Desert Solitaire
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Havasu

by EDWARD ABBEY

from Desert Solitaire, (c) 1968 Edward Abbey

ONE SUMMER I STARTED OFF TO VISIT FOR THE FIRST TIME THE CITY of Los Angeles. I was riding with some friends from the University of New Mexico. On the way, we stopped off briefly to roll an old tire into the Grand Canyon. While watching the tire bounce over tall pine trees, tear hell out of a mule train, and disappear with a final grand leap into the Inner Gorge, I overheard the park ranger standing nearby say a few words about a place called Havasu, or Havasupai. A branch, it seemed, of the Grand Canyon.

What I heard made me think that I should see Havasu immediately, before something went wrong somewhere. My friends said they would wait. So, I went down into Havasu --- 14 miles by trail --- and looked things over. When I returned five weeks later, I discovered that the others had gone on to Los Angeles without me.

That was fifteen years ago. And I still have not seen the fabulous city on the Pacific shore. Perhaps I never will. There's something in the prospect southwest from Barstow which makes one hesitate. Although recently, driving my own truck, I did succeed in penetrating as close as San Bernardino. But was hurled back by what appeared to be clouds of mustard gas rolling in from the west on a very broad front. Thus failed again. It may be, however, that Los Angeles will come to me. Will come to all of us, as it must (they say) to all men.

But Havasu, once down in there, it's hard to get out. The trail led across a stream wide, blue, and deep, like the pure upper reaches of the River Jordan. Without a bridge. Dripping wet and making muddy tracks, I entered the village of the Havasupai Indians where unshod ponies ambled down the only street and the children laughed, not maliciously, at the sight of the wet white man. I stayed the first night in the lodge the people keep for tourists, a rambling, old bungalow with high ceilings, a screened veranda, and large, comfortable rooms. When the sun went down, the village went dark except for kerosene lamps here and there, a few open fires, and a number of lightning bugs or fireflies which drifted aimlessly up and down Main Street, looking for trouble.

The next morning, I bought a slab of bacon and six cans of beans at the village post office, rented a large comfortable horse, and proceeded farther down the Canyon past miniature cornfields, green pastures, swimming pools, and waterfalls to the ruins of an old mining camp five miles below the village. There I lived, mostly alone except for the ghosts, for the next 35 days.

There was nothing wrong with the Indians. The Supai are a charming, cheerful, completely relaxed, and easygoing bunch, all one hundred or so of them. But I had no desire to live among them unless clearly invited to do so, and I wasn't. Even if invited, I might not have accepted. I'm not sure that I care for the idea of strangers examining my daily habits and folkways, studying my language, inspecting my costume, questioning me about my religion, classifying my artifacts, investigating my sexual rites, and evaluating my chances for cultural survival.

So, I lived alone.

The first thing I did was take off my pants. Naturally. Next, I unloaded the horse, smacked her on the rump, and sent her back to the village. I carried my food and gear into the best-preserved of the old cabins and spread my bedroll on a rusty steel cot. After that came a swim in the pool beneath a great waterfall nearby, 120 feet high, which rolled in mist and thundered over caverns and canopies of solidified travertine.

In the evening of that first day below the falls, I lay down to sleep in the cabin. A dark night. The door of the cabin, unlatched, creaked slowly open, although there was no perceptible movement of the air. One firefly flickered in and circled my bacon, suspended from the roofbeam on a length of bailing wire. Slowly, without visible physical aid, the door groaned shut. And opened again. A bat came through one window and went out another, followed by a second firefly (the first scooped up by the bat) and a host of mosquitoes, which did not leave. I had no netting, of course, and the air was much too humid and hot for sleeping inside a bag.

I got up and wandered around outside for a while, slapping at mosquitoes, and thinking. From a distance came the softened roar of the waterfall, that "white noise" as soothing as hypnosis. I rolled up my sleeping bag and in the filtered light of the stars followed the trail that wound through thickets of cactus and up around ledges to the terrace above the mining camp. The mosquitoes stayed close but in lessening numbers, it seemed, as I climbed over humps of travertine toward the head of the waterfall. Near the brink of it, 6 feet from the drop-off and the plunge, I found a sandy cove just big enough for my bed. The racing creek as it soared free over the edge created a continuous turbulence in the air sufficient to keep away all flying insects. I slept well that night and the next day carried the cot to the place and made it my permanent bedroom for the rest of July and all of August.

