He could fish with the best of them, knew the outdoors like the back of his hand, played a mean game of baseball and left behind a lasting legacy as one of the great Western novelists.
Yet I think Zane Grey would have made an even better travel writer.
Louis L’Amour gets all the credit for writing about the land, and how many times have we heard him say that if he writes about a rock, you can go to that place and sit on that rock? I don’t know if I believe it, though. I mean, every time a L’Amour hero gets in trouble, he finds a cave, and just how many caves can a hero find? But Zane Grey’s hero? It was the land.
Okay, maybe his heroes were guys with names like Lassiter. Sure, some critics have dismissed his writing, his skimpy history, his dialogue, but most of them praise his descriptions and characterizations of the landscape. He certainly knew and loved the land, especially in Northern Arizona.
Pictures of Grey (even in his baseball uniform) hang on the walls at the lodge at Mormon Lake. The countryside is as he described it in Prescott and, of course, the Grand Canyon and all the way up to southern Utah, the land of the purple sage.
Grey also loved Flagstaff and often hung his hat at the Hotel Monte Vista. The 50 rooms in this historic hotel are named after its many celebrity guests: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, Lee Marvin. But among the most popular is No. 210, named after … Zane Grey. The fact that it’s allegedly haunted doesn’t surprise me … but to be haunted by a phantom bellboy? Phantom Mormons, phantom Apaches, phantom discarded lovers, maybe, but a bellboy?
Yet the heart of Zane Grey’s Arizona lies around Payson. They call it the Rim Country, but for Grey fans, it’ll always be the Tonto Basin.
Grey spent a lot of time in his 1922 cabin near Tonto Creek, writing when not hunting or fishing, until he got ticked off with Arizona’s Game and Fish officials over a hunting permit, told Arizona where to shove it and left. Not very heroic.
Before he left in a huff, Grey had written 24 novels based in Arizona, half of those set in the Tonto Basin.
Grey’s cabin burned in the 1990 Dude Fire, but local fan Dick Wolfe wouldn’t let Grey’s legacy remain in ashes. As president of the Zane Grey Cabin Foundation, he led the charge to re-create Grey’s cabin, relocating it in Payson as part of the Rim Country Museum. The cabin, complete with Grey memorabilia and decorated to look like Grey’s hunting-fishing-writing camp, opened in October 2005.
“The cabin allows visitors to learn more about Grey and his time here and his place in history,” Wolfe says.
You can get a heavy Zane Grey fix at the cabin and Rim Country Museum, but for a final touch, I head over to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park—its 400-foot long bridge is believed to be the world’s largest natural travertine bridge. It sure is inspiring.
The pine forests … the hidden valley … the vistas … no wonder Grey loved this country. Why, there are even caves. Real caves. Louis L’Amour would be jealous.
Road warrior Johnny D. Boggs recommends the Best Western Payson Inn and Flagstaff’s Museum Club.