While sheer numbers of tourists can overwhelm the most patient of park rangers, even I would acknowledge that among those masses could be found some of the best people on the planet.
I haven’t worn a badge and a smoky hat for more than three decades; yet I still cherish the memory and friendship and love of many of those much maligned tourists that I met at Arches National Park, so many years ago. They came from all corners of the country and the planet, they came in all ages and shapes and sizes. I would never have met any of them, had I not been working at the Devils Garden campground. Among the best of them were Doc and George Bell.
I was counting empty campsites late one hot August afternoon, when I saw two men slowly making their way up the hill toward their campsite. The man in the lead was tall and straight, perhaps in his 60s, and I took notice of him because he was the first man I’d seen sporting what appeared to be a flattop haircut in years. This was 1983.
Hanging onto him was an older man, who appeared to be exhausted. He had his outstretched left hand on his friend’s right shoulder. From the looks of it, he was about to fall over. I pulled over to see if they needed help.
“Are you guys okay?” I asked.
“Well…if you call this ‘okay,’ I guess we are,” the older man said. “But I swear, George just about killed me today. I’m plumb tuckered out. I kept saying, ‘George, you’re gonna kill me,’ but we just kept going.”
George snorted, “Oh Doc, you’re just being over dramatic again. It was your idea in the first place to go way down there. And we still had some water left. We did okay.”
Cradled in the crook of Doc’s left arm was what appeared to be a large mayonnaise jar. “What’s that? I asked.
“Well ranger, it’s our water.”
“You’re carrying your water in a mayonnaise jar?”
Doc looked offended. “Sure…we don’t need those fancy old water bottles. We’re just a couple of old Missouri Mules…and geezers at that! This works just fine.”
I shut off the motor to the park service jeep and climbed out to say hello. I knew I needed to know these guys. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. They were Doc and George Bell of New Bloomfield, Missouri. Born and raised and now retired. Doc had taught high school in Rocheport. George worked for the Missouri Highway department. They were brothers and had come out to Arches to do some exploring.
I assumed they were new to the world of outdoor backcountry recreation; they certainly didn’t have the equipment for it. I realized that Doc had been carrying his mayonnaise jar of water inside an old paper sack with handles. Doc sported a baggy pair of trousers, an old T-shirt, and a pair of old tennis sneakers. George’s outdoor fashion style was a bit more contemporary. His well-worn leather work boots would hold up better in our rugged desert country.
They had come up from the bottom of the campground and so I assumed they had just hiked the trail to Broken Arch, about a mile away. But when I suggested that such a pittance of a distance had been their day’s destination, the brothers bristled…
“Oh my, Ranger…do we look like them thar tenderfeet? ” Doc asked. “We saw that ol’ Broke arch early this morning. Fact is, we been a traipsin’ all over that ol’ pipeline trail. It sure is a sandy ol’ route. But it’s a dandy of a sandy route! We went down to that there Lost Spring Canyon…really purty down there. Just the finest kind of a canyon…and then up and over through them bushes to that ol’ line shack…you ever been over there, Ranger?”
I nodded. I was, you know…sort of flabbergasted. “Wait a minute,” I exclaimed. “Are you telling me that you guys walked all the way down the old pipeline, all the way to Lost Spring, then down canyon through that miserable, bug-infested thicket of tamarisk, then back up the other side to the shack…and then you came all the way back here? And you did all that with a mayonnaise jar of water in a paper bag?” I was incredulous.
“Well,” Doc complained. “I told George we should take an extra jar but he wouldn’t listen.” George shook his head.
“We did fine, Doc…and we had those crackers too.”
“Doc…George,” I said. it’s 103 degrees out there!” Doc agreed it was pretty warm.
The brothers were camped at the top of the hill, in site #27, and I told them I looked forward to seeing them again later when I collected fees. They said they’d be delighted. That evening, I found both Bells in the front seat of their 1971 red datsun pickup truck. George was behind the wheel, reading a book about the arches that he’d bought earlier at the visitor center. Doc was sound asleep, and sort of leaned over against George’s shoulder. I nodded to George and he smiled. “Guess I can’t move for a while. Doc’s pretty tired.”
