Ranger John Riffee: A Lifetime of Solitude on the North Rim at Tuweap… by Edie Eilender

From the 1996 Zephyr Archives…

It is winter in the Colorado Rockies as I write this story. For months I have been fussing with wood. Gathering wood, sawing wood, stacking wood. It’s called building a wood pile so when the snow and cold arrive, I can unbuild it, carrying it, log by log, into my house to be burned.

Edie Eilender (Right) and Ken Sleight.

In my wood pile I have some pieces of antique wood, some logs that I never seem to burn. They stay there year after year. These antique logs escape the fire because they hold memories. They talk to me of the past and the past lives in them. Perhaps the day will come when all the other wood is gone, the cold will be in my bones, and I will cast sentimentality aside and carry these antique logs to the fire to be consumed.

Once I actually carried an old juniper log into my house, but I couldn’t give it to the flames. It sat in my living room until Spring arrived, then I carried it back outside to the wood pile where it still lives.

The juniper log comes from the Arizona Strip, one of the least populated areas in the continental United States. Its southern boundary is the Colorado River as it cuts through the Grand Canyon.

The Arizona Strip—I say the words and I see a land of raw beauty and immense space, a land of myth, a land that stretches the imagination and speaks with voices from the past.

How I got there was an accident—or an event or chain of events that were meant to be? Whatever. Once I found my way there, in 1971, and met Ranger John Riffee, I returned again and again.

PORTRAIT OF LONG-TERM TUWEEP RANGER, JOHN RIFFEY, WEARING STRAW COWBOY HAT. 17 MAY 1980. RUSSELL

It was not easy to reach Riffee’s small stone cabin in the Tuweap Valley. Every time that I drove the rutted dirt road that led to Riffee’s, I knew that I was bound for adventure. Arriving at Riffee’s house was like reaching the last lonely house in the last lonely valley. It was the only house in this lonely valley. Never was a light in the window more welcomed. To see that light fed a great hunger. I never knew what adventures awaited me but I knew there was magic at Tuweap and that John Riffee was at the center of it.

Riffee came to Tuweap in 1942. Came out to spend one night to see if he would like it and ended up staying almost 40 years. “Don’t think that I could have found a better place for me to work and spend a life, “ he once said. “When I retire I’m going to live right down the road; a place good enough to work at is good enough to die at.”

In 1942 Tuweap was part of Grand Canyon National Monument and Riffee’s main job was working with the ranchers who had grazing permits in the Monument. Over the years the job changed as ranching declined and recreation increased. Later, the Monument became part of the park. Riffee was there for it all.

I remember when John taught me how to drive the road grader. It was November, 1977. The rain had fallen for two days. The third day was clear and Riffee announced to the Park Service crew at breakfast that the conditions were right for grading the road. And that he and I were going to do it. I looked up, my cereal spoon in hand. What? Me, grade the road? But soon we were rumbling along, me behind the wheel of the grader, and Riffee, beside me, giving instructions.

Not only did I learn how to drive Scratchy, John’s name for the grader, and to move dirt from one side of

the road to the other, I learned how to tell the difference between a marsh hawk and a red-tail. I learned about winterfat brush and how it once covered the valley before all the grazing occurred. “But it’s returning,” John told me. “After 30 years of controlled grazing, it’s finally returning.”

He told me stories about the ranchers, the Craigs, the Bundys, Old Man White. How they lived, how they worked, and how they died. Stories and more stories, all beneath a bright blue Arizona sky as we slowly rumbled down the road.

We spotted a coyote standing at the side of the road. “Dumb coyote!” John scolded. “Someone is going to shoot him, certain, if he doesn’t pay attention.”

The day before, a coyote hunter had appeared at John’s door, looking for a place to trap. John turned him away from the Park. “It’s crazy, the government pays me to protect the coyote and pays him to kill it. Crazy.”

What a wonderful day it was. On the way home John told me, “You know, there are only three problems with roadgrading in this country—too much water, not enough water, or just the right amount, and there never is the right amount.” He laughed and I laughed as I tried to keep Scratchy heading straight down the road.

To me, John was the Renaissance Man of the West, familiar with everything in his environment. He knew the calls of the birds and he knew how to fix the small Diesel-generated power plant. He could fly a plane, get a cow out of a cattle guard, fix anything that went wrong, entertain his listeners with stories of the ranchers and the Indians who used to live in the valley. He had a sense of time that was more than minutes and hours. His time included space and a sense of himself in that space.

