Packhorse Paradise

VOLUME 180

NUMBER 3

SEPTEMBER, 1947

90th YEAR OF CONTINUOUS PUBLICATION

by WALLACE STEGNER

ONE of the special pleasures about a back road in the West is (hat it sometimes ends dead against a wonderful and relatively unvisited wilderness. The road from Grand Canyon to Topacoba Hilltop ends dead against a ramshackle shed and a gate that closes the bottom of the gulch. The whole place looks less like a hilltop than anything we can imagine, but our Indian guide is there, along with a half-dozen other Indians, cooking beans over an open fire. He waves his hands, white with flour, and says we shall be ready to go in thirty minutes.

Eating a lunch of oranges and cookies and a thermos of milk, we look out from the end of the gulch to the outer rim of a larger and much deeper canyon — possibly the Grand Canyon itself, possibly some tributary or bay. The heat is intense, and light glares from the rock faces and talus slopes. Ahead of us is a fourteen-mile ride into Havasu Canyon, the deep-sunk, cliff-walled sanctuary of the Havasupai Indians.

At twelve-thirty the white-handed Indian, a boy of about eighteen, leads up a skinny packhorse and loads on our sleeping bags, tarps, cooking gear, and the small amount of food we are taking for a threeday trip. He is handy at his diamond hitch, but uncommunicative; his hair grows down over his forehead and he wears big blunt spurs. The horses he brings up look to us like dwarfs, unable to carry our weight, but they do not sag when we climb on. My saddle is too small, and the stirrups won’t lengthen to within six inches of where I want them; I console myself with the reflection that if I did put them down where they belong they would drag on the ground, the horse is so small.

For a quarter mile we circle the shoulder of a hill, and then, turning the corner, Mary looks back at me as if she can’t believe what she has seen. Below us the trail drops in an endless series of switchbacks down an all but vertical cliff. And this is no cleared path, no neat ledge trail built by the Park Service. This trail is specially created for breaking necks. It is full of loose, rolling rocks, boulders as big as water buckets, steep pitches of bare stone, broken corners where the edge has fallen away.

Our guide, whose name turns out to be Hardy Jones, starts down casually, leading the packhorse, and we follow with our seats uneasy in the saddle, ready to leap to safety when the horse slips. We have ridden trail horses and mules before, but never on a trail like this. But it takes us less than a half hour to relax, and to realize that our horses have neither stumbled nor slipped nor hesitated. They know all the time where all their feet are. At bad places, with a thousand-foot drop under them, they calmly gather themselves and jump from foothold to foothold like goats.

Copyright 1947, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

As we descend, we learn too how these stunted horses got this way. Far up on the canyon walls, among house-sized boulders and broken rockslides, we see wild horses grazing as contentedly as if they were up to their knees in bluegrass in a level pasture. A half dozen of them are in absolutely impossible places, places where no horse could get. But there they are. And there are signs too that sure-footedness is not innate: two thirds of the way down we pass a week-old colt dead by the side of the trail at the bottom of a fifty-foot drop. I ask Hardy what happened. “He fall down,” Hardy says.

Ahead of us, in the bottom of a wade sandy wash, a wriggly canyon head begins to sink into the red rock. As soon as we enter this deepening ditch, Hardy turns the packhorse loose up ahead to set the pace. He himself dismounts and lies down in the shade with his hat over his eyes. After a half hour he catches and passes us, and after another fifteen minutes we pass him again, snoozing in the shade. I suspect him of all sorts of things, including nursing a bottle on the sly, but I finally conclude I am wronging him. He is simply sleepy. On occasion his yawns can be heard a half mile.

Once or twice he rides up close and starts a conversation. We discover that he is a good roper, and later in the month will ride to Flagstaff to compete in a rodeo. He has three good rope horses of his own, and he has finished the sixth grade in the Havasupai school. I ask him what he’ll take for the pony he is riding, a sightly, tiny-footed, ladylike little mare, and he tells me, I am sure inaccurately, fifteen dollars. Then he asks me what I had to pay for the camera slung around my neck, and when I tell him, he looks incredulous and rides on ahead to take another sleep.

