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Home > Special Features > Zane Grey, Romancing the West

Zane Grey,
Romancing the West

by Stephen J. May, ZGWS

An excerpt from Stephen J. May's book,
Zane Grey, Romancing the West,
published by Ohio University Press. (ISBN 0-8214-1181-0).

Reprinted by permission of the author.

Chapter 6: El Dorado

By January 12, 1906, the New York - Chicago Number 3 was whisking Zane and Dolly over the wide farmlands and wooded rises of Ohio. They were on their honeymoon, bound for California.

They caught the California Limited in Chicago and proceeded onto the plains of Kansas and then into the empty grasslands of New Mexico. On January 15, they arrived at El Tovar Hotel overlooking the Grand Canyon. That night they joined a flock of pilgrims to behold the glory of the canyon at sunset, Dolly noting in her diary that the sight was "a second inferno, stupendous, awe inspiring, glowing with fiery colors."

The next day they took the required packtrain excursion down into the mouth of the canyon. The eastern tenderfoots were aghast all the way down as the yawning chasm opened up, revealing its stark, vivid colors and ragged spurs of rock. Snow covered the canyon floor and dribbled onto the exposed shoulders of stone.

All the while, Grey absorbed this serrated and pillared landscape of the desert. He was strongly attracted to the desert from the beginning, warmed by the great aloneness, the sparse variety of plant life, and the prospect of a direct connection to nature and time. The sky was different here: austere, vacant, eternal. During this first trip to the desert, Grey began to develop as deep a love for the landforms of the West as he harbored for the woods and streams of Pennsylvania and New York. His feelings about the desert in 1906 were urgent and young, but without conviction. They would develop in later years as he returned repeatedly to witness the silent, sere landscape.

They left the Grand Canyon and continued on to southern California, which in the early 1900s had the look of an Italian garden with lemon and orange groves parading neatly to the sea. After visiting Los Angeles, they took a trolley south to San Diego, passing sheep grazing on the coastal hills. Zane got his first taste of sea fishing in San Diego, and even caught a shark on one of his first attempts. While Dolly lounged and read, Grey spent several days fishing on the pier.

By early February they were on Catalina Island, off the coast from Los Angeles. Grey recognized the fishing possibilities of this West Coast paradise, but with his limited income was unable to take advantage of them. He did dream, however.

The honeymoon had been relaxing and stimulating for both Zane and Dolly. It had opened a whole new landscape for Grey, and by the time they returned to Lackawaxen, he had also resumed his demanding writing schedule.

The areas of land that Zane Grey had glimpsed -- north of the Grand Canyon and just beyond the Utah border -- were regions of abrupt contrasts, pur colors, lurid beauty, and fierce rivalries. This landscape was to be the setting for numerous later novels, and its skies and sands would figure prominently in his descriptions of the West. He had seen the land only briefly on his honeymoon, but fate would bring him back.

The wind-racked and sun-pummeled strip of land was far removed from twentieth-century civilization and seemed older than time. To the east was the Painted Desert; to the north the Kanab desert; to the west the Virgin Mountains; and to the south the San Francisco Peaks. The mighty, muddy Colorado swept through the land, carving its deep scar through the forests and canyons where mountain lion, bear, deer, and wild horses competed for survival. Pine, cedar, and juniper dug their shallow roots into the soil and struggled with drought and flood.

The area, known as the Arizona Strip, had been Mormon country since the 1870s and 1880s. Numerous settlements dotted the canyon country on both sides of the Arizona-Utah border. Since the border region was primitive and remote, several Mormons regarded northern Arizona as part of Mormon Utah and settled there.

The Colorado River crossing at Leefs Ferry, some ten miles from the border, was administered by Jim Emmett, a tall Moses-like figure with a great mane of gray hair and ponderous eyes. A polygamist, Emmett worked the land alongside his wives and children. His cattle shared the grazing land around Leefs Ferry with the herd of another unique personality, Charles Jesse "Buffalo" Jones.

Jones was small and wiry with gray-blue eyes. In his embroidered buckskins and leather chaps, he looked as if he had come straight from a buffalo hunt of the 1850s. Jones had been a bison hunter and a warden in Yellowstone; more recently he had dedicated his life to saving and protecting the buffalo. On his ranch in northern Arizona he was experimenting with the hybridization of buffalo and cattle, intent on creating a breed that would flourish in the harsh desert environment. His "cattalo" experiment was just getting started, but like most fresh ventures it needed boosts of financial support from the outside.

