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  • Writer's pictureDon Stouder

Essay: Note to Self

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

My moment with the Havasupai.

In March of 1991, I signed up for a 6-day group excursion to the Grand Canyon sponsored by a student group from San Diego State University. It was to be a small group of eight, traveling by van from San Diego to Hualapai Hilltop, followed by a hike into the Havasupai Indian Reservation. Even though I was in my early thirties at the time, most of the other adventurers were much younger than me, mostly college age. Our plan was to stay five days, and then return the way we came.

The Havasupai Indian Reservation is surrounded entirely by the Grand Canyon National Park, and is thought to be one of America’s most remote Indian reservations. It is accessible only by foot, mule, or helicopter. Its capital is the small village of Supai, Arizona, and its Post Office is famous for being the only place in America where the mail is delivered by mule. I decided to send some postcards to myself so that I could collect the unique “Mule Train Mail” postmark. The cards were to be my journaling for the trip. Until I set out to write this essay, I hadn’t looked at those postcards in twenty-nine years.

Looking back, I realize now that this experience was my introduction to nature-based expressive arts therapy, which uses nature, mindfulness, and expressive arts modalities to help people find wellness mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I would use journaling and poetry writing on this trip to begin healing from several years of loss, anger, and activism resulting from the AIDS pandemic. Twenty-nine years later, as a chaplain and grief counselor, I find myself reflecting back on that time as I navigate, professionally and personally, through Covid-19.

What follows are the unedited journal entries that took up both sides of standard, blank USPS postcards. It seems I wrote them all in pencil, though I cannot fathom why. I hate writing with pencils.

Day One: The Ride

After a short period of loading the van, we were off, around 0830. The map deceives you; with stops in Barstow, Needles, and Kingman, the trip took all of twelve hours. The last sixty minutes were on an access road that basically dead-ends at Hualapai Hilltop, a long, narrow parking lot that wraps itself around the edge of a canyon wall. We arrived in the dark and with cold, stiff, gusty winds blowing; no snow or rain as predicted. We camped out on the ground next to the van.

Most of the trip I spent reading and getting to know those around me; several were from Europe. I also spent much more time than I thought staring out the back window of the van watching the road move away from me, as if all bad things were being left behind. Making another escape. It may not be healthy, but I do love that feeling. Equipment note: head must be out of Bivvy Bag or condensation will result. Took a very uncomfortable night to learn that lesson.

Day Two: The Hike

I was up most of the night, which was both good and bad. Bad because I needed the sleep; good because I could stare straight up at several billion stars. Quite a sight. Other than condensation, the Bivvy Sack did well, and I’m glad I bought the Therm-a-rest. I think I’ll buy stock in the company. As daybreak came, so did a clearer vision of where we were, nestled on a canyon wall overlooking our destination: The Havasupai Indian Reservation.

It was cold and windy when we started the 10+ mile hike, and I was again glad I brought Polarlite clothes and wind pants. The first 1.5 miles were a 2000’ vertical drop into the Grand Canyon courtesy of switchbacks. Most of our heavy clothing was shed at the bottom, where shorts and T-shirts took over. What a strange place for weather. My pack rode great even with an extra ten pounds, as I had decided to bring a tent and a rain suit one of the leaders offered me, which would later prove to be a stroke of brilliance.

Our lunch stop, after a flat 5 miles on the canyon floor, was Havasu Creek. Pretty clear and aqua waters, which my feet enjoyed. After lunch, another 2 miles into Supai Village, a place that time forgot. I’ll expand on this in my notebook, along with more equipment notes. After exploring the village and paying our fees, we walked three miles past Navajo and Havasupai Falls to get to our campsite, just ten feet or so from the top of Mooney Falls. I’ll let my pictures tell the story of these places, as my words would be inadequate.

Since leaving the village, the hiking became very difficult. It turned out that I had let myself become really, really dehydrated by hike’s end. About 3 pints of ERG had me thinking straight again. The rest of the day was spent recovering, cooking, setting up, and limited exploring. When sundown came I slept like a baby. Woke up achy and still dehydrated, cured by stretching and more ERG. (Author’s note: the pictures and notebooks described were all lost to time and various moves. Only the postcards survived.)

