A Colorado River Town
copyright 1998, Timothy Egan
|The People of the
Blue-Green Water have lived inside the Grand Canyon for at least 800
years, and they still get their mail by mule train. It takes longer for a
rumor to reach the hamlet of Supai than it does to fly between three
continents. Before there was Phoenix, Flagstaff, Denver, or Albuquerque,
there was the town at the western end of the canyon. Yet, it is not on
many maps of the West and cannot be seen from most air flights over the
area. Nor are there any roads to the village. Sheltered by flanks of stone
higher than anything ever built, Supai sits in a pocket of selective
ignorance, neighbor to the Seventh Natural Wonder of the World.
On a weekday when the wind is cold and out of the north, and the sky still black, I am threading my way north up the Colorado River drainage, picking up Old Route 66 and a Navajo-language radio station at the same time. From Kingman, I angle through Hackberry, Valentine, Truxton, and Peach Springs, none of them taking more than a few seconds of road time to pass through, and then I'm in Indian Country, the Hualapai Reservation. I cannot make out much from the Navajo broadcast-a language the Japanese could never decipher during World War II-except that the Mariners beat Cleveland last night, 6 to 4; already, the Colorado Plateau seems a little brighter and a little warmer. The news goes on for fifteen minutes, and then comes an old George Jones song. "I work like a slave in the open-pit mine," is the refrain, the perfect pairing of music with landscape, the bluesy crooning, the lonely sky. Turning to the northeast, the last road to the canyon is a straight line, Indian Route 18, over ground that would be twenty-foot rolling swells if you were on a sailboat. I sometimes get a little too much lift off the rises, landing hard.
In the first light, I see livestock roaming over open pasture, clusters of pinyon-juniper, raptors at work overhead. Once, I stop the car to shoo away cattle blocking the road. I never see another soul, and there is no hint that anyone lives nearby. After sixty miles, the road ends somewhat suddenly at the lip of a high cliff, treeless and exposed to the wind. Horse trailers and rusted cars are parked at the edge. Low-angled morning sunlight reveals color in the canyon, purples and mauves, some limestone, in a wide crack in the earth. I walk to the edge, where there is a trailhead for a narrow spiral path deep into the chasm, dropping several thousand vertical feet to where the village of Supai is supposed to be, in a side canyon above the Colorado River. I am mostly curious about one basic thing: how have these people been able to live along the river for nearly a millennium without importing the London Bridge or requiring a nation to pay for a $5-billion water diversion system?
"Here's your horse," says Brian Chamberlain, a Havasupai Indian in cowboy hat and stiff leather chaps worn to a shine. "You been on a horse before?"
Of course. I mean, at the county fair as a kid, going around in circles, and in eastern Washington, trying once to impress a country girl with the unusual attributes of loving F. Scott Fitzgerald and Appaloosas. But no, not on a long ride down a canyon trail, where steering one way or giving the wrong command would mean a tumble into the rocky abyss and rehab in some place like Sun City, where a doctor probably wouldn't even treat somebody under the age of fifty-five without a waiver from the Del Webb corporation. But, then, no horse would be so stupid as to step off the trail. Right?
"Your horse is named Sophie. You think you can remember that?" Are you kidding, I say: "That's my daughter's name."
"You move the reins this way to turn right, that way to turn left. Pull it back to slow her down. Don't kick her too much. She'll start sweating after a while. She'll fart and shit along the way too. When we get to water, let her drink."
I had arranged to go to Supai with the mail, which leaves the hilltop three times a week. The postmaster from Peach Springs said this route was the last in the United States to be delivered by pack animals. Not because of some quaint tradition or bureaucratic ineptitude that would be absurd even by postal standards. It is simply the only way to get mail or anything else into the village of the Havasupai. People in the canyon do their grocery shopping through the Postal Service. "It may look like hamburger," said Leroy Hurst, the postmaster. "But once it comes through the door, it's U.S. Mail. I'm the only Post Office in America with a walk-in freezer."
