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Sagebrush Solitaire

by mtnpoppies — Jun 01, 2010
37 vote
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True story about a bittersweet, personal experience on the Arizona Strip. A sagebrush solitaire.

Sagebrush Solitaire

Renee Galeano-Popp
Livermore, CO 80536


In the winter of 1978-79, there were a total of 5 living souls residing on the Arizona Strip. The Strip is the narrow area north of the Grand Canyon including Mt. Trumbull, and south of the Utah state line between St. George on the west and Kanab on the east. The total surface area of the Strip is nearly 8,000 square miles, larger than the state of Massachusetts, which translates to absolutely nothing but cold desert sagebrush for 100 miles in any direction.

Even with a good water source at Nixon Springs, pioneer Mormon attempts to settle the Strip failed due to tremendously heavy clay soils. In 1979, Old Man Bundy was the sole remaining resident of Bundyville, on the western side of Mt. Trumbull. When the area was abandoned, Old Man Bundy stayed on. Back then his family would make the long dusty drive to Bundyville once every year and take him into town for a bath and fresh supplies.

There were three of us on the old Craig Ranch that winter on the north side of Mt. Trumbull. We were seasonal workers with the nearby Kaibab National Forest, living off our unemployment checks, and waiting anxiously for spring. I stayed in the old school bus with my two dogs and kept warm by the grace of wood I had to gather and cut with a bow saw. I figured out that every 3 days of firewood cutting was good for a full day off for skiing. For baths, I would ski about a mile to the cabin and take turns with friends heating water to fill a big metal tub, just like in the old-time movies.

South of Mt. Trumbull, John Riffey, the legendary and delightful National Park Service Ranger at Tuweep, lived in an historic cabin right on the rim of the Grand Canyon. No guard rail, no stop signs, just the rim at the end of the driveway! He reminded me of Pete Seeger and a little Ed Abbey with southern hospitality and all the stories of a fulltime adventurer and lifetime observer. Every night, Riffey the father figure, would contact us by CB radio to talk about the weather forecast and say goodnight.

To travel the 50 miles of dirt, mud, snow, and ice to the Craig Ranch, we always tried to travel after midnight on a good freeze, usually in a small caravan, and we always used tire chains. One night I was alone and headed to the bus trying to beat the arrival of the next storm in my Datsun pickup and chains. Part way in, I went through a few puddles and realized the road was not frozen. I was able to accelerate through the mud for exactly 25 miles until I hit what looked like the Mekong Delta when the sun came up the next morning.

I spent 9 cold days and 9 cold nights in my truck buried to the axles before the Cavalry arrived. It took days for the water to subside before I could even begin to shovel around my truck. When I did, the mud stuck to the shovel like peanut butter.

Riffey had a small NPS plane he named Pegasus and flew daily to check this vast area known as the Strip. He always told me, “If anything ever happens, stay with the roads so I can find you. If you go off cross-country, I won’t see you.” Day after day I waited for Ranger Riffey to arrive, but Pegasus was in Las Vegas being serviced and Riffey had managed to strip the lug nuts off of his 4wd truck when he got stuck in the same mud I was entrenched in.

In between efforts to extricate myself from the situation, I read John Wesley Powell’s Grand Canyon Expeditions. Things seemed much worse for him than me. After all, he had the elements plus savage Indians, while I just had the elements. Like him, I was a little concerned about my own mortality. I waved at small planes and I tried to walk the last 25 miles only to have the mud literally suck my boots off. If they stayed on, it meant falling face first in any attempt to walk. I forget which night it was, I wrote my last will and testament.

The Cavalry came on the 9th day. As we travelled north, we bounced and swayed and jerked in that old Dodge Power Wagon until just shy of the paved highway, it bottomed out in the mud too. I remember how hard it was to walk those last 3 miles and most of all how frozen my hands and feet were when we got to Nedra’s Café in Fredonia.

The Strip is one of the most remote places in the Lower 48. No towns, cities, or Wal-Mart’s for hundreds of miles. It is still much the same as when Riffey and Old Man Bundy, and the Craigs before them, were there. I cherish the West for the desolation and solitude. The vastness and remoteness. The cold desert sagebrush. Even if it’s viewed from the window of my mud bogged truck.