|The glories and the beauties
of form, color, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon forms unrivaled even
by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the
diapason from tempest to bubbling fountain.
--- Major John Wesley Powell
Hikers slump on their car bumpers, rubbing their feet. A round-faced
Havasupai Indian wants to rent us a pack horse, but we'll carry our own
packs. This is our third pilgrimage to this exotic oasis, sculpted in
baroque travertine and painted with the dazzling colors of Grand Canyon.
As we zigzag down the bluff, the parking lot clatter dissolves into the
pristine air. No L.A. smog smudges the canyon today. Ravens finger
updrafts, their deep caws barely audible. Yuccas with waxy flower stalks
and cliffroses heavy with blooms embellish the rocky slopes. As we stroll
downward, athletes stride uphill, arms flailing. One red-faced fellow
presumes that we haven't hiked Havasu before: "You'll get there --- it's
worth it." Deborah reminds him that "We're here; no hurry!"
This first mile is indeed too spectacular to miss. All around are the
familiar strata of Grand Canyon: the hard, lightgray Kaibab limestone; the
gray, shaly Toroweap formation; the buff-and-blond Coconino sandstone; and
the reddish-brown Supai sandstone. Below, more canyons cut into ancient
layers dating back over a billion years. Fine vistas across Inner Gorge
reveal the North Rim a dozen miles away. Grand Canyon humbles both
temporally and spatially. Our lifetimes seem insignificant compared to its
time spans, and we feel tiny compared to its enormous size.
Despite its isolation, Havasu Canyon attracted early Spanish and Mormon
explorers. When Francisco Garces finally reached Havasu in the eighteenth
century, he stayed six days with the Havasupai tribe. He left powerfully
impressed with the Indians' "prison" and noted that interacting with the
tribe "served to divert the melancholy that it caused me to see myself
buried alive in that calaboose of cliffs." Spacious though it is, Grand
Canyon has often inspired feelings of entrapment. Exploring the canyon a
century later, Major John Wesley Powell hoped that after "a few more days
like this we are out of this prison."
Still later Havasu interested the Mormons. To them, the natives were
Lamanites, descendants of Laman, son of the prophet Lehi who led
Israelites to the New World. Although the dark-skinned Lamanites bore a
curse, the Mormons leaned toward conversion rather than extermination.
They showed special interest in the Hopis who occupy mesas to the south.
When Lee's Ferry crossing, the best way around Grand Canyon, hardly
offered a direct route, they sought a shorter one between the Hopi
villages and St. George, Utah. On one of the seven expeditions undertaken
before 1872, Mormon leader Jacob Hamblin probed this canyon, but the
Havasupai did not receive him warmly. Before releasing his party, the
tribe demanded that Hamblin not tell other whites of their hiding place.
In 1889 the Havasupai performed a Ghost Dance invoking the spirits of
their ancestors to drive away whites. On occasion the tribe even fled
their exotic home to hide in remote areas of the canyon.
Since Hamblin's time the Havasupai have remained free from major
incursions, except for us hikers. Though white ways have changed them, the
Supai still celebrate traditional feasts and dances for themselves, not
for the tourists. Like the Hopi, they've retained ancestral lands largely
because of their remote location. For centuries the tribe farmed its
canyon oasis in the summer and gathered food on the plateau during the
winter. Unlike their white visitors, their lifeways were geared to
survival, not comfort. However, treaties diminished their hunting,
gathering, and grazing rights, which disrupted traditional ways and left
them dependent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In the late 1980s uranium mining at Red Butte on the South Rim jeopardized
both the people and their land. While one group of Havasupai filed suit,
another trashed power lines. These monkey wrenchers pointed out that "a
wealthy white elite" would profit from the uranium mining while Indians
would absorb the birth defects and cancers. To the chagrin of cynics who
think that environmental groups ignore minority cultural concerns, Earth
First! became involved. Invoking the Havasupai name for Red Butte that
means "the belly of the mother," thirty women danced in circles to reclaim
this and other sacred places.