One Spring, I took my friend Jeff out to Tuweap. I was anxious for him to meet Riffee and to show off the area. We were out at the Rim when I finally asked, “What do you think? Do you like it?”

“Well,” he said, “If it would do for me what it has done for Riffee, I would live here any day.”

I’ve often wondered, does the land change the man, or does the man change the land? Riffee knew the land, loved it, became part of it. He didn’t try to change it, but rather became its caretaker, guardian, interpreter, historian.

 

FULL LENGTH PORTRAIT OF JOHN RIFFEY, TUWEEP RANGER, STANDING BY PICK-UP TRUCK. 17 MAY 1980. NPS, RUSSELL.

In November, 1978, a group of “granddaughters,” as he liked to call us, gathered at Tuweap to share Thanksgiving dinner with Riffee. It was a wonderful time, filled with stories and laughter, warmth and turkey, fourteen pumpkin pies, trips out to the Rim to look at the river below and to listen to the roar of Lava Falls, three thousand feet below.

Everyone left on Friday, but I decided to stay on for a few more days. Too soon, the time came for me to return home to the Colorado Rockies and winter. I was talking to Riffee about the need to get wood for the coming cold weather.

“I know an area outside the Park where we can get some wood,” he said. “It’s PJ country and it was chained a few years back.”

I looked at John blankly. PJ? PJ meant peanut butter and jelly to me.

“PJ?” I asked.

“Pinion and Juniper,” he explained. And he explained the chaining process to me—two dozers with a couple hundred feet of heavy chain between them, moving through the forest and ripping out every tree in their path. He said they did it to “improve the range.” In spite of the negative results, the practice continues to this day.

We drove Orange Blossom, my truck, to the canyon that had been chained. It looked like a battlefield or as if a tornado had gone through the area. The steep hillside was littered with dead trees, lying on their backs, black arms reaching skyward. A bone yard of dead trees.

John took out his chainsaw and, in no time, the back of my truck was loaded with wood. I gratefully trucked it home to Gold Hill, where I burned it and enjoyed its warmth. And the smell! I love the smell of pinion as it burns. As I watched the flames in the fireplace, I dreamed of my return to Tuweap in the Spring.

 

Riffee died on the job in July, 1980. And he is still there guarding the land he loved. The Park Service made an exception to their rules and allowed him to be buried in the Park, just down the road from the stone house that was his home for so many years. I still return to Tuweap. It has become a part of my life. The juniper log remains in my antique pile and probably always will.

 

At last report, Edie Eilender lived in Colorado.

 

Meeting Ranger Riffee

by Jim Stiles

The winter of 1976 was especially mild and dry, and the dirt road to Toroweep on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, usually snowed in and muddy that time of the year, was open. I figured my new VW Rabbit could go anywhere that a jeep could, so I left the main highway near Pipe Springs and headed south over unknown territory.

I’d heard about Ranger Riffee—the legendary Riffee. And he was already something of a hero to me. I admired the fact that he’d decided to stay at this one lonely outpost for his entire Park Service “career,” if you could call it that. I wanted to meet him.

We arrived late at the Toroweep Overlook, after dark, and did not realize what a precipitous place we’d selected to camp. Just a few feet from our sleeping bags the earth dropped away, more than three thousand feet to the river below.

“It’s a good thing I don’t walk in my sleep,” I said.

“You do,” replied my friend.

Toroweep. 1977

When the sun got high enough to warm us, we broke camp and made the short drive to Riffee’s stone cabin. I walked to the side of his house to a side door and started to knock. But I hesitated for a moment. I’d just finished my first season at Arches National Park and I had grown weary of tourists knocking on my door—my residence, as I liked to point out. This ranger home was a big different, however, and hardly the fish bowl I lived in. So I knocked.

The door opened and there was Riffee. He was wearing a red flannel shirt and jeans and slippers, if I recall, and before I could open my mouth he said, “Well! I didn’t hear you drive up. You look like you guys could use a cup of coffee. Corn flakes or Rice Crispies? What suits you this morning?”

A little taken aback by him instant enthusiasm, and wanting to be sure I had the right guy, I asked, “Are you Ranger Riffee?”

