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From Sundown Legends, (c) 2000, Michael Checcio
|THAT NIGHT IN camp, after turning in
early, I thought about Havasu Canyon and my first visit to the Southwest.
Earlier in the evening, wind and rainsqualls had chased me away from the
sunset on Bright Angel Point. Malignant storm clouds darkened the western
sky, shortening the purple display of twilight. It was freezing in camp;
temperatures were plunging. I curled up in my sleeping bag, trying to make
the most of its warmth, and thought about the first time I had seen the
I am at essence an easterner. I was born in Maine and raised for the most part on the Middle Atlantic seaboard. I grew up near the Pine Barrens and shore towns of southern New Jersey. And I made my living as a newspaper reporter there. One summer, I decided that I would take a short leave of absence from my job and spend a month to six weeks fishing for trout in and around Yellowstone National Park. I had often spent my summer and autumn vacations in Wyoming and Montana. But this time, I decided, I would also set aside a week to take a long drive through the desert Southwest, which I had never visited. I would see that area and then drive up to Yellowstone for my trout-fishing vacation.
Now this is going to sound silly. I had planned my desert itinerary largely around Edward Abbeys The Monkey Wrench Gang. That novel had a very special place on my shelf. In fact, I had long admired all of Abbey's writing, but, rather illogically, I hadn't yet gotten around to seeing the Southwest. It was my intention on this trip to make up for that fact and visit most of the scenes in The Monkey Wrench Gang as a kind of half-assed homage to the book. I wanted to see the land that had enlivened the drama.
It took me three days of hard driving to get from New Jersey to Grand Junction, Colorado. Descending from the western slope of the Rocky Mountains the next day, I was treated to a hawk's-eye view of the redrock deserts of Utah. I couldn't believe what I saw-an intricately carved canyon land of hoodoos, slickrock, and mesas under an electric blue sky. Snowy points on the La Sal Mountains, deserts and canyon below. I felt like a hawk gazing down at plateaus of naked pink rock.
I explored Moab and Arches and hiked in Canyonlands. Camped at Natural Bridges in the high pinon forest. Followed the jumbled canyons down into Arizona, drove past Black Mesa, where the Monkey Wrench Gang derailed the coal train, and arrived at Page, where I spent an uncomfortable night. Saw the horrible dam that doomed Glen Canyon under its hateful blue reservoir. Followed the Vermilion Cliffs to Navajo Bridge and Lees Ferry and fished for trout in the copper light of the Colorado River. Continued on the winding road up to Jacob Lake and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Hiked the cool forests of the Kaibab Plateau. Walked down to Roaring Springs. Listened to the wind soughing in the pines. Stared over the rim into the abyss.
Someone at the lodge mentioned Havasu Canyon to me. Suggested I check it out. It was a little out of my way-a great deal out of my way, actually-but it sounded like a capital idea. I remembered well what Edward Abbey had to say about Havasu in Desert Solitaire. It got an entire chapter. Abbey was on his way to visit LA by way of the Grand Canyon, had made a side trip to Havasu on a whim, and had lingered there for five weeks. He had the great good luck to see the canyon before tourists found it.
In order to get to Havasu, I drove back down to Lees Ferry, recrossed Navajo Bridge, and skirted the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, with its terrible traffic jams and crowds. I found a dirt road on the Coconino Plateau, which took me into the Hualapai Indian Reservation and on to Hualapai Hilltop at the head of the canyon. Dawn was breaking. It was all on foot from there.
I confess I was a bit apprehensive about going down into Havasu. In addition to all the good things, I had heard some troubling rumors about the place. The tribal teens were heavily into reggae, growing pot, going around stoned, and acting like Rasta men. There had been some trouble at the August peach festival a few years back. A photojournalist for a music magazine had been forcibly detained by a drunken tribal chief after a concert. Her helicopter pilot had to free her and fly her out of the canyon.
Despite this, Havasu is the fairest canyon in the American Southwest. Its creek makes it so. Havasupai means "people of the blue-green waters," and Havasu Creek is indeed blue-green like no other stream I have ever seen. Not even the pale blue spring-fed waters of the Little Colorado match it. Its water spouts magically from artesian springs and runs down a red limestone canyon into green cottonwoods and spray-misted ferns, its ravishing waterfalls plunging over terraces into pools of unforgettable turquoise. Havasu Canyon is the home of the
Havasupai, all six hundred or so of them, the last remaining Indian inhabitants of the Grand Canyon. They grow peaches, figs, melons, and sweet corn in a canyon Shangri-la. My plan was to stay in a campground used primarily by hikers and young European budget travelers.