Novelist/activist Mary Sojourner writes that in the early 1990s tension
rose with the controversial Environmental Impact Statement for the Canyon
Mine. After interviews with members of the tribe, a Forest Service
anthropologist somehow concluded that the Havasupai have "no discernible
religion and no religious rights to the land." Actually the Havasupai had
simply not divulged their secrets. In fact, each year the tribal
traditionals meet near Red Butte to perform their ceremonies. With one
culture guarding sacred lands and the other desiring nuclear power, the
conflict pitted Native American against Euro-American values.
But today Deborah and I put politics aside. We descend into a canyon
within a canyon, incised into the Supai layer by the stream that cut
Hualapai Canyon. An Indian wearing a jean jacket and a black hat leads the
tourists on horseback. Scruffy dogs trot behind. Prey in its mouth, a
roadrunner trots across the trail and springs into a cholla cactus where
it will later trickle the partially digested lizard into the mouths of its
This five-mile section of trail channels between walls that become higher
and steeper to expose seeps, streaks, and undercut cliffs. Wild cherry,
Utah serviceberry, Mormon tea, and scrub oaks give way to feathery-green
acacias, mulberries, and small cottonwoods, their lime-green leaves
burgeoning from sticky buds. Western wallflowers emblazon the reddish
sand, and orange desert mallows, still rolled in buds that resemble
sweetheart roses, glow like miniature hollyhocks in the muted light. As
our boots squish on wet sand, we're stepping into spring. Though many
hikers view it mainly as a tunnel to paradise, Hualapai Canyon itself is a
great hike. Anywhere else it would be appreciated, but here it's
overshadowed by Havasu Canyon.
When we first glimpse the blue-green water of Havasu Creek, we break
stride, astonished once again by its color. This arresting and enchanting
stream, as David Lavender suggests, remains unforgettable:
As a shield against the sunlight lancing off the red, there was green
shade: massive-trunked cottonwoods, each heartshaped leaf shimmering in
the faintest breeze. And the water! The tourist catch-phrase for Havasupai,
"Land of the BlueGreen Water," conveys the color, but not the luminous dip
and glide, the whispering effervescence, or the compulsion to roll up
one's sleeve, lie flat, and reach for the gleaming bottom of that stream.
Pink roots stripe the bright bottom where grasses waver in the current.
Above the creek's shimmering "dip and glide," shiny cottonwood leaves
flicker. Above them, cliffs soar skyward, red ocher against a deep blue
sky. We lean into the sacred stream like pilgrims cleansing before they
enter a shrine.
The creeks flowing from the South Rim toward the Colorado River are
notably limey. The caverns just off Route 66 suggest how underground
streams dissolve enormous quantities of limestone. This suspended lime
causes the silt and sand to coagulate and sink rapidly to the chalky
bottom, which turns the water an almost electric turquoise.
In this canyon, and on the Colorado Plateau generally, changes tend to
occur either very slowly or very fast, either grain by grain or boulder by
boulder in a flash flood. In placid times the carbonates settle out to
become travertine limestone that forms scallop-shaped pools. As the creek
bed changes course, curved shapes hang far above water level. Porous
travertine absorbs pigments, especially iron oxide, that percolate down
from overlying layers. Riddled with conduits, the tawny or rusty
travertine drips and tongues enhance a surreal ambience, one implying that
the travertine was once a part of the flow.
The home of the Havasupai is nestled in a verdant valley where clouds of
painted lady butterflies feast on peach blossoms. Each year, especially in
flowery springs, millions of these nomads head east, north, and west from
the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. Their nomadic lifestyle makes them the most
cosmopolitan of butterflies.
Far above Supai stand the Wigleeva, the sacred rocks. One is female,
rounder and shorter; the other is male, columnar and taller. According to
legend, these rocks determine the fate of the tribe: when they fall, the
tribe falls. As one native woman expressed this belief, "Rocks all have
their places out there"; they are not what we might call "inanimate
objects." Nature displays balance and harmony, the Indians apparently
believe, and humans must live in accord with it.
Lined with huge stumps, the path into Supai is deeply trodden. Cottonwood
puffs fill the air and cling to rusty fences. A mule train trots by. Since
the pace of life is slow, we stand out as we stride to reach the
reservation office before it closes. As I loiter outside, the village
seems both the same and different. Indians still lounge against fences,
scrawny horses still slump beneath trees with chewed bark, and dogs still
sleep in the street. This spring, though, a man plows with a tractor, a
woman drives a Cushman cart, and a new Supai Lodge offers more amenities
than the old cabins. The prices have changed, too: after we part with most
of our cash for our permits, we have little left for burgers or tacos. But
that's OK because our box, mailed weeks ago to avoid hauling food, should
We saddle up, groaning under our packs, and trudge toward the campground.
