Over the Bridge and up the Hill
By Lyman Hafen
Not long ago I was invited to an evening gathering of colleagues at a home in the St. George neighborhood of Stone Cliff. As I drove south down River Road toward the bridge spanning the Virgin River, I remembered boyhood rides on my bike coasting down that same road. Today the road is hemmed in by block walls, strip malls, handsome houses and tall office buildings. There are a number of busy intersections and you might find yourself backed up 20 vehicles deep at any of its traffic lights. In the early 1960s when I’d fly down that path on my bike, you were lucky if you saw one rickety old farm truck trudging up the road toward you. The narrow paved path was lined with wide fields of alfalfa and tall stands of milo maize. All of that glorious open space waved in the easy summer breeze.
As a boy, I’d always stop at the ancient iron trestle bridge that spanned the river and climb to the top of it and from my perch on that arch of hot flat iron, survey the width and breadth of my known world. But the other day I just floated across the modern concrete bridge in my car, hardly aware I’d crossed a river. As I turned left at the intersection south of the bridge, my eyes fixed on the huge complex known as the Summit Athletic Club. Decades ago, that flat at the foot of Stone Cliff was covered with river-bottom tamarisk whose thousands of branches hosted even more thousands of roosting crows at certain times of the year. I belong to the Summit Athletic Club, but I’ve never set foot in that giant building in the river bottoms. Instead, I spend about 45 minutes, three times a week, in their smaller satellite gym on Sunset Boulevard.
That evening as I visited with friends and associates on the majestic balcony of a Stone Cliff home, I took stock of one of the most amazing views on earth. It consisted of several layers, including the full panorama and purple mountain majesty of Pine Valley Mountain on the high horizon, all the way down to the immediate scene below where sprawling new neighborhoods spread out from the foot of the hill, and the crestfallen ruins and remnants of the old farms seemed to be hanging on ‘til the bitter end. The sight of those dilapidated barns and fallen fences and precariously leaning sheds set my mind wandering.
I remembered a day 20 years ago when I had a chance to work alongside my father out at our family ranch in Clover Valley, Nevada. As the day drew to a close, I made ready to drive home so I could be back at my desk job by eight the next morning. I stood with my shoulders slumped and sweat running down my face and looked at Dad, still holding his shovel, who was pushing 65 at the time, and who still planned on putting in two or three more hours before sundown.
“You work too hard,” I said to Dad as I stepped into the pickup. “You need to ease up a little.” He lifted his hat and rubbed a dirty sleeve across his forehead. He looked at me and smiled.
“The only man I know who worked himself to death was Johnny Schmutz,” Dad said. “He went to the field every day from sun-up to sun-down, right up to the day he died. I think he was 103.”
Standing on that Stone Cliff balcony, I could see immediately below me what remained of the Schmutz Farm. In fact, it struck me in that moment that when I was growing up, this hill was not known as Stone Cliff. It was called Schmutz Hill. When I was small I remember Dad pointing out an elderly man walking down the streets of St. George. “That’s John Schmutz,” Dad would tell me. “He’s on his way down to the farm. He walks there every day, works the day long, and walks back home at night. He’s been doing it every day for as long as I remember, and I suppose he will do it until the day he dies.”
This would have been in the early 1960s, and John Schmutz would have been well into his 80s by then. I know where John Schmutz lived in the heart of old St. George. His farm was a good five mile walk from the house. I wondered, as I gazed down across the roofs of the magnificent homes of Stone Cliff, and on across the flat where the Schmutz Farm has pretty much been subsumed by handsome houses, what John Schmutz would think of us modern day desk jockeys. He’d have to be baffled at all the golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools and pickle ball pavilions we’ve built to give our bodies exercise. There was no need for such extravagances when you walked ten miles round trip to work each day, and when you got to work you pulled weeds, milked cows, cleaned ditches, pitched hay, wrestled calves, and repaired fences.
I settled back in my soft chair on the balcony and remembered how hard my dad used to work out at the ranch. He spent much of the day with a shovel in his hands and he never dreamed of changing into sweats to lift a barbell or scamper along to nowhere on a treadmill. Never mind the thought of actually paying money to do it. None of that ever made sense to him. Like the old timers who came before him, Dad never lifted anything unless it needed to be moved. He never walked unless he needed to go somewhere. And he never ran unless he needed to go there faster. And all his life his days were full of heavy things that needed to be moved, and plenty of places he needed to get to, and many that he needed to get to faster. And if he needed to go there even quicker, he saddled a horse.
I shared these thoughts with some of the folks on the balcony that evening and mused about how much things have changed in just one generation. They smiled in courteous agreement and went on talking about the vital tweets and posts of the day. Before long I got up, said my goodbyes, and walked out to my car. I had an early date at the gym in the morning.