I first discovered Havasupai Falls three years ago while trying to kill time at work. Between being antagonized by supervisors and customers I needed to escape into some other sort of reality. One that didn't have me ready to throw my lap top out the back office window. Pulling up YouTube I was sure I could find something inspirational or relaxing to take my mind out of its state. That is when I found the clip that would hypnotize me for three years.
At the first few viewings of the clip, it didn't seem real to me. It looked like a CGI creation. The water was bright blue and green, it gushed from the canyons into pools of smaller falls that cascaded below. The clip entranced me. I would sit awake at night and watch it in awe. It was paradise. The same water dinosaurs once drank from or where life began. To me it was the closest concept of Eden. It looked as though our world began in this canyon in Arizona. I was at that moment sure that a trip to Havasupai would be life altering, and I had to get there.
For the next two years I talked up the Falls and my intention of getting there to anyone who would listen. With my job, vacations were sparse and the few taken were reserved for family and friends. I wondered if I would ever visit this mystical place. Would it fade into obscurity in my mind, like a childhood crush, the first chapter of an unfinished novel, or an unfulfilled dream? Too often it seemed in my life, these remained unfulfilled. Stacked in boxes of unfinished stories I had written were pages of goals that never came into fruition. It would have been easy to assume this too was one more on the list of regrets I would bury inside of me until my final days. As the time elapsed from the initial viewing of the clip, the effect the images had on me lessened. It no longer became a place I had to visit but an image I had to leave. It held me back. It wasn't real. I wasn't going. I had to accept where I was and not want what wasn't mine.
In December of 2009 something changed inside of me. A combination of work woes, school dissatisfaction, and the treatment of my father by the corporate-machine made me realize that I would never get past Havasupai if I didn't get there. My job was feeling more dead-end by the day. As much as I achieved I wasn't moving forward. It was stagnant water, and the only thing that lives in stagnant water are leaches and they were bleeding me dry. School was also another frustration. The degree, while important, was not moving me towards itself either. It too became a goal, but one without push. I saw it's significance, but not its value. The biggest blow came with news that my father was being forced out of a company he dutifully worked at for 39 years of his life. My dad was my best friend and seeing his loyal service getting cut short in the name of corporate profits made me sick I worked in the same industry. I couldn't stomach doing it anymore.
The trip became real when I committed to it in January. From there everything fell into place. I researched online and gathered directions. Havasupai was 5 hours north of Phoenix. Everything was falling into place, and with an understanding girlfriend, I booked the ticket on my solo journey. I prepared for two nights in the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I was going to see if paradise did truly exist.
With a good friend of mine helping pack my gear I began practising for my hike. From my research it indicated it was grueling. It appeared the Falls were 10 miles in from the start of the trail head. It was a hike down the canyon. There was an Indian village called Supai 8 miles in. The only way to Supai was by horse, helicopter, or by foot. The villagers that did possess automobiles parked them at the top of the canyon near the trail head. Many people could make the hike down into Supai and to Havasupai, but the hike back was too challenging. I had done many hikes before and considered myself in solid shape so I was confident. I was also stupid.
When the day of the trip to Phoenix approached my nerves began to surface. I was making this hike alone. What if there were coyotes or mountain lions? One friend warned me of African bees that when swarming would follow you for half a mile. Then there were also flash flood concerns. The canyons were very narrow from research I had done. People had died when boxed in the canyon due to flooding. The idea of running from coyotes, mountain lions, bees, and flash floods with a sixty pound pack on my back was not enticing. What was I doing? Then someone mentioned rattle snakes. I hadn't even considered those. My head was getting overwhelmed by these fears as my girlfriend drove me to the airport. Ten miles to the campground from the start in the middle of the Arizona desert, alone, and I had never once hiked five miles. I was embarking on a trip unlike anything I had ever done before, and I was insane.