Where soft sand impedes tired footsteps, we wobble under our packs. Dust
squirts from beneath our boots until we discover that the sand offers
worse footing when we hike too fast. There's no curfew at the campground,
so we'll get there when we arrive.
Despite our fatigue, Havasu Canyon works it magic. Large barrel cacti,
which the Indians bake with agave hearts, stud the canyon walls. The creek
glides through thickets of willow topped by box elders, ashes, and
cottonwoods. Braided by froth, Navajo Falls cascades down a mossy cliff
canopied with greenery.
Soon we hear the roar of a much larger falls: Havasu. We strain our eyes
for a first glimpse of the arching falls and its enormous plunge pool.
When Deborah sees them, she raises her hands to cover her mouth, which is
speechless. Nothing is lost, since no words would do. We stare at its
glorious color, an even deeper aqua than upstream. Tall prince's plumes
luminesce like candles in the twilight.
After doing ten miles today we hobble into the campground. We finally
unharness, rolling our shoulder blades, and yank off hot boots, ignoring
laces, to massage our feet. Since it's almost dark, we spread our bags on
the sand and drop off.
Breakfast is granola and coffee. Ali, caffeine! Life returns. Mug still
steaming, I wander into the sagebrush to look for a bird that's been
chirping. But instead of finding, I get found. High on a mount, the tribal
policeman looks me over, nods, and trots off. It seems odd to have an
officer follow you into the brush, so we set off for Havasu Falls. Perched
on scallops of lime deposits, two Indian women contemplate the pools. I
stop three times to compose photographs; Deborah waits, absorbing all the
beauty, but she's irritated. And she's right. No more pictures.
Photography antagonizes some members of the tribe and disturbs the
sacredness of the place.
Above the falls is the reservation cemetery, its mounds covered with
plastic flowers and skull-sized rocks. Nearby, a helicopter pad lies
wisely abandoned. Nowadays the tourist choppers just bank and circle a
couple of times --- an improvement over the once-common landings though
still an affront to the senses. Yesterday planes droned overhead much of
the way. During peak tourist season, a thousand scenic flights a day clog
the skies over Grand Canyon. Aircraft noise degrades the grandeur of the
experience and denies hikers the sublimity of silence. Yet operators
refuse to limit their flights or even to muffle their engines.
A faint trail leads toward a mesquite tree. Behind it, beside a notch in
the canyon wall, we start our climb. When Deborah cannot reach a handhold,
she stands on my shoulders while I brace myself, feet spread for
stability. We check every hand and foothold before pulling ourselves up
rocks polished by other hands and feet. Wildflowers sprout from the cracks
in front of our faces. Hedgehog cacti sport deep scarlet blooms with
yellow centers. Watchful for spines that could throw us off balance, we
pick our way toward the rim where a cairn marks the bench trail.
From here the top of the Redwall limestone layer drops hundreds of feet to
the creek far below. In contrast to the luxuriant canyon floor, this shelf
is rocky, arid, open; one can see both the north and south rims in the
distance. The cloud cover is blowing through, dappling the rocks and
leaving mare's-tail cirrus swirls in a light-blue sky. Moved to eloquence,
John Wesley Powell depicted such a vista as "awful in profound depths,
sublime in massive and strange forms, and glorious in colors." In a
paradox worthy of the Tao Te Ching, the canyon's enormities of space and
time can occasion a dissolution of the self, yet the intensity of its
sensations also energize the individual psyche. Exhilarated by the space,
the light, plus the array of forms and colors, we can barely attend to our
Up here the plant life is sparse yet vital. Adapted to this Sonoran Desert
environment with bulbs that store moisture, wild hyacinths resembling wild
onions bloom on the rocky slopes. Sotol, a kind of yucca, flourishes along
with dwarf buckthorn, prickly pear, and barrel cactus. A grayish cactus
wren sputters some staccato chatter, fidgets with a twig, and flits into a
Small redbud trees add their own puffs of chartreuse to the drainages.
