John Hance, Grand Canyon’s Windjammer

John Hance
John Hance

In the old days they used to say that anyone who visited the Grand Canyon and didn’t meet the great windjammer, Captain John Hance, had missed an experience nearly as colorful at the canyon itself.

For some twenty years He provided lying and lodging for the tourists. The dudes never knew just how much of Captain Hance’s stories to believe; he could paint a story redder’n a Navajo blanket. He always led his listeners down the paths of plausibility and they had to figure out when to get off.

Hance came to the canyon in the 1880 to look for gold but found far more success as a storyteller and trail guide.

The legend began one day when he was pointing out the various landmarks to some tourists at the South Rim.

“Why Captain Hance,”a lady asked, “how did you lose the tip of your finger?”

He’d lost it in a roping accident a few years earlier but he paused and stared at the missing finger as if noticing it for the first time then replied, “Why ma’am, I reckon I plumb wore off the end of that thing pointing at all the scenery out here for the past thirty years.”

Nobody knows why they called him Cap’n; he never was a captain but it just seemed to fit.

The audience loved it and from that day his reputation grew, just like his tall tales. Like the time he was riding his favorite white horse, Darby, (He called all his horses by the same name, claiming it made it easier for him to remember their names) near Red Butte along the South Rim when he saw a band of angry Ute warriors approaching from the west. Looking over his shoulder to the south several hundred Apache were fast-approaching. Darby set up and turned the other way only to find a painted up war party of Navajo were riding hard in his direction. His only chance of escape was to jump the Grand Canyon. They didn’t have a minute to waste. Was ol’ Darby going to be up to the challenge?

That horse got a runnin’ start and gave it a mighty leap. Up and over the canyon they soared. About half way across though, Cap’n Hance let his eyes drift downward. Several thousand feet below, the mighty Colorado looked like a tiny, reddish-brown ribbon twisting and winding between the steep canyon walls.

Ol’ Darby got curious too and looked down. He’d never seen a better example of nature’s work of art. Great Scott! Gazing at all those wondrous wonders caused him to lose his concentration. It was only ten miles across to the North Rim and that was a jump he could have done standing on his head but suddenly, they were losing altitude. They began to fall like an elevator gone berserk. Cap’n Hance knew the only way they’d survive was to pull up on ol’ Darby. Ya see he was a cuttin’ horse and he could turn on a nickel and give ya some change.

The cap’n took a firm grip on the reins and hollered “Whoa Darby, whoa.”

Well, you should have seen it! That horse put on the skids and pulled up short just two feet from the canyon floor. They glided safely down the rest of the way.

During inclement weather, a layer of dense fog sometimes fills the canyon from rim to rim. Cap used to tell the tourists that often times when this occurred he and Darby would ride across the fog bank to the North Rim. There was a skeptic in one group who questioned the plausibility of such a trek.

“You all go into the dining room and have dinner. Me and Darby will ride over to the North Rim. We should be there by the time you finish eating. I’ll build a big campfire so that you can see my camp.”

Sure enough, when the tourists returned from dinner they looked across to the North Rim and derned if there wasn’t a camp fire exactly where he said it would be.

On one occasion when crossing on a fog bank they were about midway the fog began to lift causing old Darby to have to leapfrog from one patch to another to reach the other side. But soon they ran out of fog and the two slipped through a hole and landed on top of Zoroaster Temple. The cap’n and Darby were marooned out on that rocky monolith for weeks before another blanket of fog covered the canyon. “It was a light fog,” he later recalled, “but by then Darby and me was a whole lot lighter too.”

There was a time when one of his whoppers got him into a heap of trouble. Like the time a stranger asked him how the deer hunting was around the South Rim.

“Why shucks,” he replied, “I went out this morning and bagged three all by myself!”

“That’s wonderful,” the stranger exclaimed. “Do you know who I am?”

“No, I don’t,” Hance replied.

“Well, I’m the new game warden around here.”

Undaunted, Cap’n Hance snorted, “and do you know who I am?”

“Well”, came the reply, “I’m John Hance, the biggest damn liar in these parts.”

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