by Paul W. Rea
The glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound
unite in the Grand Canyon-forms unrivaled even by the
–mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that
span the diapason from tempest to bubbling fountain.
—Major John Wesley Powell
[p.37]Hikers slump on their car bumpers, rubbing their feet. A round-faced Havasupai Indian wants to rent us a pack horse, but we’ll carry our own packs. This is our third pilgrimage to this exotic oasis, sculpted in baroque travertine and painted with the dazzling colors of Grand Canyon.
As we zigzag down the bluff, the parking lot clatter dissolves into the pristine air. No L.A. smog smudges the canyon today. Ravens finger updrafts, their deep caws barely audible. Yuccas with waxy flower stalks and cliffroses heavy [p.38] with blooms embellish the rocky slopes. As we stroll downward, athletes stride uphill, arms flailing. One red-faced fellow presumes that we haven’t hiked Havasu before: “You’ll get there—it’s worth it.” Deborah reminds him that “We’re here; no hurry!”
This first mile is indeed too spectacular to miss. All around are the familiar strata of Grand Canyon: the hard, light-gray Kaibab limestone; the gray, shaly Toroweap formation; the buff-and-blond Coconino sandstone; and the reddish-brown Supai sandstone. Below, more canyons cut into ancient layers dating back over a billion years. Fine vistas across Inner Gorge reveal the North Rim a dozen miles away. Grand Canyon humbles both temporally and spatially. Our lifetimes seem insignificant compared to its time spans, and we feel tiny compared to its enormous size.
Despite its isolation, Havasu Canyon attracted early Spanish and Mormon explorers. When Francisco Garcés finally reached Havasu in the eighteenth century, he stayed six days with the Havasupai tribe. He left powerfully impressed with the Indians’ “prison” and noted that interacting with the tribe “served to divert the melancholy that it caused me to see myself buried alive in that calaboose of cliffs.” Spacious though it is, Grand Canyon has often inspired feelings of entrapment. Exploring the canyon a century later, Major John Wesley Powell hoped that after “a few more days like this we are out of this prison.”
Still later Havasu interested the Mormons. To them, the natives were Lamanites, descendants of Laman, son of the prophet Lehi who led Israelites to the New World. Although the dark-skinned Lamanites bore a curse, the Mormons leaned toward conversion rather than extermination. They showed special interest in the Hopis who occupy mesas to the [p.39] south. When Lee’s Ferry crossing, the best way around Grand Canyon, hardly offered a direct route, they sought a shorter one between the Hopi villages and St. George, Utah. On one of the seven expeditions undertaken before 1872, Mormon leader Jacob Hamblin probed this canyon, but the Havasupai did not receive him warmly. Before releasing his party, the tribe demanded that Hamblin not tell other whites of their hiding place. In 1889 the Havasupai performed a Ghost Dance invoking the spirits of their ancestors to drive away whites. On occasion the tribe even fled their exotic home to hide in remote areas of the canyon.
Since Hamblin’s time the Havasupai have remained free from major incursions, except for us hikers. Though white ways have changed them, the Supai still celebrate traditional feasts and dances for themselves, not for the tourists. Like the Hopi, they’ve retained ancestral lands largely because of their remote location. For centuries the tribe farmed its canyon oasis in the summer and gathered food on the plateau during the winter. Unlike their white visitors, their lifeways were geared to survival, not comfort. However, treaties diminished their hunting, gathering, and grazing rights, which disrupted traditional ways and left them dependent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In the late 1980s uranium mining at Red Butte on the South Rim jeopardized both the people and their land. While one group of Havasupai filed suit, another trashed power lines. These monkey wrenchers pointed out that “a wealthy white elite” would profit from the uranium mining while Indians would absorb the birth defects and cancers. To the chagrin of cynics who think that environmental groups ignore minority cultural concerns, Earth First! became involved.
Invoking the Havasupai name for Red Butte that [p.40] means “the belly of the mother,” thirty women danced in circles to reclaim this and other sacred places.
Novelist/activist Mary Sojourner writes that in the early 1990s tension rose with the controversial Environmental Impact Statement for the Canyon Mine. After interviews with members of the tribe, a Forest Service anthropologist somehow concluded that the Havasupai have “no discernible religion and no religious rights to the land.” Actually the Havasupai had simply not divulged their secrets. In fact, each year the tribal traditionals meet near Red Butte to perform their ceremonies. With one culture guarding sacred lands and the other desiring nuclear power, the conflict pitted Native American against Euro-American values.