Jim Emmettfs influence on Zane Grey will be discussed shortly, but Buffalo Jonesfs impact came first and its effect on the young author was deep and enduring. Jones had traveled to New York in early 1907, ostensibly to lecture eastern audiences about his various western exploits and to woo support for his experiments. His lusty tales ranged from roping mountain lions in the Grand Canyon to capturing bears in Yellowstone. Jones was bold, assertive, and knowledgeable about the vanishing West, the perfect mentor to tutor the young Grey. In fact, Jones was the second significant male teacher to enter Greyfs life (Muddy Miser being the first and Jim Emmett the third).

In New York to attend Jonesfs presentation, Grey had come through a difficult year of writing. The Last Trail still had not found a publisher and Grey was worrying about it. He did manage to sell fishing articles to Shieldfs Magazine and a four-page angling story and baseball article to Field and Stream. Spirit of the Border had been out for two years and was selling modestly. After nearly five years of intense writing, Grey could boast only two published novels (one self-published) and a handful of magazine articles.

Although Jones delivered an inspired lecture that spring evening, it met with a disastrous response from the audience. At key points in Jonesfs delivery, several vocal members in the crowd hissed and catcalled; others walked out, apparently disgusted with Jonesfs unbelievable yarns. Grey was accompanied at the lecture by Alvah James, a noted South American explorer he had met at the Campfire Club in New York. After the presentation Grey asked James to introduce him to the aging plainsman.

Alvah James brought the two together, Grey shaking Jonesfs gloved hand. At this point, in his career Grey was casting about in his mind for new material to replace the sagas of Lew Wetzel, Jonathan Zane, and Simon Girty. In Buffalo Jones, Grey saw the embodiment of western folklore and history ? a hero of much the same stature as Betty Zane.

Later, Grey visited Jones at his hotel. The cantankerous hunter was bitter over his treatment by the audience, and Grey was quick to offer his support and sympathy. He also proposed to accompany Jones to Arizona and write about their experiences, thereby providing finances for Jonesfs experiments with cattle and buffalo.

Because Jones was unconvinced of Greyfs writing talent, the author left him a copy of Betty Zane. Two days later the enthusiastic Jones clasped Greyfs shoulder with a brawny hand and snapped: "Wherefd you learn to write like that?" Jones added that he would like it very much if Zane Grey would accompany him to his ranch in Arizona.

At first Grey was hesitant about the venture, particularly because it meant coming up with expenses from the last of Dollyfs inheritance. Dolly, however, insisted that he go, telling him it would be unfair to Colonel Jones to back out, and encouraging him not to worry about her. She had a hunch that this trip to the West would be the turning point in his career. Somewhat sheepishly, Grey agreed. However, he felt ashamed about allowing his wife to finance the trip, and moreover, about leaving her just over a year after their marriage to go on what amounted to an extended bachelor party in Arizona. His letters to her from the desert are invariably signed "Pearl," indicating a certain boyish, and perhaps guilty, attitude he harbored about the trip.

By late March 1907 he was headed to Arizona by rail. When he got to the Grand Canyon on March 27 he wrote Dolly that he had "arrived in a blinding blizzard. The hotel {the El Tovar} is crowded, and me in my tough clothes. Dear, your two letters broke me all up. I am sick and wish I were home with youc.Your letters were splendid but they made me unhappy. I know I shall come back to you loving you more than everc.."

Grey traveled south to Flagstaff to join Jim Emmett, his two sons, Buffalo Jones, and two men hired by Emmett. Their plan was to head north to Jonesfs ranch and then explore the area in and around the Grand Canyon. All in the party, except Grey, were Mormons. Grey was curious to learn more about Mormonism, and particularly about its followers. After he briefly met the group he was going to travel with, he confided to Dolly in a letter: "We shall start in a day or two. We travel with the Mormons for a hundred and eighty miles. Ifll get to study them and get to go into the Moki and Indian towns. This ought to make great material for the occasional short story I want to write." Four days later, still in Flagstaff waiting for a Californian named Wallace to join them, he again wrote Dolly that the Mormon group was "a tough bunch. They all pack guns. But theyfre nice fellows."