These Western redbuds are rarities. In March, before their glossy,
apple-shaped leaves pop out, these trees burst forth in light lavender
flowers instead of the usual magenta. Unlike most legumes, redbuds bloom
from both their trunks and branches, engendering small fruit that resemble
snow peas. Some of last year's pods, now bleached and dried tan, still
hang beside this year's withered blooms. The Dine, or Navajo, roasted
these pods to make incense while other tribes used the twigs for making
As the trail skirts the cliff, Mooney Falls rumbles from its chasm. Below
us lie sheer, smooth Redwall limestone cliffs, a plush carpet of greenery,
and a thin ribbon of turquoise water. Through a jagged window in the rock,
my eyes plumb first to the canyon floor hundreds of feet below, then
another two hundred feet to the base of the falls. Hikers down there crawl
like bugs, halting before the abyss. My muscles tighten. I ease back from
this precipice, rock by rock.
In a drainage nearby, Deborah reclines on the smooth limestone, relishing
the warm sun on her heart and the cool bedrock under her backbone. Nude
woman, naked rock. We chuckle about the sign the Indians posted by Havasu
Falls: "NO NUDE." Balanced in this yin and yang, her flesh sings an old
Havasupai chant: "Make me always the same as I am now.
Back at the campsite we face a basic reality: if we want to eat tonight,
we'll need to hike the two miles back to retrieve that box. So we put new
moleskins on our blisters and set out for Supai. Vining snapdragons that
resemble wild morning glories drape the canyon wall near Havasu Falls.
Nearby, waxy prince's plumes bend with the gusts, but this doesn't
discourage a rufous hummingbird from hovering in perfect unison with their
Alongside desert willows with orchid-like blooms, ravens flick leaves.
Croaking deeply, they take flight only as we encroach within fifty feet or
so. At first they flap their wings like a crow, then they soar like a
large hawk. Near Supai, where bright green fields contrast against red
canyon walls, scrawny mares stand under a spreading tree, their swayed
backs worn hairless. The Indians once raced their horses along this trail.
Much to our relief, we find the post office open. Praise the tribal gods!
But what if our food has somehow not arrived? The mail comes by mule
train, and our box would hardly be priority mail. We're almost out of
money, and this isn't a place that runs on plastic, either. Luckily, when
the clerk can't find our package, Deborah spots it. Now we've got money to
spend. Moments later we're tearing into an Indian taco made with thick fry
The trill of the canyon wren and the twitter of a yellow-throated Western
kingbird accompany our return to camp. As we gather white-blossomed
watercress, frogs bulge their throats and dragonflies bank and veer. Wild
celery, a perfect miniature of the cultivated variety, flourishes under a
willow. Cress is an Old World plant that's spread to even the most remote
desert canyons; onion, garlic, and celery are among the many New World
plants that enhance the Anglo-American diet. Other edible native plants,
however, remain largely unknown to non-Indians: salted, roasted pinyon
pine nuts are as tasty as potato chips and certainly more nutritional.
Distinct rock layers gleam in the waning daylight. A huge century plant
looks small against pink clouds in a babyblue sky. Violet moments flash
and fade. Finally the sky blazes a brilliant orange that commingles into a
grayish blue. Neglected, our fresh watercress and celery soup almost boils
Dawn arrives in a burst of birdsong. When I can't see any birds, I settle
for a bug. Just outside our tent, black pinacate (Spanish for "the
presumptuous one") beetles are thrusting their rears into the air. Several
dozen species of these stink beetles thrive in the Southwest. Rather than
run when disturbed, their noxious-musk defense has earned them the local
designation of "pedodos," or "farters." Their black color seems poorly
adapted to desert habitats, but pinacates burrow during the heat of the
day. Their waxy cuticle also reduces dehydration, and a dead air space
beneath their wing covers insulates them from extremes of temperature. But
these beetles' spray couldn't match my boots. No need to check for
scorpions, tarantulas, black widows, or brown recluse spiders this
morning, since none of them could survive the stench.
Today our first stop is Mooney Falls, named after the miner who fell to
his death here in 1880 while trying to get down this one
hundred-and-ninety-foot drop. "The Mother of Waters," the Indians' name
for this magical spot, figures strongly in Supai beliefs. So rooted are
they to their canyon that they believe the spirits of the dead congregate
here, rising and falling with the mist. With this in mind, it's even more
outrageous to find that in the 1920s government and industry colluded in
an attempt to generate power here. Fortunately a flood washed out the
machinery before the power plant could desecrate this sacred place.