Brian and his father are the only two people on the canyon rim in the morning. Everything I ask them, to me, sounds stupid as soon as it leaves my mouth. Sure, they are going down to Supai with the mail. What the hell else would they be doing here with these beasts of burden in temperatures barely above freezing at dawn? We feed the animals pellets from fifty-pound bags, my fingers cumbrous and cold, and then load up the mules with about two hundred pounds each. Strapped around their backs are twelve-packs of Coke, milk and bacon, potatoes, flour, two-by-fours, loaves of cheese, bags of nails, spackling paste, videos, canned vegetables, blankets, bread, chips, and official offerings from Ed McMahon holding out the chance that someone inside the most remote village in America will become a millionaire through the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.
Brian rides in front, on a surefooted mount. His father has left to visit friends on the south rim. I start out in the rear; at a place where the path briefly widens, I go to the front with Brian. Sophie moves deliberately, army troop style. She spares me any pranks and is responsive to my few directions. The first mile is very steep, downward over crushed pebbles and fistsize stones; soon the sky is little more than a sliver overhead. We descend a staircase of time. The canyon changes color with every turn, presenting a new world, a new geologic age; about two hundred million years separates the rim from the very bottom, a real challenge for creationists. It is just under nine miles to Supai, and another few miles beyond that to the Colorado River. Brian answers my lame questions in a monosyllabic monotone.
"You expecting it to heat up in the canyon today?"
Brian lives in Supai, one of about three hundred residents of the only permanent village in the 280-mile length of the Grand Canyon. He speaks Yuman, the native dialect of the village, and English, the dialect of American television. There are VCRs in Supai.
The trail to Supai has not changed over the centuries; it is the only way to get through the canyon-down the waterworn slit in the rock walls. The Anasazi lived mostly upstream and across the chasm beyond the north rim. The ancients ventured into the canyon to harvest the fruit of prickly pear cacti, rice grass, and leaves from a bush later labeled Mormon tea (decaffeinated, of course). They used a compound that could reduce headaches and muscle pain, found in Grand Canyon willows. Yucca flowers were a decent side dish. Most ethnologists believe the Pai people, of which the Supai are only a small band, did not come directly from the Anasazi, but may have descended from people who lived on the south rim of the canyon. The Pai called themselves The Only True People on Earth, a not-unusual native designation, especially for a group as isolated as they were. Their language group extended from the canyon south to where Lake Havasu is today, onetime home of the Chemehuevi Indians, and beyond to the Mexican border. By the time that Father Garces --- the first known white visitor had wandered down this path in 1776, the Havasupai were already using ornaments and tools from Europeans and coastal Indians passed along through the extensive Western trade network. The priest found a village of farmers and orchardists, living well in homes of tightly woven straw over pine poles and surrounded by the perpetual sound from three waterfalls of Havasu Creek, the green stream that pours out of the canyon walls and is the source of the name Havasupai-People of the Blue-Green Water. They had a priest of their own, whose job was to keep track of the fetish bundle, a collection of sacred relics passed on from one generation to the next. Two priests from different worlds, talking fetish bundle secrets-that would have been an exchange worth hearing.
Hidden inside the glorious breach in the Colorado Plateau, the Havasupai were able to dodge conflicts on higher, more exposed ground. They did nothing particularly virtuous or diplomatic to avoid trouble; their survival was strictly a geographic fluke. The big brown land of the Southwest changed hands, wars were fought, railroads tracks were laid, mines dug, water diverted, droughts came and went; prospectors, gunslingers, dreamers, schemers, conservationists, and adventurers tramped through. By legal proclamation, the Havasupai became Mexican citizens after 1821, when all Indians living in the territory of the country newly independent from Spain were made part of the republic. Twenty-seven years later, after a war, the Mexicans handed the land over to America. All of this meant very little to the people living in what was, to the outside world, a deep hole of incomprehension on a blank space of the map. But the Havasupai were not socially reclusive, nor were they universal Indian brothers; they were never in hiding. The Hopis, a powerful, populous tribe to the east, were their main trading partners, and they acted at times as benevolent allies. The Hopi village of Oraibi claims to be as old as Supai. Other tribes, the Apache, the Utes, and the Yavapai among them, the Havasupai considered enemies.
