River Of Traps

Jacobo and his great grandson waiting for the hay to be baled, El Valle, New Mexico 1979

River Of Traps
William Debuys and Alex Harris
April 15, 2009
7:30 p.m.

Interview With William Debuys and Alex Harris on Wunc’s The State of Things (April 15, 2009)

Writer William deBuys and photographer Alex Harris will talk about their collaboration on River of Traps, a 1991 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction that was recently republished by Trinity University Press. Both deBuys and Harris will show photographs in a special outdoor presentation.

Jacobo on his way to the river, El Valle, New Mexico 1979. Photograph by Alex Harris.


In the early 1970s, when William deBuys and Alex Harris were fresh out of college, they moved to a tiny village in northern New Mexico where they met and were befriended by Jacobo Romero, their elderly Hispanic neighbor. In many ways, Romero was a man of the 19th century, an expert in the arts of subsistence farming, irrigation, and tending animals, skills deBuys and Harris needed to learn in order to survive in their new environment. The three men created an exchange of sorts. Romero became their teacher, while he enlisted their help in taking care of his own land and animals.

DeBuys, Harris, and Romero lived and worked side by side for a number of years and at one point fought together against a massive spring flood of the Las Trampas River, the River of Traps. Five years after Romero’s death in 1985, deBuys and Harris movingly chronicled their lives together in River of Traps, a book that has since become not only a Western classic, but—for its seamless weaving of text and photographs—also a classic in the history of documentary expression.

On the occasion of the republication of River of Traps by Trinity University Press, Harris and deBuys will reflect on the book, on the life of Jacobo Romero, and on their collaboration.


Jacobo and Eliza in Lalo's House, El Valle, New Mexico 1979. Photograph by Alex Harris.

William deBuys is the author of The Walk, published by Trinity University Press in 2007, and Enchantment and Exploitation. His other books are Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve, co-written with Don J. Usner; Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California; Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. He is professor of documentary studies at the College of Santa Fe.

Alex Harris is a founder of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and of DoubleTake Magazine. He has photographed extensively in the American South, Alaska, Cuba, and New Mexico, and he is the author or editor of fourteen books, including, most recently, The Idea of Cuba. Harris is a professor of the practice of public policy and documentary studies at Duke.

River of Traps is unlike any other book I know. In its brilliant verbal and photographic portrait of a complicated ‘simple’ man and his place in the world, it achieves an astounding richness and depth. Yet it never strays from the clear straight lines of a human story — a man lives a hard good life and dies; two friends recall him. The reader who won’t be moved and instructed is likely far past human reach. Tolstoy would have loved and honored it.”—Reynolds Price


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    2 Responses to “River Of Traps”

    1. […] is the author of six books, including River of Traps, which was a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. He directed the North […]

    2. Glenn says:

      I read it. A month later I read it again!

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