Mail by mule
Mules and horses provide a link to the outside world for an Indian village at the foot of Grand Canyon.
After fifteen minutes, my horse knows I'm all bluff.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.