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‘I shall never come back to Arizona’ – Zane Grey

The Painted Desert, a frequent locale in Zane Grey’s books.

The Painted Desert, a frequent locale in Zane Grey’s books.

Western novelist Zane Grey (1872-1939) wrote this dramatic sentence to his wife, Dolly, in a bitter letter penned from his Tonto Basin cabin. He complained about other things, as well, and the above statement was followed with :  “…the country has been ruined by motorists. The Navajo are doomed. The beauty and romance of their lives dead.”  Dolly and Zane had honeymooned at El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in 1906 and knew Arizona well. He returned as often as possible, particularly to hunt.

Normally, when Grey arrived in Flagstaff to hunt, he’d assemble a party of wranglers and go out for several weeks.  The group was often led by Flagstaff pioneer Al Doyle, who now has a San Francisco Peak named after him. One story is that a cowboy, a large man whose 10-gallon hat and 6-inch boot heels made him look even bigger, knocked on Grey’s Commercial Hotel room at 3 a.m. When Grey opened the door, the man asked if he was the Zane Grey who advertised for people to go bear hunting with him. Grey nodded, and the cowboy said, “Mr. Grey, I just came up here to tell you that under no circumstances will I ever go bear hunting with you.”

The foul tone of Grey’s letters in 1929 was most likely due to being tired and sick from two grueling horsepack trips around the Four Corners with two of their three children, then teen-agers, and others. Extensive trips like this had not bothered him in the past, but he was aging, and the active young people wore on him.  His disposition hadn’t improved in an Oct. 14, 1929, letter to Dolly that still finds him at the cabin with hunting season about to open. He says he’s “leary”(sic) of hunting because a new road will bring in “…tin-can, auto hunters with shot guns.” He wanted all in his group to wear red hats and coats and be careful. He had a favorite camping spot he’d been going to for the previous decade, but felt it now had an eerie feeling. He was having difficulty adjusting to the more-populated Arizona that he once knew: “We have no more real hunting parties, or hunters. Nor fishermen, either.”

He also had another gripe: when he arrived in Flagstaff for his annual bear hunt, (one report says he was to lead a Hollywood documentary about bear hunting), he discovered opening day for bear hunting season had been changed to two weeks later. As Grey ranted about all he had done for Arizona,  Tom McCullough of the Flagstaff Game Protective Association stood firm, like a hero in Grey’s novels, and flatly said “no” to hunting out of season. Grey appealed to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission in Phoenix, who also said “no” and told Grey that he would need to purchase a non-resident permit. Grey was incensed.

Grey introduced the state’s magnificence to thousands of his readers through his numerous novels set in Arizona, including: “Call of the Canyon,” “Under the Tonto Rim,” “The Rainbow Trail,” among many others. His descriptive books drew people to the state and yet now he was upset at their presence.  In 1923, the Flagstaff Coconino Sun newspaper had interviewed Grey, who encouraged Flagstaff to develop its tourist facilities. A follow-up interview four years later found Grey pleased with what Flagstaff was doing in regard to tourist accommodations. A few years after that, Grey wrote a letter to the editor saying there were now too many tourists and he wasn’t coming back.

Grey’s Tonto Basin cabin (more like a lodge) was built in 1920-21. True to his word, Grey never returned to it or Arizona, and by the 1950s, the cabin was falling into disrepair. It was purchased by a private party and restored, only to burn to ashes during the 1990 ‘Dude’ forest fire. A few items were salvaged and put on display at a Payson museum. Funds were raised to reconstruct the cabin in Payson’ Green Valley Park in 2003. Grey shunned Arizona due to the increasing tourists, yet the tourists still seek him and his legacy.

— S.D. Olberding. The author thanks Ellen Greene of the State Library, Archives, and Public Records for her assistance. Quotes  from: an oral history by Richard Riordan, 1976, and Candace C. Kant, ed. Dolly and Zane Grey: Letters from a Marriage. University of Nevada Press. 2008. Photo courtesy of the author.

3 comments

  1. I can understand Zane’s anger in the growing amount of tourists, even if he had previously encouraged such a thing. To see flocks of people filling up the state that meant so much to him and was such a strong part of many of his novels had to be disheartening.
    I can imagine it was like seeing the worst version of your hopes and dreams coming true. On the one hand, yes, people should see Arizona, but on the other hand, maybe not so many people whom he might have felt couldn’t possibly understand what he was truly saying about the place.
    It was beautiful, but not the kind of beauty that motorists could necessarily appreciate, or on the scale that he himself grew to appreciate it.

    I visited Arizona and followed a route which I felt showcased some of my favorite Zane Grey novels. I was awestruck.
    I have not been able to wipe the events from my mind and I fully intend to return one day, and permanently.
    My wife feels the same.

    There is something magical about that place, Arizona, and it doesn’t seem to capture the hearts of all people in the same way.
    I know, from personal experience, that to hear others speak about Arizona always makes me feel like my close-guarded secret is about to be discovered, and I become immediately incensed when others talk about going to Arizona, as if they will find, ruin, and spoil this place which is so sacred to me.

    Perhaps Zane Grey was simply possessive of such a beautiful place and seeing the tourists flock there forced him to realize that it was no longer as much of a secret as he would have liked it to stay.

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