Visiting Supai for the First Time

A Personal Account

Editor’s Note: Facts in this article may be subject to change, based on information provided by the Havasupai.

Ever since I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time in the early 2000’s, I had an unending curiosity. There was something there I had to see — beyond the Colorado River rafting rides, beyond the guided tours for the mildly comfortable looking for a thrill, the dude ranchers, buffered from anything too visceral by their extreme athlete guides, who are helping to provide a momentary escape — usually from the gilded layers of life in middle-class America.

Grand Canyon, Arizona.  Photo by Jennifer Boley

Grand Canyon, Arizona.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

As someone who kind of fit into that category, but with an open and slightly skeptical outlook, I had heard bits and pieces of the lore, stories of the beauty and harshness of the Western desert. And somewhere along the way I had also heard about the small community living in the bottom of the canyon. It was just a vague hint of knowledge, augmented in a checkered way by another small community: the cheesy, gossipy world of the internet. Despite this, or because of it, I knew I had to get to the bottom any way I could.

Going along with that open, yet skeptic voice, I had a persistent, eerie feeling there would be a lesson for me in the canyon — a big one —  about identity, truth, beauty, respect and preservation. It would be a deep and ongoing lesson, informed at the very least by divergent points of view, and possibly by every point of view. So when I, quite by chance, joined a hiking group out of Houston and found out they were heading to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I took it as another sign from the universe, and jumped on board.

Arriving

In early June, we arrived in a community called Supai, Arizona at the bottom of the canyon which consists of about 150 or so inhabitants. Most are Havasupai Indians — people of the blue-green waters — and they collectively possess about 185,000 acres of possibly the most beautiful real estate in the country in and around the canyon.

After finding out about the logistics of living at the bottom of a canyon, I found out that it may not have been completely by choice that the Havasupai live there. They were chased into the canyon by the U.S. Army in the mid-1800’s. And the bottom of the canyon was formerly — for hundreds, and possibly thousands of years — only their summering grounds, their own mysterious blue-green escape from the desert.

A horse grazes in the center of Supai Village.  Photo by Jennifer Boley

A horse grazes in the center of Supai Village.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

The hiking and camping grounds the Havasupai manage, 2,000 feet further down into the canyon from their town, next to the Colorado River, is a premier tourist destination for at least 25,000 people each year who also possess at least 185,000 kinds of ingenuity, luck or tender mercies. And despite the constant tourism, and the challenges of living in a remote place, it is clear the Havasupai want to share the beauty of their home and to be known as a people, as do all people.

An obvious reason people trek to Supai is to witness the living, changing beauty of the innumerable layers of the Grand Canyon itself. And, of course, two-dimensional photos cannot capture the majesty of the canyon, with its caves, waterfalls and terraces interspersed with the cottonwood, pine, juniper, oak, aspen, corn fields and fruit trees.

Arriving in the canyon by foot, hoof or helicopter, one either blends with or confronts a different pace while listening to the whisperings and palatalized tones of the Havasupai language. Apart from ancestry, imagine the many cultural differences and points of view that would emerge from ferrying absolutely everyone and everything to and from your home either in a helicopter, on a pack animal, or on your back. In and out of the canyon: essentials, non-essentials, human drama.

Purist Meets Hoo-rah

Depending on your point of view, this either dovetails or contrasts with the “hoo-rah” attitude of many of the seekers who visit Supai, whether they be confident athletes, spiritual gurus or smiling do-gooders. They are, at the very least, people who seek at that moment in time to define themselves in terms of the extreme.

The people in the hiking group from Houston I travelled to Supai with were a variety of nationalities and ages, with equally diverse professional and athletic skills. And we were all, of course, interested in the logistics of life in Supai, from the cell phone service– obviously nonexistent in some areas — to emergency medical service, to trash disposal.

I’m proud to say that most everyone in the group was an environmental purist in this instance. Our policies — which are really any conscientious camper’s policies — included: do not purchase use of the packhorses unless you absolutely have to; if you have to use soap, use only the biodegradable kind; make fires only for cooking, and pack in your own propane; pack all of your trash all the way out of the canyon, to the nearest major road, 100 miles away.
Backpackers in Havasupai cook a group lunch at Beaver Falls.  Photo by Jennifer Boley

Backpackers in Havasupai cook a group lunch at Beaver Falls.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

I am confessing here that I was not the purest of the pure: I did pack my gear out of the canyon on a horse, and I did dispose of some of my trash in the recycling receptacles in the canyon. But I was proud of my innovative, ultra-light,  miniature cooking and eating equipment which weighed no more than about 14 ounces, and included cotton balls for kindling and tinder from my backyard in Houston, which served as the actual “burning logs,” that enabled me to cook two meals a day, for three days.

