If you follow old Route 66 northeast of Kingman, Arizona, to the tiny little town of Peach Springs, you'll find a turn off on the Hualapai Indian Reservation that takes you another 60 miles northwest and dead ends on the top of a mesa. An 8 mile hike (the first 2 miles a series of steep switchbacks) takes you down the mesa, through the canyon and all the way to a tiny Indian village called Supai that sits about 9 miles from the Grand Canyon. The only way to get back and forth to the area is on horseback, by foot or riding in a helicopter.
I parked the Caddie on the Hualapai Hilltop Monday afternoon around 1:00 p.m. knowing that the 8 mile hike down into the canyon, including some moderately challenging portions, would take me at least 4 hours. As I began my descent down the steep pathway, I encountered little knots of panting Boy Scouts, hiking back up with their packs from a weekend camp out. I noticed right away that those 12 and 14 year old powerhouses of metabolism and youthful energy were drooping significantly. This gave me pause to think. I had an uncomfortable pack that seemed a bit heavy and a quite a few years on those young colts. Hmmmmm....
I paused at a strategically placed (for scenery anyway-see above) picnic area about halfway down the steep part of the trail and ate the roast beef sandwich I'd packed, figuring it was easier to carry it that way if nothing else. My pack was already giving me trouble, hurting my back and making my arms go to sleep. I was sitting and contemplating serious matters of this sort, no doubt, when my eye was drawn to a figure running down the trail toward me. Running! I hadn't seen a single other soul headed in my direction the entire time, so it was a bit of a shock to see someone else to start with, but they were running! It didn't take long for him to get close enough for me to see it was an Indian fellow, about 25 or 30, his glossy black hair tied back with an aqua blue bandanna. I imagined I was watching a scene from an old movie or reading a Larry McMurtry western where the Indian brave with flowing black mane and sure foot engages in some impressive athletic feat. I was already trying so hard to evidence the third world that it took me a moment to notice that he held a notebook computer in one hand and wore flashy hipster tennis shoes on his feet. I grinned broadly sitting in my picnic perch as he picked his way past me on the path at great speed. Wow.
I continued on, through breathtakingly beautiful scenery, taking frequent breaks to sit and rest my pack on a rock. How could it be so damn heavy? It was good to stop every 1/4 mile or so though, because the scenery was awe inspiring and yet I didn't dare look up from the pathway for very long lest I lose my footing. Taking frequent breaks gave me a chance to really sit and drink in the incredible beauty of my locale. It also added an hour or two to my journey.
By the time I made it to the sign that said cheerfully (and incorrectly) "You're almost there!" I was getting to the advanced are-we-there-yet??? stage. I was whining aloud to myself, like I'd care. The sun had slipped behind the canyon walls and it was getting dark fast. A fellow passed me from behind, plodding toward the village and not only did he have a pack, but he had a toddler perched on his shoulders as well! I humbly ate his dust.
Eventually, one of the bends in the endless canyon revealed a structure fashioned by human hand in the distance and I was nearly there. There in a sense - there was still a good little walk to where I'd be lodging and I was running out of gas fast. The trail now resembled a road more so than anytime in the last 8 miles, so I pulled the handle up on my bag and began rolling it through the soft dirt (which I suspect was technically dragging it). I headed off in the direction I thought made sense and two voices reached me from the gloam: "Hey! You're going the wrong way! Turn around!" Two Indian women who stood talking in a stand of trees had called to me. They directed me toward the lodge and after thanking them profusely, I trudged off. At several other junctures along the way, the Supainese (??) emerged from the shadows to guide me and help me find my way. One young man asked me incredulously, "Have you been dragging that thing the whole way?" looking at my obviously-not-very-practical purple pack leaving deep ruts in the sand. I guess nothing the tourists do would surprise these folks by now.
When I arrived at the Lodge, the office was dark and shuttered. It was, after all, almost 7:00 p.m. - my hike had taken me close to 6 hours! I found the manager's door and before long had the key to #7 in my hand. I had inquired about the restaurant - but, no it was closed, and for that matter so was the only store, so I'd be on my own for dinner. The only nutritive item I had in my backpack was a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints, so I supped on a fine repast of cookies and water for dinner. Fortunately, I was so exhausted, sore and weary that after a nice long hot shower, I had trouble staying up to 8:30. That hot shower sure did feel good, though.
The next morning, I went straight to the store and got ibuprofen, a bacon/egg/biscuit I heated in the microwave and a coffee which I foolishly attempted to ameliorate with "concentrated liquid creamer, Vanilla flavor". After packing just a few bare necessities in my pockets, I set out on a hike that would take me to three of the major waterfalls in the area: Emerald City, Havasu and Mooney.
Once again, shortly after having set out I was hailed by a woman pushing a wheelbarrow: "You're going the wrong way. I can tell this is the not the way you want to go. To the falls, right?" How on earth could she tell I was a tourist? I often travel to places where I stick out like a sore thumb, but this was a new level of being different. Every single inhabitant of Supai I encountered had gorgeous dark black hair and a broad brown face. I very definitely did NOT fit in and it was perfectly obvious when I was off the path. Everyone was very pleasant, but I got to experience the feeling of being a complete outsider. It's a good thing to remind yourself of from time to time.