But today Deborah and I put politics aside. We descend into a canyon within a canyon, incised into the Supai layer by the stream that cut Hualapai Canyon. An Indian wearing a jean jacket and a black hat leads the tourists on horseback. Scruffy dogs trot behind. Prey in its mouth, a roadrunner trots across the trail and springs into a cholla cactus where it will later trickle the partially digested lizard into the mouths of its nestlings.
This five-mile section of trail channels between walls that become higher and steeper to expose seeps, streaks, and undercut cliffs. Wild cherry, Utah serviceberry, Mormon tea, and scrub oaks give way to feathery-green acacias, mulberries, and small cottonwoods, their lime-green leaves burgeoning from sticky buds. Western wallflowers emblazon the reddish sand, and orange desert mallows, still rolled in buds that resemble sweetheart roses, glow like miniature hollyhocks in the muted light. As our boots squish on wet sand, we’re stepping into spring. Though many hikers view it mainly as a tunnel to paradise, Hualapai Canyon itself is a great hike. [p.41] Anywhere else it would be appreciated, but here it’s overshadowed by Havasu Canyon.
When we first glimpse the blue-green water of Havasu Creek, we break stride, astonished once again by its color. This arresting and enchanting stream, as David Lavender suggests, remains unforgettable:
As a shield against the sunlight lancing off the red, there
was green shade: massive-trunked cottonwoods, each heart-shaped
leaf shimmering in the faintest breeze. And the water!
The tourist catch-phrase for Havasupai, “Land of the Blue-Green
Water,” conveys the color, but not the luminous dip
and glide, the whispering effervescence, or the compulsion to
roll up one’s sleeve, lie flat, and reach for the gleaming bottom
of that stream.
Pink roots stripe the bright bottom where grasses waver in the current. Above the creek’s shimmering “dip and glide,” shiny cottonwood leaves flicker. Above them, cliffs soar skyward, red ocher against a deep blue sky. We lean into the sacred stream like pilgrims cleansing before they enter a shrine.
The creeks flowing from the South Rim toward the Colorado River are notably limey. The caverns just off Route 66 suggest how underground streams dissolve enormous quantities of limestone. This suspended lime causes the silt and sand to coagulate and sink rapidly to the chalky bottom, which turns the water an almost electric turquoise.
In this canyon, and on the Colorado Plateau generally, changes tend to occur either very slowly or very fast, either grain by grain or boulder by boulder in a flash flood. In placid times the carbonates settle out to become travertine limestone that forms scallop-shaped pools. As the creek bed changes course, curved shapes hang far above water level. Porous [p.42] travertine absorbs pigments, especially iron oxide, that percolate down from overlying layers. Riddled with conduits, the tawny or rusty travertine drips and tongues enhance a surreal ambience, one implying that the travertine was once a part of the flow.
The home of the Havasupai is nestled in a verdant valley where clouds of painted lady butterflies feast on peach blossoms. Each year, especially in flowery springs, millions of these nomads head east, north, and west from the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. Their nomadic lifestyle makes them the most cosmopolitan of butterflies.
Far above Supai stand the Wigleeva, the sacred rocks. One is female, rounder and shorter; the other is male, columnar and taller. According to legend, these rocks determine the fate of the tribe: when they fall, the tribe falls. As one native woman expressed this belief, “Rocks all have their places out there”; they are not what we might call “inanimate objects.”
Nature displays balance and harmony, the Indians apparently believe, and humans must live in accord with it.
Lined with huge stumps, the path into Supai is deeply trodden. Cottonwood puffs fill the air and cling to rusty fences. A mule train trots by. Since the pace of life is slow, we stand out as we stride to reach the reservation office before it closes. As I loiter outside, the village seems both the same and different. Indians still lounge against fences, scrawny horses still slump beneath trees with chewed bark, and dogs still sleep in the street. This spring, though, a man plows with a tractor, a woman drives a Cushman cart, and a new Supai Lodge offers more amenities than the old cabins. The prices have changed, too: after we part with most of our cash for our permits, we have little left for burgers or tacos. But that’s OK because our box, mailed weeks ago to avoid hauling food, (43) should have arrived.
We saddle up, groaning under our packs, and trudge toward the campground. Where soft sand impedes tired footsteps, we wobble under our packs. Dust squirts from beneath our boots until we discover that the sand offers worse footing when we hike too fast. There’s no curfew at the campground, so we’ll get there when we arrive.
Despite our fatigue, Havasu Canyon works it magic. Large barrel cacti, which the Indians bake with agave hearts, stud the canyon walls. The creek glides through thickets of willow topped by box elders, ashes, and cottonwoods. Braided by froth, Navajo Falls cascades down a mossy cliff canopied with greenery.
