On July 25th I received an email from Jim Hook who, along with his wife Luanne, are owners of the legendary Recapture Lodge in Bluff Utah. The Recapture Lodge was founded by Gene and Mary Foushee. The email said simply, “Sorry to have to tell you, Gene Foushee passed away last night. Great loss….”. Gene’s wife, Mary,passed away nine days later.They were 88 years old and had been married for 60 years.A great loss? Indeed it is.A great loss not only to those of us who knew them well but also to those who were fortunate enough to experience Mary’s hospitality, spend the night at the Recapture Lodge under the spell of one of Gene’s nightly slide shows in the lobby, who sat in his four wheel drive truck on one of his tours in the early ’60s, and to all of their neighbors in the tiny southeastern Utah village of Bluff.
Everyone who came into contact with Gene and Mary Foushee over the last 60 years have stories to tell. What Gene and Mary accomplished in Bluff, meant to Bluff and to the world at large is an amazing story.No one has the whole story. Each one of us knows just our part of the story and this is simply my small part to tell. I hope that some of the many others whose lives were enriched by knowing Gene and Mary will come forward to tell their stories in the future. As their son, Geno, said to me in an email, “My parents certainly had an out-sized impact on a substantial slice of humanity.”
In 1935, writer Ernie Pyle wrote of Bluff Utah, “Once Bluff was alive. There were cattle there, and people were rich. but that was long ago. Bluff was dead now and well knew it. The immense square stone houses, reminiscent of past wealth, stood like ghosts, only one or two to a block. Sand was deep in the streets. People moved slowly, for there was no competition. Nobody new ever came to Bluff”. Little did he know that two decades later Gene and Mary Foushee would come to Bluff with a dream, live in a tent, build that dream, and become a major driving force to alter Ernie Pyle’s description of the town.
Gene graduated from North Carolina University with a degree in geology and in 1956 went to work for Union Carbide in Grand Junction, Colorado, doing what geologists did in the 50s, look for oil and other mineral wealth in the virtually unexplored desert and canyon country of southern Utah. He fell in love with the land which he called “geology textbook country.” He also fell in love with Mary, the executive secretary of the Union Carbide office in Grand Junction, which caused some consternation among his bosses. Geologists were a dime a dozen but a good executive secretary was hard to find in the wilds of Grand Junction in the 50s. However, Gene was a man of action and they were married in 1957.
Gene could not bear the idea of working his way up the ladder at Union Carbide and turning into an executive always on the go, traveling to the company’s far flung offices, and spending more time on the road than at home. He thought that was no way to raise a family so he made a plan and that plan was to move to Bluff in the heart of the canyon country he loved. After drawing up a plan for a motel, he and Mary moved to bluff in 1959, lived in a tent, and started work on his dream of a motel. Some say that when they arrived in bluff, Mary cried for six months but, knowing Mary, i think it was really more like a couple of weeks but, now that i really think about Mary, it might just be an apocryphal story.
If that is not an apocryphal story, who could blame her? Their first child, Marybeth was already on the ground, Gene had been in a terrible auto accident on the way to Bluff, broken his hip, and was not able to do much of the construction he had lined up for the lodge and they lived in a tent! While living in the tent and after much hard work the “Recapture Court Motel” opened in late 1959 and contained living quarters for Gene and Mary and four rooms for guests. Their second child, Geno, soon followed. It was not yet theRecapture Lodge that we all know and love but it was now on it’s way.
Gene bought a Nissan Patrol, which was the Japanese version of a Jeep, and, over the objections of a tour company in Monticello, Utah, obtained an official Utah State Guide License. He joined Kenny Ross, a former Mesa Verde National Park Ranger and founder of Wild Rivers Expeditions, who did trips down the San Juan River, as one of the only two licensed guides south of Monticello. They both loved the then-wild country of southeast Utah and loved sharing it with others. They were pretty sure that there must be people out there who wanted more than a canned tour of the scenery and photo opps and they were right. As Gene said in a 1972 interview with Pat Whitaker for the Utah State Historical Society Oral History Program, “For people who want more than the standard tour–they’re the tourists that we really enjoy–Kenny and I can offer a specialized tour.”
