Backpacking to Havasu Falls

Months ago, I agreed to join a few friends to Havasu Falls. This oasis of lush vegetation and turquoise water is located in a secluded canyon two hours away from the Grand Canyon National Park. Although I’ve been on several challenging day hikes and camping trips, I had never backpacked until now. I invited my thirteen-year-old son to accompany me and he accepted.
Our group made of six people entered the Indian reservation on a sunny late morning and after sixty miles on a deserted two lane road, we reached the top of the trail. Our backpacks weighted an average of thirty pound. The wind blew strong and cold at the top of the trail. It was tempting to rent one of the many mules that can carry camping gear and even people. But we had decided to go for the whole experience and started the descent to the village of Supai at 1:00 p.m.
We attacked the steep plunge that stretches for a mile and a half, excited but also cautious. The weight of the gear can easily destabilize any hiker and the trail is filled with rocks, gravel and dust. Quickly, four of us found our pace and the group agreed that we should split in order to make it to the village by 5:00 p.m. to get our reservation tags for the campground. My son, two of my friends and I took off. The best pictures can’t carry the raw beauty of the Arizona canyons. The red and grey colors blend in such a way that they create their own nameless dye. Sweeping views take you beyond the deep blue sky that in the west seems bigger than earth.
My son galloped the ten miles down, skipping rocks and sinking deep into the thick layer of gravel that lines the canyon. I envied his light and sure gait. I wanted him to have an unforgettable experience and my heart swelled when I caught his blue eyes filled with awe and eagerness. Mules passed us, balancing coolers, duffle bags and packs of bottled drinks. Their hooves kicked dust that coated our leg pants and skin. The men who mounted the mules belong to the people of Supai and although they speak English and listen to music with headphones plugged in their ears like most teens do around the world, they carry their conversations between themselves in their ancestral smooth sounding native language.
I had never been in an Indian reservation before and it was impossible to ignore this bloody part of American history as I left my own foot print in a canyon older than any landscape I had ever seen in the US.
As we approached the village of Supai, the murmur of water running along the trail kept us company. Shortly before the village, the sound gave place to a stream that flows to the heart of Supai. We all come to a place with assumptions, our imagination shaped from our own past and experiences. I envisioned Supai as a quaint and picture like village, similar to the mountain villages I’ve seen all over Europe and even the US.
Nothing had prepared me for the poverty that waited around the windy road. We strode the silent dirt main street of the village, passing by a woman as old as the rocks backing the wooden houses that sit among overflowing garbage cans, rusty bikes, broken cars and towering weeds. Overweight men and women clad in baggy jeans and sweatshirts ignored our hellos and I felt as displaced as I had felt in Kenya in the mid eighties when I had wandered away from the heart of Mombasai.
The Supai had made the canyon their homes for hundreds of years and the reservation was what was left to them after being ripped of their land, culture and pride. Although I grew up in France, being now an American citizen made me as guilty and ashamed as any of my fellow hikers. A bulletin board advertised a variety of events to the population. Among them one was encouraging people to walk to be healthier. An helicopter hovered above our head. It landed on a pad in the center of the village and unloaded its cargo of food and drinks that would go to the store or the lodge. The small café at the center of the village carried typical supermarket food ranging from sodas to chips, from jerky beef to sliced white bread. Although deserted, the church and the school were well kept. Kids were running along the dirt streets. Bare feet, faces smeared with dust and dirt and grins as big as the sky, they welcomed us with chirpy voices. On the other hand, most adults looked away when they passed us. A few women nodded and a trio of teens put us back in the right direction. We had 2.2 miles left to reach the campground.
We walked them in silence. The weight of our backpacks crushed our shoulders and hips but the weight of the past was even heavier making us foreigners in our own country.

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