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EnHancing the Canyon

We’re going to let a guest writer author this edition of The Journal Of Prevarication. I wish I knew his name, because he wrote a delightful yarn.

I hate it when the talking heads on Channel 12 or CNN hold the news hostage: “At 6:22, we’re going to tell you about the asteroid that is due to destroy the earth at 6:21. But first…”

But first, I need to explain where this yarn comes from. I am sorting and organizing a chaotic collection of paper that goes back fifty-three years, to the beginning of my writing career.

It is a horrifying task. It may take me another fifty-three years. The papers go back to the days when newsmen stuck a cigarette in one ear to deaden the hammering sound of typewriters and teletypes, while we used the other ear to gather information on the phone. It helped if you smoked filtered cigarettes; otherwise, covering a hot story by telephone could fill your ear with loose tobacco.

Those were exciting days: “Stop the presses! Tear out Page One! Gimme rewrite! Hey, chief, how do you spell ‘SCOOP?’ [Bang! Bang!] Okay, we can run the story now…”

The pile of clippings and and tear sheets of stuff I wrote is smaller than a cotton bale, but bigger than a cord of firewood. And I saved only a tiny percentage of the words I wrote, for good reason.

There are file cabinets and bankers boxes of file folders containing the raw material of stories. Not all of the notes and photocopies on one subject are in the same folder. I found one folder labeled “Air Bases” that had documents on three other subjects, but nothing about air bases.

Some of Arizona’s historical societies have asked that I donate my “papers” to them. I probably won’t do that, because I have nothing but high regard for these institutions.

Yesterday, a microfilm printout of one of my favorite stories popped up, a bright spot in a day of drudgery.

In 1910, my favorite year in Arizona history, a reporter for The Arizona Republican interviewed my role model, Captain John “Cap” Hance, the famed storyteller of the Grand Canyon. The Arizona Republican was the original name of The Arizona Republic, Arizona’s largest newspaper, where I labored for thirty-two years, seven months, eight days, five hours and 17 minutes.

John Hance and two brothers came to Arizona in the late 1860s. They went from Phoenix to Camp Verde, where Cap’s brothers remained. But in 1879, Cap went to the Canyon and operated an asbestos mine, hauling ore out of the canyon on burros.

He eventually figured out that there was more money to be made bringing tourists to the Canyon from the railhead at Flagstaff, and showing them the gorge. The first post office at the Canyon was in Cap’s cabin, and the postmark was “Tourist, A.T.” (Arizona Territory, because the post office was established in 1897, fifteen years before Arizona became a state.)

Cap told toweringly tall tales* to help the dudes deal with the enormity of the canyon. For instance, Hance developed a large body of lore about the fog that sometimes fills the canyon. It’s a gorgeous spectacle, and I was lucky enough to see it twice.

Around a campfire at night, Cap told the tenderfeet that the fog froze at night, and he snowshoed across the gorge to the North Rim. Next morning, he’d come hiking up Hance Trail to the South Rim with snowshoes over his shoulder–perhaps with a tale of how the fog had gone slushy on him and he’d had to hurry back.

The Republican reporter in 1910 emulated Cap’s style as he told of Hance visiting Phoenix. So, finally, here’s the story:

“John Hance, the proprietor, the author and the builder of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado has been in the town for the last week. Mr. Hance undertook construction of the Grand Canyon several years ago after having served as a Union soldier through the Civil War.

“The Grand Canyon will stand or rather, it will lie for many years, as many people accuse Captain Hance of having done, as a monument to his constructive skill. There is nothing like it anywhere else in this world: no such awe-inspiring depths and spaces, such a marvel of coloring and such a variety of architecture. The ablest descriptive writers stand aghast; only the mediocre attempt to paint it. The high school graduate and the country weekly poet sling language at it, but the true genius stands mute and conquered before the superhuman genius of Captain Hance.

“Much fragmentary matter about the canyon has appeared within the last generation. Altogether it would make quite a book, but if it were all collated into one six-foot library, it would be infinitesimal in comparison with the information concerning the canyon which Captain Hance has handed out to tenderfeet who have sat open-mouthed and and open-eyed before the campfire.

“Some of the things he has imparted have been awe-inspiring while others have been horrifying in the extreme. No more pitiful tragedy has ever been detailed than that involving the death of the wife of Captain Hance, who was compelled to shoot her.

“She was walking one day along the brink of the chasm when, seized with an attack of vertigo, she fell over and shot down the sheer depth to the bed of the canyon 5,000 feet below. One leg was broken by the fall and Captain Hance in order to put her out of her misery, sent a merciful bullet through her brain. The rifle he used was an inferior weapon of a range of not more than 3,000 feet. He was therefore compelled to take two shots.

“Forty-two years ago Captain Hance first saw the Salt River Valley. There was no Phoenix then, but some time after that the town was given its start, and he was here at the first lot sale.

“He bought four lots on what is now Center Street. He held them for a few years and sold the group for $300.**

“It has come to him of late that Phoenix is improving and he determined on this trip, if there had been no change in the Phoenix real estate market, that he would buy those lots back and hold them for a rise. When he was told that an offer of $300 a front foot for that same ground would be regarded by the owner as an insult, Hance decided that he would not give offense to a stranger who had done him no harm.

“He also decided that he would not invest in Phoenix real estate but would use the money in deepening the canyon which has somewhat gathered debris and silt within the past few years.

“He may also widen it and calcimize the walls with new coloring.”

• • •

* I use the phrase “toweringly tall tales” because we have noticed a distressing trend: people leaving the “ly” ending off of adverbs, especially while speaking on television. We’re fighting back.

** Phoenix townsite was laid out in 1870, centered on Washington and Center streets; Center Street is now Central Avenue.

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