I preached false bravado. My girlfriend had told me a co-worker took this hike twenty years ago with her husband. It was weeks removed from his boot camp. He didn't finish the hike back. I pleaded ignorance. I was too far in now, committed, and even though deep inside my head was raging with uncomfortable scenarios, I had no escape plan. This journey had been calling out to me for three years. My fears were not going to hold me back. If that meant I was dinner for a hungry coyote at least I was preserving life, if not my own.
The irony of it all is I was taking a plane and then a car thousands of miles to walk. Without modern technology and air travel I could never experience this trip in such a short time. Havasupai Falls are only accessible by hike, horse, or helicopter. Since I was travelling there in late February before my birthday and the season there didn't start until April, helicopter was not an option. I wasn't even considering them as I had hiked Mt. Mcloughlin before and was prepared for the challenge. The Falls were my oasis and I needed the canyon like a camel needs the desert.
Of course air travel is not a camel, camels are more reliable. My plane was delayed twice in two destinations. My expected arrival was pushed back several hours, and my frustration with a certain airline and notoriously delayed airport (SFO anyone) immense. My schedule was already tight and I arrived in Phoenix over five hours later than anticipated. I made it minutes before the car rental place was scheduled to close and then found out the car I had reserved was not. This delayed me more and when things were finally settled via bribery and begging I began my journey with pack on back in the Phoenix Airport Car Rental station and proceeded to get lost looking for my car. It took me searching every level of five levels to find my vehicle. And I was going to survive the Grand Canyon?? It was an ominous beginning. It was almost eight when I started the car towards my stop-over in Flagstaff. This drive would take 2.5 hours. My day which started at 5 am was now pushing 15 hours, with no end in sight.
The car I was entrusted with was a beautiful 2002 red Chevy Cobalt with complimentary dents in the front fender. Now about that camel?? Arizona at night is no different than Oregon or California at night. My imagined drive in the desert was instead a dark and lonely freeway. After an hour and a half of driving I pulled over to ask some questions. Am I going the right way? I was surprised how many people in Arizona I encountered who had never heard of the Falls. The rental guy had no clue nor did the girl I asked in the McDonald's drive-thru at a town straight out of The Hitcher. When I did get some feedback finally I found out I was six hours away from Seligman, AZ. This was the closest city to the start of the trail head, and that was another hour. Could it be I was driving backwards? Seven hours to go and I had already driven almost two? I had no idea Arizona could be this big. Luckily, Flagstaff was only another hour from where I was. Unluckily, the closer I got to it the worse the weather became. Rain, followed by snow drift, then larger flakes, then white-out! All white in the pitch dark engulfed me. It was eery and bizarre but consistent with the trip. My windshield wipers started to act erratic and wipe over the snow and ice instead of my windshield. The highway became a coat of black and white ice, and I started to drive ten miles and hour on a 75 mph highway. Even then it felt too fast.
Dozens of large trucks and SUVs zoomed by me, but not one compact or mid-size vehicle. I wondered if the rental car guy was laughing with his buddies somewhere about some moron from Oregon braving 7000 feet elevation of late winter driving in a Chevy freaking Cobalt. This trip looked doomed. After a few miles of white nuckle driving one of those SUVs that had zoomed past me had flipped over on its cabin. Several police cars and an ambulance blocked off the scene. No one was moving with urgency as it appeared it was fatal.
The GPS system in my phone directed me to a residentional neighborhood that was buried in several inches of snow fall. This didn't appear to be the lodge I had reserved, but I was prepared to knock on the front door of one of these houses anyways. Instead I drove another half hour until finding the place and it was now midnight. Of course the place was spectacular. There were three huge bedrooms, a large flat screen, even a hot tub on the patio. This place would be perfect for a vacation, but not a one night stop-over. My nine hours in my perfect winter resort room were spent sleeping. It might as well have been a Motel 6.
