The Grand Canyon stretches for 277 miles in northern Arizona, and the National Park covers only a part of it. Somewhere to the west of the National Park, the Havasupai tribe takes root in a small village called Supai, nestled within the walls of the Grand Canyon. Supai is an odd exception to the 21st Century America we all know, an enduring symbol of a time which we often think has passed us all by. No paved roads lead in or out of Supai, and access is limited to three methods: hiking, helicopter ride, and by mule. A town of some 200 people, Supai is one of only two locations where mail is delivered by mule. In a time when more and more people are eschewing the traditional delivered-by-trucks paper mail in favor of e-mail, Supai plods forward with its daily helpings of mule-delivered mail.
The Havasu Creek runs by the town, and is the main source of Supai’s tourism. Though the seclusion of the town is rather interesting, it is the creek and its four heavenly waterfalls that people make the ten-plus mile (one way) hike to see.
Surveying our Triple A maps, we found two routes to the Supai trailhead from Flagstaff. One led west past Supai and around acres and acres of uninhabited cattle country, and then going back east to the trailhead. Another led north and west, and was the most direct route to Supai. The obvious route was the latter, but there was a teeny problem. It cut through the previously unmentioned cattle country with 50+ miles of unpaved roads. Roads where a 4×4 Range Rover would feel right at home, roads that cars like our ’98 Toyota Corrolla cower in fear of. The long way around was paved, but it was the long way around. After a long debate, we chose the unpaved route.
Stupid. Idiotic. Moronic. Brainless. All those would be appropriate descriptions of our decision. The long way wound would’ve taken us three, maybe four hours. The unpaved route took us six. We began at around six p.m. Scott sat hunched over the steering wheel for the entire duration, and as the sun left us with limited visibility, Scott leaned ever closer to the windshield, trying to pick out the safest way around the rocks that stuck out of the road like ghastly warts. Our Corrolla, once compared to the Leaning Tower of Pisa for its flaws, pressed forward bravely at speeds of 5 to 10 MPH. We bounced out of our seats as the car passed over mini-boulders, and braced as we felt rocks strike the car underneath. Finally, around midnight, we got back on a paved road. The feeling we had as the car hummed on the smooth pavement was not unlike the one a man has when facing a steak dinner after a month of fasting.
The hike down to Supai took eight miles. It began with a quick descent down the wall of the canyon, and continued down a relatively flat trail, until we got to Supai. There, we saw our first glimpse of Havasu Creek and its marvelously clear running water. After getting our permits at the town, we hiked down another two miles to the campground. En route, we saw Navajo Falls and Havasu Falls.
Navajo Falls is adorable, and we had a nice time swimming in its vicinity, but Havasu Falls is a beaut, worth the entire hike (and 50 miles of off-road driving). In the middle of the desert, where sand and the unyielding sun reigns supreme, to see a healthy flow of water is a contradiction, an anomaly. the 120-foot Havasu Falls, where the water falls freely, is one such anomaly. But the most beautiful things in the world are often in places where they seemingly don’t belong. Nature follows no rules.
The next day, we saw Mooney Falls, a 210-foot waterfall that was almost as beautiful as Havasu. We then followed a trail that cris-crossed Havasu Creek, extending another 3 miles all the way down to Beaver Falls. On the way there, we passed a good number of tour groups, seemingly on their way to Beaver Falls as well. But when we finally got there, it was as bare as a ghost town. Beaver Falls was left to us three and three other people. The tour groups must not have been daring enough to brave the entire 3-miles, and we were the better for it. Nature and its beauties are best enjoyed in seclusion, with as few other spectators as possible.
We originally planned for our Havasupai trip to last two days and one night. I packed my food accordingly, bringing a bit more than I needed. But when we returned to the campground from Beaver Falls, we were too exhausted to hike the ten miles back to the car. We decided to camp another night, and I figured I’d have just enough food to last me through the morning.
I’d been reading Into the Wild, where Chris McCandless lived on his own in the Alaskan wilderness for almost five months. He lived off the game he hunted and the berries/plants that he picked himself. McCandless even bragged that he could live off a 25-pound bag of rice for an entire month. I thought, if McCandless can do what he did, who am I to complain for having scarce food for a couple days? (never mind that McCandless perished at the end of his Alaskan adventure, my mind selectively left that part out in my thought process)
So for my last four meals, I’d had a granola bar for breakfast, a bagel for lunch, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner… and another granola bar for breakfast the day we set out on our return to the car. My stomach was already growling before we’d started the ten-mile hike.
Time for a flashback. If you read my ‘Ruminations Prior to Departure’ post, you’ll know that deprivation is one of the things I expected from travelling this summer. To take that concept a step further, Kevin and I discussed a boycott of all the fast food franchises. “Fuck the chain restaurants,” we said, in a manner that would have made Henry David Thoreau somewhat proud. It was the first week, and in a burst of rebellious frenzy, me and Kevin stuck to it. We slipped up from time to time, Subway and In-n-Out were too alluring to resist. But we performed rather admirably in our boycott, until I reached my breaking point.
Hiking the first two miles up to Supai was easy. The six miles after Supai, the flat part of the trail, was easy enough that I was able to settle into my cruise-control mode and forget about the gnawing emptiness in my stomach.
But with a couple miles left, I smacked into the wall, headfirst. The trail had started a couple days before with a quick descent down the canyon wall. That quick descent was now a daunting, mind-numbing ascent. My legs felt like jelly, and my mind started experiencing light hallucinations. I was hungry, so hungry. Scott and Kevin pushed forward, and I fell farther back. The sun beat down on me, taking greedy sips of the water that lay within me. I stopped to drink some water, but that barely replaced the water that the sun took, much less alleviated my hunger.
You know what helped me forward? The thought that propelled each foot forward, in front of the other? When all else failed, what was the thought that saved me that day?
The Double Quarter Pounder. I dreamed, in my starving hallucinations, of the perfect Double Quarter Pounder, with those McDonald’s fries, so salty and dabbed with the right amount of oil. In my mind, I envisioned biting down on the burger, and could just taste the greasy beef, tangy pickles, and soft bread.
When faced with starvation and the massive landscape of Nature, I gave up. On the twenty-eighth mile of hiking in three days, I was beaten into submission. My Thoreau-like ideals of damning the fast-food restaurants, dashed away by the Arizona desert wind. I retreated to the corner and begged for mercy. I prayed for McDonald’s to come save me.
I made it to the top. A couple hours later, I was munching on a Double Quarter Pounder, Havasupai a safe distance behind me. And each bite was glorious. So, so glorious.