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What Really Happened to Bessie and Glen?

A couple's mysterious 1928 disappearance in the Grand Canyon launched a legend. Their story is the subject of two new books.

June 29, 2001|ANN JAPENGA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's been 73 years since Glen and Bessie Hyde vanished on a honeymoon voyage through the Grand Canyon, but what exactly happened to them is still a mystery. On the Colorado River on summer nights, passengers on commercial rafting trips stand around campfires while boatmen speculate about the young Idaho bean farmer and his bride. They say Bessie wanted to be the first woman to boat through the Grand Canyon. She almost made it.

When the Hydes' scow was found floating upright and fully stocked in the winter of 1928, Glen and Bessie were nowhere around. A massive search made national headlines but never turned up a trace of the pair. Did they abandon the scow and attempt the brutal hike out to the rim? Did they quarrel, as some observers claimed, and one kill the other? As the story unfolds, the boatmen whip up the mystery with sensational revelations--for one, that an old woman claiming to be Bessie reappeared on the river years later.

A former white-water guide who has recited the Hyde legend for years has now written a book about the disappearance. "Sunk Without a Sound: The Tragic Colorado River Honeymoon of Glen and Bessie Hyde" (Fretwater Press), by Flagstaff, Ariz., writer Brad Dimock, is one of two new books about the mystery; the second, "Grand Ambition" (W.W. Norton) is a fictionalized account by Healdsburg, Calif., author Lisa Michaels.

The paired timing of the releases is coincidental. "It's amazing that the first two in-depth treatments of the Hyde story are coming out so close together after a gap of 73 years," Dimock says.

Dimock, a long-limbed 48-year-old, doesn't just narrate the Hydes' voyage, he re-creates it. A veteran of more than 25 years as a boatman on the Colorado, Dimock has also worked as a commercial guide on major rivers from Alaska to Tanzania. With his wife, fellow boatman Jeri Ledbetter, Dimock built a replica of the Hydes' heavy wooden scow--a boxy boat then common to the Northwest that is said to resemble a floating coffin. In 1996, Dimock and Ledbetter launched themselves onto the river to find out what really happened to the Hydes.

Dimock's book is driven by his knowledge of rivers, rapids and boats; Michaels zeroes in on the domestic side of the Hyde legend. "I could relate to Bessie," says Michaels, 34, who, this day, is barefoot, dressed in jeans and a black sweater with casually rumpled hair.

Bessie Hyde--only 22 when she vanished--was an aspiring poet, artist and bohemian. Michaels too is a poet and a bohemian by birth--her last book, "Split: A Counterculture Childhood," was a critically acclaimed memoir of growing up the child of '60s radicals.

"My husband is Mr. Outdoors, so we've always had this push-me, pull-you about risk and caution," says Michaels, the mother of twin baby boys. "We've gone on some disastrous trips in the outdoors, and I became interested in what happens to a relationship in these situations. Who gets strong? Who gets weak?"

A Decades-Old Photo Intrigued Author

Michaels was hooked on this story by a decades-old black-and-white photograph of Glen and Bessie. She admired the modern "aviatrix cool" of their bomber jackets, the couple's tense but determined stares. "I thought they were beautiful," she says. "Not beautiful as in 'pretty,' but they had this fierceness, like something intense was happening to them."

Both Dimock and Michaels used as their primary resource the Huntington Library collection of an obsessive river historian, the late Otis "Dock" Marston. From those documents, the writers found that Glen Hyde's plan was that he and his young bride would run the canyon, then go on the lecture circuit and make money reliving their adventure. In the Hydes' time, like now, outdoor daring was chic. Charles Lindbergh had recently crossed the Atlantic; George Mallory had disappeared on Everest. The public craved more such heroes.

In those days, the Grand Canyon was a hero-making run. There were no commercial river trips. The rapids were the domain of seasoned explorers and professional expeditions--not honeymooners in a homemade boat.

Launching on Oct. 20, 1928, the Hydes made a successful run through many major rapids of the Green and Colorado rivers. Almost a month into the trip, they spent a few days restocking at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. During the layover, they talked with a reporter from the Denver Post--thinking their final destination, Needles, Calif., was just a few weeks away.

Before departing civilization again, Bessie admired a girl's shoes and announced wistfully: "I wonder if I'll ever wear pretty shoes again."

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