The next morning my red Chevy was white, bathed in snow. My plan was to be up at dawn and on the road to Seligman. The weather wasn't in agreement with those plans, but bull-headed stubborness was a new trait I was developing and I pressed on. Once again the people at the lodge had never heard of Havasupai Falls. Did this place even exist? Was it really just CGI? To me it seemed like a natural wonder of the world. It would be as if an Egyptian were unaware of the location of the pyramids. How did they not know this stuff?
Seligman was a two hour drive, part of it down the original Route 66. It felt like a time warp as I passed several advertisements on the desolute highway: If daisies / Are your / Favorite flower / Keep pushin' up those/ Miles per hour / Burma-Shave. I kept waiting for my radio to start playing Mr. Sandman.
The road to the start of the trailhead was called Old Indian 18. I turned right and started driving. I was now officially in the middle of nowhere. It had been over an hour since I passed any vehicle or signs of life other than free roaming cattle. My cell phone was out of service an hour ago. I might as well been in the Bermuda Triangle. The road got progressingly worse the further I got on it, as if I was travelling past where man was supposed to go. I could see the Old West here, cowboys riding across this land on their way to California and not looking back. I finally passed a white truck going the opposite direction. It went about quarter of a mile the other way before turning around and flashing its headlights behind me, driving faster. Was I not supposed to be here? I wasn't sure if I should speed up or slow down. I certainly wasn't going to out-run them on this road, in this Chevy Cobalt. No seriously, where was that camel? I pulled over.
An Indian woman got of her car and started walking towards me. I rolled down my window. I was sure I was about to be told I had entered sacred land. That I wasn't supposed to be here. That I should turn around and never come this way again. I had heard the dialogue in my head already. "You don't belong here. Get out now." So when she walked up closer and said "Jim? Oh, I'm sorry I thought you were someone else. Sorry about that." That I didn't see coming. She turned around and drove off. Only after letting me know I had another 30 minutes to go until the trail head to Supai and Havasupai Falls.
The first glimpse of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was magnificent. It was much larger than I had imagined and the canyons seems to glow from the sunlight through the darkened sky. Looking down into the canyon floor I couldn't believe I was crazy enough to actually do this. The wind was picking up as I threw my pack on and grabbed all my gear. I walked to the start of the trail and saw long, sharp switchbacks continuing down the mountain. My stomach tightened. A couple of guys were near and I asked them if they were about to do the hike or had finished it. They both shook there heads. They just came to see the canyon. They had a friend that hiked it once, one of them said. They didn't finish the story. They wished me luck.
I felt the weather turning on me. It was all or nothing as I started walking down the trail one step in front of the other. If it hadn't had been such a battle to get this far maybe the weather would have discouraged me from proceeding, but I was in. I had two 3's in my hand, the flop showed A-K-J, but I was throwing all my chips on the table as if I held a Q and a 10.
I passed a few hikers coming up. They looked miserable. They were gaunt-faced with their packs weighing them down like elephants. Yet their packs looked several times smaller than mine. On some corners stood Indian's with horses, perhaps waiting for struggling hikers to pay them for a ride up to the top. It was Sunday. A typical day for hikers to be leaving the Falls. There was a decent amount of activity on the trail down the canyon, but they were all going up. I was going down. Halfway down the first 1.5 miles of switchbacks looking up and down I realized no one else would be.
The canyons are truly spectacular. You realize just how small we are in the world when you reach the canyon floor and look up to everything surrounding. I felt like an ant on a picnic blanket. Every five steps I had to take a pic of the breathtaking scenery around me. The distant plateaus, the reddish orange hues, the jagged rocks, were all more beautiful than imagined. I came for the Falls but I was being romanced by the canyons. I had no idea that I needed to see them. Halfway to Supai I had yet to see a starving coyote or mountain lion. Nor did any snakes pop out of the canyon floor to impede my path. I began to wonder if any wildlife besides birds existed on the rock floor when two dogs began barrelling my direction. Stray dogs are everywhere on the trail to Supai. Every dog imagineable. There were pits, retrivers, hounds, rotweilers, and even some kind of mutant poodle. Surprisingly, they are all incredibly friendly. They run up to you say hello and take off back into the canyon. They are either fed by hikers and villagers or eat all the snakes and coyotes that were nowhere to be seen. None of them looked famished.