The biggest tribe in the region, the Navajos, was crushed in the 1860s. Relatively new arrivals to the Colorado Plateau, the Navajos are Athabascans who call themselves the "Dine"-The People, or The Earth-Surface People. Their rivals the Hopis hated them; the Hopi word for Navajos translates to "head-bangers." From the Spanish, the Navajos learned to raise cattle, goats, and sheep, and became the preeminent weavers, shepherds, and silver jewelry-makers of the West. They lived in conical hogans, some of which are still used today, and roamed over a large domain covering parts of four states, with Monument Valley and the Painted Desert as open-air living rooms. Like the Apache, they were slave traders and raiders. They also developed an unusual social custom: a married man was never supposed to look his mother-in-law in the face.
While the Havasupai lay low, a large force of volunteers from New Mexico led by Kit Carson went after the Navajos. Carson had already received a quarter of a century of iconographic press coverage when he was given the job of subduing the Navajos in 1863. A distant relative of Daniel Boone, on his own in the open land of the West since age fourteen, Carson had joined up with John Charles Fremont in the 1840s to map the Great American Desert and Terra Incognita, covering nearly four thousand miles in a cartographic foray second only to Lewis and Clark's expedition. The maps became bibles for overland travelers, making Carson and Fremont household names. Both are known, now, as names associated with casinos. Carson had married an Indian, was the father of Indian children, and was called Red Shirt by the Navajos. He knew all about the raiding hideouts, the guerrilla attack-and-withdraw methods, and the land which was the ultimate defense of The Earth-Surface People. The only way to defeat them, he calculated, was to starve them out. Carson marched north, burned Navajo farm fields, blankets, and homes, slaughtered their animal herds, cut down their peach orchards, and ripped apart their irrigation system. By early 1864, in the dead of a bare-boned Colorado Plateau winter, the Navajo were left hungry and shivering in the rock hideouts of Canyon de Chelly. More than two-thirds of the tribe, about eight thousand people, surrendered.
Just as many American Indians call themselves The People, most tribes have as part of their history a horror period known as the Long Walk. This was always a forced march from good land to bad, a parade of humiliation by conquered people. The Cherokee experienced it, so did the Creeks, the Nez Perce, the Modocs, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, and many others. For the Navajo, the Long Walk was three hundred miles across the desert of New Mexico to a squalid, arid patch of ground near the Pecos River called Bosque Redondo. Their enemies, the Utes, Hopis, and Mexicans, preyed on them along the way. The Utes had already benefited from the bounty that Carson paid on Navajo livestock. In all, nearly a quarter of the Navajo died in the march or at Bosque Redondo. The wonder is that, today, the Navajo number nearly 200,000 people, and live on twelve million acres of sovereign land the biggest reservation in America. At the time the tribal reserve was established, an Indian agent labeled it "the most worthless land that ever laid outdoors." There are no Kit Carson mementos sold at reservation trading posts, nor have they yet warmed to their neighbors the Hopi.
During the time of the Navajo exile, other Indians of the Colorado Plateau were also rounded up or gave up land to miners, cattle herders, and other armed trespassers. The Pai people who lived above the canyon and hunted in the pine forests of the south rim lost out to the Army and were marched south, to an internment camp at La Paz. That left only the Havasupai, small and isolated, living as always in the slit cut out of one side of the Grand Canyon. An American explorer, Frank H. Cushing, came in 1881 to the village of Supai, with its rows of corn, squash, beans, and cotton, its orchards of ripe fruit, and pronounced it "a veritable land of summer." They grew tobacco, aimed their prayers at certain rock walls and the sun, gambled, stored food in granite holes, took sweat baths, had no laws on divorce or marriage, and played a hoop game not unlike basketball. The government sent an agricultural specialist and a schoolteacher down the trail to Supai, but there was not much they could improve upon. The land of summer was made an official reservation, all of 518 acres, in 1883.
