An awkward moment occurred during my recent tour of the author Zane Grey’s, cabin in Northern Arizona. The tour guide was asked exactly what the relationship was between the best-selling author of westerns and his female secretary. After all, the two of them spent months alone in the isolated cabin on the Mogollon Rim of Northern Arizona. Zane set 23 of his westerns in this wilderness area which, even today, is known for its bears, deep canyons, tall pines, rushing creeks and solitude.
“Let’s just say that Zane had a very understanding wife,” said the tour guide and then quickly changed the subject, pointing out the bear skin on the cabin wall beside the rack of guns. In fact, Zane’s wife, Dolly, was at their other home in Altadena, California, raising their three children while her husband was busy at his cabin writing, fishing and hunting, among other things. Apparently, she knew of his affairs – of which there are purported to be several throughout his marriage. Ever supportive, both financially and with her editing skills, Dolly disregarded his personal transgressions and the two stayed married until their deaths.
I’d never read any of Zane Grey, but knew of his books due to the sheer volume of them. He wrote more than 100 books, and many were made into films and television series, one of the most notable being Riders of the Purple Sage. Visiting his cabin piqued my interest in the author and not just because I learned of his tabloid-like affairs. I wrongly assumed he was just a simple old cowboy writer.
Zane came from background of privilege. Born in 1872 in Ohio, he attended the University of Pennsylvania and became a dentist, like his father, but this was a profession which bored him. Naturally athletic, Zane loved baseball and fishing and saw a more exciting future away from teeth and toward the wild west. He worked hard at teaching himself to be a writer, and his love of the west, and the people who inhabited the free and wild open spaces, was the theme of his books and his life. He brought the west to people who wanted to have adventure without leaving the comfort and security of their living rooms.
During one of his travels in northern Arizona, as he explored mountains, rivers and valleys, taking notes on what he saw and heard, he met a hunting guide named Babe Haught. They became fast friends and the author had a cabin built in what is now called the Rim Country near the Haughts in 1921. He spent the next seven years visiting the cabin, mostly in the fall, writing and hunting.
Then, in 1930, he brought a hunting party to Arizona to film shooting a bear. Authorities met him at the train station in Flagstaff and told him he didn’t have the correct license. Zane, a man accustomed to doing as he pleased, swore never to visit Arizona, or his cabin again. He kept his word.
The cabin fell into disrepair and eventually was purchased by a wealthy Phoenix businessman who allowed people to visit it for free. Then came the Dude Fire in 1990. That same massive fire destroyed 28,000 acres and took the lives of several fire fighters.
Zane Grey’s cabin was burned to the ground. Its remote location, surrounded by tall pines, made it impossible to save. Loyal fans of Zane banded together and, with donated funds, rebuilt the cabin to exact specifications of the original, albeit a few miles away in the town of Payson. The tour guide on my recent visit said the replica where we stood was so like the original, “Zane would recognize it if he were to enter it today.”
One large room of the cabin contains a shelf of books, all authored by Zane Grey, a saddle, guns on a rack, one bed with a comfy-looking quilt, and a large table with a typewriter where Zane spun his tales. In the next room is a small kitchen where a cook from China prepared meals for Zane and the secretary.
Not a reader of westerns, the popularity of Zane’s books escaped me. Visiting the cabin, learning about his life, triggered enough interest for me to purchase a book by Zane that was set in the area near his cabin. Titled Woman of the Frontier, it contained much of what were essential ingredients in Zane’s books: man’s battle to conquer the land and make his mark in wild places.
Woman of the Frontier also told the story of the west from a pioneer woman named Lucinda’s perspective. There were cattle drives, gun battles and strong men, but Zane also wrote about Lucinda’s loneliness, raising children with a husband often away. What I found most rewarding was Zane’s ability to pair the emotions of his characters with the land.
Lucinda, the main character, is listening to the wind while her husband sleeps:
“There would come a lull and then a faint moan far off. It would grow and swell and sweep through the forest, mounting to a tremendous roar. She could feel the cabin move over the roots of the great swaying pines. The roar would move on, dying to a moan.”
I imagined Zane listening to the wind in his cabin on the canyon’s rim. Whether he felt such loneliness is uncertain, but he did use details to make the west come alive for his readers, and kept them buying his books and even driving to Payson, Arizona today to visit his cabin.
Zane, in the end, returned to his family. He died in 1939 in California of heart failure, with his wife still by his side.