It was also about this time that an ad appeared in San Juan County that said,
P.S. Everything for the traveler”
Gene with his kidney crunching four wheel drive and knowledge of geology and Kenny with his rafts on theSan Juan had just about everything covered for the visitor to Bluff. When you toss in Mary, Bluff’s undisputed hospitality queen, holding down the fort at the Recapture, I think one can safely say that between them they invented tourism in the small town of Bluff.
I actually met Mary Foushee first. It was in 1965 at the end of a very long one day trip from Albuquerque to Bluff via Window Rock, Hopi, Tuba City, Kayenta, and Monument Valley. It was my first trip to the southwest. After passing through Mexican Hat and rolling into Bluff, it was nine o’clock, dark, I was exhausted and could go no further. The first two motels in Bluff had a no vacancy sign and i continued down the highway hoping for a second motel with a vacancy. There was a second motel and that was the Recapture and i saw a light. I wearily walked into the “lobby” of the Recapture Lodge and was warmly greeted by Mary Foushee. In those days the lobby consisted of the check in desk and behind that was Gene and Mary’s living room. Sitting in the dim light of the living room were about a dozen local people and, as Mary was checking me in she mentioned that they had been discussing Shakespeare. Shakespeare? Discussing Shakespeare in this tiny little backwater in the middle of nowhere? In my weary exhaustion i thought that perhaps i had somehow stumbled into some kind of real life version of a Rod Serling play. Perhaps what they were really discussing was which of the many Shakespearean murder scenarios they wanted to re-enact on the night’s first and only guest and that guest was me. I was too tired to care. As Mary handed the key to me and wished me a pleasant good night, I stumbled off to one of the Recapture’s six or eight rooms and slept undisturbed through the night. The next morning I woke up, went outside into the daylight, and discovered the beauty of Bluff and the red rock country for the first time.
After a morning walk to take it all in, I too instantly fell in love with that magnificent red rock country and yearned to explore it’s wild roadless character. On road maps, even as late as the ’60s, the whole area from the San Juan River south to US 160 in Arizona carried a warning: “travel in this area not recommended without guides”. There was only one paved road in the whole of San Juan County, Utah. That road ran from Monticello south through Blanding and then split in two with one section running southeast to four corners and one section going southwest to Mexican Hat and Monument Valley. There was no bridge for cars across the San Juan River at Bluff, only a suspension foot bridge which was later carried away by the river in the late ‘90s. So in 1965, my old ’55 Jeep and I, armed with USGS topographical maps, returned to the Bluff area to work for a year at St. Christopher’s Mission, located on a dirt road a couple miles from Bluff. I was eager to explore and that’s when I met Gene.
I had asked everyone in Bluff about everything and where that everything was. I learned a little from each one but invariably each told me the same thing: I should really talk to Gene Foushee. So one day I visited the Recapture and found Gene busy planting more trees.Those of you who have had the pleasure of staying at the Recapture and enjoyed the shade of those huge trees should know that Gene planted every single one of them. Except for the elms, those elms just sneaked in somehow. Gene planted pecans, Carolina poplars, locusts, mulberries, currants, lilacs and the occasional fruit tree. He left the few cottonwoods that were already there grow to their current huge magnificence because they didn’t require water. And now I’m off the subject because that’s how it is when one talks about the Foushees. One story leads to another and one thing leads to another and now I must get back to the topic at hand and that topic is really Gene Foushee’s intimate knowledge of the land he so loved on so many different levels.
After living near Bluff for a year I moved to the Philadelphia area to work for three years. At the end of those three years I discovered that I was homesick for a place that was not even yet my home. In 1970 I returned to the Colorado plateau and moved to Flagstaff, Arizona. On my way to Flagstaff I stopped in Bluff to visit Gene and Mary. I arrived just after sundown and walked into the Recapture and found Gene in the midst of one of his slide shows. I sat down in the back of the big room with the piano and the library next to the office and just listened. He was showing some slides of the old houses and other historic buildings from Bluff’s past. I sat there and listened to his stories of Bluff’s past and stories about who lived in these houses. It was just like old times and I again marveled at how interesting he made it all sound.