Midway down the trail, the canyon walls are so narrow I can lean over one way or the other and touch a slab of sandstone. It's clear from the water lines on the rock and the bare floor of the path that when thunderstorms come clattering through here in summer, the trail turns into a swift current of red water, no place for horses, mules, or people.
"Ever been in here during a thunderstorm?"
Brian's got a big wad of tobacco in his mouth. When we pause to give the horses a rest, Sophie lets out a long, breezy fart. It's a good thing he warned me. If not, we would be looking at each other funny. Or at least, I would think he would be looking at me funny.
"These horses fart a lot?"
We talk about hunting. He's killed deer and elk, birds and jackrabbits, but never had a shot at bighorn sheep, the rock-climbing phantoms of the Grand Canyon. I've bagged a few pheasant and some ducks in eastern Washington.
"And, you know, duck is very good in an orange
sauce with garlic," I say. "Once you've cooked all the fat out."
The red walls of the canyon narrow some more and then the funnel starts to widen. We pass the six-mile mark. By the eighth mile, it levels into more open country. All at once, it is expansive, with the sky broad, the valley flat and the walls of the canyon some distance away-an enormous natural amphitheater. We come upon Havasu Creek for the first time, running fast and clear. As we wade through the creek, Sophie stops in the middle of the stream, the water just below the saddle. She drinks for several minutes. I feel jazzed by the whole thing: the temperature twenty-five degrees warmer down in the valley than it is on the rim, the clear water, the range of rust colors and deep tans on the rock walls, the downshift from the rushed incrementalism of a typical American day to this languor. I start to blurt little spasms of superlatives.
"Yep. We got another mile to go."
As we near the village, there are peach trees and obese cottonwoods, up to six feet or more in diameter at the base. Stacks of cottonwood, which is fibrous, twisty, and hard to cut, are piled high for firewood. The village is in the middle of all the trees, like a big courtyard community. It is very basic and utilitarian. Every house has a horse or two tied up in front. There are no motor vehicles, except an occasional old tractor. Narrow red-dirt roads connect the homes. Basketball hoops hang from crooked, skinny cottonwood poles. Brian waves to a few people as we make our way through town. The arrival of the mail stirs the village, somewhat, although dogs dozing in the afternoon sun barely lift an eyelid.
Signs just outside the village warn that alcohol is prohibited anywhere in Supai or the canyon leading down to it. But the trail was littered with beer cans and bottles. At both Lake Havasu City, where alcohol rules, and here in Supai, where it is banned, Budweiser appears to be the king of beers.
"Ever been to Lake Havasu City?" I ask Brian,
trolling for a comparative thought as the trail ends.
In the first century after the Havasupai were formally given their village land as a reservation, the river just below them went through changes greater than anything short of the reshaping brought by geologic tumult. From Lees Ferry to the Gulf of California, the river was throttled, rechanneled, backed up. After John Wesley Powell squirted through the Grand Canyon, press accounts of his adventure, complete with maps, etchings, and photographs, were published throughout the land. Americans were fascinated by this wonder in their midst. As always, one impulse was to tame it, control it, and remake it; another was to let it be. A survey crew studied the canyon in the 1890s determined to run a railroad through the big ditch; when three surveyors lost their lives, the effort was abandoned. Miners poked holes in the canyon rim, the prospectors protected by a law from 1872 that allows anyone to make a claim on American public land for a mere five dollars, a law that Senators Larry Craig of Idaho and Conrad Burns of Montana continue to uphold as the epitome of Western culture. When President Teddy Roosevelt came to the Grand Canyon, he had a renewal of the religion he first experienced as a sickly boy on a ranch in the Dakotas. He came down this trail, met with Havasupai, and hiked along canyon paths, robust and snorting as usual.
