad -- equivalent of horror movies now.
Ron Carlson: She's Bessie foil when Bessie was living in San Francisco?
Lisa Michaels: Right, a Bohemian friend of hers when she was in art school. And so I used that as my main source material. Then I looked in San Francisco at the microfiche about -- there were newspaper accounts of the search for them, the fact that they'd gone missing, but then at a certain point I just stopped. There's a famous quote that historical novelists do best on thin rations or short rations, and so I decided at a certain point I didn't really want to know anymore. I just wanted --
Ron Carlson: But you knew you were going to write a novel?
Lisa Michaels: Right.
Ron Carlson: You weren't going to write a historical account?
Lisa Michaels: Right.
Ron Carlson: Explain that.
Lisa Michaels: Well, I mean, I think the heart of the story is whatever went on between them on the river, and that is lost with the sands of time. Nobody was with them except for two days of their journey when this kind of wealthy tourist hopped a ride for two days with them from Phantom Ranch.
Ron Carlson: Was that Sutro?
Lisa Michaels: Sutro, yeah, related to the Sutros from San Francisco who built the Sutro Baths. So, yeah, I knew that I really wanted to write about this marriage, and since the Grand Canyon was basically uninhabited at the time, nobody knows what went on between them, and they had -- Bessie's diary was in this collection at the Huntington, but it's a very cryptic document. It starts out cryptic and it ends up being almost like Braille. It would say "Camp today, saw a deer," in the beginning, and by the end she'd worked out this system of slashes and 0's that stood for rapids and calm places, and every now and then she would write like "Creek," and that was it, which I thought was really interesting given that she was thinking about writing a book about her experiences that she kept such sparse notes. But then I was telling Brad that when I went on my one and only trip down the river, because I assumed that I had to at least do it once even though I'm lily-livered, I took all these notebooks with me planning to make lots of notes, and I made exactly two entries because I was so cold and tired --
Ron Carlson: And busy?
Lisa Michaels: And busy. And at the end of the day, you just don't have it in you to sit down and write lengthy florid entries in your diary.
Ron Carlson: Well, the two books come at this subject from -- in different methods, and let's talk about the rights and responsibilities of non-fiction and fiction, because you have the opportunity that Brad, I don't think, gives himself of occupying the characters, of imagining their meeting on that ship in San Francisco, of imagining their discussion, and was it in the El Tovar Hotel when she says, "Let's quit"? Did she say that?
Lisa Michaels: Well, I mean, every single river trip -- you know, where they were risking their neck, there were points where they said, "Let's get out of here," right, from John Wesley Powell onto the -- there's always these junctures where you come to these side canyons, there's a way out. There's not always a way out, but when you come to one, you probably think about it. So it seemed to me again I would go based on the facts and I never changed a fact I knew to be true except that R.C. Hyde didn't go up in the search plane to look for the scow, but that was just too precious an image to give away. So I put him up in the search plane even though he wasn't. But other than that, I have a real allegiance to the facts. I was a history major and I had written a non-fiction book, a memoir about growing up the child of '60s hippies and radicals, and I saw the way in which even the slightest mistakes or inaccuracies in that book were really painful to the living people who I had written about. So even though they were not alive and they had no descendants, Glen and Bessie, I felt this responsibility to them as having been real people who lived, and I didn't want to distort things in a way would that make them turn in their graves.
Ron Carlson: You had their story and you were responsible for it. Were there moments, Brad, in your writing when you felt you could get inside the characters, where you understood the motive here, that whether it was fear or bravado, did it build in you like that as this book came together for you?
Brad Dimock: There were feelings especially when we were out on the scow that I felt like I -- I had some insight as to who they were, you know. I just felt that they -- somehow, I don't know why, that they were still in love, that they were not quarreling.
Ron Carlson: As some of the speculation had it, that the disaster might have been precipitated by quarrel. So that was a feeling you had. That's interesting.
Brad Dimock: But that's a place that I can't go as a non-fiction writer, really. A friend of mine says, between any two facts is a gap filled by an assumption, and I try to let the reader fill the assumptions. But, of course, I stack the facts just --
Ron Carlson: Right. You both deal -- I mean, to the end of what we know, 232 or whatever, and their found scow empty of people but all their stuff, then you go forward with what the latter days have given us, these other -- a couple of people who claim to be Bessie and a couple of Glens, and you actually, then, given the trajectory of your story, give us a scene of what you think actually happened, and in a sense your book has a sort of closure, except for R.C. Let's talk about the structure of your book quickly. You use R.C. and you write the father in the first person. Tell me about that choice.