But the next day, they were back at it. They asked me about other backcountry arches that were so far away from the campground, I couldn’t imagine either of the Bell Brothers were really up to the task. I reminded them of their long hot hike to Lost Spring.
“We sure haven’t forgotten that hike!” Doc exclaimed. “But I reckon we better go at it. Time’s a wastin’.”
They were determined and off they went. Late that afternoon, here they came again, moving slowly but steadily back to camp. On this day, they’d explored the Devils Garden trail to Dark Angel, then worked their way cross country to a remote arch called, appropriately, “Far Out” arch. Doc did his mantra…
“Well, Jim, I think George really done it this time. He just about did me in. I keep tellin’ George, I ain’t no youngster like him. Why he’s just a boy by my standards. Why do you reckon George can keep goin’ like that?”
I later learned that Doc was 79 and George, a mere pup at just 67.
Over the next week, I saw Doc and George every evening, after yet another 14 hour marathon hike. Doc always swore George was “trying to kill him,” and every successive morning, they were both on the trail again by sunrise. The Brothers explored every corner of the park and visited remote sections even I had never visited. Yet, by all appearances they were amateur outdoorsmen. Their “camping gear” consisted of that mayonnaise jar and the paper sack. Doc and George disdained any kind of backpack. They slept in the back of their little Datsun truck, under a couple of old quilts. No sleeping bags. I worried about them.
Yet they both seemed to flourish under the harshest of conditions, despite Doc’s complaints to the contrary. And every evening my chats with both of them were as entertaining and enjoyable as any conversation I’d ever had at the campground. During the week, their circle of new friends grew as more of the park staff came to know them. Doc and George attended all the campfire talks at night and befriended all the park naturalists. I introduced them to the chief ranger and to other Park Service rangers. Everyone fell in love with Doc and George.
When they prepared to head back to Missouri, we exchanged addresses and I promised we’d stay in touch. I didn’t realize it but we were about to become dedicated penpals. Not long after their arrival at home, I received the first of many single-spaced, typed letters, some by George and most of them by Doc. During our long face-to-face chats at Arches, I realized it was usually Doc asking us about our lives at Arches and in Utah. It was embarrassing for me to realize how little we had learned about them. But in that first letter, many of my preconceptions about Doc and George, and especially their prowess as canyon country explorers, were completely wrong. These guys knew the backcountry like their own backyard. They may not have toted the proper gear, but they knew what they were doing.
In that first letter, George told me of their future hiking plans. They had already decided that Lost Spring Canyon would need more visits, though the pipeline hike did worry him a bit (“We may ‘CHICKEN’ OUT!”). Then he added a few more destinations (and note, as you read these letters, I have transcribed them verbatim, as George and Doc wrote them, including their own unique punctuation style).
“We will need to return to the Dewey Bridge Area. Those Nice Arches on the Rim of Yellow Jacket Canyon have us dislocated. They look different from the Rim than from the Canyon below and we want to be sure the ones we see from on top are in the same place when we see them from below. Usually takes us 3 to 4 trips to an area to get familiar with it. We also like the Salmon colored Entrada there.”
And there was still more to see…
“Doc & I Believe we could find our way back to the Cliff or at least would enjoy prowling more in that area, maybe try to get into the canyon below to see if we could see up through the Arch, we’re not afraid of getting lost be we Usually “Chicken” on some of the steeper slick rocks…we’re Just Old Missouri Mules which are supposed to be sure footed we are still “low Landers” and sometimes have to fall back to our “Better Judgment” and admit we are not “Goats”…also want to get into the Mystery Arch from either below from for the Pipe Line Trail or from above. Fran Barnes says he got inside it by getting off the Rim near the East end of the Canyon and Walking along that Sloping stuff near the Rim till he got inside…
“We may decide to go back to the Canyonlands, theres sure some nice hiking trails, even tho fewer Arches, but we got “Fed Up” With those Hiking permits. Doc & I Like to be on the Trail Early if we are going 15 to 18 miles and don’t like to wait until 9 a.m. For the Station to open and issue Permits, the morning is half gone fore we can get on the trail.”