"Leave it as it is," T .R. thundered from the canyon rim. "You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." He declared the Grand Canyon a national monument. Americans did not need castles or Renaissance churches for self-esteem, not with a natural history unrivaled by Europe. Western senators were outraged; the canyon, they said, was being "locked up" from commercial development, and speculative rights were being trampled on. But even though the land was protected, the river remained open for alteration. So, the dams pinched off both ends of the Grand Canyon, burying thousands of Anasazi sites, erasing beaches, changing the ecology of the canyon. A national park meant little to the Havasupai, except that it brought more people down the river. Barry Gold water, when he rafted the Colorado as a teenager, was still something of a pioneer. Today, twenty thousand people a year ride the canyon rapids, dropping nearly eighteen hundred feet through the park.
At Supai, an ancient irrigation ditch, perhaps three feet wide and four feet deep, encircles the village, channeling some bit of water from Havasu Creek to the orchards and vegetable gardens. Other than that, there is not much that the Havasupai have done to alter their eight-hundred-year-old community. Supai is not dramatic or impressive in the way of Acoma or Canyon de Chelly. It is sluggish, a small farm town in no great hurry, with little overt ambition.
"What's it like to ride in a big jet airplane?" Brian asks, startling me with a multisyllabic burst. And now I really feel stupid, trying to explain something that is so integral to basic American life that nobody even describes it anymore.
"The food is bad. The seats are small. You get from one place to the other really fast. Sometimes, there's a lot of chop, and you bounce around and wonder if this thing that is half as big as your town is going to fall from the sky. I've never seen a view from a jet that matches what we saw this morning, dropping into the canyon."
"And what's it like in Las Vegas?"
The water of little Havasu Creek courses through the village of Supai, tumbles over three cataracts, and then flows to the Colorado. From there it goes on, through the turbines of Hoover Dam, providing the electricity that keeps the neon lights of Las Vegas aflame at all hours. Brian has never been more than about 150 miles from home. High school was up on the rim, and that's some distance.
"How about Alaska? I'd like to see that."
I tell him he would like Alaska, with salmon as big as first-grade kids, a still-forming landscape, wonderfully wacky residents. Not too many horses, though. I dismount Sophie, and say goodbye to Brian. I've got one more stupid question: I ask Brian if he would ever want to leave Supai, maybe live somewhere else for a while, somewhere out of the canyon or in a bigger town. He gives me a big tobacco-teeth-stained smile.
The languid pace of the village is contagious; what I feel like doing is taking a nap. Instead, I walk over to a little lunch counter and eat fry bread and a burrito, and down a cup of coffee. I lollygag my way around town, rousing a few dogs, but most of them don't bother. The homes are basic government-issue prefab. Some are masoned and timbered; most seem relatively new. Water is stored up on higher ground, in a big tank, and some of the sewage runs through a ditch, to a containment area. There is surprisingly little horse shit on the ground, given that the transit system is constantly creating waste. Most of it ends up in gardens. At the school, which goes to fifth grade, I hear the Yuman dialect and see Anglo teachers among the Indians. Kids in Chicago Bulls jerseys play baseball during the afternoon recess.
Some visitors, expecting a Native American Eden, have been disappointed by the village. "Upon closer inspection, Supai's charm wore painfully thin," wrote Colin Fletcher in his 1960s account of walking through the Grand Canyon. "Everything was dirty and scraggly; dogs, houses, clothing." Edward Abbey spent most of his time bathing nude in the pools below the village, coming close to death once when he was stranded between falls on a cliff; whiskey may have played a part. Wally Stegner was typically charitable. "There is something to be said for the policy that urges keeping barrier canyons around this tribe unbridged," he wrote in "Packhorse Paradise," an essay from the mid-1950s. "Inevitably there will be more and more intrusions on their isolation, and inevitably they must proceed through the phase of falling between two cultures, of being neither Indian nor white American."
