Experts say a good way to remember somebody’s name is to associate it an object or picture. If you meet a man named Miller, you think of a windmill or a pepper grinder, then recall that image when you meet him again. When I first met John Riffey in late 1973, I learned to associate his name with Toroweap, the deepest gorge I have ever seen. Pogo, the name of a famous comic strip character, would have worked just as well, though neither choice sounded a bit like his name.
In 1973, my 58-year-old father asked me to accompany him on a visit to Toroweap, a remote area west of Grand Canyon National Park, where it was said that the view into the canyon’s inner gorge was one of the most dramatic sights on earth. My father had discovered the area when he’d gone poking around in northern Arizona on a vacation. He’d been visiting friends in St. George, Utah, when he sat down one evening to scan some maps and see where he might take drives off the main roads.
What Dad was looking at was the Arizona Strip, a 2,500-square mile chunk of high desert cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon. It was so distant that Arizona didn’t patrol it all, leaving law enforcement up to John Riffey, a 60-year-old national park ranger who lived at the Strip’s southernmost edge, hours away down whichever one of three washboard roads you might take to reach him.
Not that Riffey had much to patrol – the Strip was a rolling plateau of volcanic rock covered by sagebrush and juniper, with occasional copses of pines. The few people who had settled in it, many of them renegade Mormons who wanted to continue practicing polygamy, ran some cattle and let it go at that. Although people north and south of the Strip would look in its direction with a “there be pirates there” expression, there just weren’t enough people in it to raise many high jinks.
In fact the greatest concentration of people and action on the Strip were at Riffey’s cabin at Tuweep, which was the jumping off place for hikers, boaters and tourists who had come to see the treasure that Riffey guarded. After a bone-jarring five or six-hour drive south from the Utah border to Tuweep, most people would stop at the cabin to chat and ask about the crumpled six-mile road that would take them the final leg to Toroweap. Inevitably, quick stops to ask for directions became occasions for sitting around, having some coffee or tea, and getting acquainted. Riffey, who had been stationed at Tuweep since 1942, had an endless supply of stories to tell, many of them total fabrications. He was such a charming storyteller that the impromptu socializing he had induced would run into dusk. At that point, Riffey would suggest that his new acquaintances might want to stay for a simple dinner and sleep the night near his cabin. People rarely refused him.
That’s how I met him, late one afternoon after my father and I had ground our way down the Strip in a pickup truck. Dad had met Riffey a couple of years before and had come away telling many stories about him. Riffey was a tall, lanky, barrel-chested man who wore a Stetson with the brim sharply upturned on the sides. He had a long face, with long ears to match, and a wide mouth that tilted a little, all the better to impart the gentle humor that would come tumbling out as he slowly spoke.
I watched the two of them get reacquainted and quickly saw what had impressed my father so. Riffey listened intensely to Dad, kind of downloading his take on current events and his own life. For Riffey, visitors to Tuweep were like messages in bottles, only these came to the desert island, not from it. He was an isolated man who lacked a phone, TV or newspaper. A diesel generator provided his power, and his radio was a short wave set used mainly for communication, not entertainment.
(I later learned that Riffey was a sort of lone wolf in the national park bureaucracy. Despite pleas from his higher-ups that he take a promotion and transfer to another post, he never accepted duty elsewhere. He filled out few forms and often would go months between sending in mandatory reports to his superiors. As vexing as he was to the bureaucrats, he was nearly untouchable. Riffey had rescued, hosted and advised so many people, many of them influential, that the National Park Service simply grandfathered him in and took to looking the other way.)
Into the evening Riffey talked to my father, deftly working me in and out of the conversation so that he learned a little about me, too. Slowly the focus shifted from us to him, and as evening fell and we joined Riffey for dinner, the storyteller emerged. I quickly learned that Riffey had a twinkle-eyed sense of humor. When he wasn’t gently testing my father’s leg by pulling on it while telling one of his stories, he was testing mine. I think he was pleased when I noticed that the flower box in front of his picture window was filled with plastic peonies and nasturtiums. He laughed when I announced my discovery. He told me that for all of Tuweep’s beauty, it had almost no flowering plants with bright colors. The plastic flowers were his solution.
