1955


   The Beat Generation was in full swing; Kerouac published On The Road. James Dean starred in Rebel Without A Cause. Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to another passenger, a white man, during a bus ride in Montogmery, Alabama. General Motors, the world’s largest corporation, managed a budget equal to that of Communist Poland. The AFL and CIO, separate labor unions, merged: America produced one-half of the world’s durable goods. One million people quit the farm and moved to town, or more likely, “suburbs.” Everyone started using first names. “Mixed marriage” meant between Christians and people of other religious persuasions.

   Einstein died. Elvis Presley dressed in gold lamé garments; Liberace and his mother followed suit, so to speak. Adlai Stevenson was called the country’s “ranking egghead.” America’s Interstate Highway System was proposed at a cost of $25,000,000,000. President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack—the Dow Jones average dropped to 444.56 points, the worst crash since 1929. Only the military used jet airplanes. Fifteen percent of Americans had never been 250 miles from their homes. When traveling, people went by train; one in four Americans spent a night in Pullman cars during the era. Shopping centers sprang up in wide macadam parking lots. Frozen vegetables wrapped in DuPont Cellophane awaited sale in “supermarkets” where National cash registers figured change, and displayed the correct amount automatically.

   A Mallory Pliafelt fedora cost $10. An Alligator brand gabardine overcoat “water repellent and processed for year ‘round wear” went for $40.75. Capeheart advertised its “...spectacular NEW Rhapsody 24-inch picture...only $299.95”; consumers had the option of renting a Crosley “...De Luxe Consul [for] as little as $4.01 a week.” The Polaroid Land Camera, a rangefinder, gave black and white pictures in 60 seconds—a miracle. A new RCA Victor “Orthophonic High Fidelity Phonograph” with a panoramic 3-speaker system sold for $129.95; four attachable legs cost extra.

   Women, thanks to Clairol, were blonde. The up-and-coming housewife visited her hairdresser once a week...and “made” her own face by 8:30 every morning. By that time the youngsters were off to school, the house had been cleaned and she was dressed for the day, free to “...play bridge, attend club meetings, or stay at home and read, listen to Beethoven and just plain loaf.”

   Georgie Clark was no such animal. She did not own a whitewalled 4-door ’55 Chevy Bel Aire. In retrospect she was, for the place and time, akin to Allen Ginsberg. And, like Ginsberg, her message didn’t hit until later. But when she did her thing, MAN!, that chick really Howled!

   Georgie crawled out of the woodwork. She had been born in Oklahoma and raised in Denver during hard times. Georgie was taught to never feel sorry for herself or cry—she had good health and teeth and everything had to be up from there, her Mother said. She found her way to “the river” after a summertime bicycle ride from New York to Los Angeles without a spare tire and one [low] speed and a broken wrist that did not slow her down. Years later, after she completed training for the Ferry Pilot Command her daughter, Sommona Rose, was hit by a car and died in front of her during another bicycle ride. When asked, Georgie said it was the greatest tragedy of her life. She needed something to do after that, a place to go. Friends talked her into seeing a slide show given by an upstart organization called The Sierra Club. She went. That led her to Grand Canyon.

   When Georgie “took” her first river trip, at the age of 35, the year World War II ended, she swam the Colorado’s Lower Granite Gorge with Harry Aleson, the fellow who gave the slide show. They hiked 20 miles down Peach Springs Wash after sending their good clothes around to the take-out in Boulder City by bus. After some small talk Harry hopped into the swollen current and disappeared downstream and she jumped in and followed. The rest is history: Georgie ate canned tomatoes because they gave her energy and Harry drank milk because of his ulcer. The experience captivated, stunned and overwhelmed Georgie.

   Ten years later, in 1955, Georgie built the first “baloney boat” at Lees Ferry, a remote river crossing in further remote Northern Arizona. As seen in National Geographic, the Colorado Plateau appeared raw, wild, a place filled with dry desert heat, rough red rocks, and Indians who wore turquoise jewelry.

   It took her a week to build the first one. She had the wide, sandy, predam beach virtually to herself. When finished, what she called the “big G-boat” was an inflatable army surplus bridge pontoon 33' long with three feet of freeboard. Two shorter pontoons, “28s,” were laced on either long side, all of it smothered in rigging. A small Johnson outboard provided what little energy the beast showed. But Georgie’s rig fascinated the occasional passerby. No one had ever seen anything like it.

   NPS began counting ‘river people’ in 1955. First among them were Bill Beer and John Daggett, young fellows looking for a cheap vacation. These enterprising individuals swam the entire Canyon, completing their 280-mile Lees Ferry–Pearce Ferry odyssey in 26 days, no small feat. They were among the original 300 hundred individuals to complete a Grand Canyon river trip, a total likely surpassed that year. Seventy people went down the river then, the most of any season to date, twice the number of any previous year. Twenty-eight [see inset] of those people went with Georgie. They accounted for more than one-third of the Colorado’s passengers that summer.

   Disneyland, “The happiest place on earth,” opened in 1955.

   At Lees Ferry, Grand Canyon’s soft adventure tour industry was born. Then and there came new enterprise on the Colorado. Beer and Daggett showed it could be done with “water wings” and gumption. And Georgie’s big rig said how: completely padded, there was not a hard surface anywhere on it.

   They didn’t mean to change history. They were out there doing what they wanted to do. Serendipity, really. Just like a river trip.

Shane Murphy