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On the Same Page

I hadn’t been to Page in quite a few years, so our recent visit there filled me with nostalgia. (I carry a can of spare nostalgia with me, in case I run out, but I never have.)

When I was a callow youth, going to college in Flagstaff, commercial pilots Tex and Beth Wright literally took me under their wings. They gave me flying lessons at reduced rates, and often took me along on flights to remote places on the Navajo Reservation.

On April 11, 1956, Congress authorized construction of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. The Wrights soon had a contract to to fly surveyors across Glen Canyon from Art Greene’s Wahweap Marina to the other side of the river to survey the dam site.

Beth took me along one morning. She landed on a dirt airstrip and left me at the foot of Manson Mesa, peering warily into the 700-foot gorge, while she flew back to Wahweap for another load of surveyors.

I had little idea what I was witnessing. There was no dam, no Lake Powell, no Page. People always built dams on rivers, didn’t they? I’d gone to school with Glen’s kids.

Soon after, I saw an editor I knew, gloriously drunk, teetering on the lip of the canyon, trying to focus his Rolleiflex. That got my attention.

I never got a pilot’s license. I graduated and went to work as a journalist, eventually traveling around Arizona on an expense account. I learned a little bit about a lot of Arizona.

Glen Canyon Dam was topped off in 1963. I was there when they installed the big rubber drain plug just behind the dam. By that time, the construction camp at Page had turned into a town.

When Princess Margaret visited Lake Powell in 1965, I was one of a herd of reporters who followed her. I had phoned ahead and rented a car at the Page airport. They gave me a station wagon in less than pristine condition. A waitress in a Page cafe warned me, “Be careful with that rental car you’re driving. It’s mine.”

Ellie and I visited Page during what she calls “a Cook’s Tour,” revisiting my old haunts, seeing what’s new. Traveling a thousand miles is daunting when gas is selling for $3 a gallon. Fortunately, I drive a hybrid, a Korean-made Insult, which gets 74 mpg.

After the Flagstaff Folk Festival, we headed north to visit the Arizona Strip, and loop back through southern Utah to Page.

North of Cameron, we crossed the west end of the Painted Desert, which stretches far across the Navajo Reservation. I told Ellie again how I had helped apply the primer coat.

The Gap was a Navajo community long before there was a clothing chain by that name. My friend Henry lives at The Gap, and he told us about the huge rattlesnake he saw coming out of a hole in the ground.

Henry said he grabbed the rattler just behind the head, and pulled out about twelve feet of snake. But then the rattler started going back into the hole. Henry had to pull really hard to drag the snake out again. Then the snake started backing into the hole again. Henry pulled harder.

His cell phone rang. He braced his feet and held the snake’s head under his arm while he answered. It was his cousin George calling from Kaibito, thirty miles to the east.

“Hey, George,” Henry said, ” I’m kinda busy right now. What’s on your mind?”

“Man, I’m trying to pull this big rattlesnake out of a hole by his tail. I pull out a foot or so of snake, then he goes back in the hole. Strongest snake I ever saw.”

Ellie was taken with the beauty of the Echo Cliffs and the Vermillion Cliffs. We photographed a lot of hoodoos between Lees Ferry and Cliff Dwellers Lodge. I did not make that up, but I just learned about it. A hoodoo is a free-standing rock that is bigger at the top than at the bottom, because the harder rock at the top resists erosion.

I told Ellie a little history of Lees Ferry. I told her how the path we were following was the “Honeymoon Trail” for Arizona Mormons who wanted to be married in the LDS temple in St. George, Utah. I told her of the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776-77, and the Cook Expedition of 1955.

Jacob Lake is a better lie than I can make up. I worked for the Forest Service there in 1955. I saw it on TV this morning, because firefighters are fighting the Warm Fire from there. Locals shorten the name of the place to “Jacob,” which might give you a clue.

Travelers arrive at the crossroads on top of the Kaibab Plateau, expecting to see a substantial lake. What they see is a lodge, a campground and some Forest Service buildings. If you ask around, someone will tell you where to find the “lake,” a tiny pond in a big pasture. You couldn’t drown a Volkswagen in it.

We visited Kanab, Fredonia, Pipe Spring. On our third pass along the main street of Fredonia, we concluded that either that was a dummy sitting in the town marshall’s car to discourage speeders, or the marshall had died unexpectedly.

We floated down the Colorado river from the base of Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry. A quiet trip, but gorgeous.

We visited Snow Cone, the mysterious white volcano that erupted in 1077 A.D. in Utah’s Clorox Basin. I hadn’t seen it since my buddies and I tobagganed down its slopes in 1952. The tobaggan wasn’t much good after that. The Bureau of Land Management has posted signs around the base of the volcano saying, “No Tobaggans.”

We visited Wupatki, Leupp, Old Leupp, and Darling. Seventy years in Arizona, and I had never heard of Darling.

During this trip, I had to come to grips with the idea that my point of reference for reminiscing, which used to be twenty years ago, is now fifty years ago. How did that happen?

The other thing I realized is that my reminiscences do not necessarily enthrall museum docents, tour guides and park rangers. They seem put off when a geezer with a flawless memory corrects them, or enhances their stories.

I should have not explained to one young guide at a historical monument how my mom taught me to use a flat iron when I was four years old. Some of his visitors know about flat irons, and the rest won’t care.

It’s hard to be still, but not impossible. In these troubled times, visitors to the Carl Hayden Visitor Center, overlooking Glen Canyon Dam, have to go through a tight security check. It’s almost like boarding an airplane.

Did I tell the big, uniformed guard holding the wand about my adventures before the dam stilled the river? Did I brighten his day by telling him that I met Carl Hayden when Hayden was the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate?

Not on your life.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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