In fact the town of Bluff does have an interesting history and I was not surprised that he knew it. He almost singlehandedly kept alive the story of the “hole in the rock” Mormon pioneers, who after a torturous journey throughout the rough arid country of southern Utah, founded Bluff in 1878. In fact Gene himself was the founder of the Bluff Historical Preservation Association. But more than that he was actively engaged in physical preservation by buying some of those empty stone houses that Ernie Pyle talked about and restoring them. They were abandoned because many of the pioneer families who settled Bluff grew weary of the San Juan River floods and moved 25 miles north and settled what would become the town of Blanding. He and Mary bought these historic houses made of local stone for a song. They were wrecks and no one wanted them. Then with his own hands and the hands of a series of Navajo assistants starting withFloyd Benally and ending with Denny Bellson, he began the painstaking effort to restore them. Not with the hope of selling them for a great profit but with the hope that others would come to Bluff, live in them, and the town would grow.
In the 1972 interview with Pat Whitaker I quoted from earlier, he said, “We’re very interested in the development of Bluff, but we want the right type of people to come in, people who really respect the country, not because of a flourishing business they see in the future. Anyway, we would like people to come in and carefully develop Bluff. no housing developments, just one house at a time”. Most of those houses he lovingly brought back to life he rented out to families and as time went on he even sold a few. One day while walking by one of these houses he smelled bread baking inside and said, “This is the way it should be, the houses should be used”. Another quote from Gene gives one a real idea of what Gene andMary wanted for Bluff, “The type of attitude which we would prefer anyone who comes in to have is: live in this area and then worry about how to make a living”. In other words, they were looking for new pioneers, pioneer families just like them.
For years Gene had the only plane, an old Cessna 170, at the Bluff airport, really just a landing strip with a couple of hangars. He flew well into his 80s. Just last year he was doing touch and go landings and takeoffs at the Bluff airport while Mary sat in the shade watching in case something went wrong. i’m not sure what she could have done because she was 87 and seriously visually impaired. For as long as i’ve known Gene, he has loved to fly and he loved to take people up into the air so they could see the big picture of the big country and be awed by the immensity of it all. He loved their reactions.
About about ten years ago, long after Gene and Mary had retired, I brought my wife Janice, cousin Mary Jane from Ohio, and my grandson Christopher to Bluff to stay at the Recapture Lodge and to run the San Juan River. Running the San Juan has always been a favorite activity of mine and Janice’s and I had run it probably 30 times over the years in our canoe and sometimes with Wild Rivers when our trips included multiple children, grandchildren, or friends. These trips to bluff always included a visit with gene and mary either at the Recapture or, in later years, at their house on Mulberry Street.
This time was no different and we all went to visit Gene and Mary. Cousin Mary Jane was a newspaper editor and columnist and she and Mary, a voracious reader, got along famously while Gene and I talked about what was new in Bluff. Suddenly Gene asked my cousin, “What are you doing for breakfast tomorrow morning?” My cousin replied, “What did you have in mind?” Gene said, “I was thinking about breakfast at Navajo Mountain.”
So at dawn the next morning I drove them out to the Bluff airport and helped Gene roll his Cessna out of the hangar. My sharp-eyed inquisitive journalist cousin noticed a bit of duct tape on the little plane’s tail and asked, “What’s that for?” Gene replied, “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s not structural.” Cousin Mary Jane took Gene’s word but still looked a little nervous.
Gene warmed the plane up, taxied down the runway, and off our grandson and cousin went into the sky for a flight over Monument Valley and beyond. Shortly they landed at a dirt strip on Navajo mountain andenjoyed a breakfast that Mary had packed for them in the shade of a juniper tree.On the way home they flew over Lake Foul, Rainbow Bridge, Bears Ears, Cedar Mesa, Valley of the Gods, and Comb Ridge. And when they safely touched down and taxied back to the hangar, there was that little piece of duct tape still on the tail.
Here is cousin Mary Jane’s account from an email she sent to me after she learned of gene’s death: “That dawn flight to Navajo Mountain was one of the highlights of my life. To be in that little plane, flying high above southeast Utah, and looking down as Gene pointed to this Navajo settlement and that- he knew every single one – was unforgettable. I’d always been nervous about small planes, but that anxiety evaporated as soon as we lifted off. I was filled with joy and wonder as I saw Utah through Gene’s eyes from the window of his little plane. Christopher fell asleep on the way back. I was in the front seat, my eyes glued to the bluffs and mesas and sheep down below listening listening listening to all Gene had to say. Iwrote a column about it. Hiking with him through the desert was another treat. I learned so much. Knowing him enriched my life immeasurably”.
