Sunday, May 11, 2008

Life Is Grand

Last week we took a trip with Pia to Havasu Canyon, a less-traveled section of the Grand Canyon and home to four beautiful blue-green waterfalls. It’s located on the Havasupai Native Reservation in the heart of the Grand Canyon, and the village can only be reached by foot or by horse (or, if you are feeling lazy, by helicopter). Visitors can stay the night at the sole lodge in the reservation or camp at the camp sites.

It’s been just over a week since we arrived at home, so we are fully rested, our muscles have recovered, and we’ve caught our breath enough that we can finally blog about our adventures.

The night before our hike, we stayed in Peach Springs, Arizona, the closest town to the head of the Havasu Canyon trail. Peach Springs is so small that it doesn’t have its own grocery store or gas station, so remote that we couldn’t get cell phone reception. The morning of the hike, we were up before the sun and drove to the trailhead without any difficulties (though Pearl almost drove head-on to into a deer standing in the middle of the road). As the sun rose over the desert we noticed that we weren’t as alone on the road as we had thought: all along the road on both side were many bulls, deer and giant, overgrown rabbits (think Harvey).

When we arrived at Hualapai Hilltop, we were surprised to discover that the parking lot was full at six in the morning. We hadn’t seen a single car on the road for the entire ninety minute drive to the trailhead. As we parked our car, we noticed two hikers, stretching and checking the straps on their camping packs. We quickly got ready and followed their lead because they looked like “expert” hikers with their “expert” camping gear and “expert” hiking outfits. Compared to them, we looked like the misfits group in a bad eighties movies (Chris was dressed in an argyle sweater, Pia’s shoes were falling apart, and Pearl was dressed as if she was on her way to an aerobics class). Unfortunately, we lost the “experts” when Pia and Pearl were using the disgusting Port-a-potties at the top of the trail (last toilet for ten miles!), so we started our trek on our own and hoped for the best. Just ten minutes into the hike, we met a man on his way up to the parking lot. Two hours later we passed another group of hikers on their way up who reported that they had left the camp at 3:45am, which meant that the first hiker must have started his hike up at about 2 in the morning!

The first 1.5 miles of the hike descends down steep switchbacks (elevation drop of 2000 ft). It was a fairly easy climb down the canyon, though we anticipated that the climb back up would be an entirely different story. Thereafter, the trail winds through the canyon for 6.5 miles (with a drop of another 1000 ft) to the village of Supai. It was a beautiful, mostly-isolated trail, surrounded by vivid red rocks, red sands, and red boulders. It seemed as if we walked into an Indiana Jones movie set, so seemingly similar to the backdrop of Petra in The Last Crusade. The only thing that took away from the beautiful scenery was our heavy packs. We stopped every so often to exchange packs and rest our backs (we were carrying a camping pack for the tent, a rucksack full of water and food and a makeshift sleeping bag carrier which proved to be awkward to carry from the start). Six miles into the hike, we had enough of the heavy weight on our backs and decided to hire mules to bring our gear up the canyon the next day. The hike down was difficult enough that we couldn’t imagine carrying our stuff up 3,000 feet. Pearl was even willing to leave our gear behind if we couldn’t hire mules!

We saw very few hikers heading down into the canyon but dozens, perhaps hundreds heading back up. This explained why the parking lot was so full. Unknowingly, we chose the day for the hike perfectly; all the weekend hikers/campers were clearing out just in time for our arrival, such that when we arrived at the falls that morning, we found it quiet and relaxing.

About 1.5 miles from the village, we came to the running waters of Havasu Creek and knew that we were close. At this point, we’d been hiking for close to four hours, completely exhausted and hungry. We practically ran the rest of the way to Supai, and turning the last corner before the village, we saw, to our surprise, the “expert” hikers from the parking lot four hours earlier. We sped up, overtaking them just before reaching the village, proving, well, nothing at all. Still, we were pretty proud of ourselves - who are the expert hikers now? J

It was a relief to see the village. Supai is an isolated provincial village with a lodge, a café, a general store, a school, a church, and a campsite. It reminded Pearl and Pia of the provincial towns in the Philippines. Supai is the only village in the country that still gets its mail delivered by mule.

