SUPAI, ARIZ. — While we waited on the restaurant's deck for our dinner of fry-bread tacos, two sinewy mongrels wrestled in the dusty courtyard of the Indian village, their friendly bout interrupted by packhorse trains heading out of the Grand Canyon.
Supai is the home of the Havasupai, and little has changed in the 700 years the tribe has inhabited this small side canyon lined by red-rock walls and shaded by cottonwoods. The streets are unpaved, the pace is slow and the only way in and out is by hike, horse or helicopter.
Supai boasts America's only post office that conducts its business by mule. The coveted postmark says "Mule Train Mail — Havasupai Indian Reservation."
About 450 of the 600 or so tribal members live in the village, and a few never have visited the outside world, never have seen an automobile except in photos or on their satellite TVs.
"The young ones like going in and out, but the elders remain here," said tribal chairman Rex Tilousi. "When I go up, I feel out of place. The canyon calls me back. I am these rocks. I am the Grand Canyon."
While some 5 million people visit the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon each year, most peering in awe into the mile-deep chasm before climbing back into their vehicles, Supai measures its annual visitation in the thousands.
And Supai has a secret shared only by those who make the eight-mile trip into the heart of the Havasupai world. Clear, fast-running Havasu Creek cuts through their canyon and spills over into three stunning waterfalls, each with its own distinct personality. The falls are spread out over a two-mile stretch of the creek, the first one just a mile north of the village.
The rushing, tumbling water gathers in turquoise pools at the foot of the falls, creating a postcard playground that is unmatched in the Grand Canyon's bounty of vistas too rich to be caught in words or photos.
"That's who we are, the water that you saw," Tilousi said. "'People of the sky-blue waters,' that's what the word Havasupai means."
While the Havasupai route into the Grand Canyon is not as well known as the north and south rim trails, which are about 40 miles to the east, it does attract its share of celebrities.
" Tom Cruise has been here, George Strait, the country singer, was here last week, and the guy that starred in `Windtalkers' — Nicolas Cage — was here recently," Tilousi said. "Some hike in, then jump on the chopper to go out."
I had made several hikes into the Grand Canyon via the north and south rims, and once took a five-day rafting trip on the Colorado River at the canyon's bottom. Actually, there is a fourth waterfall closer to the river, Beaver Falls, and my hike to that one during the rafting trip inspired me to search out the others.
For my first visit to Supai, I recruited three buddies, all active hikers and kayakers managing the maladies of middle age. One had been cleared for the adventure a week before we left by his cardiologist, and I was a fading racquetball player recuperating from a fourth knee surgery. We had seven marriages and six kids between us.
Dave is Gadget Guy, a gear freak who pinpointed our every move through GPS and video topographical maps. He distributed walkie-talkies but suspended our radio privileges after we persisted in sending him ribald messages while he stood next to strangers.
Doug is a laid-back California dude who hiked in sandals and never changed his cotton surfing T-shirt during our three-day stay in the canyon.
Don worked out on a climbing wall to prepare for the trip and is the only one of the four to pack a blow-dryer and Vavoom styling spray.
Reggae purred from the Tribal Cafe's kitchen as we waited for our tacos, adding to the Third World feel of Supai. "In `81, Bob Marley's mom came down," the Indian clerk replied when asked about the Jamaican music that seemed to come from every open door and window in the village.
That was a mouthful for a Havasupai. They are a quiet, cautious people, not prone to conversation and reluctant to be photographed.
"Our way of protecting what we have here is by being very silent, especially to those we have never met before," explained Tilousi, the tribal chairman.
In the shade of the deck, we chatted with two silver-haired sisters from Michigan sitting at a nearby picnic table. They were making their sixth trip to Supai. "Why?" I mused.
"You'll find out tomorrow," one replied.
The 24-room Havasupai Lodge, the village's only hotel, was clean and full of German students touring the Southwest. The two-story building was nestled between walls of fudge-colored rock cut in squares and stacked neatly in layers. Up high stood two stone towers that appeared ready to topple with the next tremor.
The lone restaurant served a breakfast of Frisbee-sized hotcakes that, for some reason, went uneaten when shared with the courtyard dogs. Maybe they were worried; a sign in the small grocery store warned that loose dogs were about to be impounded.
The hardest part of the eight-mile trek to Supai had been the final mile trudging along the roads of red sand into town. We trudged again the next morning on our way out to explore the canyon's jewels.
We heard Navajo Falls before we saw it, hidden in the trees, flowing magically out of the hillside over rounded rock faces. To the left in the cliff was a grotto with a torrent pouring out. Surprisingly, the ledges were not slick, and we joined the German students already climbing behind the waterfall into the crevice.
Diving into the aqua water, swimmers gathered in the sunlight on the opposite side of the pool to share the warmth. The ferns and canopy gave it the feel of a lush rainforest, a sun-dappled oasis in the desert. We could have spent hours, but had only one day to experience all three falls.
Where Navajo Falls was delicate and serene, Havasu Falls was a blockbuster.
Walking out onto a rocky terrace, we stood at the top of Havasu Falls, which plunged 100 feet into a small lake the color of the Caribbean. Tiny figures lounged on its perimeter or swam through the waters, which flowed down into a series of perfectly shaped pools. Life Magazine once called this the best swimming hole in America. Disney couldn't have designed better.
