GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Zane Grey had to be thinking that he’d bitten off more than he could chew as he stared up at two cougars perched in the high branches of a Ponderosa near the Grand Canyon.

Zane Grey at Lonely Dell, where he was with Buffalo Jones and Jim Emett on a mountain lion hunting adventure to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, circa 1908 | Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons, St. George News

“It had all happened so quickly that I could scarcely realize it … Both lions snarling at me brought me to a keen appreciation of the facts in the case,” Grey recalled. “Two full-grown lions to be kept treed without hounds, without a companion, without a gun!” 

A Sigma Nu frat boy who had studied dentistry and played baseball at the University of Pennsylvania, Grey was out of his element in this wild western landscape. He was an aspiring writer who suffered bouts of depression and mood swings that he described as “a hyena lying in ambush.” In 1907 he attended a lecture in New York City by a hunter and guide named Charles “Buffalo” Jones.

Inspired by the thought of an adventure that could jump-start his writing career and perhaps help keep his “black spells” at bay, Grey arranged to join Jones for a mountain lion hunting trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The trip delivered the goods, giving Grey grist for his literary mill with raging rivers, sheer cliffs, stunning sunsets, searing heat and a cast of colorful characters with which to populate his future novels.

“Surely, of all the gifts that have come to me from contact with the West,” he later wrote, “this one of sheer love of wildness, beauty, color, grandeur, has been the greatest, the most significant for my work.”

Zane Grey’s most successful novel, “Riders of the Purple Sage,” was published in 1912 by Harpers and has sold over two million copies in 20 languages | Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons, St. George News

In a few short years, Grey would become the most famous of Western authors, with his novel, “Riders of the Purple Sage” selling over two million copies and being adapted for five different movies. But when he confronted the mountain lions in the Ponderosa near the Grand Canyon in 1908, he was unknown and his fame and fortune lay in the future.

The immediate product of the trip was a novel about the exploits of Jones titled “The Last of the Plainsmen,” which became the fourth work in a row rejected by the editors at Harpers, but later issued by another publisher. Feeling depressed but compelled to press on, Grey spent the next four months writing his next novel, “The Heritage of the Desert,” which became a best seller and his first real publishing success.

A central figure in the novel is a Mormon rancher named August Naab who is based on a real person, Jim Emett who lived at Lonely Dell on the banks of the Colorado River where he operated Lee’s Ferry. It was Emett who both helped Grey out of his jam with the mountain lions and who helped him learn to endure his black spells. In an April 1926 article about the lion hunt published in The American Magazine, Grey called Emett “The Man Who Influenced Me Most.”

Grey and Jones met Emett in Flagstaff, Arizona on their way to the hunt. They invited Emett to join them and laid over a few days at his homestead at Lonely Dell on their way. Emett and his family operated Lee’s Ferry as a calling from The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, which at the time owned the ferry. Grey was struck by the splendid isolation of the location and by the character of the man who called it home.

In his American Magazine article, Grey recounted his visit.

“It was pitch dark when we reached Emett’s home,” Grey wrote. “There were log cabins under rustling cottonwoods. Back of these, black walls of stone seemed to loom to the white stars … Dawn opened my eyes to what seemed the strangest and most wonderful place in the world.”

A photo of Jim Emett taken by Zane Grey on the hunting trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona circa 1908 | Photo courtesy Memories in, St. George News

Lonely Dell, as Grey recounts, “was set at the edge of a luxuriant oasis, green with foliage and alfalfa, colored by bright flowers, and shut in on three sides by magnificent red walls three thousand feet high. The thundering Colorado formed a fourth side and separated the oasis from another colossal wall across the river. Paria Creek ran down from the cliff to water this secluded and desert-bound spot. The low log cabins, crude and picturesque, were shaded by a grove of old cottonwoods spreading and gnarled, like the oaks of the Druids.”

Grey declared Emett “a splendid carpenter” who built his own cabins, sheds, and furniture, as well as harnesses from hides he tanned and buckles he forged himself. Grey marveled at the animals that had the run of the place: “Dogs, rabbits, burros, a deer, a coyote, two foxes, squirrels, cats and quail, lambs and rams, colts and horses, all mingled together with the children in a lazy, drowsy, contented life, characteristic of Emett’s household.”

It seemed to Grey that Emett helped “anything crippled, hurt, lost, deserted, or sick … He loved and cared for all these creatures as he did the children.”

After a brief stay, the party left Lonely Dell and traveled on to the North Rim with their pack of hounds. Their quest was part of a tragically misguided program initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 when he established the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve and protect deer by killing and relocating predators.

Between 1906 to 1923 more than eight hundred cougars, thirty wolves, thousands of coyotes and hundreds of bobcats were killed or removed. During their hunt, Jones, Grey, Emett and their party captured three mountain lions which were shipped by rail to other areas in the West.

A photo taken by Zane Grey of Buffalo Jones and Jim Emett loading a mountain lion onto the back of a pack horse. The photo is from the April 1926 edition of The American Magazine, Grand Canyon, Arizona | Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons, St. George News

In “The Heritage of the Desert,” Emett becomes the model for August Naab, who saves a man named John Hare from near death in the desert. While being nursed back to health on Naab’s ranch, Hare falls in love with Naab’s adopted Navajo daughter, Mescal.

But she is also the object of affection of both Naab’s no-account son Snap and a cattle rustler named Holderness. John Hare is soon compelled to fight for what he loves: Mescal, Naab and the splendid scenery of the desert. Readers around the world gobbled it up.

In his article in The American Magazine, Grey reveals more of himself than he may have intended as he explains what he admired most about Emett. Despite his gift for the muse, Grey struggled throughout his life to survive his mood swings and bouts of depression.

I conquered one mood only to fall prey to the next … I wandered about like a lost soul or a man who was conscious of imminent death. The most beneficent thing that Emett taught me, was to endure. If he was to survive there, he must endure loneliness, hunger, thirst, cold, heat, the fierce sandstorm, the desert blizzard, poverty … and pain, pain, always some kind of pain. These were the things that taught Emett endurance. — Zane Grey

Reflecting on Emett’s influence on him, Grey concluded that “I had to revere him. I had to love him. And, in as much as was possible for me, I gritted my teeth and began the development of endurance [which] sustained me through years of defeat, of deferred longing and labor, when otherwise I would have fallen by the wayside.”

Although he didn’t explicit say so, it seems clear that Grey was thanking Emett for helping him keep the “hyena lying in ambush” at bay as he forged a remarkable career that made him a household name and his works beloved to this day.

Editor’s note: Sources for this article include biographical information on Zane Grey on Wikipedia, biographical information on James Emett on, and “The Man Who Influenced Me Most” in the April 1926 edition of The American Magazine.

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