Mooney Falls still stops many hikers. While some don't know about the
trail that miners blasted out of the travertine, others fear the heights
or the shaky chains that serve as guard rails. The path switches back and
forth, over and under limestone bowls where it enters a tunnel and emerges
onto a landing. From here, looking down is quite literally breathtaking.
My chest constricts as my whitened knuckles lock onto the cold pipe. Each
step becomes deliberate. Trodden limestone is slippery even when it's dry.
This descent ends among giant scalloped tongues formed when the creek
followed different channels. But these tongues were created only yesterday
compared to the nearby Redwall limestone, formed 350 million years ago.
Since Mooney Falls faces north, we emerge into the deep shade of its
chasm. Our eyes track globules of water that whorl downward, then
disintegrate into beads from the blue. With its crystal pools this basin
is both vast and intimate: after gaping at a thousand-foot rock wall, we
gaze down on a tiny toad.
A "Japanese garden" in a box canyon ascends in pools trimmed with orange
monkey flowers and lacy maidenhair ferns. In this exquisite grotto, frothy
waters slip between plants and spill over sandstone lips. Water striders
ripple the pools. Below one spillway a dark-gray water ouzel (dipper)
dives, swims with its wings, and pops up. As it dips itself dry, its dusky
plumage absorbs the sunlight. A nest shaped like a basket turned on its
side hangs nearby. As the parent arrives with grub in mouth, the nest
explodes with cries. Four bright yellow beaks, each flared wide open,
instantly fill the ring.
Below Mooney Falls the environment becomes more pristine because the
hikers thin out and the Indians can't bring horses down this far. The
creek cascades into pools, each a living spectrum of pastel watercolors
--- the aqua of the creek, the burnt oranges of the cliffs, and the bright
greens of the sunlit trees. Snakeweed bristles from the banks to link
itself with the fossilized horsetails that grommet the red limestone. As
living evolutionary success stories, some plants have changed little in
three hundred million years. Cozy in this leafy glade, we inhale enriched
oxygen from the foliage and exhale carbon dioxide for the plants to
breathe. Our lives partake of life's reciprocity.
As it streams over a lip, the crystalline current purls into foamy pools.
Baroque travertine lips sometimes curve completely around, actually
spilling upstream. Pulses in the current cause one mini-falls, then
another, to murmur and wane like waves marking the rhythm of the flow.
With its quiet pools, Havasu Creek shimmers with painterly images of the
cracks reflected from the canyon wall: cracked water, wavy rock. If he had
done his light and shade tableaux here, Claude Monet might never have
returned to Giverny.
The canyon's walls rise higher. Its floor broadens as the trail snakes
through knee-high grasses and wild canyon grapevines. Fewer cottonwoods
line the creek on this stretch because beavers are so proficient. It takes
them only a few nights to gnaw around a trunk well over a foot in
diameter, yet they often chew through the cambium layer and leave large
trees to die. As cottonwood numbers dwindle, will the beavers kill more
large trees to feed on their inner bark; that is, will they eventually
consume their primary food source? Responding to this prospect of
instability, Deborah recounts how a Dine woman once told her of a tribal
belief that chaos is the natural state, that we become unhappy when we try
to impose order.
Though Deborah says she's tired, I urge her to keep going. Nearly three
splendid miles below Mooney, the canyon narrows for Beaver Falls. From a
ledge we marvel at a spot where the stream takes three sharp turns to
create one of the deepest, bluest pools. It's time for full immersion in
Havasu Creek. As I slip in, a trout flashes under a ledge. Underwater my
eyes taste the blue-and-bubble world of the plunge basin.
Moments later a wild man parts the foliage. As W. L. Rusho describes
Everett Ruess, the "vagabond" of the 1930s, this fellow "could almost
resonate with the light waves that struck him from all points in the
landscape." In his tattered cut-offs, Robin is muscular, sunburnt, and
bearded, more vagabond than aesthete, more hearty than savage. The
wrinkles of the landscape are etched on his face. His bleached-and matted
hair makes us look like blow-dried tourists who have just stepped from a
helicopter. This canyoneer has lived here for a couple of months, he says,
scrounging meals where he can. For five weeks he's subsisted under a
cliff. He catches a few fish and clubs a few mice but mostly eats what the
Indians traditionally ate-agave hearts, prickly pears, and wild grapes.
