Every biographer likes to think that he or she approaches their subject with an open mind. We begin with an idea about the person or their achievement, but the fewer preconceptions the better. Readying ourselves to muck about in someone else's life, we straighten our pencils, set up a filing system, start reading everything we can find, pester people for information we think might be valuable, and start down the trail not knowing exactly how (or even if) we will reach the unknown destination: a more complete understanding of an individual we likely have never met. We assure ourselves that we have located and examined our assumptions and biases, and to some degree, we have. But we also fib to ourselves. We suspect there will be surprises and secrets uncovered, else why make the journey. After years of research it is not uncommon for a biographer to suffer spells of disappointment with or grow tired of the object of their admiration or affection. And it is not uncommon to discover something about your subject that contradicts popular opinion. We biographers often wander the terrain between the public persona and the private, all too human, individual.
While researching the life of Buzz Holmstrom, the first individual to row the 1,200-mile length of the Green and Colorado Rivers alone in 1937, I became acquainted with Amos Burg, who had made the same voyage (with Holmstrom) a year later. In hindsight it was inevitable that I would compare the two river running Oregonians, who had much in common, and find Burg wanting. This, of course, made no sense. I hardly knew the man or his story. I had absorbed a handful of the surface facts of his life, and then drew some unexamined conclusions. At the time I was far more interested in Holmstrom. He seemed like the real thing.
Holmstrom had found a windfall outside of his hometown of Coquille, Oregon, had it milled, and hand built his wooden boat. His 1937 solo voyage had been historic, even heroic. Burg had purchased canoes and later, had the rubber raft he designed produced in a factory back east. Having rowed a wooden dory, I thought of inflatable rafts as poor relatives to be avoided. Where Holmstrom was down-to-earth and rural, Burg was a romantic dreamer and idealist from the city. Although modest and self-effacing like Holmstrom, he seemed overly ambitious, a self-promoter. Holmstrom's diary prose was sparse and to the point, Burg's detailed entries sounded purple, self-conscious, and too high-minded for my tastes. Holmstrom's voyage through Grand Canyon was a singular peak moment in his life; Burg seemed to always be heading off to the next peak. Even after a half-century, Holmstrom's death (likely a suicide) on the Grande Ronde River at age 37 in May, 1946 felt like a brother had died.
As my research progressed, I gradually realized I had not given Burg a fair hearing. To do so, I had to come to know him better, search out his intentions, weigh the evidence of contradictory claims about his actions, read between the lines of his letters and diaries, evaluate him in the context of his family and the era he came of age. Whatever his failings and flaws, they had to be weighed against his virtues and ideals, the codes he attempted to live by. In the end, I came to like and respect Amos Burg as much as Buzz Holmstrom.
Exploring another person's life proved a humbling journey.