Havasupai, Part I

I opened my eyes, delirious with fever, to see the anxious faces of five friends peering down at me, the brilliant blue sky a backdrop to their floating heads.

“We gotta pack her out.”

Pack her out? What the heck did that mean?

They divided my things. “Good thing she compartmentalized. I wouldn’t want to divvy up her panties.”

A laugh. The crinkling sound of glad bags changing hands.

Oh, my pack. They’re dividing my stuff.

“Stay down, Er.” A hand on my shoulder as I tried to sit up, firm but comforting.

“Rest while we finish up.” Jonel.

The memories slammed into my cerebral cortex. I’m sick. Havauspai. Oh, shoot. 

How am I gonna get outta here?

The fever took me—pulled me back into strange dreams of caterpillars falling from the sky, a comet’s tail streaming behind them.

We’d trained for weeks to prepare for our hike to the Havasupai Reservation—me, Jonel, Lissa, and Nateijie—along with our international friends. As a member of the National Student Exchange, I spent the semester as an exchange student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Campus rested at 7,000 feet, nestled at the bottom of the San Francisco Peaks. It had taken my lungs two months to grow accustomed to the altitude for daily living. Hiking with a forty-pound pack on my back was another thing altogether. My fellow American and European exchange student friends experienced the same dilemma. So, we walked around campus with our packs for a few weeks before the trip, getting our lungs into shape for the journey.

When it was time to gear up, an instructor gave us pointers about packing clothes, toiletries, food, and gear into small, water-tight compartments—glad bags—squeezing the air out of each bag, creating a homemade vacuum seal. This process made more space in the pack, but the real purpose of this method was to make it easier to divvy up items in case you needed to be “packed out” of the canyon. 

The canyon—oh, my memories of the canyon are vivid. I’d never seen such colors—the bright blue sky, the deep red-wall limestone, the vibrant green of the water. The Havasupai Tribe are the “People of the Blue Green Water.” They’re not kidding. The water doesn’t just look blue from a distance like the ocean might when you’re sitting on the beach. No, this water is turquoise, even when pooled in the palm of your hand. It’s gorgeous and magical, but beware—it’s water—the perfect parasite conduit. 

Our instructor had warned us about the little buggers. “Montezuma’s Revenge” was the colloquial term for any gastrointestinal illness from drinking unsafe water. He taught us to boil our drinking water on the trail and to use iodine to sterilize it. Armed with our potable water pills and our glad-bagged personals, we geared up and hit the road. 

Hualapai Hilltop. I am on the right.

Our destination was Hualapai Hilltop, a flat, dusty plateau about a three-hour drive Northwest of Flagstaff, situated along the Southern rim of the Grand Canyon, equipped with a porta-potty, parking lot, helipad, and a staggering view. It was Good Friday—March of 1997—and we’d spend Easter weekend in an actual paradise.

We traversed the knee-buckling, loose-rocked switchbacks from the hilltop to the canyon below, dropping 1,000 feet in the first 1.5 miles. In all, we descended almost 2,000 feet to Supai Village. The eight-mile trek would take all day in the desert heat, with no water supply but what was in our packs.

It took our group about twelve hours to arrive at our campsite. Along the way, we melded into an otherworldly landscape, walking under and among the red rock formations.

We traveled through an arid, brown trail system for the better part of the day. But as we drew closer to the village, green trees popped up like lone soldiers guarding the community. Soon, we turned a corner to see a lush oasis—Havasu creek—and the Supai Village, teeming with life and activity. 

Supai Village

“Are we still in the US?” my friend wondered aloud. The vibrant community before us was preparing for supper. Mommas carried babies and pushed skinny goats along a path, toddlers ran naked, splashed in the creek, and men congregated on porches, enjoying their evening cigars and gossip. Cows were everywhere—standing in the water, looking at us with big moon eyes. The only shop in town was already closed for the day—we’d missed our chance to purchase more bottled water and would have to boil and use the iodine for cooking and drinking that night. 

Nighttime came early to Supai. The little village is tucked between two looming walls of the Grand Canyon, and the sun sets behind those walls hours before it goes down for the rest of the country. With two miles to go until we reached our campsite, we pressed on, exhausted and footsore.

At Havasu Falls, we dropped our packs and dared each other to jump into the pool under the falling water. I hopped in without realizing the water temperature was at most 67 degrees. The shock of cold water ran through my system, and I nearly had a heart attack. I came to the surface with a silent scream—my mouth opened like a fish with no sound coming out.

I didn’t know it then, but my adventure had only just begun.

To be continued…

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3 thoughts on “Havasupai, Part I

  1. Karen Matlack

    I remember you telling the Sunday school class about this adventure and what happened to you with the water. Definitely made an impression on me!!

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