But while enthusiastic, I continue to be a cautious, amateur hiker, and I only had a few minor aches and pains associated with my short treks. Some of my more serious colleagues, while better trained, still powered through more challenges, much longer hikes, blisters and tarantulas, to lost late-night trails, exhaustion and near dehydration. It must be said here that the group’s organizer and strongest hiker was an exuberant young woman living with multiple sclerosis. But we realized it was all part of the experience, pushing ourselves, to create the stories we shared and would share, along with our dehydrated food and nighttime alertness.

Dichotomy, contrast, irony. Some say these are definitions of beauty. In this sense, Supai offers it all: subtle and extreme beauty, subtle and extreme danger. For example, the breathtaking 200-plus foot “Mooney Falls,” apparently named after an unfortunate hiker, functions as a proper noun and as a complete sentence.

Pain, one and the same

Through all of this I was reminded of a passage from Isak Dinesen’s “The Dreamers”: “But at the same time there never seemed to be to her much difference between joy and pain, or between sad and pleasant things. They were all equally welcome to her, as if in her heart she knew them to be the same.”

This was all part of the total Grand Canyon experience for me, and the fading art and knowledge of living next to and in harmony with the land. And the upshot is that you don’t wash your hair or your supper dishes, or open a package of noodles or energy goo without thinking of the consequences of your actions. Life becomes more immediate, as in Leo Tolstoy’s famous story about the three questions: What is the most important time? Now. Who is the most important person? The one in front of you. What is the most important business? Helping the person in front of you.

A camper enjoys the splendor of Havasu Falls. Photo by Jennifer Boley

A camper enjoys the splendor of Havasu Falls.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

I come from a fairly middle-of-the-road American experience. And I believe in the innovation and oddly collaborative efforts that healthy competition fosters. But there have been a number of chosen, accepted and assimilated twists and turns in that journey. One of those twists included questioning and distancing myself from the acquisitiveness and a kind of uncompassionate competitiveness I witnessed all around me as a younger adult.

 

 

 

 

So Supai to me was a richly layered and juxtaposition to comfort and privileged entitlement. A subtle idea turning into a larger lesson about balancing protection and openness dawning across my consciousness, like a summer moon rising above the north face of the canyon.

But I am still learning this lesson: after reaching the bottom of the canyon, for the second time this past summer, a day behind the rest of the group — because I had some other very important thing to do — one of the organizers simply said to me: “I really wish you had not missed seeing the Milky Way at 3 am from Hualapai Hilltop last night — again.”

 

 

 

 

I did, however, see some of those same stars from the bottom of  the world’s most beautiful canyon: and they spoke to me as being part of a quintessential outlier environment, with many lessons to offer. That environment will provide what you want it to provide: extreme athletic challenge, communion with nature, or dramatic epiphany.

Just as “what happens in Vegas…” or in New Orleans, or Times Square, or in any other iconic hyperbolic venue stays there, Supai seems to be close to the environmental — and emotional — edge. These artificially sustained, imposed-upon, outlier environments will always have something to teach us in direct and immediate ways. In each of our minds they become either a still point or a turning point: we go there to learn about ourselves, where we’ve been, where we’re going.

These treasured venues are all about having faith and going with the flow to a totally new place: a lesson I am still learning, with gratitude.

So in the beginning of that now-endless summer, as I stared at the canyon’s north face and the moon’s beautiful, steady march across it each sleepless night, I considered the Hindu-yogic philosophy of breathing, our universal, ultimate anchor. That philosophy is “sat nam” or “truth is my identity.”

 

   I felt extremely privileged to be lying on the canyon floor, breathing sat nam in and out, along with the fragrances of pinion and juniper, ancient as many thousands of millenia.

THE HOUND OF WINTER by ERNESTINE HILL

     Sometimes nights during the long, cold Kansas winter months, the hound of winter kicks up its heels and unleashes tempest tantrums. On straying paws, gnashing and growling, it chases freezing sleet and drizzle across the fields and prairies. Snow pauses to rest against tree trunks and fences. Here and there, wild corn stalks refuse to take it lying down and stand up in the snowdrifts, confronting the assault head-on.

