(This is the second chapter in the life and times of Blanche Russell. This story is a fictional account of an actual woman who traveled to Northern Arizona and made a life for herself and her husband in a rugged land of high cliffs, endless sky, and wide open spaces.)
When their car broke down the young couple was fortunate enough to be parked alongside a small creek that flowed from the plateau that towered above them. They had just come across the Colorado River by ferry at the only crossing for hundreds of miles—a place called Lee’s Ferry, named after a fugitive on the run from the law. A man who had been sent into the area by Brigham Young, after leading an armed force against unwanted settlers in the area south of Cedar Creek, Utah. The town that Bill and Blanche Russell had set their sights on, but never reached.
When the sun rose on that first night, Blanche was in awe of what she saw. She looked east, towards another row of high rising cliffs, and witnessed one of the most beautiful sunrises she had ever seen. The land before her hid the canyon that the massive Colorado called home. The canyon that John Wesley Powell had named Marble Canyon. It looked so peaceful, but Blanche suspicioned that the land held secrets of violence that could never be told. It would take a strong individual to live here. Blanche was not sure she was up to the task—she only knew that she had to try.
Bill slowly sat up and took a deep breath. A breath that did not include pain. One that, just a few short months prior, would have led to a fit of coughing that would incapacitate him and make him wish he were dead. Blanche lovingly gazed upon her husband. For him and his new found health, she was going to make this place their home.
“Bill, just look at how beautiful this is. We can make a home here.”
“It is lovely, Blanche. But, what will we do to survive.”
“God will look after us. For now, though, we need shelter. We have fresh water nearby. This cliff behind us looks like it might protect us from some of the elements of nature, and the land here looks level. I say we build us a house.”
Without trees to cut for lumber, the young couple began building a small structure from the rocks and boulders that dotted the landscape. They enlisted the help of some of the young cowboys in the area, trading labor for home cooked meals. In no time at all they had a small building with a roof. One of its walls consisted of a large boulder that looked like it had come from somewhere up on the cliff, eons ago. The other three walls, and fireplace, were constructed of rock. A few solid beams laid across the structure, supported by two of the walls, to be the foundation for an eventual permanent roof. To begin with, though, they covered their home with sod pulled from the surrounding desert. They finished their building project a few scant weeks before winter arrived.
That first year was a tough one. It was a cold winter, with temperatures plummeting to below the freezing mark, and many days snow fell from the sky. The lack of timber close by forced the couple to travel long distances to retrieve firewood, and quite often resort to burning dried cow patties they collected from the desert floor spread out before them. Several times the idea of leaving, and returning to New York, came up in discussion, but Blanche would not hear of it. This place, next to the small stream called Soap Creek, was going to be their home. It was peaceful and quiet, and Bill was healthier than he had been since he went off to war. No, they were not moving, and when Blanche put her foot down, the decision was final.
By the end of that first year Blanche had made a name for herself. Her home-cooked meals were gaining a reputation. Word spread fast across the land, and soon many of the hired hands from the ranches in the area were stopping by for the good food, good company, and news of the world.
Bill was traveling to Lee’s Ferry for supplies, and, while there, would gather information of what was happening throughout the country. This news was the basis for discussions that would last well into the night. The home of Bill and Blanche Russell was the center of life for the area, and people, mostly the rugged men who called this desert home, would flock from miles around just to eat, drink, and enjoy one another’s company.
The 18th Amendment, and the Volstead Act, had put a stop to the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the United States. It did not, however, stop the visitors to Blanche’s kitchen from bringing their drink, much of it squeezed from the stills that were hidden in the high country to the west. This led to some high times and wild parties, and helped to grow the legend of the little town next to Soap Creek.
Within a couple of years there were several outbuildings and a few more homes on the property. The people that came from miles around began to refer to the dozen, or so, people who lived there as Cliff Dwellers. The name stuck. It wasn’t official, but everyone knew who, what, and where Cliff Dwellers was, and Saturday nights it was the place to be. The only thing that put a damper on the weekly get togethers was the few weekends out of the year that weather slowed things to a crawl, or those times when Bill was felled by a relapse of the deadly tuberculosis that had invaded his body.
The Immigration Act of 1924 was a major topic of discussion at Cliff Dwellers. Many of the people who settled in the area were descendants of immigrants to this country, and the limits placed on the number of immigrants allowed into the United States had a polarizing affect on the little community. A few were for, and many against, the Act.
The most talked about act of the government that year, though, was the law signed by President Coolidge on June 2, 1924. This law was designed to grant citizenship to the Native Americans of the country. It did not accomplish all it was supposed to, and with the Navajo and Hopi Reservations nearby, the discussions in Blanche’s kitchen were heated, and many times stretched well into the night.
Blanche did not involve herself with political discussions. She thought only of the health of her husband, and the state of her small community. Bill, mostly, enjoyed good health while living in the comforting shade of the Vermillion Cliffs, but there were days when his body could not withstand the ravages of the tubercular bacteria. It was during those times when Blanche would fear the worst. She could not envision a life without the man she loved. She could not imagine returning to her family in New York, and she knew she would not want her life to go on without Bill. When the coughing fits would overtake his body, Blanche would be by his bedside, both day and night, until he was able to breathe comfortably again. This did not occur often, but when it did Blanche closed the doors on her kitchen and tended only to her husband. The small community would settle into a quiet existence, and the talk throughout the area would be about what life would be like without Bill and Blanche Russell.
(Thus ends the second chapter in the life and times of Blanche Russell. Sometime in the very near future we shall see how the love of her husband, and the place she called home, influenced the development of a harsh land.)