Mail by mule

Mules and horses provide a link to the outside world for an Indian village at the foot of Grand Canyon.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After fifteen minutes, my horse knows I'm all bluff.

I thump his ribs with my heels. "Hey-ah!!" I yell softly, thumping again.

The roan maintains his blisteringly slow pace, unimpressed that I am tall and thin like a cowboy. He knows that tall and thin does not a genuine cowboy make.

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"You ridden before?" Charlie Chamberlain asked me just before we mounted up to head down into the Grand Canyon on a breathtaking eight-mile ride to Supai village. For 21 years Charlie has delivered mail and food to the village by mule and horseback. He knows horses. He knows frauds.

"Sure," I answer. I rode with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Sunset Carson every Saturday at the Lyric Theater when I was a kid.

Later I transferred these skills to actual horses. Once in Colorado. Once in Texas.

"Sure," I say again, mentally reviewing the purpose of a saddle, reins, stirrups, giddyap, and how to prevent sudden galloping. Chamberlain mumbles nonendorsement. He knows frauds.

"Let's go," he says, swinging his sturdy body into the saddle, chaps flapping, spurs jingling. I do the same, up easily into the saddle, hearing the strains of Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" in my ears.

Photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman and I are leaving from the South Rim at Hualapai Hilltop Trailhead. Ahead is a three-hour ride down to Supai through the sunny and shadowy splendor of the Grand Canyon.

The mail and food starts their journey from the US Post Office in Peach Springs, 64 miles from the trail head. "This is the only post office in the United States with a walk-in freezer," says clerk Connie Olson. She opens the freezer to show us boxes and cartons of frozen meat, milk, soft drinks and other foods waiting to be transported by truck to the trail head, then transferred to mules for the journey down.

The supplies and mail could be carried to the village by helicopter, but the cost is prohibitive. "The food is actually being mailed in," says Chamberlain, "and using mules provides income for some of the tribe, too, as packers."

A modest lodge has been built in the village to attract tourists and a double room is $80 a night. In the center of the village, near the helicopter landing pad, a general store and cafe serves visitors who ride or hike in and stay at the campsites just outside the village.

Historians say the Havasupai have been in the canyon since AD 700, alternating their lives between winters on the rim and summers in the canyon where river water is plentiful. Some of the 400 tribal members who live in Supai still farm there on small plots. Recent floods rearranged parts of the canyon floor and river bed, but nature has been remaking the canyon for centuries.

"When Teddy Roosevelt made the Grand Canyon a national park, the Havasupai lost most of their traditional lands," says Chamberlain. In 1975, after years of legal delays, Congress returned 185,000 acres to the tribe in a trust arrangement. Discussions are under way now among the Hopi and Havasupai tribes and outside entrepreneurs about projects that would help broaden the economic base of the tribes and area.

Included is the controversial 272-acre Canyon Village Forest project, a proposed gateway community and tourist attraction on the rim near the Grand Canyon entrance some 30 miles from the trail head. The tribe has not opposed the project, but has negotiated assurances that groundwater and the water table will be protected if the project is approved by a county board of supervisors.

Tourism provides some jobs for the tribe, but their historic subsistence-farming practices, displaced by the cash economy introduced here in the 1930s, has left a tribe seeking to improve its quality of life, but unable to generate much income.

"I'm not interested in the old ways," says a tribal member standing by the small tribal headquarters. "I'm trained as an electrician and can't get a job here or anywhere."

Most houses here are small, pre-fabricated, and spread throughout the village, which is interspersed with patchwork gardens. Like most reservations with high unemployment, Supai is a mixture of neat and battered homes. Dogs roam the dusty paths, and broken equipment or toys are scattered about.

According to tribal chairman Augustine Hanna, one of the continuing issues facing the tribe is trash disposal. "You can't bring a truck down here and haul it off, and you can't burn it," he says. For now, there is an attempt to bury it in landfill, but a stroll around the outer edges of the village indicates a need for better enforcement.

Chamberlain knows the beauty and challenges at Supai because he married a tribal member 31 years ago. He first lived in the village when there was no electricity and water was drawn from Havasu Creek with buckets. Born in Pennsylvania, Chamberlain came West as a boy. By desire and osmosis he became a cowboy, even trying a brief career at rodeoing.

Today he points with pride to the fully equipped grade school, a senior center, and a new community center as the heart of the village. For high school, students are usually sent out of state to government-run boarding schools, a common practice on some reservations.

What draws visitors and tourists to Supai is the spectacular blue-green waterfalls near the village. you can swim in the pool at Mooney Falls, a 190-foot high cascade of warm water, or take off your shoes and walk in the shallow pools at the base of 120-foot high Havasu Falls. In English, Havasupai means "People of the blue-green water," and the falls are the proof.

After our stay overnight in the lodge, Chamberlain readies his mules and horses for the ride out the next morning. The day is sunny and cool. I'm a bit sore but ready to be a little more demanding of the horse under me. "When the mules are trying to pass the horses, you know something is wrong," he says with a laugh, recalling the slowness of yesterday's plodding journey. Hikers passed us. Birds laughed overhead.

Chamberlain gives me a thin branch to apply to the backside of the horse as I ride. "Give 'em a sharp one every once in a while," he says as we mount up and head out.

A half a mile into the journey I fumble and drop the stick, but also discover that if I use one of the leather straps dangling from the back of the saddle to establish that I am the boss, the horse responds. Well, sort of. Basically, he knows I'm temporary, a lame duck rider, and the pace of our ride is his for the taking.

Scenically speaking, it's a beautiful ride up and out. The canyon walls are steep and craggy. The air is brisk and autumnal. Rocky or smooth, the trail edges past boulders, rock formations, and through the shallow stream. Even a few purple and yellow wildflowers are blooming.

When we reach the top, and dismount, I say casually, "Well, I guess my horse was stuck in low gear again." Chamberlain tips his hat back and removes his sunglasses. "It's been my experience," he says slowly and carefully, "that it's usually the man, and not the horse that is the problem."

He knows frauds.

* For information about accommodations and horse rides into Supai, call (520) 448-2111.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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