The sun was just beginning to rise over the tan cliffs of the Coconino Plateau. I could see the dark trail below me. Leaving the car at Hualapai Hilltop, I cinched up my backpack and began the eight-mile descent into the canyon. A helicopter service took tourists down into Supai, but that felt wrong to me. I wanted to descend the Hualapai Trail the old-fashioned way, on foot-the way people have been doing it for centuries. I figured it would take about four hours to reach the village.
The trail was dry and dusty and the canyon rim brightening with early morning light. By midday, the temperatures would reach a hundred degrees at the bottom of the canyon. Some time back, the Havasupai had rejected a scheme by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to blast a road into their village that would funnel in mass tourism. Wisely, the Havasupai had decided there would be no road leading in or out of the canyon. A pity they hadn't felt the same way about helicopters.
I heard hooves clopping and animals snorting. Three times, I was backed against the wall of the narrow switchback as horses and riders, and finally a mule team, passed me on their way up the canyon. One teenage wrangler, his long, shiny black hair cinched by a red bandanna, led a pair of empty mounts. Another boy guided horses laden with empty saddlebags. The Havasupai wranglers would pick up tourists, mail, and supplies up on Hualapai Hilltop. Supai was the only community in the United States that had its mail delivered by mule; it said so on the postmark.
After a while, I could smell water and vegetation down in the canyon. The trail followed a draw where a handful of pools had survived the last rain. Ravens flew overhead and lizards scattered at my approach.
Eventually, I saw signs of Supai Village. The canyon widened down there. Planted fields and tractors came into view. The prefab houses of the Havasupai looked very small under towering walls of red limestone. A few TV satellite dishes were visible. Laundry flapped on clotheslines. A little girl was brushing down a horse.
I looked for the Havasupai Tourist Enterprise Office. All visitors were required to check in there. A few Indians were lounging by the post office, smoking cigarettes and speaking to one another in Havasupai, a Yuman dialect heard only in this canyon. It is distinct from the Uto-Aztecan tongue of the Hopi and the Athabascan speech of the Navajo. The men noticed me listening and fell silent, so I walked on. Many Indians went about their routines as if there weren't haigu in their midst; they had perfected the art of making us invisible.
I spotted hikers resting on benches outside a ranch house that I took to be the tourist office. I got in line to buy my permit and pay a camping fee. A soft-spoken official, whose last name was Uqualla, was patiently explaining to some French-Canadian hikers that they couldn't stay if they didn't have reservations. They were going to have a long hike back out of the canyon. The campground fills up quickly in Havasu, and reservations are required weeks in advance. Sometimes the office phone goes unanswered for hours and even days.
"How's the trout fishing?" I asked Mr. Uqualla.
"No aigee up here. You have to go all the way down to Beaver Falls to catch trout." He quickly gave me directions to Beaver Falls, naming the other waterfalls that I would have to pass in order to get there. Beaver Falls was a four-mile hike from the village of Supai, he told me, and well past the campground. I wanted to ask him what happened to the trout above the falls, but Mr. Uqualla had a line of impatient hikers to check in.
Back outside, I looked over a visitor's lodge constructed in the style of a modern motel. Its rooms would set a tourist back a pretty penny. I guess if you could afford the helicopter ride down to the reservation, you could afford a room in this lodge. The Havasupai might be the most isolated of any Indian tribe in Arizona, but they were doing fairly well, relatively speaking. Twenty thousand tourists passed through their canyon every year.
Well, they had their modest prosperity coming. The Havasupai had made a home here for centuries. In winter, the tribe hunted deer up on the Coconino Plateau; in summer they farmed the floor of Havasu Canyon. But as whites began moving into the Grand Canyon, the Indians found themselves increasingly restricted. President Teddy Roosevelt asked them to clear out to make way for a new national park, but they protested. By midcentury, they found themselves confined within one square mile of the canyon. It wasn't until the 1970s, through lawsuits and political action, that they won back much of their ancestral land from the federal government.
Lugging my backpack, I headed down the dusty canyon trail toward the campground. I found it a mile and a half farther down the trail, well away from the central village. By now, I had noticed mosquitoes and other insects humming in the air and I began to smell riverine vegetation. Havasu Creek was down there in the fresh willows and cottonwoods, breathing life into the desert canyon.