Soon we hear the roar of a much larger falls: Havasu. We strain our eyes for a first glimpse of the arching falls and its enormous plunge pool. When Deborah sees them, she raises her hands to cover her mouth, which is speechless. Nothing is lost, since no words would do. We stare at its glorious color, an even deeper aqua than upstream. Tall prince’s plumes luminesce like candles in the twilight.
After doing ten miles today we hobble into the campground. We finally unharness, rolling our shoulder blades, and yank off hot boots, ignoring laces, to massage our feet. Since it’s almost dark, we spread our bags on the sand and drop off.
Breakfast is granola and coffee. Ah, caffeine! Life returns. Mug still steaming, I wander into the sagebrush to look for a bird that’s been chirping. But instead of finding, I get found. High on a mount, the tribal policeman looks me over, nods, and trots off. It seems odd to have an officer follow you into the brush, so we set off for Havasu Falls. Perched on scallops of lime deposits, two Indian women contemplate the pools. I [p.44] stop three times to compose photographs; Deborah waits, absorbing all the beauty, but she’s irritated. And she’s right. No more pictures. Photography antagonizes some members of the tribe and disturbs the sacredness of the place.
Above the falls is the reservation cemetery, its mounds covered with plastic flowers and skull-sized rocks. Nearby, a helicopter pad lies wisely abandoned. Nowadays the tourist choppers just bank and circle a couple of times—an improvement over the once-common landings though still an affront to the senses. Yesterday planes droned overhead much of the way. During peak tourist season, a thousand scenic flights a day clog the skies over Grand Canyon. Aircraft noise degrades the grandeur of the experience and denies hikers the sublimity of silence. Yet operators refuse to limit their flights or even to muffle their engines.
A faint trail leads toward a mesquite tree. Behind it, beside a notch in the canyon wall, we start our climb. When Deborah cannot reach a handhold, she stands on my shoulders while I brace myself, feet spread for stability. We check every hand and foothold before pulling ourselves up rocks polished by other hands and feet. Wildflowers sprout from the cracks in front of our faces. Hedgehog cacti sport deep scarlet blooms with yellow centers. Watchful for spines that could throw us off balance, we pick our way toward the rim where a cairn marks the bench trail.
From here the top of the Redwall limestone layer drops hundreds of feet to the creek far below. In contrast to the luxuriant canyon floor, this shelf is rocky, arid, open; one can see both the north and south rims in the distance. The cloud cover is blowing through, dappling the rocks and leaving mare’s-tail cirrus swirls in a light-blue sky. Moved to eloquence, John Wesley Powell depicted such a vista as “awful [p.45] in profound depths, sublime in massive and strange forms, and glorious in colors.” In a paradox worthy of the Tao Te Ching, the canyon’s enormities of space and time can occasion a dissolution of the self, yet the intensity of its sensations also energize the individual psyche. Exhilarated by the space, the light, plus the array of forms and colors, we can barely attend to our footing.
Up here the plant life is sparse yet vital. Adapted to this Sonoran Desert environment with bulbs that store moisture, wild hyacinths resembling wild onions bloom on the rocky slopes. Sotol, a kind of yucca, flourishes along with dwarf buckthorn, prickly pear, and barrel cactus. A grayish cactus wren sputters some staccato chatter, fidgets with a twig, and flits into a cholla cactus.
Small redbud trees add their own puffs of chartreuse to the drainages. These Western redbuds are rarities. In March, before their glossy, apple-shaped leaves pop out, these trees burst forth in light lavender flowers instead of the usual magenta. Unlike most legumes, redbuds bloom from both their trunks and branches, engendering small fruit that resemble snow peas. Some of last year’s pods, now bleached and dried tan, still hang beside this year’s withered blooms. The Dine, or Navajo, roasted these pods to make incense while other tribes used the twigs for making baskets.
As the trail skirts the cliff, Mooney Falls rumbles from its chasm. Below us lie sheer, smooth Redwall limestone cliffs, a plush carpet of greenery, and a thin ribbon of turquoise water. Through a jagged window in the rock, my eyes plumb first to the canyon floor hundreds of feet below, then another two hundred feet to the base of the falls. Hikers down there crawl like bugs, halting before the abyss. My muscles tighten. I ease back from this precipice, rock by rock.