Buffalo Jones soon decided that they should leave without Wallace, and Emmett agreed. Soon the pack mules were loaded and several rowdy, barking dogs joined the caravan. Marshaling the elements into a semi-organized group, the men swung onto their horses, including Grey, who had not ridden since leaving Ohio.

Traveling north they plodded through the dense pine forests below the San Francisco Peaks. Grey clung desperately to his saddle, the pain in his muscles and joints aggravated by every movement of his horse. After he Mormons found a camping spot, some twenty-five miles north of Flagstaff, Grey gingerly climbed down from his mount, ate supper, and groaned himself to sleep in his blankets.

The morning sun revealed the undulating sands, the ragged lava rock spurs, and the sagebrush stretching far to the north, past the Wapatki Indian ruins, the Little Colorado River, the Moenkopi Wash, ad the severe ochre walls of Echo Cliffs. The sand was deep sienna-red against the rich blue sky. Through this landscape they made their way, heading to the Little Colorado River.

As they moved into the Painted Desert, Grey was overcome with passion and mute with subdued joy. "Imagination had pictured the desert for me as a vast, sandy plain, flat and monotonous," he wrote. "Reality showed me desolate mountains gleaming bare in the sun, long lines of red bluffs, white sand dunesc..fading all around into the purple haze of the deceiving distance." The air, too"carried a languor, a dreaminess, tidings of far-off things, an enthralling promise. The fragrance of flowers, the beauty and grace of women, the sweetness of music, the mystery of life -- all seemed to float on that promise. It was the air breathed by the lotus-eaters, when they dreamed and wandered no more."

For the next several weeks, as they pushed farther north to the big Colorado and wandered through the Grand Canyon and the Kaibab forests where they hunted mountain lions, Grey patiently sponged up this alien but compelling lifestyle. He attached words to the strange landforms and striking colors he saw; he weighed and absorbed the menfs bizarre lingo; he watched as they broke camp, doused the fire with their coffee, saddled their horses, tested each otherfs machismo, and rode as part of a disheveled caravan under the lordly sun and piercing blue sky.

Moreover, he came to know men on an emotionally intimate level, perhaps for the first time in his life. From the sixty-three-year-old Buffalo Jones he learned desert and Indian lore, and additionally, ow to survive in a harsh, desolate environment. From Jim Emmett he learned Mormon culture and folkways. Even though Grey loathed polygamy he could, through Emmett, begin to appreciate the positive aspects of Mormonism. (Grey particularly sympathized with Mormon women, who Lassiter in Riders of the Purple Sage called "the blindest, unhappiest women on earth.") The spirit of Buffalo Jones was to appear in several later Grey novels, and the shadow of Jim Emmett stretched across the pages of Heritage of the Desert as the figure of August Naab, the stoic, patriarchal Mormon tutor of easterner John Hare. Grey would say of Emmett that he "endured loneliness, hunger, thirstc the fierce sandstorm, the desert blizzard, poverty, labor without help, illness without medicine, tasks without remuneration, no comfort, but little sleep, so few of the joys commonly yearned for by men, and pain, pain, always some kind of pain."

Jim Emmettt also supplied Grey with the gift of silent observation. "Surely, of all the gifts that have come to me from contact with the West," wrote Grey, "this one of sheer love of wilderness, beauty, color, grandeur, has been the greatest, the most significant for my work."

When The Last of the Plainsmen, Greyfs book detailing his travels with Buffalo Jones and Jim Emmett, was published in 1908, its very appearance was something of a curiosity.

Predictably, Grey had raced back to Lackawaxen from Arizona in the late spring of 1907 burning to write of his desert exploits. Buffalo Jones had corresponded with the Greys, eagerly anticipating the completion of the manuscript. When the book was finished, Grey had Buffalo Jones read it. The plainsman was impressed with and enthusiastic about Greyfs creation. With their confidence soaring, Grey and Jones left the cottage at Lackawaxen and headed to New York City. There they were to meet Harper and Brothers editor Ripley Hitchcock, whom Jones knew.

