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Original Issue


The National Park Service moves its men around the country as briskly as some corporations do. In a 40-year career, a ranger may serve in eight or 10 national parks and monuments. But one ranger, the remarkable John Riffey, became a legend in the Park Service and among many naturalists and outdoorsmen by spending 38 years in one location.

Riffey's assignment put him in the remotest corner of the Grand Canyon National Park—a place on the North Rim called Toroweap Point, far down the Colorado River from the big tourist stops, at the end of 63 miles of dirt road. It didn't even become a part of the national park until 1975. Before that, Toroweap and the 200,000 acres around it comprised the Grand Canyon National Monument.

Perhaps the best travel advice in the country is this: When you get to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, don't Stop. Drive the additional 214 miles to the North Rim. It's 1,000 feet higher, gets more rain and is covered mostly by cool pine forest. It has only about a sixth as many visitors as the South Rim. Primitive roads lead out from the pavement to little-visited promontories like Point Sublime. And far to the west, after many miles of paved road and the 63 of dirt, you come to Toroweap Point. The canyon there is box-shaped, not funnel-shaped as it is upstream. The river is not hidden in an inner gorge. You can see several miles of it 3,000 feet below.

On my first trip to Toroweap, in 1970, I went alone and found no one there. That suited me fine. Around sundown a man drove up in an old truck and began to empty the trash cans. We talked a while. He seemed to be in his late 40s, a bit weatherbeaten by an outdoor life. Actually, he was 59. But he wasn't the garbageman. He was John Riffey, the ranger in charge of the place. Having no subordinates, he did all the work himself—maintained the roads, collected the trash, wrote reports, fought fires, made vegetation surveys, helped visitors and repaired machinery. At that time, he had already been doing it for 28 years.

Some people don't think Toroweap is worth even 28 minutes. They sign the visitors' book in its rainproof box, spit into the canyon, then leave. It is a rocky, silent world. Campers must bring their own water and food. The high pine forest plays out well to the east, and the Toroweap country is desert—sagebrush, pi√±on pine, yucca, cactus. But mostly it is rock, in all the colors and shapes the Grand Canyon offers. Some 250,000 years ago volcanic eruptions poured lava into the canyon, damming the river and creating a lake that reached many miles upstream. But the dam wore away, and its remains, now under water, form Lava Falls Rapids, the roughest on the river. With binoculars you can sit high on the rim at Toroweap and watch rafts pitch through the 20-foot waves, occasionally spilling their passengers.

The ranger station is at Tuweep, six miles back from the canyon rim. It is merely the ranger's house plus an assortment of outbuildings. When John Riffey and his wife Laura moved there in 1942, they lit their rooms and cooked with gas and heated with wood. They didn't have a refrigerator and their water was rain and snowmelt stored in cisterns. There was no phone then, and there's none now. The road was either rocks or ruts; it took five hours to drive the 75 miles to the nearest town, Fredonia.

Isolation such as this is said to have driven many pioneer women to depression and an early grave; but Mrs. Riffey loved it. She and John had met in college at Fort Collins, Colo. After they were engaged, she became ill with polio. Her doctors told her she would not walk again. She offered to release John from their engagement, but he said no, they would marry when she recovered. So she stuck with her therapy until she could walk normally.

Their nearest neighbors and best friends at Tuweep were Al and Mary Craig, ranchers who lived 23 miles up the road. You don't see such neighbors often. Mrs. Riffey had lots of time alone. Though she was not an ornithologist, she kept such precise records of the birds at Tuweep that they are now part of the park's permanent records.

Riffey entered the Army in 1943, and after the war he and Laura returned to Tuweep. In the '40s and '50s, visitors to the park were few. Even today the average is around eight per day, 3,000 per year, as compared with nearly three million who go to the South Rim. There are many days, especially from November to May, when no one comes at all.

The Riffeys' long stay at Tuweep was a phenomenon in a rigid bureaucracy like the Park Service. But John did his multiple jobs so well that his superiors gave him raises, letters of commendation and a meritorious-service award. He refused promotions that would have required him to move. Once in the '50s he was told he must choose between being fired or leaving Toroweap. He said, in effect, "All right, fire me." The ultimatum was withdrawn.

Riffey was not a Machiavellian schemer, and he had no political clout. He was an unremittingly nice guy. Gently, like the root of a wild plant cracking a rock, he made the Park Service yield the way of life that suited him perfectly. When his wife died in 1962, Riffey stayed at Tuweep alone. He was glad to see a visitor, but was also comfortable alone. "You like people if you are not overrun with them," he once said.

He never had any help except on special projects like fence building. So much of what he did was necessarily grubby or dull—keeping the road passable, repairing something, picking up litter. But he was doing it at Toroweap; he liked it all. "My only contribution to society is trying to keep this place just like it is," he told a reporter in 1972.

The Grand Canyon makes a statement hard to ignore: that the earth is very old, and the human race very young, that an individual life is just a blip on the radar screen of time. Some people are made jumpy by this reminder of their unimportance, and they have to get away fast. Others are calmed by it. They are the true lovers of Toroweap, the people who keep coming back to be retranquilized.

But you never know who will appear there. Once I saw a French family drive up, spread a thick white tablecloth on a rock and have a pique-nique. On another day two young men arrived in a van, equipped to do nothing in every conceivable position. They had folding chairs, a hammock, air mattresses, tarps. They got up to do necessary things like gather wood or get another can of beer. After dark they fired a few feeble skyrockets out over the canyon. In 48 hours or so their ice was gone and they left.

