"Go west, young man."
– John L.B. Soule from an editorial in the Terre Haute Express, 1851
It was 1980, Ronald Reagan had just been elected president of the United States and I was looking for a new home, as far away from Washington, D.C. as I could get.
I had ridden my bicycle from San Diego to my hometown of Annapolis, Maryland in 1978, and stopped at the Grand Canyon for two weeks of intense discovery. It was like nothing I had ever seen, another world of red rocks and fiery canyons. I hiked the Bright Angel Trail down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the earth and spent five glorious days exploring along the Colorado River and through wondrous side canyons. When I returned to the rim, I told myself, "This is where I belong."
During my stay at Grand Canyon, I asked many locals where a guy like me could find a job. The answer was always the same. "You either work for the Park Service, the Forest Service, or the hotel industry."
The Park Service wore bus driver uniforms with big goofy green hats. I’d served in the Navy and the idea of donning another uniform was not appealing. The hospitality industry was equally unattractive because you had to interact with the public and be nice all the time. That left the Forest Service.
I had never heard of the Forest Service. But when I found out they were not required to wear a uniform and you could have a beard and long hair, I was intrigued.
I continued my bicycle odyssey and returned home in the fall. All through the winter, I learned everything I could about the Forest Service and put in an application for seasonal work on the Kaibab National Forest which borders the north and south rim of the Grand Canyon and is headquartered out of the sleepy little railroad town of Williams, Arizona, the "Gateway to the Grand Canyon".
I checked all the job description boxes: firefighter, surveyor, timber marker, recreation specialist, and wildlife management. I was ready to do anything as long as it was outside.
I had attended the Naval Academy for a year and served briefly in the Navy, and in those days the federal government awarded additional points to applicants who had served in the military during the Vietnam War. And most jobs didn’t seem to involve much education or hands-on experience. So I figured I had a better than even shot of getting hired.
In March of 1981, I received a call from a nice fellow named Dave Healy, asking me if I wanted to work on the Kaibab, starting in May, as an engineering surveyor. Without the slightest idea what the hell that meant, I said yes.
At the end of April, I loaded my possessions into my little blue Chevy LUV truck and headed west.
My first season was spent learning how to survey under the steady hand of Dave Healy. Dave was the pre-construction survey boss out of the Supervisor’s Office, and he led a motley five-man crew of outcasts that summer and fall, as we laid out the road systems for small, marginal timber sales around Bill Williams Mountain. Most of the land was scrubby pinyon-juniper sprinkled with pockets of ponderosa pine and small outfitters purchased the wood for their pulp wood business. There were no big trees to speak of, other than the occasional yellow pine or spruce. It was mostly grazing land dotted with ranches and weird little moonscape mines.
Bob patiently taught me how to operate a theodolite and take survey notes in small, yellow waterproof surveyors books and by season’s end, I was running the crew when Bob was sick or needed elsewhere.
Dave was the best boss I ever had. He had been a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol in Vietnam. These were the craziest of the crazy. Even the Special Forces and Green Berets gave them a wide berth. Dave’s job was to parachute into North Vietnam, trying to save pilots who had been shot down. He had seen some serious action, like the time he was dropped about six klicks from Hanoi, discovered a dead pilot, and then worked his way home wrecking mayhem along the way. But after his tour, Dave returned to Williams the same quiet, even-tempered young man who had traveled across the globe to serve his country in the jungles of Southeast Asia. In the ten years I worked for Dave, he was always fair, never lost his temper, rarely talked about ‘Nam, and he taught me the secret to keeping your workers happy. It was a very valuable lesson indeed, and one that I have used my whole life.
At the beginning of each week, Dave would explain exactly how many miles of surveying we needed to get done by Friday. He knew what his bosses expected and as long as we kept them happy, life was good. If we finished our allotted tasks before Friday – as we did almost every week – then we could go exploring on the forest in our government truck.
During these secret drives into the remotest parts of the Kaibab, I began feeling that I was on to something special. That first summer, we covered virtually every corner of the South Kaibab, and the more I saw, the more interested I became.
National forests are huge, hundreds of thousands of acres of federally owned and managed forest and grazing land, covered with miles and miles of dirt roads. The Kaibab was so big it had four distinct ranger districts: Williams, Chalender, Tusayan, and the North Kaibab. I spent that first season learning my trade and getting comfortable working on the Williams and Chalender Districts, never venturing far from Williams.
I shared a rundown house with some friends who also worked on the Kaibab seasonally. It had the feel of being back in college. We spent a lot of time at the Famous Sultana bar on Main Street and became friendly with the local cowboys and Mexicans. I had never spent any time around either culture, so it was a whole new ball game for me.
Williams also had a fairly large population of African-Americans. But these folks were not relegated to the back of the bus. They had come west right after the Civil War, as had most of the whites, so there was no racial stigma attached to being black. If a white girl came home from school with a black guy, the family welcomed him. After living in Maryland, a region considered fairly enlightened and racially tolerant, this was an eye-opening experience. Because East Coast liberals talked a good game regarding our black brothers and sisters, but when it came to dating, well now, that was another matter altogether. But in Williams, things were different. I never heard anyone call a black a nigger, and everyone got along like one big happy family.
After a few months, I learned another valuable lesson. In this world, every place has its niggers. Out West, they aren’t black, but red. And Westerners are as bigoted and mean-spirited about Indians as any Southerner about Negroes.
Williams sits about forty miles west of Flagstaff, Arizona, along old Route 66, that swinging east-west ribbon of road that played such an important role in our nation’s westward expansion. The town was named after a fur trapper who was one of the west’s legendary mountain men.
