When I was a seasonal ranger, I lived at the Devils Garden Campground at Arches National Park for a full decade. Some people thought I’d never leave; even I wondered if I’d ever get out of there alive. I worried that the tourists might drive me insane and it’s true I could get a bit surly with them from time to time. Over the years, I acquired something of a reputation.
But looking back, I realize how many dear friends I made during my Arches era—friendships that would last to this day. Just recently, I called up my old pal Ken Curtis, a former battalion commander with the Salt Lake City fire department. For years, he and many of his colleagues, and their families, would descend on Arches for Easter Week. Jeep Safari might have been a tradition for some Moabites. For me it was the firefighters. Ken’s now in his late 80s; Rubi his wonderful wife of more than 50 years, passed away almost a decade ago, but Ken and many of his pals are still going strong.
At Arches, each month brought familiar faces, returnees from previous seasons. Doc and George Bell, two brothers and self-proclaimed “geezers” from Missouri, made their annual trek in August when it was the hottest. Doc was over 80, George in his mid-70s. They’d set out each morning and head into the desert, traveling off trail, crosscountry with a grocery bag for a pack and a mayonaise jar for a canteen (now known as a hydrating system).
They’d come limping back at dusk. Doc, stooped over and in apparent pain, would moan, “George is killing me Jim…he’s walking me to death!” Then he’d give me a wink and head back to their tent. The next day they’d get up and do it again.
But every May, I’d keep an eye out for site 40. I knew Mr. Pipes was on the way.
Charles Pipes, at first glance, was an improbable camper. He was a librarian from Elkin, North Carolina and looked like one. Short and a bit frail, with thick, wire-rimmed glasses, and only in his early 50s when we met, Charles spoke with a soft but pronounced Southern accent that was a pleasure to hear. He was a true Southern gentleman, in every sense of the word.
I first met him one night in site 40, at the far end of the campground. It was his favorite campsite, maybe his favorite place on Earth, and each year he managed to snare the same location, even if he had to wait a night for it to open. He had been coming to Arches for years before I arrived, but he was delighted to find a ranger who took an interest in his Arches Obsession.
He told me that his wife Wanda had accompanied him once—just once—to Utah. But she failed to see the attraction. She told Charles it was too hot, too dry and too far away and she had no interest in returning. But she saw the look in his eyes and understood how important this was to him, so she urged Charles to make the return, even if she stayed home.
He came back again and again. Charles said he’d start getting the urge in the early spring. Wanda would hear him downstairs, rummaging through his camping gear, checking his sleeping bag and tent and cook stove. Just thinking about Arches kept him going. Finally Wanda would say, “Is it that time, Charles?” And he’d nod and begin to load up the trunk of the Buick.
He’d set up his camp chair in the shade of a mighty pinyon, pour himself a Scotch and sit quietly, absorbing the sight and the light and the sounds of the desert. Every year, a pair of Western Kingbirds built a nest near his camp and he watched for hours, absolutely enthralled. He loved the way the small birds fought off a couple of persistent ravens who kept trying to get at their nest. Not only did the Kingbirds manage to drive off their much larger cousins, they’d fly just above them and peck the ravens in the back of their heads as they flapped furiously to escape. He was one to root for the little guy. He loved it all.
He had one vice and he knew it. Charles was a chronic chain smoker, addicted worse than any man I have ever known. He lit one cigarette with the embers of the last and kept it up from breakfast to bedtime. He looked quite elegant with his Scotch and his smokes and his casual Southern manners, but the smoking took an awful toll. At 50, he already suffered from emphysema and even the shortest of hikes, especially at an elevation of over 5000 feet, left him breathless. And so, over the years, I would tell him of my wanderings and explorations at the park and, when possible, bring him photographs.
One place, in particular, caught his interest. An archaeological site in the Devils Garden became almost an obsession with him. Someday, he insisted, he would make the hike and see these great petroglyphs for himself.
One morning in late May, toward the end of his latest visit, Charles was feeling especially energetic and announced he was ready to visit the rock art site. I was skeptical but he insisted, so we loaded our packs and hit the trail. It was an ordeal for him—the two mile walk took us all day but the absolute triumph and unbridled joy on his face when we reached our destination made it all worthwhile. For both of us.
But the hike took its toll, he felt awful that night and when he broke camp and prepared to head back home to Elkin, I worried that I’d never see him again. I never did.
The next winter Charles’ health began to decline. He suffered from congestive heart failure and found just breathing a chore. And yet, even then, with my old friend in a hospital bed, with an oxygen cannula trying to fill his lungs, Charles still managed to slip a pack of Marlboros into his room. Lighting a cigarette in an ICU unit with an oxygen tube running into his nose. It was amazing he didn’t blow himself up.
Charles died a few months later. It was his wish that his ashes be returned to Arches, to the site of the petroglyphs he worked so hard to see with his own eyes. His friend Ed McLaughlin came West the next summer and together we made the hike and scattered Charles along the remarkable wall of thousand year old carved images.
Nowadays, I think of that long hike and his happiness and relief when we reached our goal, I think of his ashes still blowing and scattering, out there somewhere in the sand and the sage. But mostly, I think of the image of Charles, blissed out in his camp chair, drink in hand, smoke dangling from the corner of his mouth, smiling contentedly and saying, “What a lovely evening, Ranger Stiles…Can I offer you a drink?”
Jim Stiles is Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
To read the PDF version of this article, click here.