TUWEEP INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
In Pogo, he patrolled 200,000 acres entrusted to him, looking out for people and animals in trouble. Or he flew to St. George, Utah for visitors or groceries or mail. On fine days he liked to fly inside the Grand Canyon, well below the rim, where the choice of emergency landing sites is poor indeed. When Meribeth Riffey was first led up to Pogo she was surprised, and not reassured, to find that the exterior of the plane was fabric. She had thought all airplanes were made of metal. But she became a regular passenger, even on flights within the canyon.
In August 1979, a friend and I stopped at the ranger station on our way out from Toroweap Point. Riffey gave us big glasses of iced tea. His wife, he said, was leading a natural history trip through the canyon for a local rafting company.
In the office the radio rasped, and from time to time we could hear the South Rim talking to the North. From the living-room windows we could look down into the vast Tuweep Valley with the airstrip. He wasn't the only pilot to use the strip, Riffey said. Some raft passengers arranged to be lifted out of the canyon by helicopter and would summon a plane to Tuweep to take them to Las Vegas and a hot shower.
Toroweap had been very hot, we told him. From shortly after sunrise the sun had felt as if it could broil steaks.
"Come in October," Riffey said. "That's the best month of all. Cool days, cold nights, geese going south.... You can always get out. The heavy snow is up on the Kaibab Plateau. We're 3,300 feet lower. We're rarely snowed in here." He smiled. "Anyway, I'd plow you out."
I asked Riffey how he had beaten the system and spent all those years in one place. "When they wanted to transfer me," he said, "I just asked them, 'Why move a man who's happy where he is?' "
Probably the passing of time itself made him more secure. He became a legend, the subject of newspaper articles and interviews conducted through radiotelephone patches. Cut off by the Grand Canyon, a mere voice from the outback, he was someone every worker on the swarming South Rim had heard about, but few had seen.
Riffey was still working when he died in July 1980, within a month of his 69th birthday. He was trucking water from Nixon Spring when his vision blurred and his driving became erratic. A friend happened to be with him, and Riffey asked him to drive. Within hours they started for the hospital at St. George, but Riffey died on the way of a heart attack.
In Goodbye to a River, John Graves warns that someone who has deep feeling for your land can "own it right out from under you if you don't watch out...own it in a real way, with eye and brain and heart." In that way Toroweap belonged less to the National Park Service or the Department of the Interior than it did to John Riffey.