I came upon Navajo Falls, the first of three major cascades. It dropped eighty-three feet into a lush ravine filled with ferns misted by spray. The creek wound through twisting grapevines and leafy cottonwood shade that diffused the bright desert light. The water had formed beautiful travertine dams, semicircular ridges of whitish rock, that pooled the waters.
A few hundred yards downstream, Havasu Falls plunged one hundred feet into a pool as blue as the Virgin's cloak. The creek was the color of the sky, reflected by a whitened streambed and by white mineral particles in the water. The mineral particles came from dissolving calcium carbonate found in the Redwall Limestone, the canyon rock that was being cut by the downward progress of the stream. These limestone deposits had built up over the creek bed, hardening into travertine. Where logjams and debris had once blocked the creek, the travertine had formed into stony barriers much like little dams. These travertine blockages had transformed the entire creek into a seemingly unending staircase of falls, cascades, and pools.
Viewed from above, the pools under the waterfalls were as blue as morning glories. The water was white where it plunged and foamed, spreading into a Caribbean blue in a widening circle around the plunge point, and finally greening in the shallows. Havasu Falls sprayed a theatrical mist onto the Redwall Limestone, leaving behind a hardened tapestry of travertine.
Green cottonwoods brought relief to the hot canyon. An olive light filtered down through tunnels of willow, hackberry, grapevine, box elder, and flickering velvet ash. Lush moss and maidenhair ferns grew around the splashing pools. The creek gave life to scarlet monkey flowers, blue-and-purple monkshood, stalks of lupine, and the red spikes of cardinal flowers. I saw goldfinches and red summer tanagers flashing in the canyon.
I followed Havasu Creek for another mile down its redwall canyon, until a walk through the campground brought me to the top of the most spectacular falls of all. Mooney Falls dropped two hundred feet into a pool of turquoise magic. The Havasupai had named it after "Crazy Mooney," a miner who fell to his death here. Dan Mooney's ghost, the Havasupai say, is still digging away in the cave below the falls. The pool acted as a giant reflector, mirroring the Redwall Limestone and green foliage of the canyon and absorbing it into the faultless blue of the Arizona sky.
A very steep trail led down to the pool, which was full of swimmers. People were shouting and jumping from overhanging boulders, and I heard several foreign languages being spoken. I dove into the pool and swam as close as I could get to the thundering mist below the falls. I felt energized by the negative ions. Sinking into the lime water, I surrendered all care to Havasu Creek. Drifting toward the raised lip of the pool, I braced my feet against the rimstone dam, gazing upward at the curving red terraces of limestone draped in tangles of wild grapevine and maidenhair fern. The pool was pure refreshment.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon there. Time passed too quickly, and yet it did not seem to pass at all. Finally, with the sun's glare well off the pools, and shadows dimming the canyon, I returned to the campground, where earlier I had stashed my rucksack. The campground was located between Mooney and Havasu falls, and in the early-evening light, tents had sprung up everywhere. I lined up for fresh water where a spring flowed out of a fern-covered wall. I was drinking a gallon a day in the desert heat. The canyon was cooling down now. The aroma of dinners cooking on propane camp stoves rose and drifted on the air. No campfires, though-a rule against open fires was strictly enforced. Some backpackers were strumming guitars and singing around the lights of lanterns. A few poker games got going and no doubt more than one bottle was making its rounds. I turned in early, exhausted from the day's hike. I must have covered fourteen miles. I unrolled my sleeping bag under the brilliant desert stars and fell asleep with the sound of the creek running in the rocks and in my head.
BIRDSONG FILLED THE pastel dawn. The sky was a nacreous shell of pale blues and pinks, peach and gold. I headed out of the campground early, bound for Beaver Falls. I wanted to get in some fishing before rafting parties down on the Colorado River started hiking up into Havasu Canyon. Twenty-one commercial river outfitters offered Grand Canyon water tours. What was once a white-water wilderness experience on the mighty Colorado had now become routine fun. And every outfitter stopped at the mouth of Havasu Canyon.
I hiked down the canyon, and mile after mile, the pools continued through a landscape of rouge-colored cliffs, riverine groves, and uninterrupted beauty. Each bend brought me to yet another waterfall spilling over a travertine dam. Moss grew like bright coral on the creek bed. I'd cool off and let the waterfalls douse me. I imagined it would be much like this all the way down to the floor of the Grand Canyon.
