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RANGER JOHN RIFFEY STAYED FAITHFUL TO THE LAND HE LOVED FOR 38 YEARS
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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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.

Riffey's assignment put him in the remotest corner of the Grand Canyon National Park—a place on the North Rim called Toroweap Point, far down the Colorado River from the big tourist stops, at the end of 63 miles of dirt road. It didn't even become a part of the national park until 1975. Before that, Toroweap and the 200,000 acres around it comprised the Grand Canyon National Monument.

Perhaps the best travel advice in the country is this: When you get to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, don't Stop. Drive the additional 214 miles to the North Rim. It's 1,000 feet higher, gets more rain and is covered mostly by cool pine forest. It has only about a sixth as many visitors as the South Rim. Primitive roads lead out from the pavement to little-visited promontories like Point Sublime. And far to the west, after many miles of paved road and the 63 of dirt, you come to Toroweap Point. The canyon there is box-shaped, not funnel-shaped as it is upstream. The river is not hidden in an inner gorge. You can see several miles of it 3,000 feet below.

On my first trip to Toroweap, in 1970, I went alone and found no one there. That suited me fine. Around sundown a man drove up in an old truck and began to empty the trash cans. We talked a while. He seemed to be in his late 40s, a bit weatherbeaten by an outdoor life. Actually, he was 59. But he wasn't the garbageman. He was John Riffey, the ranger in charge of the place. Having no subordinates, he did all the work himself—maintained the roads, collected the trash, wrote reports, fought fires, made vegetation surveys, helped visitors and repaired machinery. At that time, he had already been doing it for 28 years.

Some people don't think Toroweap is worth even 28 minutes. They sign the visitors' book in its rainproof box, spit into the canyon, then leave. It is a rocky, silent world. Campers must bring their own water and food. The high pine forest plays out well to the east, and the Toroweap country is desert—sagebrush, piñon pine, yucca, cactus. But mostly it is rock, in all the colors and shapes the Grand Canyon offers. Some 250,000 years ago volcanic eruptions poured lava into the canyon, damming the river and creating a lake that reached many miles upstream. But the dam wore away, and its remains, now under water, form Lava Falls Rapids, the roughest on the river. With binoculars you can sit high on the rim at Toroweap and watch rafts pitch through the 20-foot waves, occasionally spilling their passengers.

The ranger station is at Tuweep, six miles back from the canyon rim. It is merely the ranger's house plus an assortment of outbuildings. When John Riffey and his wife Laura moved there in 1942, they lit their rooms and cooked with gas and heated with wood. They didn't have a refrigerator and their water was rain and snowmelt stored in cisterns. There was no phone then, and there's none now. The road was either rocks or ruts; it took five hours to drive the 75 miles to the nearest town, Fredonia.

Isolation such as this is said to have driven many pioneer women to depression and an early grave; but Mrs. Riffey loved it. She and John had met in college at Fort Collins, Colo. After they were engaged, she became ill with polio. Her doctors told her she would not walk again. She offered to release John from their engagement, but he said no, they would marry when she recovered. So she stuck with her therapy until she could walk normally.

Their nearest neighbors and best friends at Tuweep were Al and Mary Craig, ranchers who lived 23 miles up the road. You don't see such neighbors often. Mrs. Riffey had lots of time alone. Though she was not an ornithologist, she kept such precise records of the birds at Tuweep that they are now part of the park's permanent records.

Riffey entered the Army in 1943, and after the war he and Laura returned to Tuweep. In the '40s and '50s, visitors to the park were few. Even today the average is around eight per day, 3,000 per year, as compared with nearly three million who go to the South Rim. There are many days, especially from November to May, when no one comes at all.

The Riffeys' long stay at Tuweep was a phenomenon in a rigid bureaucracy like the Park Service. But John did his multiple jobs so well that his superiors gave him raises, letters of commendation and a meritorious-service award. He refused promotions that would have required him to move. Once in the '50s he was told he must choose between being fired or leaving Toroweap. He said, in effect, "All right, fire me." The ultimatum was withdrawn.

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