The West is a rugged place filled with outlaws, tall tales and rocky terrain. The same description could also apply to Western love stories. Writer Scott Thybony has been musing lately about tough love stories on the Colorado Plateau. He shares a few with us in his latest Canyon Commentary.
The billion-dollar wedding industry in Las Vegas goes into overdrive on Valentines Day. You can get married next to the shark tank at Mandalay Bay if that seems appropriate, and I once watched a wedding on the Bridge of Sighs at the Venetian, named for a bridge in Venice crossed by condemned prisoners. You can also arrange a drive-through wedding or get picked up in a pink Cadillac and married by an Elvis impersonator singing, “When Fools Rush In.” And for those whose tastes gravitate to the natural world, you can get married on a flyover of the Grand Canyon. The romantically inclined who prefer a more grounded experience have gotten married on the South Rim or on the bottom at Phantom Ranch. And river trips continue to have a well-earned reputation as a marriage maker – and breaker.
Some male residents of the canyon country enjoy marriage so much, they don’t limit themselves to just one. John D. Lee, of Lees Ferry fame, had 19 wives, and this tradition is still followed in some communities north of the canyon. On the other side of the fence are lifelong bachelors like John Hance, an early trail guide and world-class prevaricator. He liked to tell visitors about the tragic loss of the wife he never had. Leading a party down the trail, he would wait for the right moment to bring her up. Then with a catch in his voice he would quickly changed the subject, knowing it would heighten the curiosity of his clients. Sooner or later, someone would ask what happened.
“Oh, my poor wife,” he would answer, letting the tears well up. “No one ever had a better woman. We were going down the trail, and the horse my wife was riding fell and she broke her leg.” His voice trailed off with a sigh.
“What did you do, Mr. Hance?”
“Nothing else to do,” he said, “but shoot her and leave her there, poor woman.”
One of the classic canyon romances involved Barbara Hastings and Eddie McKee, a park service naturalist. Only one thing stood between them – the Grand Canyon itself. Eddie worked on the South Rim, while Barbara was busy collecting mammals on the North. He would hike across the gorge on his days off to see her, until she finally agreed to meet him half way at Phantom Ranch. While sitting with their feet dangling in Bright Angel Creek he proposed, and the canyon couple were married on New Year’s Eve, 1929.
A few years ago on a hike out of the canyon, I took a break at Cedar Ridge next to a party of mule riders. A woman on the trip asked the head wrangler if he was married. “Yes,” he told her, “for three years. My wife’s well educated but has to work below her abilities up here. She’s a fine woman but she lived a spoiled life before I found her, so I made her send her credit card back to her father. But each time I threaten to send her home, he sends us more money.”
Satisfied with his answer, the woman turned to the other wrangler. “Tell us about your life,” she said.
He sat there, head bent without speaking as he pushed a pebble through the dust. When the woman repeated her question, he took a deep breath. “What chapter do you want?”
For some, the Book of Love can be a hard read.