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!

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