Local storyteller Al Ayers has built his reputation on tall tales about the Old West.
Ayers says folks who know him will tell you that "You can believe about half of what he says and none of what he tells."
Ayers, 72, is a professional storyteller, tour guide and entertainer who offers his services for free to anyone or any group that'll sit still long enough to listen.
His folksy spiel combines actual history, humor, embellishments on actual history, magic tricks, flat-out lies, and embellishments upon embellishments on history which may or may not be actual at all.
Particularly suspect are the stories that end with Ayers laughing, whooping, slapping his knee and saying, "Yeah, I fell for that one the first time I heard it, too!"
Born in Hamilton, Ohio, Ayers was 2 years old when the Great Depression robbed his parents of their farm. The only job his father could find was in Arizona, stringing power lines for the mines at Coolidge Dam. But when the Depression took that job, too, the family moved to Phoenix, where Ayers attended Creighton School.
"I am dyslexic, although they did not know what that was back in those days," Ayers said. "All they knew was that I was 'dumb,' that I couldn't learn. They weren't even going to let me go to high school. In fact, if one teacher had had her way, I wouldn't have even continued school after the second grade.
"But I didn't think I was 'dumb.' I was a perfectly happy kid. I wanted to go places and see things. But until I discovered history in the sixth grade, there wasn't a thing about school that appealed to me. I probably didn't read a half-dozen books in my life until I discovered how fascinating history is. Then it became my passion."
And his favorite historical subject became the settling of the Old West. But it would be a number of years before he would figure out how to pass his knowledge on to others.
First, in the early 1950s, he spent a a lengthy stint in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Germany and England, before receiving what Ayers laughingly calls the "worst assignment in the world."
"We had to spend three years in Bermuda. It was like a three-year vacation!"
When he was pulled out of paradise, Ayers was sent to Kansas. But his good luck in the military had not yet run out.
"One of my friends at the time was the original computer hacker ... He wanted to go to Alaska, and I wanted to go back to Germany. Well, one day he tells me, 'By the way, I went into the reassignment section of the computer. I sent you to Germany, and I sent myself to Alaska.'
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what's going to happen? Are we gonna get caught?' But it wasn't two months later that my orders for Germany came out, along with his orders for Alaska."
Ayers remained in the Air Force until 1966, when he was told to either retire or go to Vietnam.
"I said, 'That's not a choice.' So I retired and returned to the Valley."
There, he spent the next 22 years as a regional manager for Revlon. In the late 1970s, he and his wife, Nancy, bought a house in Star Valley, and that's where Ayers went directly upon his retirement in 1988.
"I decided I wanted to be a gentleman farmer, and I had orchards and gardens and beautiful lawns and flowers. Finally one morning I said, 'Hey, I'm retired! This is a lot of work!' And that was the end of my career as a gentleman farmer."
Payson author Marguerite Noble got Ayers started on doing storytelling programs for local organizations, for whom he'd spin tales about cattle drives to Kansas, the history of branding and brain tanning.
"That's where you tan a hide with the brains from the animal," Ayers said. "It's a lot of work. But it's not as bad as it sounds. You cook the brains first, then rub it into the hide, and it breaks down the enzymes and ..."
The brain tanning tales notwithstanding, Ayers' popularity rose quickly. He started doing scheduled performances for groups of all sizes and ages; he started working as a guide at Tonto Natural Bridge; and he became part of the Kohl's Ranch Monday-night visitor orientation program, during which he weaves his tales and offers free, full-day guided auto tours of the area.
"I will not accept money for what I do," Ayers said. "If I am offered money, I ask for a certified check, which I donate to Payson charities, mainly the Time Out Shelter for women. So far this year I have made more than $300 for them.
"But for children and school programs and scouting troops, I will not accept anything. Period. That's it. I don't want anything.
"I call this my payback time," Ayers said. "I've had a good life. There were a lot of people who did things for me. Now it's my turn to do things for other people."