I had been hiking for three hours when I started getting weary. My back was beginning to feel every ounce of the sixty poundsI was carrying. My feet were getting tired of walking on the rocks below. There were no road signs anywhere. I had no idea how far the village was from where I was and no one at all was heading the opposite direction anymore. Occasionally an Indian villager would pass by on a horse but most made little or no eye contact with me. Finally a nice Indian man told me I was a mile or so away from the village as he rode by on his horse while I slumped over a rock taking a breather. I sucked it up and pressed on.
Seeing the sign leading to the village was relieving. The little sign and arrow pointing reminded me of playing video games as a kid. I felt like I was Link in Legends of Zelda as I approached Supai. I just hoped it was a friendly village and that I would find the Princess soon. I had never been into an Indian village and the scene was surprising. Every house seemed to have their own farm animals. They were small, sometimes poorly constructed houses, and appeared very poor. There was a lot of trash all over the village. It was kind of hard to believe this place existed in America. It felt like a third-world country. There were construction workers building new buildings and children running all over the dirt roads. The town hotel I had read about looked very dire. Paradise, this village was not, and I felt bad for feeling that way. Everywhere there were giant puddles and mud. It was easy to see how this town could be drowned in floods.
I made my way to the campground, which was two miles past the village, and nightfall was fast approaching. I was now very sore from the hike and just wanted to set up my tent and crash out for the night. At this point waterfalls were not even on my radar. When I got to what I thought was the campground it was empty. I was the only one here? It didn't matter to me at that point, exhaustion was winning the battle over any other emotion. I started to put my tent up above Mooney Falls which flowed below. Completely spent after I put up my tent I stumbled, or rather hobbled, down to view some of the falls. They were amazing, as gorgeous as they were in the video, but the strange realization of being there in person and being unbelievbably sore and exhausted did limit the overall elation I had anticipated feeling. Before, I was sitting in my warm house watching these falls on a video set to relaxing music. Now here I was face to face with them, in the flesh, and I was not entranced. Rather I was beat up. I felt like I had gone to battle reached the peak and the feelings weren't what I had hoped. This wasn't Eden. I didn't have any special revelations that came into my head. My world made no more sense to me than it did before I got here. They were just beautiful waterfalls.
I hit my sleeping bag after taking a few early evening shots of the sun disappearing behind the canyon rocks. There was a serene and peaceful feeling that accompanied those photos. I slept uncomfortably for about an hour when the first few rain drops began to fall. Thirty minutes later and a torrential down pour joined the party. I was in the middle of a monsoon. It rained buckets on my tent and I felt the hard pan mud below me loosening. I was sleeping fifty feet from the top of Mooney Falls. As the rain continued to bludgeon my tiny one man tent I began to fear it would give way. I lay wide awake wondering what would go first, the tent above me or the ground below me. The wind was whipping up now too. It howled its discontent with my arrival and I was sure I really was on sacred ground. I laid awake sure that I had pushed too far, done too much, overextended myself. I had no cell phone coverage. I had no one within two miles of me. I was in the middle of the Grand Canyon and I was completely isolated. What was I doing? Did I have a death wish? Who did I think I was? All of these questions pounded my mind as I lay there sure that I wasn't going to make it through the night. Part of me wanted to leave the tent to brave the elements outside and yet my body could move no further. Would anyone even look for me?
It rained for eight hours. Through the rain, I slept ten minutes tops. When it stopped finally and light appeared outside my tent I was afraid to look outside. I had heard the falls deafening roar grow louder all night below me. I was sure I had slid to the edge of them. Would I unzip the tent and plummet 200 feet below? I finally summoned to courage to leave my sleeping bag cocoon. I unzipped the tent.