The next morning, he asked me if I’d like to fly over the west end of the Grand Canyon with him. That was the first I learned of the existence of Pogo, Riffey’s Piper Supercub, a tiny single-engine plane that seated two, one behind the other. Pogo was housed in a barn about half a mile down the valley from Riffey’s house. A protective fence ran parallel to the dirt strip, separating it from the road that led in from the north. You had to pass through a gate to get to the other side. Atop that gate, a sign with neat hand lettering proclaimed, “Tuweep International Airport.”
I laughed and began oohing as I scanned “Tuweep International Airport,” taking in its dusty 2,000-foot dirt runway and shed posing as a terminal. Riffey grinned and defended the nomenclature. He told me that small planes flew into Tuweep year-round, and that he’d met people from 60 countries just by staying put in one remote place. “All that international traffic makes this an international airport in my book,” he said.
We pulled Pogo out from between stacks of hay that Riffey kept on hand for his own horses and visitors’. Then he began studiously thumping on Pogo’s fabric wings, testing them for field mice. “Mice sometimes like to nest in the wings because it’s warm there.” Since I knew already that Riffey’s low-key humor was often a put on, I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth. But he kept at it for several minutes, and the eccentricity of the situation – an international airport in the middle of nowhere and plastic flowers in the planter box – made me think there probably were mice in the wings.
I climbed into the seat behind Riffey and Pogo was quickly airborne. We banked east and began following the thread of the Grand Canyon, taking in its deep main and tributary gorges, passing over countless rapids and the 196-foot-high Havasupai Falls. Riffey seemed almost in deep meditation as we wandered over the landscape. I could tell that he’d spent many hours in his career as a ranger communing with the land below. I wish I could say that I had profound thoughts or comments on that one-hour flight, but I was airsick and spent all of my time concentrating on not fouling this kind man’s airplane. I’m am proud to say that I succeeded. Riffey never learned of my distress and I think he came away from our flight thinking that I, like him, was a thoughtful man who knew when to keep his mouth shut.
So it was on the ground with my father that I was to have my profound encounter with the Grand Canyon. We said goodbye to Riffey and inched our way down the last six miles to the canyon’s edge. Suddenly, the road ended, as well as the land. I looked over an edge and down into a 3,000-foot-deep chasm. I had never seen anything so large or so deep, and in my joy began dancing atop a slab of rock, inches from perdition. It was the happiest brush with death I’ll ever have.
My father had introduced me to Toroweap. At the overlook there, the Grand Canyon simplifies itself. Instead of the busy look the canyon has upstream, with dozens of tributaries cutting down to the Colorado River, and a tumult of mesas crowding around the inner gorge, here the canyon is a simple cut in the earth with some mesas and buttes back from the edge. The river flows between vertical walls that are twice the height of the Sears Tower in Chicago, and you can look straight down upon it. Depending on the wind and the day, you can hear the river, usually as a distant whisper. The irony of that soft sound isn’t lost on you: The Colorado at this point has Class 5 rapids, the toughest ones rafters can face. They flow over the remnants of a 600-foot-high natural dam created by a volcanic eruption thousands of years before. The dam backed the Colorado up and created a vast lake that lasted for years. But the Colorado eventually tore down the dam, eroding and wedging it apart, and slamming big boulders into it during floods. Yet from a vantage 3,000 feet above it, this ferocious natural force seemed placid and purring.
With nothing to obstruct your view into the inner gorge, Toroweap is probably the best place in the national park to get a sense of how big the Grand Canyon is. Further east at South or North Rim, you can sense its vastness in a more panoramic manner. The canyon sprawls before you, impressing with its horizontal size, but it never quite gives you an adequate sense of its vertical scale. At Toroweap, the drop is so deep and dramatic that you finally “get it.” There are bigger places on earth than Toroweap – the glaciers of Alaska come to mind, as well as the enormous mass of Mt. McKinley – but none can give a stronger impression of sheer immensity.
I met John Riffey again, in 1975, when I brought my wife to Toroweap and we rendezvoused with my father. It was the last time I would see him. Riffey had a serious heart condition which his isolation made all the more dangerous. But he could not conceive of a worthwhile life outside of Tuweep, and said plainly that he knew he would die there. He did, in 1980, suffering a heart attack while doing chores near his cabin. Guests who were staying with him gathered him up into their RV and were making the bumpy run to St. George when he was stricken with a second, and fatal, attack. He was buried on a hill overlooking his beloved valley. Occasionally people make the long drive down from Utah to meet at Tuweep and tell stories about him.