Bill Williams was born in 1787 in North Carolina. His family moved to Missouri a few years later and Bill spent his boyhood years growing up with the Osage Indians. He started trapping as a young man but his compass kept leading him west. During the War of 1812, he was a scout for the Mounted Rangers along the Mississippi River. At the end of the war he began to make a name for himself as a celebrated trapper in the days when Arizona was still known as the State of Senora. He traded pelts for barrels of whiskey and was known far and wide as a man who liked to drink and party. He eventually took up residence in Taos, New Mexico, married a Mexican woman, and fathered several children. Toward the end of his life, he helped guide the ill-fated Fremont Expedition of 1848. He was ambushed a year later in the Rocky Mountains and killed. His body was never found.
In the words of his biographer William Sherley: "Old Bill is remembered as a kind, honest, and brave man; charitable toward the less fortunate, expert in the fur-trading business. A river, and a mountain and its town have been named for him. Little is known of Old Bill and his exploits, but he served America honorably in the adventurous days of yore."
In the year I was born, in 1953, some men from Williams, Arizona started the Bill Williams Mountain Men to celebrate their frontier heritage. To this day, they dress in buckskin outfits with coonskin caps, shoot black powder rifles, and are a part of many annual parades throughout the southwest.
My Forest Service friends and I took to this Wild West fantasy life like pros. Drinking moonshine out of jugs while shooting shit in the woods, smoking herb, and acting like dangerous desperados was like a dream come true.
When we wanted to be hip, we just headed over to Flagstaff where Northern Arizona University offered culture, hot women, camping gear, good pizza, and kick-ass bars.
I spent many a weekend at the High Country Tavern and Monsoons, listening to the area’s hottest bands. Major Lingo, the Wazoo Peach Pitters, and The Shake provided the hippie counter balance we needed to stay in touch with the happening world outside the west. Dancing with the local talent to shitkicker rock music was a big part of the overall equation and made us feel like real men with our fingers on the pulse.
Some weekends, we’d head south to the Verde Valley and get crazy, camping out and running the river in canoes. Or we would mosey on over to the Beaver Creek Wilderness Area for a little peyote hiking up the Wet Beaver. Another favorite haunt was the now famous Oak Creek Canyon, where we would take over Sliderock, like gods on vacation. There were no rules. There were no cops. The only town of any size, Sedona, had yet to be discovered by the jet-set assholes and turned into the harmonic convergence capital of spiritual America. We had the whole place to ourselves and we were pretty much out of control.
After a summer of wanton abandon, I felt like I still hadn’t really scraped the surface. I was 28 years old. I was living the life of a pseudo-Mountain Man and rugged individualist. I didn’t have a care in the world. But I felt like I was missing the real show.
I remember going on a fall survey project to the Tusayan Ranger District near the end of that first field season. We had been detailed to survey a road that needed to be upgraded to handle the truck traffic for the new uranium mines popping up like noxious weeds near the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We decided to camp out rather than do the monotonous 120-mile drive back and forth from Williams each day.
We had finished our survey work for the week when Dave told us that he was going to take us to a very special place known as Red Butte. Red Butte is about ten miles from the south rim of the Grand Canyon as the raven flies. It is a red rock mountain comprised of several different sandstones and capped with shiny, black volcanic basalt. It looks like an eerie, tree-covered red breast with a black nipple on top that was dropped from outer space. There are no other hills around, so it commands the landscape like a lone sentinel. The local Havasupai Indians call it Wii’i Gdwiisa, or Clenched Fist Mountain. It is a territorial boundary for the Hopi nation. The Navajos also consider it sacred. Red Butte is a place of ancient Ju-Ju.
We took a bumpy, washboard road leading toward the western base of Red Butte and stopped at the edge of a shallow rim rock canyon. We were not impressed. The air smelled of juniper and dry, musty heat.
Dave pointed to the ground and our eyes bugged out. Colorful pieces of Indian pottery were scattered across the ground like confetti: Kayenta black-on-white, Deadmans Grey, Tusayan corrugated. It was like the place where every ceramic pot went to die.
Dave led us to the edge of the canyon and pointed to the south-facing side of the arroyo. "See that ruin?"
We stared in rapt amazement at a small prehistoric rock structure nestled in the canyon wall. It looked like something from out of the Bible. Soon we were scrambling down into the canyon like excited little kids. Thirty minutes later, after climbing through tortuous rocky terrain that had looked inviting from above, but was hellish to navigate, we came to a small ruin constructed in a cave-like overhang in the porous Kaibab limestone.
"Who lived here?" we all asked in unison.
Dave bent over and picked up a Desert Side-Notched arrowhead made of green obsidian and said. "The Anasazi."
"The Ancient Ones."
"You mean the Navajos?"
Dave laughed. "Before them."
"Before them too. Some Anasazi family built this house shortly after the time of Christ. But others who came later built large pueblos up there on the rim. Pothunters have trashed all of those structures, looking for pots and artifacts. All that’s left are the pottery shards you saw scattered on the ground. But, hell, there were once more Indians living just around Red Butte than live today around the whole Tusayan Ranger District and the Grand Canyon National Park and village."
We were speechless.
I felt like an internal light had suddenly gone on. THIS was what had been missing. The essence. The real deal. The questions without answers. The past that was prologue.
I was totally hooked. I instantly knew that I had to figure out a way to go much, much deeper into the west. I had to escape into the unknown.