Harperfs had rejected all three of his previous novels, but Grey was convinced that they would not pass on The Last of the Plainsmen. Grey left the manuscript with Hitchcock. After several daysf deliberation, Hitchcock stood across the desk from Zane Grey and spoke the words that hammered at Greyfs soul. "I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction." To Grey, these words aggravated a wound already opened by his father when he was fifteen and made to fester by countless subsequent rejections. Stunned and hurt, he struggled to get out of Hitchcockfs office and down the stairs. Once on the sidewalk, he grabbed a lamppost and barely averted a tumble onto the pavement. He managed to get the train back to Lackawaxen, where he collected his thoughts and emotions. Several days later he stonily committed himself once again to the writing life. "Suddenly," he later wrote, "something marvelous happened to me, in my mind, to my eyesight, to my breast. That moment should logically have been the end of my literary aspirations! From every point of view I seemed lost. But someone inside me cried out: eHe does not know. They are all wrong!f "

The Last of the Plainsmen was published several months later by the Outing Publishing Company, a minor publishing firm dealing in books for sportsmen. It had been rejected by other major publishers and Outing picked it up with the agreement that they would not pay Grey a penny for it until it went into a second printing.

The Last of the Plainsmen certainly did not deserve the treatment it received. It is a sound book -- one of Greyfs best early works -- and one brimming with vigor and movement. The literature of the West is filled with the various exploits of greenhorns encountering the rugged outdoors. Irving, Parkman, Ruxton, and Teddy Roosevelt, to name a few, made their reputations in such works. Greyfs book falls into this genre. It does not have the high seriousness of Parkmanfs work or any of the sustained description of mountain life in Ruxton, but it is a lighthearted introduction to Western frontier life.

The title itself bears examining. It seems that Grey wished to pay homage to Fenimore Cooper, hence his variation on the name Last of the Mohicans. Although Buffalo Jones and Zane both agree on the appropriateness of Last of the Plainsmen, the title may have been responsible for the initial failure of the book. Jones, of course, was known to a segment of the population, but in no way could most people recognize him from the title, or for that matter throughout the text. A more strategic choice of title might have capitalized on the trip itself. In any event, Last of the Plainsmen stuck, but it is one of the less imaginative titles in Greyfs collection.

Originally, the book was to focus on Jonesfs experiments with cattle and buffalo, but Grey shifted the emphasis to the more colorful, action-oriented activities surround the stalking of mountain lions. Buffalo Jones emerges as a forceful character, with Grey providing several good asides about Jonesfs extensive career. One of these is the plainsmanfs hilarious attempt to catch a musk-ox in the arctic. Also surfacing is Greyfs characterization of the hunter-turned-conservationist as a mystic and dreamer, a man benevolently trying to preserve many vanishing species of wildlife. Grey describes Jonesfs "inscrutable face c.keen eyes, half closed from years of searching the wide plainscc A strange stillness enfold[ing] his features -- the tranquility earned from a long life of adventure.

In finding the American West Grey came into his own as a writer of description. His apprehension of the desert atmosphere is acute and shows flashes of Joeseph Conrad: "the scaly red ground descended gradually; bare red knolls, like waves, rolled away northward; black buttes rared their flat heads; long ranges of sand flowed between them like streams, all sloped away to merge into gray, shadowy obscurity, into wild and desolate, dreamy and misty nothingness." Or, when Greyfs party reaches the Colorado River, he realizes he is in the presence of a raging animal:
To look at the river was to court terror, but I had to look. It was an infernal thing. It roared in hollow, sullen voice, as a monster growling. It had a voice, this river, and one strangely changeful. It moaned as if in pain -- it whined, it cried. Then at times it would seem strangely silent. The current was complex and mutable as human life. It boiled, beat, and bulged. The bulge itself was an incomprehensible thing, like the roaring life of the waters from a submarine explosion. Then it would smooth out and run like oilc..Again, it swelled near the boat, in great, boiling, hissing eddies.
One flaw in Greyfs writing, however, is his inability to sustain vivid description beyond the thumbnail variety. Sometimes the most enthralling descriptive moments could be raised to greater importance if Grey developed and focused more. Conrad could suffuse an entire story in atmosphere, but Grey, still the student, develops it only briefly -- if gorgeously.

After all is said and done, Grey had a greater affinity with Conrad than with any other contemporary writer. Both were concerned with morality and behavior in the most remote places and under the most difficult circumstances. Grey chose the desert to temper and mold his characters; Conrad selected the sea because he believe it helped reveal people's essential selves.

Both Grey and Conrad favored primitive and secluded locations as vehicles for their charactersf spiritual redemption. Both were romantics who were obsessed with the horizon; both were dreamers in the true sense of the word, who sent their characters into far-flung deserts, villages, outposts, and unknown waters to grapple with their own drifting souls. Passages by Grey, such as his further description of the river, echo Conrad: "I looked upstream to see the stupendous granite walls separated in a gigantic split that must have been made by a terrible seismic disturbance; and from this gap poured the dark, turgid, mystic flood."