Gene loved to fly. Taking someone he’d just met up in the air for free when he knew that they would see itand begin to love it the way he did was a real Gene Foushee move. When my cousin and grandson returned from that flight i practically had to wrestle Gene to the ground to pay him for the fuel he used.
Gene was a pilot, geologist, builder, repairman, tour guide, engineer, etc, ad infinitum. Not only did he build the first swimming pool in bluff, indeed all of San Juan County, but it was solar heated! Solar heating systems for swimming pools, if they existed in those days, were probably very expensive. So Gene did what Gene usually did and he “Foushee-d” it. He ingeniously engineered and built his own solar heating system from scratch for the pool and it heated the pool quite well. One of the many things i admired about Gene was his ingenuity and ability to teach himself everything he needed to know to do everything he wanted to do. No wonder that there were all those old copies of “Popular Mechanics” and “Popular Science” magazines in Recapture’s rooms prior to TV coming to Bluff.
It occurs to me that, other than recounting my first visit to the Recapture in 1965, i have not written much about Mary Foushee. Mary was so much more than “Bluff’s undisputed queen of hospitality, holding down the fort at the Recapture,” although she certainly was that.
Luanne Hook said it best, “Mary…was ‘behind the scenes’ of Gene and all of his endeavors, but not behind the scenes of the motel or town….. she was actually the nuts and bolts of the lodge, the welcoming face at the desk, the operator,the coordinator of local help for keeping it clean, and also the bookkeeper, tax payer, etc. Without her he was nothing and vice versa! Without Gene’s deep interest in inspiring people endlessly to really appreciate the desert, the Lodge was nothing, just another room on the road. She welcomed everyone as she checked them into their rooms, giving them directions to various places, a handful of books in the early days, and then Gene would entertain every night in the lobby by picking up a box of slides off the table, opening them, and casually telling stories that were triggered as each slide would appear……..The two of them together is what made people love them, the lodge and Bluff. It was because of this charming combination that one of their guests, Tony Hillerman, wrote in his “Thief of Time” novel, ’the Recapture Lodge had been Bluff’s center of hospitality for as long as Leaphorn could remember.’ They still have that quote hanging prominently in their cozy kitchen.” Former managers and now owners of the Recapture Lodge, Jim and Luanne hook, who are carrying on the Foushee’s tradition of hospitality, have that quote proudly displayed on the Recapture lobby wall.
Gene and Mary were hospitable and welcoming to the guests at the recapture but their hospitality carried over into their town life as well. Luanne Hook recounts how, “They were also the host and hostess and instigators of keeping the social side of Bluff alive, always involving and bringing together family, friends,and neighbors. They loved to share a cup of coffee, a picnic, a flight over the desert, attending and supporting St. Christopher’s Mission, hosting community Christmas carols, Halloween parties, New Years Eve bonfires…etc.”
I always thought of Gene and Mary as the dynamic duo of Bluff and marveled at the contributions and changes that came as a result of their 1959 move. How many thousands were fortunate enough to find their way to the Recapture Lodge and come away with a whole new appreciation and a new respect for the desert as a result of encountering Gene and Mary? And then there must have been some, like me, who actually moved to the southwest because of that encounter. Although i didn’t move to Bluff, i did move to the southwest. For the last 47 years i have made at least one trip every year to Bluff to stay at the Recapture, hike, run the river, and introduce our children, grand children, and soon great grandchildren to the beauty of southeast Utah and to teach them as best i can to love and care for it as Gene taught me. All of these trips included a visit to Gene and Mary either at the Recapture Lodge or, after their retirement, at their warm and welcoming house on Mulberry Street.
I also wondered how they made it all work, what powered the dynamic duo? Again, Luane Hook says it best: “60 years together hints at their love, but the incredible bond they shared was witnessed by so many, and especially radiated publicly the last years as friends and neighbors witnessed Gene guiding almost blind Mary, walking together around the streets of Bluff, pausing on neighbors porches for a break….. just last night a local Navajo woman with tears running down her cheeks was feeling the love she witnessed they had for each other. That deep respect and love they practiced was the root of all the energy they had left over to give to others and the town.”
And give, as Gene and Mary certainly did, to all of us who learned to love and care for the desert southwest because of them, was a priceless gift.
In a recent email to me their son Geno told me, “One of the last things Gene said to me when we visited in July was, ‘we had a great run’…” Yes, they did indeed have a “great run” and that run has now come to an end and that is truly a great loss for us all.