Toroweap gets a certain number of those tourists for whom the going matters a lot more than the place gone to, people for whom a McDonald's hamburger, a roadside snake show and the Grand Canyon all amount to approximately the same thing—a brief relief from the spinning boredom of their lives. They are the ones who, after covering 59 miles of the dirt road, stop at the ranger station to ask if it's worth driving the final six miles to the canyon rim.

John Riffey had been a widower for two years when, in 1964, Meribeth Mitchell knocked on his door to ask for a permit to collect plants. She was 40, doing postdoctoral research in steroid biochemistry at the University of Utah. She was so delighted with the array of spring flowers that she returned to see what bloomed in the fall. She met Riffey again. They corresponded about botany. (Riffey had degrees in forestry and range management.) Soon they were corresponding about themselves. They were married in 1965.

Meribeth Riffey taught biology at Western Washington University in Bellingham. She never quit that job, and she has it still. But she spent every summer and many springs at Tuweep. Once, stringing together a sick leave, a sabbatical and summer vacations, she was able to spend almost three straight years there. John Riffey took his vacations in winter and drove to Bellingham. Friends—many of them Meribeth's students—would go to Tuweep during the summer holidays to work on research projects in ornithology.

Wild animals—deer, antelope, bobcat, coyote, bighorn sheep, even a few mountain lions—abound in the Toroweap country. The Riffeys put their table scraps out for whatever animals would come and get them. Among these was a young bobcat that needed help. They offered him condensed milk and hamburger patties, named him Bobby and watched him grow from a scrawny youngster smaller than a house cat to a big specimen capable of managing on his own. Long after he quit coming to the feeding ground, John Riffey saw him in the wild, looking fit.

Once someone reported a "very tired pelican" walking down the road. The Riffeys were skeptical but drove out to meet it. It was indeed a pelican, and, like many desert travelers, badly in need of water. Mrs. Riffey watered it generously with a basting syringe stuck down its throat, and this seemed to be just what it needed. Then they drove the bird 14 miles to Nixon Spring, to a pond filled with frogs and fish, and the pelican recovered its health and moved on. The Riffeys surmised that it had been forced down in the desert while trying to fly from Lake Powell to Lake Mead.

Riffey learned to fly and bought a Piper Cub that had crashed and had been extensively repaired. He named it Pogo. Its hangar was just a board fence enclosing a T-shaped area in which sagebrush grew. But this protected Pogo from high winds. A neatly painted sign said:


In Pogo, he patrolled 200,000 acres entrusted to him, looking out for people and animals in trouble. Or he flew to St. George, Utah for visitors or groceries or mail. On fine days he liked to fly inside the Grand Canyon, well below the rim, where the choice of emergency landing sites is poor indeed. When Meribeth Riffey was first led up to Pogo she was surprised, and not reassured, to find that the exterior of the plane was fabric. She had thought all airplanes were made of metal. But she became a regular passenger, even on flights within the canyon.

In August 1979, a friend and I stopped at the ranger station on our way out from Toroweap Point. Riffey gave us big glasses of iced tea. His wife, he said, was leading a natural history trip through the canyon for a local rafting company.

In the office the radio rasped, and from time to time we could hear the South Rim talking to the North. From the living-room windows we could look down into the vast Tuweep Valley with the airstrip. He wasn't the only pilot to use the strip, Riffey said. Some raft passengers arranged to be lifted out of the canyon by helicopter and would summon a plane to Tuweep to take them to Las Vegas and a hot shower.

Toroweap had been very hot, we told him. From shortly after sunrise the sun had felt as if it could broil steaks.

"Come in October," Riffey said. "That's the best month of all. Cool days, cold nights, geese going south.... You can always get out. The heavy snow is up on the Kaibab Plateau. We're 3,300 feet lower. We're rarely snowed in here." He smiled. "Anyway, I'd plow you out."

I asked Riffey how he had beaten the system and spent all those years in one place. "When they wanted to transfer me," he said, "I just asked them, 'Why move a man who's happy where he is?' "

Probably the passing of time itself made him more secure. He became a legend, the subject of newspaper articles and interviews conducted through radiotelephone patches. Cut off by the Grand Canyon, a mere voice from the outback, he was someone every worker on the swarming South Rim had heard about, but few had seen.

Riffey was still working when he died in July 1980, within a month of his 69th birthday. He was trucking water from Nixon Spring when his vision blurred and his driving became erratic. A friend happened to be with him, and Riffey asked him to drive. Within hours they started for the hospital at St. George, but Riffey died on the way of a heart attack.

In Goodbye to a River, John Graves warns that someone who has deep feeling for your land can "own it right out from under you if you don't watch out...own it in a real way, with eye and brain and heart." In that way Toroweap belonged less to the National Park Service or the Department of the Interior than it did to John Riffey.

And this was acknowledged. Richard Marks, the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, asked Meribeth if she thought it would be appropriate to bury John at Tuweep. She said yes. It took some tape-cutting—it's very much against regulations to bury people in national parks—but the tape was cut.

Nine planes landed on the dirt strip in the valley, and their passengers rode up to the graveside service in the battered vehicles that Riffey had used in his work. His grave lies a little way down the road from the ranger station, with a broad view of the Tuweep Valley and the Grand Canyon. The gravestone isn't granite, and it hasn't been carved or polished. It's a rock from the hillside near his house, chosen for its square, satisfactory shape and set upright in the ground.