Hiking Through a Museum of Late Things
Ruby's Inn and Bryce Canyon National Park in Winter
To the carloads of Utahns lacing hiking boots or quelling a crying baby in the visitors center to the busloads of European and Asian tourists blinking in the bright sunshine, there is no discernable difference between Ruby's Inn and Bryce Canyon National Park.
Indeed, the two, and even their history, have been intertwined ever since 1916, when Ruby and Minnie Syrett moved to the high plateau near the canyon and within a few seasons had opened Tourist Rest, a simple guest lodge that offered accommodations to travelers who had come to see the 'canyon' - actually a huge amphlitheater of eroded sandstone hoodoos, spires and arches.
Ruby Syrett, a Panguitch farmer and rancher with lots of energy, fortitude and capacity for getting others to understand his country, early on emerged as the area's biggest supporter, and when the time came for the forest service to open the plateau for tourism, Syrett donated the land for a road that to this day carries millions of visitors to places like Sunset Point, Sunrise Point and Yovimpa Point, each with their far-off view of pink and red cliffs and up-close views of otherworldly sculpted sandstone, intimate slot canyons and an amazing variety of plant and animal life. Tourist Rest quickly morphed into Ruby's Inn, which has stood at the entrance to the park for more than 80 years now.
Though they were ardent supporters of the park, Ruby and Minnie Syrett likely had no idea what their diminuitive Tourist Rest would grow into. The pair came to Bryce by buggy over rough roads, seeking opportunity and success in new territory then largely unexplored.
The couple, along with a young son and daughter, homesteaded on a stark plateau dotted with sagebrush and ponderosa pine forests. Over a period of 15 years, according to Armeda Syrett Farnsworth's curious book 'The Legacy of Ruby's Inn,' Ruby and Minnie acquired more than 1,000 acres, including their home and farm and what would later become the Bryce Canyon Airport.
By 1919, groups of tourists were beginning to arrive at Bryce Canyon, and Ruby and Minnie accommodated them by preparing camping beds and meals, and soon they decided to build a permanent lodge. Tourist Rest, as it was called, was a log structure with 10 tent cabins, an open-air dance hall, and a bathtub. The family also fed their guests, using cheese, beef, pork, eggs, milk, butter and vegetables raised on the farm.
The Syretts were not promoting Bryce on their own, however. About that same time J.W. Humphrey, a forest service supervisor, was transferred to the area. At first he said he couldn't care less about the wonders of Bryce, but after he saw the area firsthand he became a staunch supporter, and helped build roads in the area. Soon after this, the Salt Lake Tribune Sunday Magazine published a story about Bryce, complete with driving directions. The rush was on.
Tourist Rest prospered until 1923 when Union Pacific, the powerful railroad company, learned Ruby had only obtained verbal permission to open the lodge. They forced a sale of the property and demolished it to build their own lodge. Undaunted, Ruby and Minnie build a new lodge on their original homesteaded land. Though the structure soon burned to the ground - a tragedy that was to become all-too-commonplace through the years - a new lodge was build in its place. When the state decided to put a road to the canyon, Ruby donated 15 of his own acres and allowed his property to be cut in two. That road is still there today, and Ruby's stands as the closest lodge to the park entrance. Bryce Canyon National Park was dedicated in 1925.
Ruby's Inn, as the lodge was called, grew along with the popularity of the park. Though Bryce Canyon was an obvious draw, Ruby's Inn was an attraction by itself, too. The Syretts continued to cook the meals themselves, Ruby guided tours into the canyon or disseminated advice to travelers. Horse rides were popular, as were after-dinner talks and slide shows, music, cowboy singing, and Western entertainment.
A true do-it-yourselfer, Ruby built a sawmill for cutting lumber used in construction, added a power plant, and built an art studio for Hal Rumel, a photographer who would popularize the region. But even before Ruby died he had begun to transfer management to the second generation of his family. The lodge went through extensive additions in the 1960s and 1970s, when dozens of motel units were added, along with a banguiet room, new kitchen, rodeo grounds, Old Bryce Town - a reconstructed Western-themed street scene - a campground and scores of small stores and recreation rooms. Today, Ruby's Inn includes a post office, liquor store, restaurant, art-for-sale gallery, a large general store and gift shop, and a small food store, and is a Best Western hotel franchise. There are more than 300 rooms, plus an indoor swimming pool and another outdoor pool. Crews groom 50 km of cross country ski track during the winter. Ruby died May 8, 1945; Minnie died May 21, 1966.