And then George explained the true extent of their past wanderings…
“Since 1974 When I took Doc out there on his first trip we have visited or seen from a distance around 190 arches and are in hopes to total of 1,000 miles of hiking in ten years… we added 150 miles last year and 250 mi. the yr. before when we made 100 mi. in the Bridger Wilderness fore getting to Moab.
“One year we only made 50 mi. for we did too much driving, Visiting the Tetons, Yellowstone, which Doc had not seen for 40 yrs. He had spent 10 summers working at Old Faithful, there was so many changes that we didn’t like it at all. Then on to the Saw Teeth in Idaho and back across Northern Utah, Provo, Mirror Lake etc before getting to Moab, so not much hiking mileage.
“Old Red the 71 Datsun sedan With oversize Snow grip tires and light weight took us over some sandy places that I wouldn’t want to try again, we thought the sand was caused by lots of travel but someone told us it was the wind that filled the ruts with sand. We made it to the 50 Mile Point on the Hole in the Wall Trail South of Escalante. Doc really enjoyed those High Cliff Ledge Trails in Zion which take you from the Valley Floor up out of the Canyon. The Angel’s Landing is just getting started on the West Rim. The East was too much for me, up about 1000 ft, a narrow ledge trail, where U could look over and straight down to the Valley below, there was a Bend in the Trail I couldn’t see around and I had Large ideas of what was around it. I Had to Use My Better Judgement while Doc went on to the Top. We’ve hiked part of the trails in Bryce, Most of the Trails in Capitol Reef Including the Muley Canyon, the South End with its several nice Arches. Too much Indian Territory in Arizona but We did get to the White Mesa and found the Large arch at the South End.
“When Jeep Rentals were available at the Canyon Lands Resort we rented a jeep and went down Lavendar Canyon and enjoyed, I Believe 9 Nice Arches, Also to the Angel Arch and The Arches in Horse Canyon… We may try Hiking as Far as we can in one day in Davis Canyon and maybe down Horse Canyon.
“I guess Doc will tell U about the Royal or the Ones not Named when we sent the Many Farms Arch, We’ve been to the Royal 2 times, First from the East to Red Rock Valley Passed Shiprock to Cove, It is Named on some of the Arizona Road Maps as Indian Arch, believe some One called it the Cove Arch. Tour Guides Named it the Royal claiming it to be one of the World’s Largest. We Were sure we could return to it, but on our 2nd trip across the “Chuckie” Mountains we got turned around and did a lot of running fore we found our way back, the roads are NOT for Passenger Cars and were badly washed on our 2nd trip.
“Had better close and not bore you more with our hikes and trips.”
And I thought these guys were amateurs? I felt humbled, to say the least. The Bell Brothers, despite their lack of LL Bean attire and REI gear, were the masters and we were their devoted interns. They’d been all over the Four Corners, on roads and trails I’d never even imagined. In a ’71 Datsun 2WD pickup. With a mayonnaise jar of water.
And they loved animals. They were always on the lookout for their beloved “critters,” no matter how great or small. They loved them all. Soon they’d be sending us photos of their backyard Nature Sanctuary in Missouri. They especially loved and provided for the neighborhood bird population, with a particular emphasis on owls, or “hooties” as they always called them.
We fell in love with these guys. The letters continued. I asked Doc and George about their propensity for walking such long distances and about their affection for the “hooties.” They explained that they came from a family of walkers who actually depended on the local owls for “weather reports.” Doc explained…
“One reason we always liked those old fellows is cause Our Dad liked them and for years before we had a radio he used their “Hooting” as a Weather guide. You see, he Walked the Railroad Tracks at Night or his Official Position was called “Track Walker” for the M K T RR (Missouri Kansas & Texas Railroad) .