At last, I came upon Beaver Falls, a rocky staircase of many falls, dropping twenty or so feet straight down into scalloped, fluted basins. The travertine dams were a whitish tan and were uniformly smooth from bank to bank. I could see the fossilized impressions of logjams in the calcified limestone.
I fished below Beaver Falls, working the water with my fly rod. The canyon walls narrowed the farther downstream I went. I was starting to see the crimson-tipped blossoms of cacti, yucca, and spiny ocotillos, a sure sign I was in the lower Sonoran life zone. Where the cliffs narrowed, the stream reflections and albedo waves flickered on the Redwall Limestone.
I searched the stream with my fly rod, making short casts into the calmer pockets of water. Without much difficulty, I caught a squirming eight-inch rainbow trout. Rainbow trout swim up Havasu Creek from the Colorado River. Once, the Colorado had been a golden silt-laden catfish stream. A warm reddish brown Colorado. But Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell changed it. Now the Grand Canyon's water is cold and aquamarine, supports lots of trout, and is controlled by the upstream discharge of turbines. As much as I love trout fishing, I'm sure I would have preferred the old, red Colorado.
A young Havasupai boy was walking up the path with a stringer of dead trout hanging from his belt. He stopped and we talked. He told me that the trout fishing was good all the way from Beaver Falls downstream. He asked me why I let my trout go, and I explained to him my catch-and-release philosophy. I asked him if he was a Bob Marley fan. He said yes, but he was more into heavy metal now. He waved good-bye and disappeared up the trail, no doubt laughing at the haigu who let all his trout go.
Havasu Canyon was filling up now. People were splashing in the stream, their voices ringing all over the canyon. Trout fishing would be futile now. The first of what would be many rafting parties had arrived. I overheard one of the naturalist river guides speaking to his group about uranium mining up on the Coconino Plateau, just outside the park boundary. I was vaguely familiar with the controversy. A mining conglomerate had sunk a shaft into Red Butte, a sacred mountain of the Havasupai. Red Butte is the abdomen of the Spirit Mother, who each year gives birth to a renewal of life, resting her newborn on her belly briefly before sending it out into the world. Environmentalists saw another kind of sacrilege. They warned that a uranium mine on Red Butte threatened the drainage of Cataract Creek, the headwaters of Havasu Canyon. The Havasupai feared, with good reason, that Havasu might become contaminated with radioactive mine tailings.
I spotted a lone man, who appeared to be a Havasupai, walking down the trail toward me. He had that extra roll of fat around his gut that all Havasupai adults seem to develop. This has been attributed to a so-called thrifty gene that many desert Indians have. A thrifty metabolism allows them to store up energy on the meager pickings of the desert but has left them prone to obesity now that they have switched to a modern American diet heavy in fat and sugar. The man was delighted to see me with a fly rod and wanted to know how I had done.
Sam Archuleta was his name. He told me he hand-lined trout, spinning the baited monofilament like a lasso when making his casts. He liked to fish down on the Colorado where the trout were larger, and hunt deer up on the plateau. I asked Sam why there were few, if any, trout above Beaver Falls. There was speculation that raw sewage, dumped into the creek before a septic system was installed, might have been at fault. But Sam said the creek was just fished out. "We ate them all," he explained with a laugh.
Sam told me he had teenage sons who were caught up in the reggae craze that had swept the reservation. Sam thought the problem with the Havasupai youth was that they were bored. There was nothing to do in paradise. Many of the young regarded reggae as a religion and marijuana as a sacrament, and this upset him. While Sam wasn't exactly a traditionalist, he feared a spiritual breach within his tribe. I asked him about the uranium mine on Red Butte. "Reggae's just a fad," he said. "But radiation, well, there's no getting rid of that." We parted, Sam wishing me good fishing.
I walked the centuries-old rock path made slippery by the spraying mist from Havasu Falls. I found a boulder close by the continuous turbulence of the racing creek as it soared over the edge, and from this throne, I contemplated the falls, the travertine, the red tanagers darting around the chasm, and the seeming isolation. It all struck me as utterly wild and eternal.
But the wonder of the Grand Canyon is that it is not everlasting. We only see the landscape as timeless. In reality, life is fleeting down here in Havasu Canyon. The oasis is a fragile world. Havasu Creek doesn't flow into eternity; rather, it flows into our times.