[p.46]In a drainage nearby, Deborah reclines on the smooth limestone, relishing the warm sun on her heart and the cool bedrock under her backbone. Nude woman, naked rock. We chuckle about the sign the Indians posted by Havasu Falls: “NO NUDE.” Balanced in this yin and yang, her flesh sings an old Havasupai chant: “Make me always the same as I am now. “
Back at the campsite we face a basic reality: if we want to eat tonight, we’ll need to hike the two miles back to retrieve that box. So we put new moleskins on our blisters and set out for Supai. Vining snapdragons that resemble wild morning glories drape the canyon wall near Havasu Falls. Nearby, waxy prince’s plumes bend with the gusts, but this doesn’t discourage a rufous hummingbird from hovering in perfect unison with their sways.
Alongside desert willows with orchid-like blooms, ravens flick leaves. Croaking deeply, they take flight only as we encroach within fifty feet or so. At first they flap their wings like a crow, then they soar like a large hawk. Near Supai, where bright green fields contrast against red canyon walls, scrawny mares stand under a spreading tree, their swayed backs worn hairless. The Indians once raced their horses along this trail.
Much to our relief, we find the post office open. Praise the tribal gods! But what if our food has somehow not arrived? The mail comes by mule train, and our box would hardly be priority mail. We’re almost out of money, and this isn’t a place that runs on plastic, either. Luckily, when the clerk can’t find our package, Deborah spots it. Now we’ve got money to spend. Moments later we’re tearing into an Indian taco made with thick fry bread.
The trill of the canyon wren and the twitter of a yellow-[p.47]throated Western kingbird accompany our return to camp. As we gather white-blossomed watercress, frogs bulge their throats and dragonflies bank and veer. Wild celery, a perfect miniature of the cultivated variety, flourishes under a willow. Cress is an Old World plant that’s spread to even the most remote desert canyons; onion, garlic, and celery are among the many New World plants that enhance the Anglo-American diet. Other edible native plants, however, remain largely unknown to non-Indians: salted, roasted pinyon pine nuts are as tasty as potato chips and certainly more nutritional.
Distinct rock layers gleam in the waning daylight. A huge century plant looks small against pink clouds in a baby-blue sky. Violet moments flash and fade. Finally the sky blazes a brilliant orange that commingles into a grayish blue. Neglected, our fresh watercress and celery soup almost boils over.
Dawn arrives in a burst of birdsong. When I can’t see any birds, I settle for a bug. Just outside our tent, black pinacate (Spanish for “the presumptuous one”) beetles are thrusting their rears into the air. Several dozen species of these stink beetles thrive in the Southwest. Rather than run when disturbed, their noxious-musk defense has earned them the local designation of “pedodos,” or “farters.” Their black color seems poorly adapted to desert habitats, but pinacates burrow during the heat of the day. Their waxy cuticle also reduces dehydration, and a dead air space beneath their wing covers insulates them from extremes of temperature. But these beetles’ spray couldn’t match my boots. No need to check for scorpions, tarantulas, black widows, or brown recluse spiders this morning, since none of them could survive the stench.
Today our first stop is Mooney Falls, named after the miner who fell to his death here in 1880 while trying to get [p.48] down this one hundred-and-ninety-foot drop. “The Mother of Waters,” the Indians’ name for this magical spot, figures strongly in Supai beliefs. So rooted are they to their canyon that they believe the spirits of the dead congregate here, rising and falling with the mist. With this in mind, it’s even more outrageous to find that in the 1920s government and industry colluded in an attempt to generate power here. Fortunately a flood washed out the machinery before the power plant could desecrate this sacred place.
Mooney Falls still stops many hikers. While some don’t know about the trail that miners blasted out of the travertine, others fear the heights or the shaky chains that serve as guard rails. The path switches back and forth, over and under limestone bowls where it enters a tunnel and emerges onto a landing. From here, looking down is quite literally breathtaking. My chest constricts as my whitened knuckles lock onto the cold pipe. Each step becomes deliberate. Trodden limestone is slippery even when it’s dry. This descent ends among giant scalloped tongues formed when the creek followed different channels. But these tongues were created only yesterday compared to the nearby Redwall limestone, formed 350 million years ago.
Since Mooney Falls faces north, we emerge into the deep shade of its chasm. Our eyes track globules of water that whorl downward, then disintegrate into beads from the blue. With its crystal pools this basin is both vast and intimate: after gaping at a thousand-foot rock wall, we gaze down on a tiny toad.
A ‘Japanese garden” in a box canyon ascends in pools trimmed with orange monkey flowers and lacy maidenhair ferns. In this exquisite grotto, frothy waters slip between plants and spill over sandstone lips. Water striders ripple the [p.49] pools. Below one spillway a dark-gray water ouzel (dipper) dives, swims with its wings, and pops up. As it dips itself dry, with grub in mouth, the nest explodes with cries. Four bright yellow beaks, each flared wide open, instantly fill the ring.