“Around 15 miles a Night seven Nights a week, with seldom a night “Off”. When he Retired he Figured that he had Walked a Total distance that would have taken him around the World. He didn’t like to Carry a RainCoat and Umbrella if it wasn’t necessary and if he didn’t understand Ole “Hootie’s” broadcast he could be in for a wet miserable Night, so he took his “Hoots” Seriously. “
Their dad was a walker. Doc and George carried on the tradition. And their love of owls was unconditional. On one of their visits, I showed them a pen and ink drawing I had finished recently of a Great Horned Owl. It was no masterpiece, but better than some of my other efforts. But Doc and George could not stop praising it. You would have thought I was John James Audubon.
And so, as Christmas approached, I decided to box up my owl line drawing and ship it to them in New Bloomfield. Soon after it arrived, I got this letter from Doc.
“Old Hootie got here, – safe and sound; he’s a finest ole feller and he didn’t appear to be TOO concerned about being AWAY from his favorite hooting place! An’ WOW! He couldn’t be NEARLY SO surprised as these ancient characters seeing the ole boy get here! AN you can’t fool us! It’s takes an artist what AM an ARTIST, – one among the GREAT to KNOW our ole ‘hootie’ like that and to make that ole feller SO REAL. C’est MERVEILLEUX; étonnant-, c’est incroyable, – YES UNBELIEVABLE, we’ve got Ole Hootie right here now.
“George is starting already to saw up the cherry wood for a frame. Once in narrow strips, these are rabbited, then mitered, and the frame put together. Then the final sanding until the wood is glass smooth, and the patterns in the wood stand out to be waxed and polished. Then Ole Hootie will once again have his position of HONOR, framed, overlooking all.
“YES, we were and ARE astoundified! Why, something like THAT just can’t be happening to US, – our ONE and ONLY Ole Hootie will be right here with us. It’s just that we CAN’T find words, – mots, palabras! to tell HOW surprised we ARE, HOW gladdified, and HOW APPRECIATIVE! RECHT! An’ you know, we are just Ole Missouri Mules. It’s TO BE HAPPY to have as a friend, the Ranger at Arches Park, – a Ranger who is a REAL RANGER! Yes, he even knows where lives Ole Hootie.”
“A REAL Ranger?” I knew there were a few NPS managers who would have taken exception to Doc’s assessment, but his support meant a lot more to me than the critique of a GS-11 bureaucrat! As Spring approached, we looked forward to Doc and George’s return to Arches. By then they had become celebrities of a sort to the Arches rangers. Several of us corresponded with the brothers and all of us felt a kinship to the Bells that was special.
When they returned to Utah, we presented them with two sleeping bags, to replace their quilts and Doc and George presented us with a magnificent, 20 x 30 inch image of Far Out Arch…one of their favorites.
Though I worried about Doc, who still seemed exhausted after their long foot journeys, he told me he felt great. Later, in a letter, Doc explained the secret to his longevity. He explained that it wasn’t what he DID that contributed to his good health. It was what he didn’t do. He wrote:
The things I did NOT do! I NEVER smoked. Back in the early grades we were taught one cigarette smoked would equal ONE NAIL in the coffin. YES. Never drank coffee, nor ANY kind of cokes, ever. Mama said we just never seem to want any, and she didn’t start us. Just been reading an article about WHY I wouldn’t like what caffeine does to and for you.
Never been around anyone drinking beer or whiskey, – and would NOT have drunk it. YES, it would have cost money did NOT have..NEVER ate MEAT! The people I stayed with in the first school I taught, – a rural school had a large farm; had lots of hog meat. Mable died at 54, – CANCER; Ruth about 70: CANCER; Charlie about 70: CANCER. Numbers of the Bell and Coffman families died of cancer, asthma. ALL ate meat. George’s wife, Margaret, died age 64 in ’84: congestive heart failure. I showed her an article that explained this often happens. She said she HAD to have her meat THREE times a day ANYWAY.
We had thought about a barbeque for the Brothers, but after Doc’s vegetarian declarations, we realized that a burger and a beer might not be his cup of tea. In fact, it looked to me as if Doc and George lived on a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, and saltine crackers.
