Scott Thybony's Grand Canyon Commentary: 'Mystery Camp'

Jan 17, 2014

Writer Scott Thybony loves a good mystery, especially when it involves the Grand Canyon. In his latest commentary, Thybony shares the story of how a missing canteen might be connected to a missing cowboy.

Cowboy camp. Everything but the canteen...and the cowboy.
Credit Scott Thybony

For those who prefer their own company to others, the Grand Canyon provides all the solitude needed. It has a long tradition of hermits and self-made characters like Badwater Bill and Red Wolf, not to mention a string of solitary prospectors. Some of them are well known, like Louis Boucher whose image as a hermit was carefully shaped by the Santa Fe Railroad for marketing purposes. But most passed through leaving few traces. I'm still wondering about one of them.

With a couple of friends, I once headed into a hard to reach section of the western canyon on a multi-day trek. Entering a ravine we dropped our backpacks next to a rock shelter and noticed an old camp tucked under the overhang. A roping saddle sat among the long-abandoned items, which surprised me since a cowboy would need a compelling reason to leave it behind. Desperation might do it. I checked the gear and took a quick inventory: bedroll and panniers, a graniteware coffee pot and skillet, a plate and eating utensils, cans of green beans and peanut butter, a stash of firewood, horseshoes and shoeing nails, an ax, a Mentholatum jar filled with matches. It appeared to be a standard outfit except for one missing item - no canteen.

We figured it would have taken a rider at least 3 days to get there by horseback, following a rugged and mostly dry trail below the rim. And the cowboy, whoever he was, must have planned on finding water in the wash below us. It contained a deep pothole, but not deep enough to trust your life to it. One dry water pocket and the world suddenly turns grim. I could see a cowboy reaching this point only to discover the waterhole he was counting on had gone dry. Leaving his gear behind, he took his canteen and went looking for water - and for some reason never returned.

Back on the rim, I asked around, but was unable to turn up any solid leads on a cowboy who had gone missing in the area. Only later when I interviewed Cecil Cram, a former deputy sheriff who had spent much of his life cowboying on the Arizona Strip, did a clue turn up. We met at his home in Fredonia, and after taking care of other business I asked about the abandoned camp. He called a friend who had run cattle in those parts, sometimes with a permit, sometimes without. The best guess they could come up with was an old cow puncher they knew, a veteran of World War I who had lived a solitary life running a few head of cattle down in the canyons.

"He didn't have a truck," Cecil told me. "He always came into town with a pack horse to buy up groceries to last for 3 to 6 months. He always kept a calf in camp so as to get milk from the mother. He wandered everywhere, and sometimes he didn't even know where he was." After a number of years the old-timer stopped showing up, and nobody knew what had happened to him. "Some people think he returned to Texas," Cecil said, "but nobody knows for sure."

And by not knowing, the mystery remains, leaving us with only an abandoned camp and a missing canteen.