In a little back office not far from the school, I find Wayne Sinyella, the tribal chairman. He's a Deadhead, as is obvious from the fetish objects in his office. On the wall are duplicates of two gold records by the Grateful Dead, one for the song "Sugar Magnolia," the other for "Trucking." Sinyella is still mourning the death of Jerry Garcia. "I love the Dead," he says. "What are we going to do without Jerry?"
The Havasupai tribe, he says, has had a couple of rough years. They have been fighting various mining conglomerates which, for their five-dollar claims, have been able to dig up the ground that is part of the watershed for Supai, ground that drains ultimately into Havasu Creek. They are extracting uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants. All told, there are ninety-four thousand sites on the south side of the Grand Canyon on which people have made mining claims. Since 1984, the tribe has been battling one company from Denver that has drilled a deep shaft above the village. What has saved the Havasupai, of late, is a crash in the uranium market. Former Soviet republics are nearly giving it away, making it less profitable to scrape it out of the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Still, all those holes in the ground on the plateau above Supai mean living with a certain trepidation. Not only does Havasu Creek provide the blue and green to the People of the Blue-Green Water, but it ends in a series of waterfalls, just below the village, that are a big tourist destination. "Uranium-rich" would not be a helpful brochure description, though in New Mexico the humorist Tom Lehrer has coined one such ditty:
One of the falls is higher than Niagara. People swim nude in the lower falls, with its pools and bracing water at a place in the canyon where the walls can make it like a convection oven. En route to the pools, hikers camp in the village, for a fee, or buy native crafts, or stay in one of the twenty-four rooms of Havasupai Lodge, recently remodeled.
But Havasu Creek can be destructive as well. Supai is not a benign ecoparadise. In 1910, the creek rose beyond its banks and tore up the village in a flood that changed its entire face. Before the surge, most people still lived in thatch houses made of cottonwood poles, sod, and tightly woven brush. Afterward, the town was rebuilt of wood and canvas. A few years ago, another flood came through, again destroying much of Supai. Using helicopters, the Bureau of Indian Affairs lowered sections of prefab, three-bedroom houses into the village. At first, the Havasupai didn't know what to make of them; some were used for storage. Eventually, most of the village was rebuilt out of modular-home parts and common building material.
Stegner's prediction-the dilemma of choosing between two worlds has come true. A group of investors from outside the tribe has been persistent with plans to construct a long electric tram down into the village, allowing people to be whisked into Supai with minimal exposure to the sun or the charms of a horse named Sophie. Other proposals call for bulldozing a road through rock to replace the ancient path. As it is, not even motorbikes can get through.
"I guess we'd probably have to put up with a traffic light then," says Sinyella. "And with a traffic light, you also get a traffic jam, don't you?" The Havasupai, he says, have considered these offerings from the world above the canyon, and have chosen to stay with what has kept them going all these years, lying low inside the earth. It is not that they couldn't use something better than a six-hundred-year-old irrigation ditch for watering crops, or a sewage system that backs up too often, or school walls that leak cold air in the winter and don't cool down in the summer, or even a new village on higher ground, living with the kind of security from the whims of nature that other communities on the Colorado River have insisted that they need, with the help of monumental subsidies.
"What has kept us together, all these years, is pretty simple," says Sinyella. "Isolation. And now that's the big reason why people want to come here."
On my way out of the village, hiking the slow, uphill miles back to the canyon rim, I pass about half a dozen parties, people giddy at the prospect of touring a place in America that seems to them somehow more authentic than anything above the canyon. I miss Sophie. And I pass Havasupai natives, speaking a hybrid dialect, carrying boxes of extra-large Domino's Pizza in from Kingman. Their ancestors started out here eight hundred years ago, thinking the universe was little more than the side trail and the broad canyon. While nearly everything else changed on the river, on the plateau, in the land above the canyon, they stayed hunkered down in the smallest of towns, tucked into a fold in the deepest of clefts in the earth. They are not, as it turns out, The Only True People On Earth. But enough people think they are something close to that, and so the world has worn the only path to their door.