When it came to writing about the desert of the American west, Grey could, initially, hold his own with anybody. In the later novels, however, his descriptions frequently lose their power simply because they are exhausted from use, and his adjectives and nouns sound more like formulas pulled from an available grab bag than eloquent evocations spun from direct observations. But in the handful of early novels of the West, roughly between 1908 and 1920, his heightened receptivity to the desert translates into sharp, even compelling, literary description. For instance, the Grand Canyon in Last of the Plainsmen is transformed into a great, mythical, unearthly landscape:
The sun, a liquid red globe, had just touched its underside to the pink cliffs of Utah, and fired a crimson flood of light over the wonderful mountains, plateaus, escarpments, mesas, domes and turrets of the gorge. The rim wall of Powellfs Plateau was a thin streak of fire; the timber above like grass of gold; and the long slopes below shaded from bright to dark. Point Sublime, bold and bare, ran out toward the plateau, jealously reaching for the sun. Bassfs Tomb peeped over the Saddle. The Temple of Vishnu lay bathed in vapory shading clouds, and Shinumo Altar shone with rays of glory.
It is this silent energy behind the visual splendor that can transform the broken easterner such as Grey in the manly, awakened westerner.

Setting, as Grey acknowledged, cannot be the most important feature in fiction. Setting can instill atmosphere but it cannot keep pages turning and sustain interest. When Grey subordinated setting to characterization and plot, he created truly memorable heroes and heroines, and hence, great novels. In Last of the Plainsmen Buffalo Jones emerges as the major character -- but he must share the role with a wild mustang named White Streak.

Grey was smitten with the capricious horses of the Grand Canyon. They embodied some of the aspects that he loved about the West: recklesss power, unchecked passion, sleek elegance, and the raw elemental core of being. He came to worship them. So great was their power over him that they reappear time after time in such novels as Heritage of the Desert, Riders of the Purple Sage, and Wildfire. Frequently, as with White Streak, they become super-horses, able to fly at breakneck speed and leap gaping chasms. At a point in the narrative of Last of the Plainsmen, when Jones is unable to capture White Streak, Grey trembles with joy.

If Grey praises the abilities of the wild horses, he does not have the same reverence for the mountain lions of the Grand Canyon. Their capture by Jones, Emmett, and others forms the highlight -- or lowlight for modern readers -- of Greyfs remarkable trip into the northern desert. The action of the hunt, the effort to track and rope the mountain lion, is tainted for readers today by its lack of morality or concern for the animalfs welfare. For readers in 1908, already enamored of the current exploits of Teddy Roosevelt in a whirlwind hunting trip through the West, it was manly sport. By that time the buffalo was nearly eradicated, the beaver had been hunted to near extinction, and what remained -- the American lion -- became the target of early twentieth-century sportsmen.

Grey reveals that even though Buffalo Jones had turned conservationist he still maintained a casual disregard for the suffering of animals. Jim Emmett said of him that "he shore can make animals do what he wants. But I never seen a dog or horse that cared two bits for him."

Whether it is reverence for nature and animals or simply the thrill of the hunt, what leaps from the pages of The Last of the Plainsmen is Zane Grey's increasing attraction to the rough and tumble life. The endless vistas, the gritty dialogue of the men, the excitement of the trail, the danger that often clutched at his throat: from these features he assembled a body of knowledge and a storehouse of feelings that would stand him in good stead as a writer of western life.

Last of the Plainsmen ends with everyone hunched over the fire, reminiscing. Greyfs first western work closes without too many disasters or spiritual discoveries. Its major achievement is that it supplies the foundation on which are built all of Greyfs major novels.

In that respect, it was a bold beginning.

A literary historian, essayist, and novelist, ZGWS Member Stephen J. May is on the faculty of Colorado Northwestern College in Craig, Colorado. His other books include Pilgrimage, Footloose on the Santa Fe Trail, and Fire from the Skies. He is a former contributing editor of Southwest Art and is a member of the Colorado Authors' League.

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Historical images of Zane Grey used with permission of Dr. Loren Grey
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Historical photos of Zane Grey used with permission of Dr. Loren Grey