Elevations

A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River

Max McCoy

The upper Arkansas River courses through the heart of America from its headwaters near the Continental Divide above Leadville, Colorado, to Arkansas City, just above the Kansas-Oklahoma border. Max McCoy embarked on a trip of 742 miles in search of the rivers unique story. Part adventure and part reflection, steeped in the natural and cultural history of the Arkansas Valley, Elevations is McCoy’s account of that journey.

Going by kayak when he can—by Jeep, on foot, or by other means when he has to—McCoy takes us with him, navigating the Arkansas River as it reveals its nature and tests his own. Along the way, and when he isn’t battling the current for his overturned kayak; braving a frigid Christmas Eve along the river; or joining the search for a drowning victim, he steps out to explore the world beyond the river’s banks. Here for instance is Camp Amache, where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II. Here is Ludlow, where thirteen women and children died in a standoff between striking coal miners and the militia in 1914. Farther along we find Sand Creek, site of a massacre by US soldiers in 1864, and, uncomfortably close, Garden City, where white supremacists were charged with planning a terror attack on Somali refugees in 2016.

“Max McCoy’s Elevations is a sensitive, in-depth view of a river and its human and natural history. McCoy’s prose is as fluid and absorbing as the river itself. The Arkansas’ currents and rivulets embroider human history since before white settlement bent the river toward mining, irrigation, and drinking and waste water. The river’s banks, however, are “where most of our interaction with the river stops and the wildness begins.” Touching and moving, Elevations shows the author’s personal connection with the Arkansas and why the river matters to us as Americans.”

—Patrick Dobson, author of Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer and Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains

“McCoy floats through a valley haunted by gold—not only in mines along the continental divide, but in corporate wheat farms that bleed the Ogallala aquifer and in the fantasies of Coronado—a valley where marijuana is legal but canoeing public waters is not, where the same values that desecrated the river also desecrated its people at Sand Creek and Ludlow, at a Japanese American internment camp, and at immigrant communities in southwest Kansas. In his meticulous search for the story of the Arkansas, McCoy unearths a deeper story of his own personal battles and of America at the dawn of Trump.”

—George Frazer, author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas

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Whether traveling back in time, pausing in the present, or looking forward, Elevations captures the Arkansas River in its thrilling moments and placid stretches, in its natural splendor and degradation at human hands. The book shows us the river as a flowing repository of human history and, in the telling of this gifted writer, as a life-changing experience.

About the Author

Max McCoy is professor of journalism and director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University. He has written a mystery series and works of historical fiction, three of which have won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America.