Committed to personal liberty as he is, Robin suspects governments and
their agents. "Seen that tribal cop?" he asks. "Don't know if he really
wants to keep drugs off the 'res' or if he sells the stuff he
confiscates." The hallucinogen peyote has long been a subject of debate
among the Havasupai. Was it the cause of unweeded gardens or were the
dreams it evoked truly sacred? An earthy man at home in the earth, Robin
bounds over rocks in sneakers with flapping soles. When living off the
land gets old, though, I'll bet he grabs an Indian taco at the Supai Cafe
on his way out.
On our return up-canyon, an orange-banded kingfisher squawks at a
pied-billed grebe that competes for the same small fish. The grebe dives
under as the kingfisher becomes a blur of blue and white. This grebe bobs
up shaking its head as the kingfisher jaws loudly. Such harsh staccato
sounds, or "rattle calls," are the kingfishers's way to scream "get out of
my territory!" Along water courses around the globe, these bold birds
habitually stake out a stretch and confront any intruders.
On the bank a white-haired fellow is digging up plants and stuffing them
in a bag. He immediately informs us that he's a botanist gathering
specimens of rare liverworts. When I ask whether it's a good idea to
collect plants already sliding toward extinction, he bristles: "This is my
specialty, you know." Is the traditional, scientific practice of bagging
rare specimens for study still tenable today, I wonder. Collection surely
contributes to extinctions, leaving pickled animals and dried plants as
unsatisfying laboratory curiosities. Showy lady's slippers have already
been picked and dug to extinction in Acadia National Park, as well as in
other places. The last passenger pigeon died in a zoo.
We sit on the stream bank, feet in the bubbling water, savoring the canyon
wall. Their wings back-lit a gauzy white by the sun, doves flock on the
rim far above. Encrusted salts tint the red rock with pastel oranges and
pinks. A band of ferns trims the waterline. Below this fern curtain these
vibrant colors trickle into the shady creek where, with the whip of its
tail, a fish roils the reflections from the white bark of a palo blanco
Supper brings talk about self-sufficiency. Robin's hunter-gatherer ways
highlight the paradoxes of backpacking. We haul civilization's amenities
on our backs, nicely miniaturized. We go back and forth between
civilization and wilderness, making brief forays dependent on what we can
carry. Like Robin we may eat native plants, picking only the abundant
ones, but we also rely on that crumpled box from home. Robin has greater
freedom and a closer relationship to the land, but we have less impact.
One way or another, everybody leaves footprints in the wilderness.
Tonight, under a clear, moonless sky undimmed by pollution, the densely
packed stars shine many-pointed. Even on a clear night, though, the
several hundred thousand visible stars constitute but a tiny percentage of
the billions thought to comprise the cosmos. In fact, many of the "stars"
we see are whole galaxies. Brilliant English physicist and cosmologist
Stephen Hawking estimates that "our galaxy is only one among some hundred
thousand million that can be seen using modern telescopes, each galaxy
itself containing some hundred thousand million stars." When we ponder the
magnitude of the cosmos, how much significance can we attach to our egos?
There's nothing like a starry night in Grand Canyon to humble the
At sunrise a Western wood peewee sounds its wake-up call. Hoping to
attract a mate, males sing their nasal dawn call every morning during the
nesting season. Its "pee-wee" triggers recollections of the tree house I
once built where the peewees woke me gently, unlike the cardinals that
whistled right in my ear.
With no one stirring in the campground, Havasu Falls is still deserted.
The air cools with each step down the trail toward the plunge pool.
Havasu's round basin is ringed by huge cottonwoods, their trunks sprayed
the same fawn color as the sand. The creek plunges down a chute surrounded
by baroque tongues of travertine. Below them, behind the falls, constant
spray nourishes lush maidenhair ferns.