Below Mooney Falls the environment becomes more pristine because the hikers thin out and the Indians can’t bring horses down this far. The creek cascades into pools, each a living spectrum of pastel watercolors—the aqua of the creek, the burnt oranges of the cliffs, and the bright greens of the sunlit trees. Snakeweed bristles from the banks to link itself with the fossilized horsetails that grommet the red limestone. As living evolutionary success stories, some plants have changed little in three hundred million years. Cozy in this leafy glade, we inhale enriched oxygen from the foliage and exhale carbon dioxide for the plants to breathe. Our lives partake of life’s reciprocity.
As it streams over a lip, the crystalline current purls into foamy pools. Baroque travertine lips sometimes curve completely around, actually spilling upstream. Pulses in the current cause one mini-falls, then another, to murmur and wane like waves marking the rhythm of the flow. With its quiet pools, Havasu Creek shimmers with painterly images of the cracks reflected from the canyon wall: cracked water, wavy rock. If he had done his light and shade tableaux here, Claude Monet might never have returned to Giverny.
The canyon’s walls rise higher. Its floor broadens as the trail snakes through knee-high grasses and wild canyon grapevines. Fewer cottonwoods line the creek on this stretch because beavers are so proficient. It takes them only a few nights to gnaw around a trunk well over a foot in diameter, [p.50] yet they often chew through the cambium layer and leave large trees to die. As cottonwood numbers dwindle, will the beavers kill more large trees to feed on their inner bark; that is, will they eventually consume their primary food source? Responding to this prospect of instability, Deborah recounts how a Diné woman once told her of a tribal belief that chaos is the natural state, that we become unhappy when we try to impose order.
Though Deborah says she’s tired, I urge her to keep going. Nearly three splendid miles below Mooney, the canyon narrows for Beaver Falls. From a ledge we marvel at a spot where the stream takes three sharp turns to create one of the deepest, bluest pools. It’s time for full immersion in Havasu Creek. As I slip in, a trout flashes under a ledge. Underwater my eyes taste the blue-and-bubble world of the plunge basin.
Moments later a wild man parts the foliage. As W. L. Rusho describes Everett Ruess, the “vagabond” of the 1930s, this fellow” could almost resonate with the light waves that struck him from all points in the landscape.” In his tattered cut-offs, Robin is muscular, sunburnt, and bearded, more vagabond than aesthete, more hearty than savage. The wrinkles of the landscape are etched on his face. His bleached-and-matted hair makes us look like blow-dried tourists who have just stepped from a helicopter. This canyoneer has lived here for a couple of months, he says, scrounging meals where he can. For five weeks he’s subsisted under a cliff. He catches a few fish and clubs a few mice but mostly eats what the Indians traditionally ate—agave hearts, prickly pears, and wild grapes. Minimal-impact living.
Committed to personal liberty as he is, Robin suspects governments and their agents. “Seen that tribal cop?” he asks. [p.51] “Don’t know if he really wants to keep drugs off the ‘res’ or if he sells the stuff he confiscates.” The hallucinogen peyote has long been a subject of debate among the Havasupai. Was it the cause of unweeded gardens or were the dreams it evoked truly sacred? An earthy man at home in the earth, Robin bounds over rocks in sneakers with flapping soles. When living off the land gets old, though, I’ll bet he grabs an Indian taco at the Supai Cafe on his way out.
On our return up-canyon, an orange-banded kingfisher squawks at a pied-billed grebe that competes for the same small fish. The grebe dives under as the kingfisher becomes a blur of blue and white. This grebe bobs up shaking its head as the kingfisher jaws loudly. Such harsh staccato sounds, or “rattle calls,” are the kingfishers’s way to scream “get out of my territory!” Along water courses around the globe, these bold birds habitually stake out a stretch and confront any intruders.
On the bank a white-haired fellow is digging up plants and stuffing them in a bag. He immediately informs us that he’s a botanist gathering specimens of rare liverworts. When I ask whether it’s a good idea to collect plants already sliding toward extinction, he bristles: “This is my specialty, you know.” Is the traditional, scientific practice of bagging rare specimens for study still tenable today, I wonder. Collection surely contributes to extinctions, leaving pickled animals and dried plants as unsatisfying laboratory curiosities. Showy lady’s slippers have already been picked and dug to extinction in Acadia National Park, as well as in other places. The last passenger pigeon died in a zoo.
We sit on the stream bank, feet in the bubbling water, savoring the canyon wall. Their wings back-lit a gauzy white by the sun, doves flock on the rim far above. Encrusted salts [p.52] tint the red rock with pastel oranges and pinks. A band of ferns trims the waterline. Below this fern curtain these vibrant colors trickle into the shady creek where, with the whip of its tail, a fish roils the reflections from the white bark of a palo blanco tree.