And we also realized that their love of Nature and their interest in protecting their “critters” gave them just as much sustenance as the food they ate. Doc loved to write about their “refuge” in great detail. Here is Doc’s unedited description…
“As you know,-but maybe you don’t!, we have a mini refuge back of the house, -fenced off down into the woods, so the BEASTS, – rabbits, an Br’ers, – squirrels, can feel more at home!! There are trails of wild grape vines put up so the Br’ers don’t have to get on the ground; the Beasts stretch out under the gas tank or and under a THICK, big cedar tree down near the pond!
“George, with a little help from this ancient one, has fenced in back of the house, – that is back into the woods, around the pond, across one end of it, and back to the house a sort of ‘refuge’ for our animal and bird characters. There are four LARGE home made feeders where is kept all time corn and sunflower seeds for the squirrels, and birds. Those ANIMAUX get in there and just STUFF: hence, they are STUFFERS! There have been made for them and from wild grape vines trails some head high above ground; and those ole fellers know WHAT they are for! It’s to be a concern now that they become such ‘FATSOS’ it’ll be hard trailin’ especially when the vines are wet and slick! The birds quite patiently wait turns at the boxes, or feeders. We have counted at one time ELEVEN ole RED RED redbirds, – and ‘peckies’ or woodpeckers of different kinds. Have even seen a few time a PILEATED woodpecker; this is the BIGGIE, – dressed in black and white and a RED head. Some of them are 18” long! There are blue jays, too; NONE of them are RED! There are waiting for them at the GO IN places of the feeders SURPRISES, – HOT wires, you know! They do TOO, now, after they have been EDUCATED! On the ground are the BEASTS! Rabbits to you! They can be seen out there almost ANY time of the day, – not too concerned at seeing us, doing AWAY with the carrots they find there.”
During the winters, we all imagined Doc and George tending to their little critter pals and enjoying their backyard refuge. George sounded like a man who wasn’t fully content if he wasn’t in the middle of a project, or planning the next one. George loved to build things. Doc sounded like the big brother who loved to read his books and look out the window watching George do all that work. I figured that eventually, George would run out of fence to build or feeders to hang and fill, an trees to trim. I wondered if he’d finally have to sit down a while.
But then another batch of photos came and we discovered George’s latest talent—he created dinosaurs. Out of plywood and chicken wire and a lot if imagination, George amazed even his big brother with the family of colorful “DINOS” George gave life to. I realized we never needed to worry about George running out of projects.
The next year, we were all shocked by the sudden death of a Park Service colleague and someone Doc and George had come to know and grow fond of over the last few years. Doc, as always, was philosophical and supportive. In one letter, just a few months later, I got a long letter from Doc. It was written in his usual, sort of rambling, slightly incoherent way, and at first I wasn’t really sure I understood his message. Doc advised me to go wax my car…
“Some sugs (suggestions)from an ole geezer who probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Let’s see: get a can of good car wax. Get out there and clean and polish that there Volvo character till he’s so PROUD of himself he can hardly set there! YEAH! SHINE UP ALL that chrome. Got at it like you REALLY mean business! Bet the ole ‘V’, – WILL LIKE it! WHEE! That’ll make the truck envious, or is it jealous, – anyway it’s wanting to look GOOD like the Volvo. Let’s REALLY get him shining so he’ll WANT to go down to your mansion (cabin)! RIGHT! Now, Jim, go at it like you’re chasing rats. If you don’t go at it hard and fast enough to get hungry, – YES HUNGRY; then, it’s TIME to SPEED UP; and FAST at it UNTIL you get TIRED. That’ll call for a GOOD sleep, – which won’t hurt a lot.
“Now, the next morning, even IF you have just swept all the rooms, dusted, – and WAXED FURNITURE and POLISHED, and cleaned the glass of pictures, GO right at it again as if it HAS TO BE DID. There’s a good probable that BEFORE this time you’ll be feeling SO GOOD you’ll be seeing SO MANY things to be DID, – …and DOING THEM.