We hiked down the trail and left our backpacks and clothes under the cottonwoods surrounding the idyllic scene. The water stays about 70 degrees, a refreshing respite from the desert heat, which can be well over 100 degrees in the summer.
Dave, the Gadget Guy, had done our planning and reserved our rooms at the lodge months in advance. The AC, hot showers and double beds were a blessing, but our smugness evaporated as we left Havasu Falls and discovered where everybody else was staying.
A mile down the trail, the walls of the red-rock canyon widened into a valley where Havasu Creek split into a series of gurgling streams that meandered beneath the cottonwoods. Scattered beside those streams were tents in the prettiest campground any of us had ever seen.
Savvy hikers packed only their lunch and water on the eight-mike trek, paying the tribe about $30 a pack to haul the rest of their gear to the campground by horseback. Rows of blue portable toilets sat at either edge of the valley, and were equipped with slings. We watched in amazement as a helicopter flew them in and out for cleaning.
Signs erected at strategic spots said "high ground" and marked the places to retreat to in case of a freak flash flood.
Again, we heard Mooney Falls long before we saw it. Named for a miner who fell to his death, the falls was nearly 220 feet high and thundered into a large pool. But the real fun was getting down to the water.
Where Navajo and Havasu were reached by easy walks, the route to the bottom of Mooney was a challenge. In the late 1800s, miners cut steps in the rock face, then chiseled out a pair of vertical tunnels with stairways. A chain railing guarded the alcove between the two tunnels to prevent a clumsy miner from making a fatal descent.
Below the last tunnel were more chains and steel pitons to cling to as you made your way down the cliff face. Adding to the difficulty, the wind was blowing the spray from the falls toward the cliff, leaving a slippery sheen on everything, including the moss-covered wood ladders at the bottom.
The climb was not for the faint of heart, and Dave, who had three new stents in his own heart, joined about a dozen of the German students who decided to enjoy the view from the top.
Those who made their way down were rewarded with a rope swing hung from a tree limb that deposited the willing into one of the deep, blue pools.
Dining at the cafe with the dogs again that night, Doug, the California dude, lamented that his lone T-shirt was wearing out its welcome. "Here's coffee from yesterday morning, purple juice from the fruit of a prickly pear cactus, red Mooney mud — and however many gallons of sweat it took to get down there," he said.
Don appraised his buddy's dinner attire.
"You're wearing our whole itinerary," he said.
The eight-mile hike to the top of the canyon, where our car was parked, was strenuous only in the last mile, which was a pulse-pounding climb up switchbacks. Three of us took the easy way out, paying $85 each for the one-way helicopter ride.
An Indian with a knit cap in yellow, green and black Jamaican colors hosed down the roads to control the dust before the helicopter landed in the town ballfield. The flight followed the trail, and we could see hikers and horse trains below.
This was not a scenic tour, and lasted five minutes or so. The copter skimmed the rim so close that we held our breath.
Only Don had decided to walk out, and left at 5 a.m. so he could be at the top when we arrived airborne around 10 a.m. "You'll probably be riding out in those port-a-potties," he said.
Don was heading toward the helicopter pad when we set down.
"It was awesome," he said. "The first 45 minutes, I was walking in the dark with my headlamp. The dogs were laying along the side of the road and I could see their eyes glowing. It was eerie.
"The last section was a killer. My calves are hurting and I've got something going on with my shoulder."
But his hair was perfect.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: From Las Vegas, head south on U.S. 93 to Kingman, Ariz., where you catch historic Route 66 to Peach Springs, Ariz. Seven miles east of Peach Springs is Route 18, which takes you 60 miles to the canyon rim at Hualapai Hilltop, where there is a large parking lot for your vehicle.
WHERE TO STAY: Hualapai Lodge (1-928-769-2230, www.grandcanyonresort.com) is a modern motel with a restaurant, operated by the Hualapai Tribe, in Peach Springs. The lodge charges $89.95 a night for two people, and can arrange tours of the Grand Canyon by hike, Hummer, raft, bus and helicopter. Havasupai Lodge (1-928-448-2111) is the only lodging in Supai, in the canyon. The lodge charges $125 a night for a double. There also is a one-time $20 permit fee to enter Havasu Canyon, where Supai is located. The camping fee is $10 per person, per night. For camping information, call 1-928-448-2121.
HORSES AND HELICOPTERS: The fee for entering the canyon by horse is $120, round trip. Riders must be no more than 250 pounds. For those who wish to hike without a pack, the cost for reserving pack mule service is $75 per animal, one way. Each mule is limited to carrying four campers' backpacks, with a total weight of 130 pounds. Airwest Helicopters (1-623-516-2790) offers flights from Hualapai Hilltop to Supai and back on certain days. Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters (1-800-528-2418) flies from Grand Canyon Airport to the village.
WHAT TO KNOW: Spring and fall are the best time to visit Havasu Canyon. Temperatures during the summer months can reach 110 degrees. The canyon also is prone to thunderstorms and flash floods during July and August. Liquor, drugs, weapons and pets are prohibited on the reservation. There is no water on the trail; plan to pack one gallon per person for the hike. The tribe's general store sells staple groceries, plus meats, fruits and vegetables some of the time, but goods are packed in by mule, so prices are double the norm.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.havasupaitribe.com.