I was soon restored to the proper path, passing a number of modest ranch homes on the way out of the village, tenanted mostly by dogs and horses. It was a fine morning and an exquisite walk. I soon found myself meandering alongside Havasu Creek which winds invitingly through the canyon lands on a 9 mile journey toward that portion of the Colorado river that you might know by its more common name, The Grand Canyon. The creek makes a series of drops along the way that make for a multitude of small charming falls and four very spectacular ones. Another factor that makes the water even more incredible is the high lime content which mixes with the travertine deposits and renders the stream beds an enchanting turquoise blue color.
The first fall I encountered was the stunning (and in the end, my favorite): Emerald City. It actually goes by several names since it's relatively new - a flash flood in 2008 rerouted the water flow from another fall called Navejo and created this glorious spot instead. There are actually two sets of falls that are so advantageously placed that it's almost hard to distinguish. One part has a long flat shallow area that allows vegetation to flourish in the most incredible shades and textures of green. I haven't rhapsodized about colors yet on this trip, so maybe now is a good time: aqua, oxide red, emerald green, tannin-stained black, granite dust red. Awesome.
I tore my eyes away from Little Navajo falls as it's also called and headed on toward the better known Havasu falls. Havasu falls is the both iconic and magnificent. It makes a dramatic drop into a length series of broad turquoise pools that are packed with swimmers in the summertime. Fern covers the rocks beneath the falls, lapping up the mist created by the tumbling waters. Absolutely beautiful.
After sharing my last Thin Mint with a ground squirrel that had been carefully eyeing me, I began my return trip allowing plenty of time to explore all sorts of nooks and crannies along the edge of the creek. The only other people I encountered on my hike were a few small clusters of men who were working to clear undergrowth by burning it in small piles.
By the time I reached the village, I was hot and dry and thirsty and hungry. I decided to walk down to the store get a Fanta Orange and see what was happening in the public square. Another movie moment presented itself as I rounded the corner to see groups of Indian folks sitting on benches lining the (tiny) square, 3 stringers of ponies tied to the hitching post and various people coming and going on horseback. I feel like it's probably the closest I'll ever get to experiencing the old West in person.
I approached my grocery shopping expedition like a sort of puzzle - what could I make from the odd ingredients I found at hand that I could tolerate eating for the next couple of meals? To make it even more of a challenge, I wouldn't have access to a microwave or a can opener. I decided to start with a good universal base ingredient, Fritos. To that I added a small can of spicy bean dip, some cheddar cheese sticks and a precious fresh avocado, perfectly ripe. I couldn't resist including a pair of Hostess cupcakes which I would enjoy for the next morning's continental breakfast. Last but not least, a couple more packages of ibuprofen and I was all set. On my way back to the lodge I was struck by the oddity of being in such an anachronistic and isolated place and yet still having to make peace with modern intrusions that didn't really make sense so far out of context. Like the large commercial sign I noticed as I passed the village school - No loitering. For crying out loud, how many kids could there be to congregate at the gate and is a sign really going to run them off? As if to draw my attention to the folly of trying to figure such things out, I also noticed two large areas of graffiti on the building closest to the school gate.
The next morning as I was readying my things to go, I opened the nightstand drawer to make sure I hadn't left anything, and discovered a really amazing and moving thing. Right next to the ubiquitous Gideon's bible rested a beautiful pale peach colored feather. It really appealed to me as a symbol of having the option of letting love for the world around me be my own form of spirituality. I thank whoever thoughtfully left it there.
After witnessing the toll the hike down the canyon had taken on me, I had decided Tuesday morning that I would arrange to ride a horse back up to the Hilltop instead of walking and lugging my impossibly heavy pack. I was instructed to be standing with my pack, ready to go, outside the front gate of my lodging by 8:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. My ride didn't actually arrive until almost 8:45, trotting up quickly to make up time lost in the rush hour traffic. My driver, BJ, detached my horse (named Little Man) from the string so I could mount using a nearby set of rocks installed for that exact purpose. I was soon settled into the saddle, but had to do without stirrups since at their shortest length they dangled about 4" below my foot!
BJ hoisted my painfully heavy backpack onto the broad strong back of a mule and I watched it bob ahead of me most of the trip. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride which gave me a valuable chance to spend most of my time observing the scenery without fear of losing my footing. Little Man did a stellar job of trotting my city-girl-can't-lug-a-pack butt up that monstrous hill. He was a little sweaty by the time we reached the Hilltop, but seemed only a little sullen as I thanked him vigorously for his patience and persistence.
As I walked toward my car, I realized I'd need a lot more ibuprofen, for a new and completely different set of aches and pains. When I got into the car, turned the key and slowly started to roll out of the parking lot, it felt strange as hell to be driving a car. I'd need that two hour drive back to civilization to prepare.