Braving the chill I creep into a cave where my breath clouds. Waters
gurgle through the travertine, gradually filling up its conduits. This
must be what life sounds like to an earthworm or a mole. The underground
trickles bring me under their mythic spell. Thoughts of death seem
sexually exciting; I imagine life in a womb, even death in a tomb. Then,
spooked, I bolt back into the daylight, short of breath, huddled away from
the spray. The falls are even more dazzling to eyes opened wide in a cave.
Teenage boys thunder down the trail, but soon the falls spellbinds them
into silence. They sit down, push back their caps, and stare. Arguably the
most picturesque place in Grand Canyon, Havasu Falls is a visual paradox.
From the trail skirting its west side, it seems to be an enclosed
amphitheater, but from below it seems quite open. On the east side, across
the creek, Carbonate Canyon twists for nearly a mile toward massive bowls
glazed by falling water and rock.
Departing is difficult. Before we set out for Supai, we fill our canteens
and bellies with bubbling water from Fern Spring. A campground mutt
follows us to the village, lunging with real fierceness at lizards. When
our canine companion sees a foot-long chuckwalla lizard, he charges. The
slowmoving chuckwalla, however, proves faster than it looks; it dives
under a rock. Rushing headlong, the mongrel skids to a halt like Goofy to
avoid a big barrel cactus.
Later, while we eat lunch, a gray fox trots by on the opposite ledge, nose
to the ground, never giving us a look. It's thrilling to see a fox up
close, especially where the semi-wild dogs could give chase. Such pursuit
could prove fatal since foxes aren't fast they stalk their prey and pounce
like cats. Still later we linger at a wild cherry in full bloom, then
touch the lacy new leaflets on an acacia, bright green against the pocked
sandstone. As we surface from the trench cut by Hualapai Canyon, a sage
thrasher puffs its brown speckled breast, cocks its head to brandish its
curved beak, and bolts, flashing a whitish tail.
The last mile is tough, especially when we reach the switchbacks in the
afternoon while the sun hammers hardest. The great walls of stone sway in
the heat. To forget the pain I play a foot-and-knee game, zigzagging from
one side of the trail to the other to lessen the incline. At the same time
I take small steps and push my knees back to ascend by straightening my
legs. My lungs are syncopated with my legs. I inhale while taking four
steps to the right, then exhale while zagging four steps to the left. This
diverts attention from my pack, which chafes my shoulders and hips. Even
hiking sometimes rewards concentration on technique.
Heads down, ears full of mechanical drumbeats, joggers nearly run us off
the trail. It's hard to imagine coming down here without free eyes and
open ears. In a place like Grand Canyon, this borders on sacrilege.
Granted, running as a way to reach otherwise inaccessible places could be
justified. But using nature as an aerobic workout arena puzzles me. These
sweating, panting fitness freaks race right by it all, out of touch with
what lies all around and even underfoot. Most aren't here to marvel at the
colors or to hear the birds. More often they're going for their personal
best --- a telling phrase that may suggest both self-absorption and a
competitive orientation. Compulsive conditioning defines the body as a
machine, a material thing commanded by, yet estranged from, the mind.
After centuries of debasement, it's time to respect our physical being
without joining the cult of the body.
Just below the rim, Coconino sandstone enhances the quality of the light.
This tawny layer --- possibly the loveliest in the Southwest --- crops out
all along the eastern end of Grand Canyon. Composed of nearly pure white
quartz grains, the blond Coconino stains easily: its sheer, smooth cliffs
are dripped with coffee, chocolate, and cinnamon. It is rippled by winds
that blew 270 million years ago, illustrating how changes in wind
direction enabled dunes to accumulate, one upon another. Beside my pack a
fossilized footprint provides a connection to a Paleozoic animal that
walked here millions of years ago.
As I approach Hualpai Hilltop, occasional trash suddenly jars the senses.
Reentry symptoms are a good sign, however. If you don't feel them, you
probably haven't been away long enough. Soon we're slumped on the floor of
our van, still under the spell, happily glazed as other hikers lumber by.
Far below us Havasu Canyon throbs with life. Its streams pulse through
rock like blood courses through flesh, its creek is always depositing
lime. Flash floods periodically sweep it away, even the travertine
scallops below Havasu Falls, and the cycle begins again. The blue-green
water seeps, trickles, swirls, cascades, and thunders, enchanting
thousands of pilgrims a year.