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The Most Remote Town In America

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Every Christmas for the past 15 years, the children of the Havasupai reservation have waited for the familiar sound of Santa’s descent into their village. The sound isn’t of jingling sleigh bells and a hearty Ho Ho Ho, but rather the deep thrum of the tandem contra-rotating rotors powered by two GE T58 turboshaft engines. Supai Village, the home of the Havasupai tribe, is located on the bottom of Havasu Canyon, making it the only town in the world where Santa has to arrive on a United States Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter.

This airlift is part of the Toys for Tots program and is necessary because Supai Village is located in a tributary canyon on the south side of the Colorado River. It’s not all fun and games, as Santa’s squadron of choppers, usually used in assault support during battles, required 22 Reserve Marines and proved to be valuable training, as they had to navigate the tight canyon walls as they brought Santa and his cache of toys down to the tribe.

This past year was especially difficult for the Havasupai. For the second time in three years their village was effectively cut off from the rest of the world due to intense flooding. When you live at the bottom of a gorge accessible by one trail from the top of the canyon, receiving visitors and supplies is difficult enough. Beginning on Oct. 3, 2010, heavy rains flooded Cataract Creek on their reservation, causing three major water surges in the canyon. As a result, 143 tourists had to be evacuated and three packhorses got swept away in the flood. Homes, bridges, campgrounds and trails were damaged, most crucially that one trail leading into the village from the canyon rim above. The Havasupai were cut off from basic supplies, as well as, their biggest source of income, tourism. On Nov. 30, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer requested funding through the federal government’s Major Disaster Declaration for Public Assistance Program. The total estimated impact to the Havasupai infrastructure is $1.63 million. On Dec. 21, the government granted that request, marking the first time a state has received such aid in which the sole qualifying government is a sovereign tribal nation. Tribal officials can now count on the presence of FEMA, who will work them directing recovery efforts. The tribe became eligible because the monetary impact to its members, when measured per capita, exceeded FEMA guidelines.

Once the main trail into Supai is reopened, the village hardly becomes easily accessible. This is, after all, the only town in America where the mail is taken out by mules, and every parcel bears a special postmark noting this curious distinction. The reason Supai’s mail trucks have tails and manes is because no vehicle, save for a helicopter, can traverse the narrow trail leading down to the reservation. And helicopters are expensive and less reliable during windy weather conditions then the trusty offspring of a male donkey and female horse. So it’s all mules all the time, three hours each way through switchbacks, along steep, narrow paths, past cacti and thousands of years of geological marvels, and finally you reach the town’s front door—Havasu Creek—the liquid welcome mat to the gorge oasis called Supai. The Grand Canyon region has been home to the Havasupai Tribe for more than 1,000 years, and Supai Village’s surroundings are a place of such natural beauty that when nature cooperates, tens of thousands of visitors make the trek each year. Arriving in Supai via this mule-train mail trail gives just about every first-time visitor a new appreciation for the laughably low cost of stamps.

Supai is a destination for nature lovers, adventure travelers, hikers and swimmers. Supai is a place for vision questers, for spiritual seekers, for history buffs and people who appreciate and seek out different cultures. It is as wondrous as any foreign destination, only no passports are required, just money and endurance. Once you cross over Havasu Creek, you find yourself in a village like others you might have seen, only set in a canyon oasis that looks otherworldly.

Long before you can glimpse Havasu Creek, however, you have to get to the hilltop where the trailhead into the canyon begins. Accessible only by taking the old U.S. Route 66 through either Seligman or Kingman, Ariz., you have to link up with Indian Road 18 for around 60 miles. There is no lighting, very little signage, and even fewer reflective markers on the road, making it a challenge after dark. The road itself is a journey, coursing over high desert plateau and through ponderosa pine forests. The adventurous (or those with night-vision goggles) may travel at night so they can give themselves a shot at glimpsing the other inhabitants of this stretch of paved highway—mule deer and elk, coyotes and jackrabbits, and if you’re really lucky, bobcats. Once you reach mile 57 you begin your descent towards the Hualapai Hilltop through sandstone outcroppings and free-grazing horses. At mile 61 you reach the trailhead, where the real journey begins.

Supai demands that any would-be travelers think far in advance on their choice of approach. The first thing to consider is how you want to cover the roughly eight miles and 3,000 vertical feet between you and the town. If you plan on hiking, you certainly can’t do that at night, so most hikers will sleep in their cars, or stay in nearby Peach Springs and wait until sunrise. And we do mean “first light,” because summer heat in this part of the world, especially before you get within the cooler canyon walls, is hot enough to disorient you, and you don’t want to be hallucinating while walking within a few feet of sheer cliffs.

Call ahead and you can rent a saddle horse and/or a pack mule. The mules can carry up to 130 pounds, and a mule-train makes a descent once a day for visitors and their gear.

Finally, for about $85 each way, there’s Airwest helicopter service, which acts as both a cushy option for getting into the village and an emergency escape route should a traveler be too ill to make the trip back out.