Day Three: The Wind

After a great night’s sleep, this would turn out to be the best day of the trip. Its only drawback were constant gusty winds, and with the loose sand-like clay red dirt the stuff was in everything. NOT good contact lense weather, but I sure was glad to have good wind protection from the rain suit. I decided to go off on my own and hike down-canyon toward the Colorado River. This involved climbing down Mooney falls, a 500’ drop through caves and wet rocks with the threat of falling kept at bay only by holding onto badly-spaced, cold, wet steel chain driven into the rock with huge spikes. Kind of scary but fun, too.

The falls are spectacular from the bottom, and the lush green vegetation and turquoise pools down-canyon were breathtaking. Being there, all alone, was so wonderfully peaceful. I could feel the burdens I carried invisibly wash through me, and gently join the rest of the water on its downstream journey. After a few hours, I climbed back up the falls, then a short rest. I joined the rest of the group in a trip to Havasupai Falls, a much easier one-mile stroll to the other side of the campground. I hiked around a bit and explored a side canyon with its caves and pretty rocks. Back to camp, dinner, then bed. Then the rains came. I stayed dry, but many areas of the tent became mini bathtubs. I resolved to leave the tent in the campground dumpster.

Day Four: The Rain

Woke up to constant rainfall. Bathtub Effect under my Therm-a-rest, but it kept me totally dry. Some parts of my pack soaked (including my wallet) but not too bad. Got all my stuff together in my pack for protection, slipped into the rain suit (while audibly thanking god for bringing it) and went outside with stove and breakfast. Stove was next to worthless in this weather, I ended up boiling my water for tea and oatmeal in the tent.

Afterward, I decided a hike into the village might be nice. I had forgotten how long and uphill the hike was; I remembered little of it after my dehydrated state on the hike in. I felt much better seeing the end of that three miles. After walking into the deserted café, taking off my rain suit, Polarlite top and bottom, mud soaked sneakers and socks, and briefly using an actual bathroom, I was in heaven.

Following food and three cups of coffee, I started writing these postcards, and here I am. It’s still raining, and the word from the Mule Packers is 6” of snow up on the rim with more to come. I have since been joined by other members of our little group; seems we all wanted to be warm and indoors today. When I’m done with this card I will put them all in the mail (except one I am holding back for later) and hope they make it home with the famous Mule Train Mail postmark. Then I will head back to our camp and find a cave to stay dry in; I think I saw one in the canyon wall just above our campsite. One thing’s for sure; the peace of this café is gone courtesy of a boy scout troop. I’m outta here.

Day Four Continued: The Cave

After dispatching my last set of postcards, one of our leaders and I set back for our campsite, three miles away (I will have walked, for no good reason other than errands, some 8 miles by the time this day is over). The rain has let up a little, and it was nice to get out of wet sneakers and socks and into nice dry boots. There was some talk of evacuation of the campground as the river beside us widened, but the rain finally stopped and we decided to stay put. Still, the entire area is famous for flash flooding, so I was thinking about alternatives. I had already eyed a small cave about 75’ above our campsite in the canyon wall, and I decided to give it a look.

After dinner, I grabbed my stuff and mountain-goated my way up to the cave. It was small for sure, but it had a perfect spot to bed down, and a small inset in the rock near the entrance made for a perfect fireplace. There was a small amount of firewood left there, no doubt by one of the Havasupai, and as I watched the fire slowly burning into the night I thought of the other fires that were burned here across the ages, and of the people who took shelter here. Whatever sadness or depression or just plain bad energy I started this trip with, I think it has all just left my body to join with whatever other spirits of Original Peoples inhabit this place. And as I finish writing this final card and drift off to sleep, I will listen for their voices.

That was all I wrote on those postcards. The next day, we hiked back up to the canyon rim and camped the night, leaving the next morning for familiar highways, and for home.

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