Sunday, September 19, 2021

Encounters of the First Kind : Amy French

While Amy French was giving me a tour of Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon she pointed at her name tag and declared, “I’m a breast cancer survivor. I just completed chemo. That’s why my hair’s so short.” It was almost the first thing she said to me. 

I replied that, “It’s quite stylish.” And it was.

Mary Colter's incredible Desert View Watchtower from 1932.

Amy who manages the Desert View outpost on the South Rim of the Canyon had given Peggy a tour of Colter’s masterpiece the previous day. Peggy described the experience as “almost spiritual.” She told me that Amy would give me the tour, too, if I was interested.  I was very interested. I'm a major Mary Colter devotee. 

When I entered a trim woman with close cropped hair was leaving the backroom. That’s the way Peggy described Amy. She looked like a runner to me. Lean and light on her feet.

So, I guessed, “You must be Amy. You gave my wife a tour of the tower yesterday. She said I might be able to get the tour, too. but I can see you’re really busy. This is probably a bad time.”

The Watchtower from the east.

Amy responded, “Not at all. This is a perfect time. Do you want to go up into the tower now?”

I answered, “Absolutely. Let’s do it.”

The view from the observation deck courtesy of Amy French who gave me the run of the joint.

This from the 'ruin' adjacent to the tower.

A window on the world

Amy led me up the narrow stairs with a leather wrapped handrail. Peggy had mentioned the handrail and Mary Colter’s superior attention to the details of her architecture. Colter was the head architect for the Fred Harvey Company for the first four decades of the 20th century and Grand Canyon National Park boasts the largest collection of her buildings in the country. To have that kind of influence on the design aesthetic of the Southwest is amazing enough but that she was a no nonsense, pants wearing, cigarette smoking woman in man’s world is all the more remarkable. Colter was certainly the preeminent female architect of her era and certainly my hero.

I asked Amy how she found her way to the Grand Canyon.

She told me that she and her partner David were RVing around the country. They had done menial jobs at various parks. They had worked at Red Rock National Monument outside Las Vegas and at Mount Rushmore before arriving at The Grand five years ago.

She told me that she was born in Arkansas, moved to Oklahoma, got her bachelors and masters degrees at Oklahoma State and the University of Oklahoma, respectively. She lived for ten years in Houston with her former husband. After her divorce she met her David and hit the bricks. I surmise she met him in the world of endurance running. Just a hunch.

They had both employed by the Grand Canyon Conservancy for five years. Amy rose through the ranks till she became manager of Desert View in July. Meanwhile David went back to medical school in Tempe after a 12-year hiatus. She told me that he had left school school to attend to family matters but was back where he belonged, studying to become doctor. "He's first in his class." she boasted.

Amy was the picture an endurance athlete. Unprompted, that told me she used to do ultramarathons but now she preferred backpacking. “It’s slower and you can see so much more than when you’re racing down rocky trail and trying not to fall.” I can relate. I'm a faller. David, it turns out, is an accomplished ultramarathoner who has won lots of long races in the US and in Europe. 

Amy is also a Native American jewelry aficionado as shown by the turquoise bling around her neck. I asked her where she got the impressive piece.

She answered, “I’d like to tell you an elaborate story about buying it directly from the jeweler at a remote trading post outside Window Rock, but the truth is that I got it online. I saw it and had to have it.”

This story is part of the developing series I’m calling Encounters of the First Kind. I have half a dozen of them so far and can visualize a series. My post about Ken Tinsley in Arroyo Hondo a few months ago launched me on a journey to meet strangers and to learn their stories while making their portraits. It's amazing what you can learn about a fellow human in half an hour. Or less.

Amy French was my first victim since I realized it's my mission in life. At least one of them.

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

What a fabulous blog, Steve! The opportunity that both you and Peggy had to be part of a "Mary Coulter" tour of Grand Canyon buildings is a once in a lifetime experience that most will never have. Thank goodness for Amy French. Her vibrance and excitement is evident in your first photograph of her. The selective coloring you used is the second life mission for you this summer, Steve! It appears you are on your way toward the aptly named "Close Encounters" series, however the title and series develops. The photographs are stunning! Well done! Many thanks for continuing on this journey.