We tried to have brunch at the café, but they were low on ingredients: the non-meat platter consisted of eggs, hash-browns and toast, without the hash-browns and toast; the breakfast burritos were served by spoon as they were out of tortillas. We had better luck buying tiny jars of strawberry jelly and peanut butter at the store across the café, which ended up providing our lunch and dinner during the trip.

We set out for our campsite, located two miles beyond the village, and passed the Navajo Falls. The 75-ft high waterfall was beautiful but it was no comparison to the Havasu Falls located about 5 minutes from the campsite. The Havasu waterfall drops 100-ft into sparkling blue-green waters (Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters”) and looked like nothing any of us had seen with our own eyes. The water was freezing but swimming near the falls was a magical experience. Shortly after wading into the waters, Pearl was nearly dragged by its strong currents, though Chris was there to save her from floating away. She did drop the water-proof camera she was holding, and with it all of the photos we’d taken of the Falls. We were swimming about in the pools for about five minutes when Pia shouted “Look!” and we turned to see the camera drifting lazily back to us on a reverse current.

After the swim, we returned to our campsite, and Pia and Chris pitched our tent perfectly while Pearl made the best peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches we’ve ever tasted. By 3pm, we were utterly exhausted and all we wanted to do was go to bed. We forced ourselves to stay up by playing cards, had dinner (PB&J again) and by 6pm, with the sun still shining and the birds still chirping, we were in our sleeping bags fast asleep.

We woke up at 4:30am, packed up our tent and gear in the dark, left two of our packs at the mule-train drop-off, and began our trek back to Hualapai Hilltop just after 5am. We were fully rested from our 10-hour sleep that we started off at a great pace, extremely excited that we didn’t have to hike up with our packs. We watched the Grand Canyon expanse wake up with the morning sun, a magical experience for we were the only ones hiking at that hour and didn’t see anyone else heading the opposite direction until 7:30am. It was extraordinary to watch the texture of the rocks change depending on the location of the sun in the sky.

By the time we reached the last 1.5 miles of the hike – the steep switchbacks UP the canyon, Pearl felt like she was walking in place. The top never seemed to get any closer. It felt to us that we were hiking the last 1.5 miles for as long as the other 8.5 miles took. When we finally caught our first glimpse of the trailhead, we celebrated with a round of fist pumps and water. When we reached the top, we were shocked to discover that we finished the climb up in less than four hours…most guide books estimate this climb to take between 8-10 hours (though time estimated is with packs).

Our packs didn’t arrive for another two hours but we calculated that we wouldn’t even be nearing the top had we carried up our gear. As we waddled over to collect our packs, we noticed that everyone around us was walking like tired and sore penguins as well.

It took us another three hours to drive to Lake Havasu City, where we quickly showered and jumped into the hot tub to heal our bodies. We spent the next two days relaxing in the pool and the tub, stretching every muscle group while sipping on frozen margaritas, celebrating our wondrous feat. Next up: Sedona, AZ!

Sedona, AZ

The drive into Sedona along Route 89A was a multi-color spectacle, the bright blue skies contrasting with the red-rock buttes, both colors even more intensified by the surrounding dark green forests. There was a sense of balance and peacefulness in the air, not surprising since Sedona is well known for its pockets of energy centers, called vortexes, that some believe enhance peace and creativity (though others believe the vortexes are burial grounds for alien spaceships).

