Have you ever been visited by an angel? I mean, a real one walking on this Earth? Mine came in the form of a six-year-old Havasupai girl named Christina. Well, that wasn’t her original name—Christina was the name the Anglican church had dubbed her on her 2nd birthday.
One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t commit her real name to memory. It was beautiful—I know that. It sounded like the cascade of water running over the falls on the other side of the trail. But my fever-addled brain didn’t retain the information. The organ was only aware enough to tell my body to get up—to tell my feet to Follow. This. Girl. So I did.
It was Easter Sunday, 1997. Hours earlier, I’d been awakened by friends discussing my precarious situation as if I weren’t there. In truth, I wasn’t really there. I was sick. My body was wracked with a high fever, and I was shivering. I’d spent a long night sleeping in the open with a terrible case of the…
Folks, I don’t want to be graphic on my blog, so I’ll pose it this way. Have you ever been sick with a particularly wicked stomach bug that brought you to your knees, with no energy to stand, begging for death? When you pictured that memory, was it centered around a modern bathroom? I thought so.
Ah, the comforts of home. Now, take away the bathroom from your memory. Take away the plumbing and the running water. Take the whole house, actually. Yup, that’s more like it. Not even the privacy of a tent, folks. Just me, my friends, the Swedish kid I had a crush on, and the great outdoors. In a skinny canyon—with the nearest village two hot and sandy miles uphill.
After hours of misery through the night, it was clear that I suffered from some sort of acute gastroenteritis. Was it giardia? E. coli? Did it matter? We were two miles downstream from the village where I had seen cows and naked children playing in the water with my own eyes. Although we knew enough to boil our water for drinking and use iodine pills in our water bottles, there was that moment when my mouth opened in the cold swimming hole under the falls. Or when I brushed my teeth using a drop of water from the stream.
Parasites are small enough to fit into a drop of water,
Whatever the cause, whatever the name, I was sick. And we had to figure out how to get me out of there. I couldn’t make the 10-mile hike from our campsite to Haulapai Hilltop—simple as that. Traveling uphill in the heat for twelve hours? No way. I’d be lucky to get as far as Supai Village, two miles upriver.
The more significant issue that hadn’t occurred to me yet was that my friends had to leave me there. If there was any chance of them getting to the hilltop before nightfall, they had to start hiking. Right away.
One gal in the group had a credit card with her. The hope was if she could find someone with a phone or walkie-talkie in the village, she could call for help. Maybe a helicopter could lift me out of the canyon. But we needed to find out if that was even an option. All we knew was that I had to get to the village. And I’d have to do it alone.
My friends finished divvying up my belongings. One of the guys slung my empty pack over his shoulder on top of his own forty-pound rucksack. I hated being a burden on people. But there was nothing for it. Lissa and Nataijie gave me hugs, then turned and started off. Jonel put her forehead against mine.
“You can do this.” I let a weak sob escape my lips. “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “It’s Easter!”
Flashing a brilliant smile, she went up the steep trail and out of sight. I stumbled along behind her. It was desert-hot now—the sun had risen above the canyon walls. I wore long johns under my hiking shorts and shirt, vacillating between a hot sweat and cold shivers. I was dehydrated and thirsty, but I couldn’t keep one drop of water down. My body rebelled against all sustenance, and I was weak.
One foot after the other, I trod up the sandy hill. After an hour, it was clear I wouldn’t make it. I needed to lie down, and I knew I wouldn’t get up again if I did. The desire to rest was so great that I was okay with that deal. “I’m done, God.” I sat down hard on the side of the empty trail. I looked up and down, and I was alone.
After a few minutes, a mangy dog trotted up the trail and stopped to sniff me. I’d always dreamed of being befriended by a wild animal—a bear or wolf—but never thought it would be a foul-smelling, flee-invested, scraggly-haired mutt. I’d take it, though. I put out my hand for the dog to lick. He did, then ventured up the hill, stopping a few feet away to look back at me. “Are you coming?”
Did the dog just speak to me? I stood up. I’m delirious. The dog’s eyes bored into my own—old, knowing eyes. I followed it.
Once assured that my legs were working correctly, the dog turned and jogged up the hill. A little way up, it turned to study me again. It’s encouraging me. Yes, I’m coming, dog!
The pattern repeated once more. When the dog turned to check on me this time, it wagged its tail, and I swore it smiled. Then I realized it was looking past me, and I turned to see the object of its lively interest.
A little girl! Where did she come from?
A slim and lithe Havasupai girl walked up the trail towards me, singing in a sweet clear voice and swinging a stick in the air. She was beautiful, and she was also the dog’s human.
Their reunion was sweet. The dog was delighted upon her return. I had no idea where she was coming from and what she was doing there, but she approached me as if she had expected to find me on the side of the trail. She invited me to join her, and she was headed home to Supai village.
Ever patient, she and her dog matched their steps to my slow, labored pace. Her name was Christina, and the dog was Carl. She talked of her family. Her baby brother was born a few weeks ago. Her mom and dad loved her so much. Her school was in the Anglican Church. Her name meant something special in her language, although I can’t remember what.
I was enchanted. I trudged along between Christina and her dog, distracted by the stories she told in her sing-song voice. Before I knew it, we were on the last few yards of the path. I’d made it! When we got to a fork in the trail, Christina turned right and told me to go left, pass the church and wait at the field. She said I’d find help there.
As soon as I passed the church, I rounded the corner to see an unusual spectacle before me. With a garden hose, a man was watering the dirt in a vast dry field. The field was surrounded by rows of wooden benches. The village had turned out to watch the action. It was packed! No one seemed to notice me, the tall skinny American girl stumbling into their midsts wearing a pale face and long johns. I sat on one of the benches and awaited my fate.
Mesmerized, I watched the water from the long hose spray onto the dirt, rivulets of muddy liquid streaming down the sides of the field. Was this some sort of Easter ritual here? I couldn’t guess. But it didn’t really matter. I waited as more and more villagers joined the party.
Presently, I heard the “cuff-a-cuff-a-cuff” of whirling helicopter blades as a small glass-bottomed chopper descended onto the field. Despite the watering man’s best efforts with the hose—Oh! Now I get it!—dirt kicked up in a cloud of dust. The Havasupai tribe came prepared. Around the field, folks whipped bandanas and handkerchiefs from their pockets, shielding their eyes and mouths with the cloth. I was in awe. But what were they here for?
Within moments, the chopper was settled, and the whirling blades slowed to still. A jaunty man jumped out of the cockpit, smiling and waving at the crowd. Family leaders approached in an orderly fashion as if this were a regular occurrence. The pilot opened the back of the air bird and started handing out—wait, was that Coca-Cola? Soda?! Yes, yes, it was. Cases and cases of cola were dispensed to the Havasupai families for their Easter celebrations. As the group dispersed, the pilot called me over.
“I’m guessing you’re the sick gal. Hop in. Try not to puke on my control panel.”
After I was settled, the pilot maneuvered the chopper into the air. We hovered for a moment over the village. I looked between my feet, through the glass bottom, to see Christina and her family walking away from the field with their case of soda. I hadn’t noticed them before. A harness attached to Carl’s back pulled a wooden cart with Christina’s baby brother tucked safely inside. Christina walked beside her dog and looked up at me in the helicopter.