I was greeted by a wet tongue in my face. A big black stray lab was staring straight at me. I fumbled myself up and viewed my surroundings. I was in exactly the same spot as the day before. The massive landscape encircling me was refreshing even after my awful night. A couple of Indian men were riding horses nearby. I yelled out to them. "Some storm last night. Where are the other campers?" They looked at me strangely. "The campground is down there." They pointed down past Mooney Falls a bit. I felt like an idiot. "Oh, thanks." The idea of taking down my tent and re-setting it back up for another brutal night of unrest was not promising.
I walked down to the falls and took some pictures. Any amateur could take award winning photos in a place this beautiful. Nature does all the work. The color of the falls had changed since the previous day. The run-off from the storm had turned the water a darker green from the teal blue the day before. The unusual color comes from the limestone that the water runs over to get to the falls. After several pictures I decided to head back rather than face another night like before. I packed up my tent and started my trek back to the village. Apparently ten miles of hiking in one day was not enough for me, I had to push myself to twenty in two.
Arriving a mere two miles in the village I was already exhausted and my pack felt a hundred pounds instead of sixty. I had used the idea of getting a horse back to the trail head as my motivation to press on that morning and was prepared to pay whatever exorbinant mark-up was required to ride that baby home. I should have known better. All the horses had already left for the day. The villagers had taken them out to fix the the trail to Supai which was damaged in the storm. If I wanted out of Supai today I was hobbling it on foot.
The hike back was every bit as grueling as advertised. Halfway back I was ready to camp out in the middle of the trail. I passed a few Indians on horses and asked if they were offering rides. That didn't happen. As many photographs that I took on my way into Havasupai I didn't pull my camera out once on my way out. Instead I threw my pack on the ground about ten times and gave myself every motivational speech from every movie I ever remembered. Rocky being my favorite, I kept hearing Mick's voice in my head. "Your gonna eat lightning and you're gonna crap thunder!"
When I finally reached the beginning of the trail up the mountain to the trail head, the final 1.5 mile stretch, I was ecstatic and horrified. It was straight up. The same switchbacks I zoomed down on my way the day before looked strangely different to me on my way back up. The storm had brought snow to this elevation. Also bizarre was how empty the trail was. Unlike the day before where there were Indians waiting with horses on each corner there was no one. No other hikers, no emergency horses, no nothing. Me and the canyon. Me and the trail. Me and my imaginary coach Mick telling me to press on. About a quarter of the way up I realized I was not Rocky and told Mick to screw himself. I was in trouble. I started imagining myself on the show "I Shouldn't Be Alive." That one would seem to apply. On my way down the day before I had been carrying a gallon on water with me. Halfway up the brutal switchbacks I took my last pull of water from it. I was out of water now.
A weird feeling came over me as I looked around the trail and the canyon floor below me. Nothing looked the same as the day before. I began to have a sinking feeling in my gut that told me I was on the wrong canyon. I felt done. I was out of water, my body was giving up on me, and I was now lost. I couldn't believe I was here. I wondered how long it would take for someone to find me. I wondered how much it would cost my family if they had to send a rescue helicopter to pull me out of here. All of these thoughts raced through my head and as I looked back up the trail and then back down. I yelled "Help". It echoed throughout the canyon. I realized that no one was within five miles of me. I knew my only option was up. I started hiking.
An amazing thing happens when you believe your body can go no further. It does. The will to live is stronger than the will to die. Even when it felt like I could go no further I found the reserves to continue. When I saw a familiar site and knew I was indeed on the right trail it felt incredible. Yet even then three quarters of the way up I was still stopping every five or six steps on the steep terrain to regain my breath. The last quarter mile seeming to take an hour. With the cold air in my lungs and my nose red and raw, I reached the top.
When I got to my car and removed my pack I sat down in stunned silence. Then an incredible joy followed. I had made it. I did it. I survived. Suddenly as I started the car and pulled away from the trail head back onto Indian 18 the tears erupted. I had made it. I was so grateful. I was so grateful to be alive. It may not have been Eden that I had found, but it was Paradise.