The height of the winter season these days is Presidents' Day weekend, when thousands converge at Ruby's for ski races and tours, special archery and photography clincs, and a host of other special events. This year, the event was held two weeks earlier, the first weekend in February, to coincide with the passing of the Olympic Torch, which was run along the canyon rim. Laura and I attended a special interpretive program one night presented by Alan Titus, the paleontologist for nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Titus and his crews last summer found a bevy of new dinosaur skeletons, including some new genuses. 'It's very, very tedious work,' Titus told a rapt audience, describing the difficulty of pulling fragile fossils from steep mountainsides.
On the morning before the Torch was to come through the park, Laura and I ate a leisurely breakfast while we waited for it to warm up outside. This is the high country - the lodge is just under 8,000 feet high, and winter mornings typically start out in the single digits or lower. The Ruby's Inn restaurant was half-filled with eaters, some of them still sleepy, others already dressed in lycra and ready for a day on the ski trails. Over in the corner, Titus sat down with a friend and ordered breakfast. Outside, a group of official vehicles with the Olympic Torch Relay pulled up, likely to hammer out details of tomorrow's event. Our breakfast and coffee fill-ups came. We glanced outside at the sky. It was deep and blue, but from the breath floating off the travelers who walked across the parking lot and into Ruby's Inn, it didn't seem to be warming up.
Into the Park
This is actually a two part story: the first is about Ruby's Inn, the second is about Bryce Canyon in the winter.
By mid-morning it has warmed up a bit, and out in the sun it is comfortable - if you are dressed right. The trail we take leads down form Sunrise Point to an area called Queen's Garden - a 'garden' where Claron Formation sandstone appears to grow skyward like wild asparagus. The trail, snowpacked but not slippery, winds among towering hoodoos and spires and carves through the occasional cut tunnel before unwinding into a beautiful ponderosa pine forest.
Like I said before, they call Bryce a 'canyon' though it is actually an amphlitheater. Tens of millions of years ago great seas covered this area of the West, and deposited sediments of verying thickness as it rose, shrank and rose again. When the sea retreated finally, great rivers flowed from the surrounding highlands, depositng more sediment. About 10 million years ago the region uplifted, then volcanic material from the north and west showered the area. Driven by underground forces, great blocks tilted north and south along fault lines, forming the great plateaus of south central Utah. Later, smaller amounts of water moving over the area broke into the relatively soft sandstone layers cut apart weak segments, leaving harder rock as fins that later stood alone as spires. Voila - the canyon as you see it.
After about an hour, our trail, the 2.3-mile Navajo Loop, took a sharp turn to the south and began to climb steeply into a narrow canyon that was punctuated by massive Douglas fir. This was the base of Wall Street, perhaps the most famous landmark in the park. Past the trees the canyon walls rose vertically for a hundred feet or more, and sunlight on the rocks outside seemed to seep into the slot, causing the rock walls to glow orange and pink. Abruptly the canyon widens into an alluvial fan, and the trail hairpins up the steep slope until we can again overlook the park.
I'd been to Bryce many times before, but never in the winter, and even on a familiar trail like the Navajo Loop the mantle of snow that clung to the spires, and the low angle of the sun, lent a new and mysterious feel to the park.
Despite the popularity of the weekend, we seemed to have the place to ourselves. We met just a handful of people on the trail, and later, while standing before eternity on Bryce Point, just one other couple was there enjoying the view. Contrast that with summer, when a steady stream of visitors humming along in a dozen languages lends a decidedly more urban feel to the park, and cars line up out in the parking lots trolling for a parking spot.
If the summer at Bryce is about life and greenery and growth and community, then winter seems to be a time of solace and reflection. We were mostly quiet on our hike. The afternoon passed peacefully. All too soon it was time to head home.
For more information, please contact the Garfield County Travel Council at 435-676-1160 or 800-444-6689.
For more information on Ruby's Inn, go to www.rubysinn.com.
A Note to Readers
The title for this week's story is a reference to a book of poems by Utah writer Richard Cronshey.
And a thanks to everyone who wrote me kind letters after seeing Chris Wragge's interview and story on me last week, which aired Monday night on Channel Two news in Houston. It was a great time.
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