He snorted and said, “What’s left of him.”

Ranger Riffee in the National Park he loved.

Riffee invited us into his home, brought us coffee and corn flakes and we traded stories for the next several hours. That’s not quite true. It wasn’t a fair trade—he had a lot more stories. Mostly I listened.

At some point, I mentioned Edward Abbey’s name and the conversation came to a sudden halt. In 1976, all seasonal rangers loved and adored Ed Abbey and all permanent rangers feared mentioning his name. Being an Abbey Devotee was not a good move for a career ranger then, (probably isn’t now either,) and, for a moment, I thought I’d committed a fatal blunder.

“Do you know Abbey?” Riffee asked sharply.

“Well…,” I hesitated. “I’ve met him.”

Riffee got out of his chair and abruptly left the room. I looked at my friend and shrugged. What should we do? Should we leave?

A couple of minutes later, Riffee returned with a well-thumbed, dog-eared copy of a book I instantly recognized. It was The Monkey Wrench Gang. Riffee was now wearing his reading glasses.

“The next time you see Abbey, you tell him that I don’t think this Karo Syrup in the gas tank will do a damn bit of good. I mean about all it’ll do is gum up the fuel filter. That syrup would do a hell of a lot more good on pancakes than pouring down the filler hole on some D9 Cat. Sand! That’s the way to go! And it’s everywhere. Tell him that.”

He was critiquing the book for accuracy.

“And here’s something else…”

It became clear to me that Ranger Riffee was not an ordinary career park ranger. And the longer he talked about his life in the Park Service, the more I realized how true it was.

Except for a brief stint in the Army during World War II, Riffee had spent his entire career at the North Rim, at this isolated place. He loved it and he wouldn’t leave, even when the Director of the National Park Service told him he had to.

“Director Wirth…Connie Wirth was just having a fit over me. He wanted me out of there and I don’t even know why. I think he believed I lacked ambition or something. But I got around him.”

According to Riffee, Secretary Udall himself intervened on behalf of the unmotivated Tuweap ranger and John never had to worry about transferring again.

But he did worry about the 65 mile dirt road that protected his isolation and all the beautiful country that had surrounded him for most of the last 35 years. Rumors were flying that someone wanted to pave it.

“I’ll tell you this,” he said proudly. “I’ll try every trick in the book…the Monkey Wrench Gang book, to keep that asphalt out of here. And it that doesn’t work, they’ll have to pave the road over my dead body.”

He pondered that thought for a moment, and you had the feeling he knew this wonderful life of his couldn’t go on forever. He said, “I know my days are numbered out here. But you know what I’d like? When I die, I wish they’d just stuff me and put me out there in a rocking chair on the porch. And maybe every once in a while, somebody could just give that rocker a push…that would make me very happy.”

We said our goodbyes to John Riffee and promised to come back, but less than two years later he was dead. His friends buried him at Tuweap, illegally and without a permit. The State of Arizona demanded that his body be exhumed, but Merl Stitt, the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, said, “No. Leave him where he is.”

Some say it was the only good decision Stitt ever made. But it must have made Riffee happy.

 

Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr

 

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1 comment for “Ranger John Riffee: A Lifetime of Solitude on the North Rim at Tuweap… by Edie Eilender

  1. Bob Phillips
    June 4, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    Hi Jim,
    I, too, met John when I camped there a week one summer about 1974 or 5. He invited me up to his house to have a beer (it was June, no other campers then). We talked about “Witch Hazel”, gnats, Egarotes (or Igerodies? — he never spelled it), Glen Canyon Damn, how he sees his wife in the winter. I asked him why the NPS gave him an old Dodge crewcab 2wd instead of a 4wd (which I didn’t have either). His exact words: “Four wheel drive just gets you stuck in worse places”. (BTW, Witch Hazel controls the Egerotes, which are the little gremlins that poke holes in your stashed water bottles or blow your radiator hoses, etc. And, one did: the jug I stashed half way down the stairway trail to the River had a pinhole and was nearly empty when I retreived it on my way up. Gawd, the toughest 1.25 mile trail (3000 vertical ft) I have ever hiked.) I wish I had gone back to visit again before he passed. (I wonder what Industrial Tourism has done to the place now?)
    Bob

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