Lisa Michaels: You know, I can't say exactly why it ended up that way. I just started to hear him in my head. I mean, I was very attracted to him as, I think, this sort of idealized father figure that we all wish we had, right? This guy would not rest until he found his child. And I just sort of fell in love with him, and I just started to hear his voice in my head, that he was maybe someone who was a very cautious person, but had this child who was afraid of nothing, and what I wish I had known when I was writing the novel but I didn't know because I learned it when I read Brad's book was that he had suffered a series of losses in his early life. He had lost two sons in infancy. He had lost his wife when his children were in their teens. He'd lost his money over and over. And he had one son, who by all reports, he was extremely close to. They ranched together. But the son had this addiction to rivers, that the father couldn't swim, so he really didn't understand that, and then he let's the son go off on this honeymoon trip and he doesn't come back. Well, then he went to the ends of the earth for him. But I just started to feel that I needed to tell that story from inside his head. It seemed like a way for me to, as a young person, to try to imagine how parents feel when they need to sort of let their children go a little bit and let them live their lives.
Ron Carlson: Well, it's a galvanizing force in your book. It really makes the book cohere and he comes through as this, like you say, the concerns of a parent. Brad, in your book, though, you've been on the river so much, you've heard about there's another Bessie, and do you want to talk about some of the other things that these things have contributed to the fact that this legend is just only growing.
Brad Dimock: Yeah, it had grown when I first heard it to a point where Glen was portrayed as a bit of an ogre and Bessie was kind of a hapless pawn in the tale, and I actually found Glen Hyde's nephew, and he said "Why do they portray my uncle that way?" Which gave me an added feeling of responsibility to see if there was anything to it. But that rumor continued to grow And then in 1971, the first year I was on the river, a woman came on a river trip. They told the story of Glen and Bessie Hyde with that twist to it, and this woman confessed, after the campfire, she said, "I know what happened, I'm Bessie Hyde. I killed him." And told this story that he was abusive and that she had stabbed him, thrown him in the river, cut the boat loose, climbed out, gone back East and changed her name and started life over. And that went through the river community like wildfire.
Ron Carlson: So it was told and retold on the river trips, and of course, when you're there you're thinking --
Brad Dimock: And with every telling, more details. "She knew things about the river that only Bessie could have known," you know. Then a couple years later Emery Kolb died, who is one of the last people to see them. They found a skeleton in his garage of a tall young man with a bullet hole through the skull and a belt buckle that looked surprisingly like the one in the picture that Emery Kolb had taken.
Ron Carlson: I should say, your book has a lot of diagrams, a lot of photographs, and so there's forensic science. So that was really useful. A non-fiction person gets to do that.
Brad Dimock: Yeah, it's fun. I just went down all these little squirrel holes with it. And then "Unsolved Mysteries" did a program about those two stories, and, of course, didn't research them enough to discredit them, because it's called "Unsolved Mysteries," and a woman called the next day and said, "Well, that was my father," her name was Glenda Hyde, and she told a story about her father who had disappeared at that time, nobody knew where he went, seven years later he showed up again, said he had run rivers, tried the Colorado, it didn't work out --
Ron Carlson: That's a haunting bit in your book. It really gave me the chills.
Brad Dimock: Oh, when I got the picture from her of her father, I honestly almost threw up because it looked so much like my Glen Hyde. And then a very famous river runner, Georgie White died. She was undoubtedly the most famous woman river runner ever. And very secretive, and after she died they found out she had made up --
Ron Carlson: This was in the '80s or the '90s?
Brad Dimock: She died, I think, in early '90s at the age of 80, I mean, run rivers from the '40s on, and they found out she had made up her whole early life, that her name wasn't Georgie, her name was Bessie. She never grew up in Chicago like she said she did. And then the killer is in her lingerie drawer they found a pistol and a notarized wedding record for Glen and Bessie Hyde, so, "Oh, my God, could she have been so bold to come back?" And so you've got these four crazy stories, all of which have so many coincidences that they almost -- one of them might just have to be true.
Ron Carlson: Exactly.
Brad Dimock: Or two of them.
Ron Carlson: You went on and on. Do you think there's more research out there? There's going to be more on this thing?
Brad Dimock: Well, I tell you, the only thing I can think of that somebody could find right now is their skeletons. You know, like they found Mallory a couple years ago on Everest. Same era of adventure. And there he is in a -- draped on the side where he fell. And somewhere on those cliffs down there, it's entirely possible that the real deal breaker on this story is going to show up. There they are. Or there's one of them.
Ron Carlson: Exactly.
Brad Dimock: It's unfathomably complex country. They could be anywhere down there.
Ron Carlson: Lisa, is your next project an historical novel?
Lisa Michaels: It's actually a plain-old novel set in the present with flashbacks to the past.
Ron Carlson: It's interesting... we have several historical novelists working here in Arizona at Arizona state and so on. The story of Glen and Bessie Hyde is a fascinating story, and you do us a great service in this OneBookAZ because it will only fuel the discussions. Both of these books for OneBookAZ, "Grand Ambition," Lisa Michaels is a solid novel occupying these people, kind of going behind the scenes, seeing in their hearts. And Brad Dimock has given us a very exhaustive, encyclopedic account from before Glen was born 'til well past, almost to the current day. And it's going to be a great source of discussion in the state for a long time to come. It will be fun for me to keep an eye out for different news as it breaks. I want to thank you both for being here and discussing this work with us.
Lisa Michaels: Thank you.
Brad Dimock: Thanks so much for having us.
Ron Carlson: Appreciate it. I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I hope you'll join us next time.