SI Vault
Richard Phelan
July 29, 1985
The National Park Service moves its men around the country as briskly as some corporations do. In a 40-year career, a ranger may serve in eight or 10 national parks and monuments. But one ranger, the remarkable John Riffey, became a legend in the Park Service and among many naturalists and outdoorsmen by spending 38 years in one location.
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July 29, 1985

Ranger John Riffey Stayed Faithful To The Land He Loved For 38 Years

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Riffey was not a Machiavellian schemer, and he had no political clout. He was an unremittingly nice guy. Gently, like the root of a wild plant cracking a rock, he made the Park Service yield the way of life that suited him perfectly. When his wife died in 1962, Riffey stayed at Tuweep alone. He was glad to see a visitor, but was also comfortable alone. "You like people if you are not overrun with them," he once said.

He never had any help except on special projects like fence building. So much of what he did was necessarily grubby or dull—keeping the road passable, repairing something, picking up litter. But he was doing it at Toroweap; he liked it all. "My only contribution to society is trying to keep this place just like it is," he told a reporter in 1972.

The Grand Canyon makes a statement hard to ignore: that the earth is very old, and the human race very young, that an individual life is just a blip on the radar screen of time. Some people are made jumpy by this reminder of their unimportance, and they have to get away fast. Others are calmed by it. They are the true lovers of Toroweap, the people who keep coming back to be retranquilized.

But you never know who will appear there. Once I saw a French family drive up, spread a thick white tablecloth on a rock and have a pique-nique. On another day two young men arrived in a van, equipped to do nothing in every conceivable position. They had folding chairs, a hammock, air mattresses, tarps. They got up to do necessary things like gather wood or get another can of beer. After dark they fired a few feeble skyrockets out over the canyon. In 48 hours or so their ice was gone and they left.

Toroweap gets a certain number of those tourists for whom the going matters a lot more than the place gone to, people for whom a McDonald's hamburger, a roadside snake show and the Grand Canyon all amount to approximately the same thing—a brief relief from the spinning boredom of their lives. They are the ones who, after covering 59 miles of the dirt road, stop at the ranger station to ask if it's worth driving the final six miles to the canyon rim.

John Riffey had been a widower for two years when, in 1964, Meribeth Mitchell knocked on his door to ask for a permit to collect plants. She was 40, doing postdoctoral research in steroid biochemistry at the University of Utah. She was so delighted with the array of spring flowers that she returned to see what bloomed in the fall. She met Riffey again. They corresponded about botany. (Riffey had degrees in forestry and range management.) Soon they were corresponding about themselves. They were married in 1965.

Meribeth Riffey taught biology at Western Washington University in Bellingham. She never quit that job, and she has it still. But she spent every summer and many springs at Tuweep. Once, stringing together a sick leave, a sabbatical and summer vacations, she was able to spend almost three straight years there. John Riffey took his vacations in winter and drove to Bellingham. Friends—many of them Meribeth's students—would go to Tuweep during the summer holidays to work on research projects in ornithology.

Wild animals—deer, antelope, bobcat, coyote, bighorn sheep, even a few mountain lions—abound in the Toroweap country. The Riffeys put their table scraps out for whatever animals would come and get them. Among these was a young bobcat that needed help. They offered him condensed milk and hamburger patties, named him Bobby and watched him grow from a scrawny youngster smaller than a house cat to a big specimen capable of managing on his own. Long after he quit coming to the feeding ground, John Riffey saw him in the wild, looking fit.

Once someone reported a "very tired pelican" walking down the road. The Riffeys were skeptical but drove out to meet it. It was indeed a pelican, and, like many desert travelers, badly in need of water. Mrs. Riffey watered it generously with a basting syringe stuck down its throat, and this seemed to be just what it needed. Then they drove the bird 14 miles to Nixon Spring, to a pond filled with frogs and fish, and the pelican recovered its health and moved on. The Riffeys surmised that it had been forced down in the desert while trying to fly from Lake Powell to Lake Mead.

Riffey learned to fly and bought a Piper Cub that had crashed and had been extensively repaired. He named it Pogo. Its hangar was just a board fence enclosing a T-shaped area in which sagebrush grew. But this protected Pogo from high winds. A neatly painted sign said:

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