Supper brings talk about self-sufficiency. Robin’s hunter-gatherer ways highlight the paradoxes of backpacking. We haul civilization’s amenities on our backs, nicely miniaturized. We go back and forth between civilization and wilderness, making brief forays dependent on what we can carry. Like Robin we may eat native plants, picking only the abundant ones, but we also rely on that crumpled box from home. Robin has greater freedom and a closer relationship to the land, but we have less impact. One way or another, everybody leaves footprints in the wilderness.
Tonight, under a clear, moonless sky undimmed by pollution, the densely packed stars shine many-pointed. Even on a clear night, though, the several hundred thousand visible stars constitute but a tiny percentage of the billions thought to comprise the cosmos. In fact, many of the “stars” we see are whole galaxies. Brilliant English physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking estimates that “our galaxy is only one among some hundred thousand million that can be seen using modem telescopes, each galaxy itself containing some hundred thousand million stars.” When we ponder the magnitude of the cosmos, how much significance can we attach to our egos? There’s nothing like a starry night in Grand Canyon to humble the beholder.
At sunrise a Western wood peewee sounds its wake-up call. Hoping to attract a mate, males sing their nasal dawn call every morning during the nesting season. Its “pee-wee” triggers recollections of the tree house I once built where the [p.53] peewees woke me gently, unlike the cardinals that whistled right in my ear.
With no one stirring in the campground, Havasu Falls is still deserted. The air cools with each step down the trail toward the plunge pool. Havasu’s round basin is ringed by huge cottonwoods, their trunks sprayed the same fawn color as the sand. The creek plunges down a chute surrounded by baroque tongues of travertine. Below them, behind the falls, constant spray nourishes lush maidenhair ferns.
Braving the chill I creep into a cave where my breath clouds. Waters gurgle through the travertine, gradually filling up its conduits. This must be what life sounds like to an earthworm or a mole. The underground trickles bring me under their mythic spell. Thoughts of death seem sexually exciting; I imagine life in a womb, even death in a tomb. Then, spooked, I bolt back into the daylight, short of breath, huddled away from the spray. The falls are even more dazzling to eyes opened wide in a cave.
Teenage boys thunder down the trail, but soon the falls spellbinds them into silence. They sit down, push back their caps, and stare. Arguably the most picturesque place in Grand Canyon, Havasu Falls is a visual paradox. From the trail skirting its west side, it seems to be an enclosed amphitheater, but from below it seems quite open. On the east side, across the creek, Carbonate Canyon twists for nearly a mile toward massive bowls glazed by falling water and rock.
Departing is difficult. Before we set out for Supai, we fill our canteens and bellies with bubbling water from Fem Spring. A campground mutt follows us to the village, lunging with real fierceness at lizards. When our canine companion sees a foot-long chuckwalla lizard, he charges. The slow-moving chuckwalla, however, proves faster than it looks; it [p.54] dives under a rock. Rushing headlong, the mongrel skids to a halt like Goofy to avoid a big barrel cactus.
Later, while we eat lunch, a gray fox trots by on the opposite ledge, nose to the ground, never giving us a look. It’s thrilling to see a fox up close, especially where the semi-wild dogs could give chase. Such pursuit could prove fatal since foxes aren’t fast—they stalk their prey and pounce like cats. Still later we linger at a wild cherry in full bloom, then touch the lacy new leaflets on an acacia, bright green against the pocked sandstone. As we surface from the trench cut by Hualapai Canyon, a sage thrasher puffs its brown-speckled breast, cocks its head to brandish its curved beak, and bolts, flashing a whitish tail.
The last mile is tough, especially when we reach the switchbacks in the afternoon while the sun hammers hardest. The great walls of stone sway in the heat. To forget the pain I play a foot-and-knee game, zigzagging from one side of the trail to the other to lessen the incline. At the same time I take small steps and push my knees back to ascend by straightening my legs. My lungs are syncopated with my legs. I inhale while taking four steps to the right, then exhale while zagging four steps to the left. This diverts attention from my pack, which chafes my shoulders and hips. Even hiking sometimes rewards concentration on technique.
