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for people who care about the West

Longing for the way it never was


When I was a child and stayed with my grandparents in their house at the top of a cactus-studded hill, I cherry-picked their library, which ran floor to ceiling along the entrance hall. I figured Grandpa was the one who read Zane Grey -- half a dozen of Grey's exotic titles were lined up together on a lower shelf.

The celebrated author of some 90 books, Grey had brief careers as a dentist and a baseball player before publishing his first novel in 1903. He's best known for his adventure romances set in the American West of the late 19th to early 20th century. Wildly popular in his heyday in the 1920s and  '30s, Grey was one of our first millionaire authors, eclipsing such contemporaries as Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton.

Grey's life was a lot like one of his books -- rip-roaring, romantic and unlikely. He adored the ladies, and warned his wife Dolly: "I love to be free. I cannot change my spots ... I shall never lose the spirit of my interest in women."  Despite his philandering, she nurtured his writing and was still married to him after 34 years when he died in 1939, at the age of 67.

Grey was in back in the news recently. The Bureau of Land Management has bought the one-room cabin that he built by hand on the banks of Oregon's Rogue River for designation as a national monument. Rafters can view it as they tumble past Winkle Bar, where the river is "gentle and reluctant and sweetly vagrant, as if to lull and deceive, only to bellow sudden rage at the confines of Blossom Bar, and to prepare itself for a sullen surrender to treacherous Mule Creek Canyon." The river is the setting for Grey's novel, Rogue River Feud, and received a "wild and scenic" designation in 1962.

As a 10-year-old girl, I particularly loved Grey's depiction of women. His heroines like Beryl in Rogue River Feud not only say things like "I love you with every last drop of my heart's blood," but they also out-perform the hero on his own ground: "Straightway Beryl underwent that strange transformation inevitable to a true fisherman. She touched some several of Keven's string of beauties with the toe of her boot."

"Under five pounds, Kev. You should have let these go."

"What? Why, they'll weigh six, at least."

"Ump-umm, my boy," she returned, shaking her head. "You can't see a steelhead right. Your eyes magnify. It's the habit of a novice."

I dwelt on love scenes like this one, also from Rogue River Feud: "She was as strong and supple as a panther. A giant could not have held her for long. But this precious moment was enough for Keven."

"Beryl! I love you so terribly -- it's killing me," he exclaimed huskily.

"All that fierce, hard muscular contraction of her body relaxed as if by magic. She sagged limp and heavy upon him."

A hundred years after Grey's first book was published, the prose seems melodramatic. But at least one critic, Kevin S. Blake, calls Grey's descriptions of Western landscapes "among the most striking ever written." Grey has the knack of combining adventure and romance in the natural beauty of the West -- all served up in prose bursting with energy and optimism.

Americans today know Grey by his signature novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, in which Mormons are the polygamous villains, but there are admirable Mormon characters in his other novels. Grey also wrote about Indians who were often mistreated by whites.

When I emerged from the lure of my grandparents' library 50 years ago and went outside to play, I saw Grand Mesa looming from the north, and the Gunnison River Valley stretching toward the Black Canyon to the south. I was at once an adventurer, the prospector who found gold, and the expert fisherwoman as I played among the cactus and wildflowers, and the black, bubbly volcanic rock.

In the more confined West of today, I find solace in the evocation of a time that exists inside my head, thanks to a dentist who became a writer: "The white clouds sailed to cast their shadows. And the soaring golden eagle black-barred the sky. Low and far away roared the river. Up to the cool heights wafted the woody smells, like enchantment in their power. And the past of man merged in the present, strange and vague to peering eyes, yet strong and attainable in the scents of the earth." 

Marty Durlin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She grew up on Colorado's western slope and is the online editor for High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where she now lives.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].