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Scott Thybony’s Canyon Commentary: Winter at Black Falls

Scott Thybony

This winter is one of the driest on record, but the winter of 1877 was another story. Freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall were documented in the journal of Lucy Flake, a pioneer woman traveling by covered wagon from Utah to Arizona with her young family. At Black Falls, near what is now Wupatki National Monument, Lucy described the hardships and anguish of the group. Commentator Scott Thybony recently hiked that same dry river bed and remembered Lucy’s suffering. 

On a January morning beyond Wupatki National Monument, I stand next to Black Falls. It was never a waterfall, only a boulder-strewn cascade and only when the river flows. Often it doesn’t. The Little Colorado can disappear for months at a time. As I start up the dry river in this dry winter, each footstep crunches through shards of dried mud.

Credit Scott Thybony

Conditions were different in 1878. That January a caravan of six covered wagons had to break through a foot of snow on the Painted Desert to reach the falls. Written on the side of a canvas cover were the words, “Arizona or Bust.” The Mormon settlers had to chop through eight inches of ice on the river so their 200 head of cattle and 4o horses could drink. Their leader William Flake had been called to found a new settlement, so he gathered his two wives, their children, and a few hired hands to undertake the three-month journey. They had traveled south from Utah, skirting the Grand Canyon, and encountered the most severe winter in 30 years. Temperatures reached 20-below zero, and along the way they suffered from acute sickness and utter exhaustion. William’s first wife, Lucy, recounted their ordeal in a memoir unusually revealing for the times.

Credit Scott Thybony

“I shall never forget the 14th day of December, 1877,” she wrote.  “We had only made a mile and a half that day. The wind and sleet were terrific. . .  [William] was riding ahead, trying to point the loose stock. They were on the verge of stampeding.  The poor teams would not face the bitter sleet.  Sometimes they turned so sharply they almost over turned the wagon … As soon as the poor shivering animals were unharnassed, they huddled together in what shelter the six wagons made.

Credit Scott Thybony

“Another heavy snow fell just before we reached the Little Colorado River … At Black Falls we found another family whose child, an 11-year-old boy had died. Again I prepared the body for burial. The water was so cold that it froze on the body as I washed it.

“I sympathized with the family in their loss, but I was called to make another sacrifice that seemed to me almost worse than death, and that was to leave my precious Charles, a boy of 15, with one of the hired men to look after the cattle. The feed had been so scarce and the snow so deep that the cattle got so poor they could not travel and we were in danger of loosing half of them. We had to leave them out in that terribly cold place—more than a hundred miles from any settlement—knowing we could not communicate with them. I tried to steel myself for this new ordeal but when we started out that morning and I could see him from the back of my wagon standing there waving us good-bye, I thought my heart would break. I lay down on the bed and sobbed until I was exhausted. Why should life be so Cruel!  I kept asking myself how much more could one endure?

“We traveled on, the teams wallowing in the snow. The men folks put red pepper in their boots and wrapped their feet in sacks and rags to keep them from freezing.”

One hundred-and-forty years later clouds stream overhead, outliers of an approaching storm. I turn back to the falls and along the edge of the river come upon an ax head, pitted with age. After testing the heft of it, I place it back on the ground and continue walking. It may come in handy if someone needs to chop through ice on a cold winter journey. 

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.
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