Heads down, ears full of mechanical drumbeats, joggers nearly run us off the trail. It’s hard to imagine coming down here without free eyes and open ears. In a place like Grand Canyon, this borders on sacrilege. Granted, running as a way to reach otherwise inaccessible places could be justified. But using nature as an aerobic workout arena puzzles me. These sweating, panting fitness freaks race right by it all, out of touch with what lies all around and even underfoot. Most [p.55] aren’t here to marvel at the colors or to hear the birds. More often they’re going for their personal best—a telling phrase that may suggest both self-absorption and a competitive orientation. Compulsive conditioning defines the body as a machine, a material thing commanded by, yet estranged from, the mind. After centuries of debasement, it’s time to respect our physical being without joining the cult of the body.
Just below the rim, Coconino sandstone enhances the quality of the light. This tawny layer—possibly the loveliest in the Southwest—crops out all along the eastern end of Grand Canyon. Composed of nearly pure white quartz grains, the blond Coconino stains easily: its sheer, smooth cliffs are dripped with coffee, chocolate, and cinnamon. It is rippled by winds that blew 270 million years ago, illustrating how changes in wind direction enabled dunes to accumulate, one upon another. Beside my pack a fossilized footprint provides a connection to a Paleozoic animal that walked here millions of years ago.
As I approach Hualpai Hilltop, occasional trash suddenly jars the senses. Reentry symptoms are a good sign, however. If you don’t feel them, you probably haven’t been away long enough. Soon we’re slumped on the floor of our van, still under the spell, happily glazed as other hikers lumber by.
Far below us Havasu Canyon throbs with life. Its streams pulse through rock like blood courses through flesh, its creek is always depositing lime. Flash floods periodically sweep it away, even the travertine scallops below Havasu Falls, and the cycle begins again. The blue-green water seeps, trickles, swirls, cascades, and thunders, enchanting thousands of pilgrims a year.
Sacred Places on a Living Planet
[p.56]Some places have long been thought to reverberate with special, possibly divine energy. At Stonehenge, Delphi, Palenque, and Machu Picchu, people apparently settled nearby to experience the benefits. Other spiritual centers have been left undeveloped. These include Mt. Fuji, the Black Hills, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Shasta, and Yosemite Valley—plus Zion Canyon, Grand Canyon, and the nearby San Francisco Peaks, sacred to both the Navajo and the Hopi.
The holistic spirit of most American Indian religions, which regards all places as sacred, often assigns special significance to locations associated with creation events or ancestors’ spirits. Southwest tribes do not simply react to perceptions of spiritual energy. Instead, their medicine men often designate “places of power” based on tribal stories.
The Navajo, or Diné, as they prefer, account for human creation in a wonderfully earthy way. They tell of First Man and First Woman who, traveling with animals and insects, surfaced from a world of spirits within the earth with the help of a friendly badger. Many Diné locate the place of emergence into the Fourth World in northwest New Mexico, where First Man and First Woman found a baby on Gobernador Peak. Here in the center of Dinétah, the holy birthplace of the Diné, this baby miraculously matured in just twelve days to become Changing Woman, who then mated with the sun to conceive twins at nearby Huerfano Peak. These sites remain sacred to the Diné.
In the Hopi world view, on the other hand, links with [p.57] creation and the energy of a place are both important. Like the Diné, the Hopi revere their sipapu or place of emergence from the earth. In Hopi mythology the earth’s guardian is a wise Spider Grandmother aided in her duties by two young men, one at each of the earth’s poles. At the North Pole sits Poqanghoyam, working his magic to maintain order. At the South Pole sits Palongawhoya, beating rhythms on a sacred drum. These rhythms, many Hopis believe, channel vital energy to bring the planet to life. The Hopi dances, in which drums thunder while feet beat the earth, express this rhythmic connection. For the Hopi the earth’s energy surfaces most strongly at certain spiritual centers recognized by the elders as sacred places essential to harmony and healing.
Many cultures have sensed that energy radiates, or that an aura is exuded, at certain locales, but until recently little scientific research has probed the conditions associated with these places. One study discovered that electromagnetic currents exist around the San Francisco Peaks, where the Diné and Hopi believe their kachinas reside for most of the year. These currents produce an abundance of negative ions and are said to energize the body and soothe the mind. At other sacred sites, natural uranium is present, leading one to wonder whether it is radioactive decay that enlivens the air. Waterfalls, which have long been thought to exert a spiritual presence, also produce such ions.
While rainbows add enchantment to waterfalls, rainbows in stone—arches or natural bridges—also convey their own mystique. Rainbow Bridge astride Navajo Mountain on the Utah/Arizona border holds special meaning to the traditional Diné creation stories. According to Clyde Kluckhohn’s Beyond the Rainbow, not only did their Rain God reside here, but their Sky Father created the Bridge to rescue a “hero [p.58] god” from a flash flood. Later he transformed the rainbow to stone as an emblem of omnipotence and watchfulness over his earth children. Since this place of the Rainbow Spirit must be approached with reverence, Diné tradition asks visitors to offer a prayer before stepping into the shadow of the Bridge.