What did I do during those five weeks in Eden? Nothing. I did nothing. Or nearly nothing. I caught a few rainbow trout, which grew big if not numerous in Havasu Creek. About once a week, I put on my pants and walked up to the Indian village to buy bacon, canned beans, and Argentine beef in the little store. That was all the Indians had in stock. To vary my diet, I ordered more exotic foods by telephone from the supermarket in Grand Canyon Village, and these were shipped to me by the U.S. Mail, delivered twice a week on muleback down the 14-mile trail from Topocoba Hilltop. A little later in the season, I was able to buy sweet corn, figs, and peaches from the Supai. At one time for a period of three days, my bowels seemed in danger of falling out, but I recovered. The Indians never came down to my part of the Canyon except when guiding occasional tourists to the falls or hunting a stray horse. In late August came the Great Havasupai Sacred Peach Festival and four-day Marathon Friendship Dance, to which I was invited and in which I did participate. There I met Reed Watahomagie, a good man, the Chief Sinvala, and a fellow named Spoonhead who took me for five dollars in a horse race. Someone had fed my mount a half-bushel of green figs just before the race and didn't inform me.

The Friendship Dance, which continued day and night to the rhythm of drums made of old inner tube stretched over #10 tomato cans while ancient medicine men chanted in the background, was perhaps marred but definitely not interrupted when a drunken free-for-all exploded between Spoonhead and friends and a group of visiting Hualapai Indians down from the rim. But this, I was told, happened every year. It was a traditional part of the ceremony, sanctified by custom. As Spoonhead told me afterward, grinning around broken teeth, it's not every day you get a chance to wallop a Hualapai. Or skin a paleface, I reminded him. (Yes, the Supai are an excellent tribe, healthy, joyous, and clever. Not only clever, but shrewd. Not only shrewd but wise: e.g., the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Public Roads, like most government agencies, always meddling, always fretting, and itching and sweating for something to do, last year made a joint offer to blast a million-dollar road down into Havasu Canyon at no cost whatsoever to the tribe, thus opening their homeland to the riches of motorized tourism. The people of Supai or at least a majority of them voted to reject the proposal.) And the peach wine flowed freely, like the water of the river of life. When the ball was over, I went home to my bunk on the verge of the waterfall and rested for two days.

On my feet again, I explored the abandoned silver mines in the canyon walls, found a few sticks of dynamite but no caps or fuses. Disappointing; but there was nothing in that area anyway that required blowing up. I climbed through the caves that led down to the foot of Mooney Falls, 200 feet high. What did I do? There was nothing that had to be done. I listened to the voices, the many voices, vague, distant, but astonishingly human, the Havasu Creek. I heard the doors creak open, the doors creak shut, the old forgotten cabins where no one with tangible substance or the property of reflecting light ever entered, ever returned. I went native and dreamed away days on the shore of the pool under the waterfall, wandered naked as Adam under the cottonwoods, inspecting my cactus gardens. The days became wild, strange, ambiguous --- a sinister element pervaded the flow of time. I lived narcotic hours in which like the Taoist Chuang-tse I worried about butterflies and who was dreaming what. There was a serpent, a red racer, living in the rocks of the spring where I filled my canteens; he was always there, slipping among the stones or pausing to mesmerize me with his suggestive tongue and cloudly haunted primeval eyes. Damn his eyes. We got to know each other rather too well, I think. I agonized over the girls I had known and over those I hoped were yet to come. I slipped by degrees into lunacy, me and the moon, and lost to a certain extent the power to distinguish between what was and what was not myself looking at my hand, I would see a leaf trembling on a branch. A green leaf. I thought of Debussy, of Keats and Blake and Andrew Marvell. I remembered Tom O'Bedlam. And all of those lost and never remembered. Who would return? To be lost again? I went for walks. I went for walks, and on one of these, the last, I took in Havasu, regained everything that seemed to be ebbing away.

Most of my wandering in the desert I've done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity --- I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time. However, there are special hazards in traveling alone. Your chances of dying, in case of sickness or accident, are much improved, simply because there is no one around to go for help.

Exploring a side canyon off Havasu Canyon one day I was unable to resist the temptation to climb up out of it onto what corresponds in the region to the Tonto Bench. Late in the afternoon, I realized that I would not have enough time to get back to my camp before dark, unless I could find a much shorter route than the one by which I had come. I looked for a shortcut.