   No one warned her when she moved from the city to the suburbs that the bitter winter there woofed a siren song. No one told her that a slow rain would drip for hours and freeze in layers on the thick prairie grass, swaying in  the field outside of her window. Nor did they say that when the grass turned translucent and tinkled like crystal, the beast would race through and make it shriek and shatter.

   No one mentioned that on some cold nights, as she lay sunken in deepest sleep, the hound would bay and whine. Then the voice of a tortured soul, freezing and lost in the storm, would cry out for help.

   Tonight, the beast raged. A moaning female voice outside dragged her out of sleep. For a moment , she doubted that she had heard the cry. Then her eyes flew open. Her heart was pounding. She was certain a woman had cried out.

   She tumbled out of bed and rushed to the window. Through a crack on the blinds, she peered into the night. A shadow loomed before her. She jumped back. From somewhere amidst the icy dunes, the wail drifted again. More urgent, more desperate, nearer.

   She dared another peek out.

   Arms groped and clawed across the snow. Sobs, raw and tormented, matched the howling. She surrendered to fear. She couldn’t go outside and offer help. What if danger waited? Someone wielding a knife? Surely the police would rescue the poor creature.

   Once more, the wail lifted; more piteous and heartbreaking — now just outside the bedroom window. She imagined the suffering person lying atop the ice dying before help arrived.

   She dropped the phone, rammed her arms into a robe, her feet into slippers, and raced to the back door. She quickly twisted the knob , yanking it wide open.

  The hound scrubbed her face in sleet an snow.

   Caked ice frosted the porch floor. Both hands locked onto the railing; she eased down the steps sideways, planting one foot cautiously down, then the other. Blusters knotted the robe about her ankles. She stepped to the ground noting that she no longer heard the woman’s voice whimpering. 

   Concern rushed her to the spot where she had heard her just outside the bedroom window.,

   No one lay sprawled in the snow, or struggled through it.

   She looked about — to no end.

   Then, the beast skidded across the window screens, howling and wailing at the hoax. Just the, she realized the sorrowful bleating had been the wind whistling through the screens covering the window. An the clutching arms crawling across the snow were the shadows of of blizzard-tossed tree limbs.

   Now, utterly chilled, she hastened for the door. The hound’s growl threatened her.  It pushed her aside in its sudden dash up the steps. Then it slammed the door. No amount of pulling, gripping or twisting of the knob would coax the preset lock to budge.

   Charging and barking on wild paws, the wolf hovered over the shivering bundle now lying in a fetal curl on the porch floor.

   In time, the tremors settled. A while later, the hound, too, settled down and wrapped the bundle in a soft white blanket.

   Then, without so much as a rearward look, the heartless winter mongrel     trotted off.

PARABLE OF A HOUSE by MERRYL PIPER

   At my birth I was bequeathed through my mother and father, a most beautiful mansion set high on a hill, landscaped with the most fertile soil containing seeds and bulbs of every kind. Its furnishings and furniture were exquisitely crafted. This wonderful gift was lovingly designed and constructed by a master architect and builder. Built of the finest materials, sturdy enough to sustain all the forces of nature, it still allowed light to penetrate to all corners of its interior.

   At the age of twenty, this loving bequest became mine to cherish and to tend, to protect, to develop and embellish its natural beauty. It was mine to transform according to my wishes , talents and gifts. 

   In those early, precious years, I rested quietly withing this house, depending on others to teach me how to care for it and its landscape. They helped me adorn this house. But it was not yet mine to create. I was learning. I had no vision that would make this mansion my home.

   One day, I had an awakening; I realized that this was truly my house. I began creating, experimenting, making mistakes, making changes that may not have been beautiful, but changes that measured up to my dreams and images. To protect it from harm, I worked from morning till evening modifying, dreaming, planting and weeding. This was truly mine to transform or to damage and destroy. I loved this home.

   There was a time when I decided to leave this home, renting it to others who were not only not caring, but also destructive to this fine house and its furnishings. Careless, harsh-speaking vandals, thieves and uninvited characters slowly changed and harmed this quiet living space built for dreams and love. The house fell into neglect. Rain, wind and storms were sign of near- abandonment. I would have been ashamed had the loving master designer seen what had to His house–my house.

   So I returned and, with love, began rebuilding and creating. This was my second chance. Then, maybe not by chance, my generous donor saw my efforts and, with out my awareness, offered me someone to be with and to help me restore my house.