Sometimes, however, the significance of a place may imply more about culturally imposed perceptual limits than about the possibility that some places are more holy than others. When our culture designates sites as sacred, they’re usually tied less to natural characteristics than to human history, such as the hallowed Judeo-Christian shrines or the battlefield at Gettysburg. If we see only our own cultural-specific sites as sacred, we reinforce the compartmentalized thinking that allows exploitation of what we consider non-sacred parts of the planet.
Some locales in nature, however, do exude a special magic. As a place where the rock itself seems to pulse, where water courses through the veins in the rock, Havasu Canyon on the South Rim of Grand Canyon exemplifies the Gaia hypothesis. Named for the long-neglected Greek goddess of the earth, the Gaia theory sees the earth as a living (though non-sentient) entity. This is a radical idea, for Euro-American culture sees the earth as basically lifeless air, water, and rock with only a veneer of life. (Two notable exceptions were the beliefs of New England Transcendentalists and early Mormons, both of whom perceived a spiritual dimension to physical reality.)
Gaia thinking also emphasizes the divine feminine that once animated early Greek, Minoan, and Mesopotamian cultures. Ecofeminist studies have shown that both Middle Eastern and Western civilizations underwent fundamental shifts from female, earth-oriented deities to male, sky-oriented gods [p.59] exemplified by the Greek Zeus and Hebrew Yahweh, or Jehovah. In one graphic case, Uranus, the upstart Father Sky deity, raped Gaia to mark this ascent of male power. Classic Greek culture turned away from the earthy and female when, in a search for universal essences, Socrates and Plato downgraded the physical world.
Thus, as so many before me have contended, the Platonic tradition contributes to our ecological crisis. The notion that the physical world is a lesser reality causes many problems—bad metaphysics may do us in. The redoubtable Edward Abbey rebutted Plato well: “What ideal, immutable Platonic cloud can equal the beauty and perfection of any everyday cloud floating over, say, Tuba City, Arizona, on a hot clay in June?”
Having absorbed a great deal of Platonism, the early Church Fathers condemned the residual Greek vitalism, the belief that spiritual energies inhabit everything. The early Christians also, as D. H. Lawrence pointed out in “Pan in America,” transformed the Greek god whose body was part goat and part man into their devil, complete with the traditional black face, cloven hoofs, horns, and tail. By association, anything animal or sexual became bestial and evil. Viewed as the literal embodiment of the profane, the earth could hardly seem sacred. Once again this negative association contrasts with Native American stories, including those of the Paiutes who believe that Coyote gave birth to man and woman and taught woman how to give birth.
As advanced by British biologist James Lovelock, Gaia thinking seems to contradict the scientific assumption that the planet is comprised mainly of “inanimate” magma, rock, water, and air. But the Gaia hypothesis gains acceptance among scientists who are willing to define life differently. If [p.60] life involves self-regulation, then the earth itself is alive because, ever since green plants increased oxygen levels, its systems have regulated atmospheric gases. If oxygen levels exceeded the present 21 percent, fires would rage out of control; if they fell much below that, many organisms could not carry on their normal processes.
Gaia thinking encounters problems, however. It tends to perpetuate both the stereotype of the “lowly” Earth Mother and also of its counterpart, the “lofty” Great Father in the sky. In addition to reemphasizing the physical, reproductive aspect of the feminine, critics note that Gaia also deludes us into assuming that surely Mother Earth, no matter how abused, will always feed and clothe us, carry away our wastes, and regulate global warming.
In addition, when we conceive of the earth as an organism whose systems work toward stasis, other questions arise. How do we know when we are pushing the limit? If our impact exceeds the earth’s abilities to self-regulate, can we confidently turn to ourselves, as the “brains” of the planet, to restore equilibrium? Finally, the systems approach of Gaia thinking may represent still another conception of the world as a machine—a view that inhibits what intellectual historian Martin Berman calls “the re-enchantment of the world.”
But the best Gaia conceptions do merit consideration. Few ways of understanding our relatedness to the earth surmount the “Gaia meditations” of John Seed and Joanna Marcy: “Inner oceans tugged by the moon, tides within and without. Streaming fluids floating our cells, washing and nourishing though endless riverways of gut and vein and capillary.” These and other Gaia metaphors appeal to many of us because they reduce our sense of isolation, as living beings, from a dead planet and cosmos. And behind metaphors, the [p.61] mystique of sacred places continues because many of us definitely do resonate with the energy of earth, water, and sky.