“Now, let’s see, isn’t there any wood to be brought IN, – Does the mansion need varnishing outside, – or WHAT do you DO for it? Well, maybe it’s dusty inside. That’s RIGHT! GET AT it! I KNOW IT CAIN’T BE DID, – but if I recalls Ole Jim he’s the character that does things that CAIN’T be did: YES, PULLED me UP the face of that rock! He SHORE DID… ”
I thought to myself…what in the world is Doc talking about? At first I was bewildered. But in my dark, deeply rooted funk, a sliver of light punched through the fog and I began to grasp a glimmer at least of his meaning. Doc was just telling me I needed to get up and go do something. Anything. If all I accomplished in a day was to put a coat of wax on my old Volvo, it still beat sitting there wallowing in grief and self-pity. But rather than lecture me in abstract terms and flood me with psycho-babble like a therapist might, Doc put it in terms even a fool like me could understand. Yes. Go wax the car. Chop wood, vacuum the rug. Do something. Make yourself so tired you’ll want to sleep. Work so hard you’ll even get hungry. Do something that will make you feel as if you’ve accomplished something, even if the accomplishment is small. Get on with your life.
Doc and George stayed in regular contact, though from what I can remember, they didn’t believe in telephones. So all our correspondence was by US Mail. Now I’m grateful for that. Doc shared a bit of his own history with me one day. Perhaps feeling my loss and remembering his own, he told me a story from his own long ago past. George had one mentioned that Doc worked at Yellowstone, way back in the 1930s. Now Doc told me the rest of the story…
This was a long time ago, Jim, I believe some 55 years. You see I worked at Yellowstone Park at Old Faithful, WY, from ’30 to ’39 inclusive, scrubbing cabins, yardman, head yardman; with two brothers, Brad and Major, – both dead now, sawing and splitting wood, with a gasoline engine, saw and power splitter!
The first year there, it was scrubbing cabins. With each scrubber there was the girl who swept the cabin, made the bed. With one of the other boys, called Jobe, there was a girl from ID called Dot, for Dorothy, – from Eden, ID.
We might have got together. The next summer she didn’t come back; believe went to school; then taught school a year. The next summer she went to summer school in WA somewhere. She was athletic, liked swimming. From swimming in one of the pools she got Mastoiditis, – and died suddenly. So THAT was that: IRREVERSIBLE: NOTHING anyone could do about it
It’s why Doc never married. Dot had been the love of his life, or so he’d hoped. But there was “nothing anyone could do about it.” And so he went on. Doc spent his life teaching kids to speak French at a public high school in Sedalia, Missouri. He was beloved by his students, year after year. Many of them called him “Doc.”
I got a letter from Doc in late 1987, then nothing. In early May 1988, a letter came to my mailbox in Moab. It was from George. On the envelope, in shaky handwriting, George had written, “SHOCK.” Inside was a “remembrance” card. Doc had died on April 24, 1988. On the back of the card, George wrote:
To our friend Jim,
Late fall- ’87, a tumor caused swelling, left side of Doc’s neck. By early spring, hard to eat, swallow or talk. Then liquids only.He enjoyed some trips–even some trails. Took care of himself until an artery broke in his neck and it was out of “our hands.”Conscious until the end.
Your friend,George B Bell
I thought Doc would live forever. I immediately wrote back to George, but I never heard from him. I wrote again, but still no word. I never heard from George Bell again. It was the 1980s, there was no way to contact him by phone, the internet didn’t exist. I didn’t even have a name for the next of kin. The months and years passed and I moved on, but from time to time, I would wonder how George fared without his big brother. They seemed inseparable.
Only recently, via an online genealogical search, I discovered that George lived until 2002. He is buried in the New Bloomfield, Missouri cemetery, not far from their beloved home and animal refuge. When Doc passed in 1988, he was laid to rest at a small cemetery in Rocheport, 40 miles north, not far from the high school where he taught French to generations of students. Wherever they are now, I’m sure they’re together, out exploring the territory ahead, carrying their water in a celestial mayonnaise jar.
Jim Stiles is Founding Publisher and Senior Editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
To comment, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Zephyr Policy: REAL NAMES ONLY on Comments!
Don’t forget the Zephyr ads! All links are hot!