Unfortunately, once we got to Sedona proper, we found that the tourism trade had taken over the town, ruining the peace that we felt on the drive up. The influx of restaurants, stores and galleries driven by the tourist industry coupled with the tiresome traffic jams left a bad taste in our mouths. It is easy to see why so many people have a love/hate relationship with Sedona because we were immediately drawn to the natural beauty but repulsed by the commercialism. We were excited to check out the work of the local artists and artisans but sadly all we found were shops that specialize in cheap Southwestern gifts that had little to do with art and a lot to do with overpriced and tacky knick knacks.

We couldn’t run away fast enough from Sedona proper and head back to nature! Thankfully, we made plans to camp at Sedona rather than stay at a hotel. We were lucky to have gotten the last spot at Manzanita campsite, a small but clean site with only 18 campsites. Each site has a fire pit, a grill, a picnic table, and room for a tent, all situated along a bubbly creek. We pitched in minutes (as if we’d been doing it for years!) and left our stuff to check out some of the famous Sedona vortexes.

Our first stop was Bell Rock butte, which is called so for its supposed bell shape. We walked around the butte on a path that heads directly to its base. Indeed, there was a powerful sensation of peace and balance in the air that surrounds the butte. Presumably, this is why people call it a balanced vortex (some say it is the synergy of the feminine, the masculine, and the balanced energy). Certainly, there was something remarkably serene about Bell Rock. We stopped at Cathedral Rock butte next, and we concurred that it looked like a church surrounded by towering spires made of red earth. This vortex is made up of the feminine energy. It was beautiful for sure, but the air here didn’t seem as magical as it was at Bell Rock.

As it was getting late, we decided to head back to our camp site for some dinner and s’mores. The kind campsite host taught us how to light a campfire using pine cones as kindling, and we were able to eat dinner under the stars in the warmth of a fire. It was so fun making s’mores over a campfire, just like in the movies. We spent the rest of the night huddled around the fire, looking up at the stars, loving the peacefulness of our immediate surroundings and the expansiveness of the heavens.

The campsite host warned us that unlike in Grand Canyon, the temperature might drop to below freezing by midnight and to prepare ourselves for a cold night. So we got bundled up, reluctantly left the warmth of the fire and climbed into our tent. The host was right: the overnight temperature dropped into the 20s. When we got up at six the next morning, we could still see our breath on the air. We hoped that the sun would come out soon for our hike up Bear Mountain.

We had read about Bear Mountain in our travel guide book, which called the hike “strenuous” and marked it with a big W for “wilderness.” Cocky from our “expert hiking” of Grand Canyon, we thought we were well equipped for it. With our compass, water and snacks in tow, we started the drive to the head of the trail. Finding the trailhead proved more difficult than we anticipated because it was not clearly marked; this should have clued us in on how “expert” this hike would turn out, but we naively started our hike into the wilderness despite the lack of markings. About two minutes into the hike, we soon realized that the W really meant wilderness…there was no trail for us to follow – no markings, no cairns, no nothing! We kept walking in the hope that we would come across a trail that would lead to the mountain but after ten more minutes of walking aimlessly around, we were forced to admit that we had no idea where we were going. We couldn’t see the mountain or anything to indicate in which direction the mountain lay. So we laughed and decided that perhaps this was too advanced for us so we slowly traced our way back to the car thinking that we’d do an easier hike somewhere else this time around. As we began to walk back to the car, we quickly realized that we had no idea where our car was parked – everything looked the same! We wandered around for about fifteen minutes getting more and more lost. As Pearl freaked out, Pia turned the compass around in circles trying to figure out how to use it and Chris bent down to look for signs of foot prints from previous hikers (he was using his ranger skills to get us home). He found some horseshoe prints and we followed these for a while before just deciding to just head “that way.” Luckily, we found the road and followed it a half mile until we reached the car again. Guess it was the universe humbling us from being so cocky about our expertise.

That pretty much ended our trip to Sedona – we thought about doing another hike, but when it came down to it, we decided that we’d rather spend the rest of the day lying in the sun. On the drive back to Lake Havasu, we all decided that with a little training and a lot of friends we could one day climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Who’s with us?