   There now remain signs of those past scars, but they, in fact, have become the gems of life, part of the imperfect, unique character of my home. After 85 years, my home is showing signs of wear and tear. Not all the furnishings survived the years, but some have been replaced. Now my home is battened down for the winter, and from hurricanes, yet it is still a fine, strong house. I has sheltered me and protected me. 

   And as I look upon the old home, I realize its charm and brace come from its weathered and worn character lovingly carved by an ordinary landlord.

 

MEMORIES OF A FRIDAY NIGHT IN NOLA: FINDING ANOTHER WAY by FRANK PIPER

   It was a mild Friday evening in the 1940’s in New Orleans. I was attending a high school football game between my alma mater and St. Aloysius. It was a good game, even though my alma mater lost by seven points. But that’s not what my story is about. Sometimes the real story starts after the game ends.

   Three friends and I needed to catch two buses to get home, but we were among the last to get in line, and one of the buses had already left the stadium. We stood there looking at the lucky people in the bus — and they were looking back –sneering.

   We took this as a challenge, and began to dive into an open window toward the back of the bus, one by one. My buddies were in, and I was the last to go. With half of my torso inside the bus, I felt a hard tug on my legs. “What fool…?” I thought. Then I fell out of the bus on my face. When I looked up I saw the smiling face of a girl I used to date — and then the unsmiling faces of two transit police who immediately introduced me to the back of their squad car.

   Getting in was awkward, since it was a two-door, and the front passenger seat had to be pulled forward. Before the policeman could close the door, there was a loud commotion nearby in the stadium, and the officers were distracted. I took this as a sign: I pushed the seat forward and jumped out. I was free again — to find another way back to my friends.

(Frank Piper celebrated his 90th birthday in 2019. He and his wife, Merryl Piper, relocated to Houston from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.)

MAGICAL MOMENT by FRITZY DEAN

    I was not born into a book-loving family. Still, at about age four, I did notice the adults sitting around with what the cal “the newspaper,” holding it up, or peering down at it spread across the table. The spent so much time in this curious behavior, I just knew it must have been something really special.

   I could not fathom what could be so much fun in sitting there for extended periods of time…just looking at a paper. So I looked closer to see what was so interesting, and all I saw were tiny little marks– lots and lots of them. Curious, I thought. What were those mysterious little signs?

I had an older cousin who would have been a teenager at that time. She was more patient and approachable with my incessant questions than my overworked Mom. Finally, Lela Mae explained what the were doing. It was called “reading.” I KNEW IT! Those little marks were a doe. The adults knew the code — and I did not.

   I pestered Lela Mae so much that sometimes she would read to me from her schoolbooks. I was enthralled at how those cryptic little squiggles, curves and dashes turned into works that were now coming out of her mouth. Even if she read a dry-as-dust textbook, to me it was magic.

   With more pestering, she agreed to try to teach me what she called “the alphabet.” Well, guess what, y’all? Those little marks each had a name! Yes they did! For example, a little semi-circle with a line across it was called an “e” and a straight line with a shorter mark across it was called a “t.”

   I clearly remember asking how we KNEW that mark was and always would be an “e.” I’m certain her answer was not academically correct, but given her age and mine, I think it was profound. She told me we know it will always be an “e” because we have all agreed to call it that.

   With that assurance, I stared my own sessions of staring at the “newspaper.” Lela Mae told me the sound s of the letters and I was tireless in sounding them out to make words.

   It was slow and laborious. I KNOW it would have been much easier with children’s books — but what I had was newspapers.And I wanted to, to, I NEEDED to do this.

   And one day, one delightful, wondrous day, suddenly the letters I was sounding out became words. Words became sentences. I WAS READING! No scholar working to decipher the Rosetta Stone could have been happier. I devoured every printed word that crossed my path: cereal boxes, bread wrappers, medicine bottles. And, OH, my grandmother’s dictionary. What a treasure trove that huge old thing was!

   I don’t know the exact day it happened. I just know it felt like magic. And you know what? It still does. It IS magic for me to walk the streets of London with David Copperfield, to cross the Alps with Hannibal and his elephants, to march with Napoleon at Waterloo, to sail with Ahab in search of Moby Dick — magically.

   It was magic then, and it is magic now. Thousands of books later, the magic has not waned.

   It is the way I have colored my world. It is the way I have explored the world. It is the primary way I have educated myself. It is the single most remarkable moment of my life — that day when I broke the magic code.