Nearby was another little side canyon which appeared to lead down into Havasu Canyon. It was a steep, shadowy, extremely narrow defile with the usual meandering course and overhanging walls; from where I stood, near its head, I could not tell if the route was feasible all the way down to the floor of the main canyon. I had no rope with me --- only my walking stick. But I was hungry and thirsty, as always. I started down.

For a while, everything went well. The floor of the little canyon began as a bed of dry sand, scattered with rocks. Farther down, a few boulders were wedged between the walls; I climbed over and under them. Then the canyon took on the slickrock character --- smooth, sheer, slippery sandstone carved by erosion into a series of scoops and potholes which got bigger as I descended. In some of these basins there was a little water left over from the last flood, warm and fetid water under an oily-looking scum, condensed by prolonged evaporation to a sort of broth, rich in dead and dying organisms. My canteen was empty and I was very thirsty, but I felt that I could wait.

I came to a lip on the canyon floor which overhung by 12 feet the largest so far of these stagnant pools. On each side rose the canyon walls, roughly perpendicular. There was no way to continue except by dropping into the pool. I hesitated. Beyond this point, there could hardly be any returning, yet the main canyon was still not visible below. Obviously the only sensible thing to do was to turn back. I edged over the lip of stone and dropped feet first into the water.

Deeper than I expected. The warm, thick fluid came up and closed over my head as my feet touched the muck at the bottom. I had to swim to the farther side. And here, I found myself on the verge of another drop-off, with one more huge bowl of green soup below.

This drop-off was about the same height as the one before, but not overhanging. It resembled a children's playground slide, concave and S-curved, only steeper, wider, with a vertical pitch in the middle. It did not lead directly into the water but ended in a series of steplike ledges above the pool. Beyond the pool lay another edge, another drop-off into an unknown depth. Again I paused, and for a much longer time. But I no longer had the option of turning around and going back. I eased myself into the chute and let go of everything --- except my faithful stick.

I hit rock-bottom hard, but without any physical injury. I swam the stinking pond dog-paddle style, pushing the heavy scum away from my face, and crawled out on the far side to see what my fate was going to be.

Fatal. Death by starvation, slow and tedious. For I was looking straight down an overhanging cliff to a rubble pile of broken rocks eighty feet below.

After the first wave of utter panic had passed, I began to try to think. First of all, I was not going to die immediately, unless another flash flood came down the gorge; there was the pond of stagnant water on hand to save me from thirst, and a man can live, they say for thirty days or more without food. My sun-bleached bones, dramatically sprawled at the bottom of the chasm, would provide the diversion of the picturesque for future wanderers --- if any man ever came this way again.

My second thought was to scream for help, although, I knew very well there could be no other human being within miles. I even tried it, but the sound of that anxious shout, cut short in the dead air within the canyon walls, was so inhuman, so detached as it seemed for myself, that it terrified me, and I didn't attempt it again.

I thought of tearing my clothes into strips and plaiting a rope. But what was I wearing? --- boots, socks, a pair of old and ragged blue jeans, a flimsy t-shirt, an ancient and rotten sombrero of straw. Not a chance of weaving such a wardrobe into a rope 80 feet long, or even 20 feet long.

How about a signal fire? There was nothing to burn but my clothes; not a tree, not a shrub, not even a weed grew in this stony cul-de-sac. Even if I burned my clothing, the chances of the smoke being seen by some Hualapai Indian high on the South Rim were very small; and if he did see the smoke, what then? He'd shrug his shoulders, sigh, and take another pull from his Tokay bottle. Furthermore, without clothes, the sun would soon bake me to death.

There was only one thing I could do. I had a tiny notebook in my hip pocket and a stub of a pencil. When these dried out, I could at least record my final thoughts. I would have plenty of time to write not only my epitaph but my own elegy.

But not yet.

There were a few loose stones scattered about the edge of the pool. Taking the biggest first, I swam with it back to the foot of the slickrock chute and placed it there. One by one I brought the others and made a shaky little pile and about two feet high leaning against the chute. Hopeless, of course, but there was nothing else to do. I stood on top of the pile and stretched outward, straining my arms to their utmost limit and groped with fingers and fingernails for a hold on something firm. There was nothing. I crept back down. I began to cry. It was easy. All alone, I didn't have to be brave.