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This is the price one must pay to enter Supai Village, in the depths of Havasu Canyon. This is a town with a general store, a church, a post office, a school, a café—a village like so many others you might find in the Midwest or New England—only all of the common, familiar comforts are located within red canyon walls, along the travertine formations of the hyper blue-green Havasu Creek, and continually bathed in the music of some of the most picturesque waterfalls on the planet. Camping, hiking, bird watching, swimming and communing with nature by just being within the canyon attract thousands every year. There are campgrounds for those wishing to sleep beneath the stars, or you can shack up at the Havasupai Lodge.

A traveler looking to venture to Supai Village armed with knowledge of the people, the terrain, and the best way to maximize his experience while minimizing his impact, won’t do better than Greg Witt’s 2010 guidebook Exploring Havasupai. The Havasupai are rebounding from a few tough monsoon seasons—a dam break and flooding in August 2008 closed Supai off from tourists for almost 10 months, and the most recent flooding has once again isolated the tribe more then they already are. Once Supai reopens, arriving with some knowledge of their people, their place in history, and tourist dollars will help these long-standing residents of the Grand Canyon rebound. That should be the goal for anyone who makes it down to Supai, a little known wonder of the world at the bottom of a much bigger and very well known one.

HISTORICAL SIDEBAR: The Havasupai (their name means “People of the blue-green water”) have lived in and around the Grand Canyon for more than 1,000 years and are inseparable from the human history of this stunning region. Even nearby tribes such as the Hopi identify the Havasupai by their link to the greater Grand Canyon area, including a revered Havasupai spirit as a protector of the canyon.

Ethnological and linguistic evidence indicates that the original Havasupai settlers in this region had migrated north from their earlier homes along the Gila and Lower Colorado rivers. Ethnically and linguistically a part of the Yuman people, the Havasupai started out in this area as a hunter-gatherer tribe along the uplands. This changed during a severe drought at the end of the 13th century when the tribe descended into the water-rich canyon bottoms. This became a new way of life, spending the winter at higher elevations and the heat of summer on the canyon floor for the better part of 600 years.

At one point their land was the size of Delaware, but the arrival of Europeans set into motion a long and grueling battle over rights. What made these battles exceptional compared to other land disputes between Native Americans and the Europeans and, eventually, United States government, was their area was universally recognized not only as a place of great beauty and interest, but also geologically rich with minerals. Decisions regarding their territories were addressed directly by presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Before 1882, the Havasupai roamed for a thousand years over 1.6 million acres of land, after 1882, they were reduced to only 518 acres at the bottom of Havasu Canyon, modern-day Supai Village. The tribe was forced to be become expert at congressional appeals, as they fought hard for just title and legal use of land that had been theirs for a millennia by appealing to Congress seven different times between 1908 and 1974.

Some exchanges between the Havasupai and elected officials took place far from the courts. One such infamous encounter took place when Teddy Roosevelt hiked down Bright Angel Trail along the south rim of the Canyon in 1903 and came across a Havasupai man named Yavñmi' Gswedva (Dangling Beard), and through an interpreter, told him that the federal government was intent on making a park for the American people on his land, and urged him to move. True to his promise, Roosevelt made the Grand Canyon a National Monument, and by 1919 the Grand Canyon became a National Park. All of this was on traditional Havasupai land.

This sounds like the makings of another tragedy, and for a while it looked like it was going to be just that. With their land diminished dramatically, the Havasupai’s morale and health, plummeted. Yet these are a resilient people, and just as they were relentless in their federal appeals they were equally determined to pull themselves back up to health and prosperity. They managed an incredible feat—maintaining vigorous legal appeals on top of maintaining their culture and way of life while simultaneously embracing the modern opportunities their idyllic land presented; they worked on farms, broke horses and served as employees of the Department of the Interior by rendering their expertise within Grand Canyon National Park. But in the middle of the 20th century the Havasupai made a strategic, economically brilliant move—they formed a tourism enterprise, using their remote, spectacular village to bring in a much-needed source of revenue. Tourism has become their main source of income; they average more than 20,000 visitors per year who pay for the privilege of experiencing their town. This tribe that had been historically open and friendly, and paid a dear price for that, had figured out a way to use their openness and their stunning laid to their benefit.

On Jan. 3, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a bill that gave the Havasupai a trust title to 185,000 acres, including an additional 95,000 acres that was open to them but overseen by the National Park Service. Today the Havasupai operate a thriving economy based on tourism dollars. Living within the canyon walls, however, means they must often deal with dramatic, sometimes devastating weather conditions. The recent flood of October 2010, which has temporarily closed Supai, paled in comparison to the monsoon in August 2008 (in which eight inches of rain fell in one night). The earthen Redlands Dam broke, forcing the evacuation of tourists and the 400 tourists and residents. The effect of the flood was apparent at the typically gorgeous Havasu Falls. This is the way waterfall normally looks, and this is how it looked after damage caused by the flood. Navajo Falls was destroyed in the flood, but Mother Nature gives as well as takes away. Today there are two new falls that were created as a result, unofficially referred to as Rock Falls and New Navajo Falls. The Tribal Council will soon officially name them, but probably not until they recover from the most recent flooding. At press time they were still working to clear the main trail into Supai and repair the damage done within the village.

The Havasupai are resilient, as they’ve proven throughout their long history in the canyon. Supai Village will be fixed, the long, eight-mile trail will be cleared, and the natural beauty will restore itself through the slow, but steady, machinations of Mother Nature and the hard work and determination of the Havasupai. The two forces have long worked in concert.