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Confluence: How the love of rivers brought a local couple together

Susan McCulla and John Parson. Photo by LCGross

She fell in love with his sense of humor. He loves how she loves what he loves.

“I’m blessed that she loves history so much,” he says.

“He makes it so relatable,” she replies.

They both love roads and maps. Twice retired, they explore the countryside, looking for hidden pieces of forgotten roads. Learning about the way things were. 

They have a mutual love for the rivers. Especially where they merge.

“Confluence,” says Susan McCulla, is an enduring essence of the relationship.

Susan was hooked on her first Salt River trip in 1983. She felt connected to the Dutch Woman Butte through her German roots and wanted more time on the river. She was married and living in Cottonwood, raising two daughters. Today she marvels at how beautifully they turned out, given the family motto:

“If the river’s up, Mom’s out!”

John Parson moved to Arizona on Valentine’s Day 1979. In 1980, a high water year, he kayaked the Salt River for the first time. He fell out of the boat at every rapid.

“I should have drowned,” says John. “It was a terrible experience.”

He went on 10 trips that year, including a Grand Canyon River trip. He was hooked. He moved to Flagstaff and became a river guide. 

John came to Cottonwood as the main speaker at an intergovernmental meeting for the Verde Valley. Susan’s husband, Cottonwood’s Director of Parks and Rec, suggested she attend John’s presentation on the Verde River.

“If you love the river, you should go hear this guy talk,” he told her. 

John wowed Susan with his presentation. Afterward, she asked if he would take her out on the river.

“And I did,” said John. “A lot of times.”

John and Susan next met at the River Runners Rendezvous in Telluride, Colorado, a few years later. Susan drove solo, listening to Kenny G all the way there. She didn’t see him during the event, but when it was over, John needed a ride home to Flagstaff. He had an offer to ride shotgun in somebody’s pickup, along with an unwashed, undisciplined dog. Fortunately, Susan gave him a lift. John captivated her with his stories.

“But he didn’t talk too much,” says Susan. “He kept me wanting more.”

A year or so later she was divorced and the two have been together ever since.

Paddling a Platform

“From 1980 to 2001, everything I did related back to the river in one way or another,” says John.

In 1986, he ran as an Independent for state representative. In 1988, he ran for Congress. In 1990, he ran for State Representative, and in 1992, County Supervisor. A single-issue candidate, John put the spotlight on the Verde River. By the early ’80s, sand and gravel mining companies had started operating right in the middle of the river. Causeways and levies were created, and the river was dredged.

“Unbelievably destructive to everything,” says John, who was a river guide at the time. “It destroys the river.”

For three years, he and Susan paddled legislators down the river to show them what was going on. It took more than six years to stop the dredging of the river. Parsons Riverfront Preserve is named in honor of John’s efforts.

“We had a good time doing all that stuff,” says John. “The upshot of it was that we built a constituency for the river that has synergized since then and is now a model of citizen participation on behalf of the river.” 

Moving Communities

One of the campground settings with Parsons truck and 15’ camp trailer that make life on the road so rewarding. Courtesy Photo

By 1993, John and Susan were living together on the banks of the Verde River. That year, a flood prompted them to move to a property adjacent to Montezuma Well National Monument. There, they built a straw bale house, installed a well with a solar pump, and lived for 13 years without power.

“Everything’s better by candlelight,” says John.

They recently moved into a 15-foot travel trailer at the Windy Hills campground near Roosevelt Lake, where they spend about half the year. John writes and does research. Susan likes to cook and garden. At the lake, they still live without electricity or running water.

“We have running water,” jokes Susan. “I just run it in and out.”

Susan, an Arizona native, is no newcomer to camping. Her granddad, Clair Weslee McCulla, moved to Arizona in 1919 to work on the roads. By the 1930s, he was working on the stretch of US 60 from Globe to Show Low. Susan’s mother, Doris, born in 1926, was raised and educated in tent camps that followed the building of the highway. Susan’s father was a road builder, too. When Susan was born in Yuma in 1947, midway between winter solstice and spring equinox, her home was a tent camp.

“After five or six months here, I’m ready for some creature comforts,” says Susan. “And then, I miss the beauty of the lake.”

When they’re not at Roosevelt Lake, the couple lives in a bungalow in Idaho Falls, Idaho, on the Snake River, a 12-block walk to downtown. 

“We have always believed it’s important to make a connection with your community and to always give back to that community—no matter where you are,” says John.

The pair have each volunteered some 4,000 hours for the U.S. Forest Service. Their work included serving at guard stations in Idaho and Utah, and participating in a quality control program called Secret Shoppers that took them to 50 National Forests in 25 states.

The Value of Heritage

“My folks were insatiable history buffs,” says John.“This imbued in me that our historical heritage is really precious and is only one wrecking ball away from total oblivion.”

John first came to Globe over 40 years ago, to collect oral histories that could be used in training river guides with knowledge of the local culture. Only now, he says, are people truly seeing the value of heritage in this community.

He enjoys researching old stories from the region and sharing them on Facebook and in print publications. His 16-page booklet “Spillway to Shipyard” tells how the USS Arizona was christened with water from Roosevelt Lake.

“You need to be able to read about what other people are doing and see the positive side of their efforts and their dreams,” says John.

The last river trip John took was on Valentine’s Day 2014. Shoulder arthritis ended his paddling life. But not the love story it started. On August 8 of that same year, another confluence occurred. After 28 years together, John and Susan exchanged vows before a judge in an old courtroom close by the Snake River.

“I just woke up one day and thought it was a great day to get married,” says John. “She did, too.”

One comment

  1. A great story about a great couple!

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