Through the tears, I noticed my old walking stick lying nearby. I took it and stood it on the most solid stone in the pile, behind the two topmost stones. I took off my boots, tied them together and hung them around my neck, on my back. I got up on the little pile again and lifted one leg and set my big toe on the top of the stick. This could never work. Slowly and painfully, leaning as much of my weight as I could against the sandstone slide, I applied more and more pressure on the stick, pushing my body upward until I was again stretched out full length above. Again I felt for a fingerhold. There was none. The chute was smooth as polished marble.

No, not quite that smooth. This was sandstone, soft and porous, not marble, and between it and my wet body and wet clothing a certain friction was created. In addition, the stick had enabled me to reach a higher section of the S-curved chute, where the angle was more favorable. I discovered that I could move upward, inch by inch, through adhesion and with the help of the leveling tendency of the curve. I gave an extra little push with my big toe the stones collapsed below, the stick clattered down --- and crawled rather like a snail or slug, oozing slime, up over the rounded summit of the slide.

The next obstacle, the overhanging spout 12 feet above a deep plunge pool, looked impossible. It was impossible, but with the blind faith of despair I slogged into the water and swam underneath the drop-off and floundered around for a while, scrabbling at the slippery rock until my nerves and tiring muscles convinced my numbed brain that this was not the way. I swam back to solid ground and lay down to rest and die in comfort.

Far above, I could see the sky, an irregular strip of blue between the dark, hard-edged canyon walls that seemed to lean toward each other as they towered above me. Across that narrow opening, a small white cloud was passing, so lovely and precious and delicate and forever inaccessible that it broke the heart and made me weep like a woman, like a child. In all my life, I had never seen anything so beautiful.

The walls that rose on either side of the drop-off were literally perpendicular. Eroded by weathering, however, and not by corrosion and rushing floodwater, they had a rough surface, chipped, broken, cracked. Where the walls joined the face of the overhang they formed almost a square corner, with a number of minute crevices and inch-wide shelves on either side. It might, after all, be possible. What did I have to lose?

When I had regained some measure of nerve and steadiness I got up off my back and tried the wall beside the pond, clinging to the rock with bare toes and fingertips and inching my way crabwise toward the corner. The watersoaked, heavy boots dangling from my neck, swinging back and forth with my every movement, threw me off balance, and I fell into the pool. I swam out to the bank, unslung the boots, and threw them up over the drop-off, out of sight. They'd be there if I ever needed them again. Once more, I attached myself to the wall, tenderly, sensitively, like a limpet, and very slowly, very cautiously, worked my way into the corner. Here, I was able to climb upward, a few centimeters at a time, by bracing myself against the opposite sides and finding sufficient niches for fingers and toes. As I neared the top and the overhang became noticeable, I prepared for a slip, planning to push myself away from the rock so as to fall into the center of the pool where the water was deepest. But it wasn't necessary. Somehow, with a skill and tenacity I could never have found in myself under ordinary circumstances, I managed to creep straight up that gloomy cliff and over the brink of the drop-off and into the flower of safety. My boots were floating under the surface of the little puddle above. As I poured the stinking water out of them and pulled them on and laced them up, I discovered myself bawling again for the third time in three hours, the hot delicious tears of victory. And up above the clouds replied --- thunder.

I emerged from the treacherous little canyon at sundown, with an enormous fire in the western sky and lightning overhead. Through sweet twilight and the sudden dazzling flare of lightning, I hiked back along the Tonto Bench, bellowing the "Ode to joy." Long before I reached the place where I could descend safely to the main canyon and my camp, however, darkness set in, the clouds opened their bays, and the rain poured down. I took shelter under a ledge in a shallow cave about 3 feet high --- hardly room to sit up in. Others had been here before: the dusty floor of the little hole was littered with droppings of birds, rats, jackrabbits, and coyotes. There were also a few long gray pieces of scat with a curious twist at one tip --- cougar? I didn't care. I had some matches with me, sealed in paraffin (the prudent explorer); I scraped together the handiest twigs and animal droppings and built a little fire and waited for the rain to stop.

It didn't stop. The rain came down for hours in alternate waves of storm and drizzle, and I very soon had burnt up all the fuel within reach. No matter. I stretched out in the coyote den, pillowed my head on my arm and suffered through the long, long night, wet, cold, aching, hungry, wretched, dreaming claustrophobic nightmares. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.

Edward Abbey the legendary author of The Monkey Wrench Gang and many other critically acclaimed books, was born in Home, Pennsylvania, in 1927, and died at his home in Oracle, Arizona, in 1989. Desert Solitaire, from which this story was excerpted, established the author as one of the country's foremost defenders of the natural environment.