The canyon cuts deeper into rock the color of chocolate ice cream. At times the channel is scoured clean, and we ride over the bare cross-bedded stone. The Grand Canyon Suite inevitably suggests itself, and we are struck by the quality of the sound produced by hoofs on sandstone. It is in no sense a clashing or clicking sound, but is light, clear, musical, rather brittle, as if the rock were hollow.

The packhorse leads us deeper into the rock, going at a long careful stride down hewn rock stairs, snaking along a strip of ledge, squeezing under an overhang. It is an interminable, hot, baking canyon, but there are aromatic smells from weeds and shrubs. None of the varieties of trees we meet are known to us. One is a small tree like a willow, with trumpet-shaped lavender flowers, another a variety of locust covered with fuzzy yellow catkins. Still another, a formidable one to brush against, is gray-

leafed, with dark-blue berries and thorns three inches long. I pick a berry and ask Hardy what it is. “No eat,” he says.

2

FOR three hours we see nothing living except lizards and the occasional wild horses grazing like impossible Side-hill Gazinks on the walls. Then around a turn comes a wild whoop, and a young horse bursts into view, galloping up the bouldery creek bed past us. After him comes an Indian boy swinging a rope, and they vanish with a rush and a clatter up a slope that we have just picked our way down at a careful walk. In ten minutes the new Indian and Hardy come up behind us leading the colt, which has a foot-long cut across its chest as if from barbed wire, and which leaves bloody spots on the trail every time it puts its feet down.

Hardy is pleased at the neatness with which he roped the colt as it tried to burst past him. He breaks into a wild little humming chant, accented by grunts and “hah’s,” a jerky and exclamatory song like the chant of a Navajo squaw dance. As we ride he practices roping the hind feet of the horse ahead of him. After a while we are somewhat astonished to hear him singing with considerable feeling, “Oh, why did I give her that diamond?”

Now on a high rock we see a painted sign, “Supai.” A handful of Indian kids whose horses are tied below sit on the top of the rock and wave and yell. We shift our sore haunches in the saddle and wonder how fourteen miles can be so long. At every turn the tight, enclosed canyon stirs with a breath of freshness, and we look ahead hopefully, but each time the walls close in around a new turn. A canyon comes in from the left, and a little brackish water with it, and there are cottonwoods of a cool and tender green, and willows head-high to a man on a stunted horse. There is a smell, too, sharp and tantalizing, like witch hazel, that comes with the cooler air as we make a right-hand turn between vertical walls.

Then suddenly, swift and quiet and almost stealthy, running a strange milky blue over pebbles like gray jade, Havasu Creek comes out of nowhere across the trail, a stream thirty feet wide and kneedeep. After more than four hours in the baking canyon, it is the most beautiful water we have ever seen; even without the drouthy preparation it would be beautiful. The horses, which have traveled twenty-eight miles today over the worst kind of going, wade into the stream and stand blowing and drinking, pushing the swift water with their noses. The roped colt tries to break away, and for a moment there is a marvelous picture at the ford, the white-toothed laughter of the Indian boys, the horses plunging, the sun coming like a spotlight across the rim and through the trees to light the momentary action in the gray stream between the banks of damp red earth.

That wonderful creek, colored with lime, the pebbles of its bed and even the weeds at its margins coated with gray travertine, is our introduction to Supai. After five minutes we come out above the village and look down upon the green oasis sunk among its cliffs. There are little houses scattered along a mile or so of bottom land, and at the lower end a schoolhouse under big cottonwoods. Men are irrigating fields of corn and squash as we pass, and fig trees are dark and rich at the trailside. At the edge of the village a bunch of men are gambling under a bower of cottonwood branches, and two kids, fooling away the afternoon, gallop their horses in a race down the trail ahead of us.

Both of us have from the beginning had the feeling that we shall probably be disappointed in Havasupai when we reach it. We have been deceived by the superlatives of travelers before, and we have seen how photographs can be made to lie. But this is sure enough the Shangri-la everyone has said it is, this is the valley of Kubla Khan, here is Alph the sacred river, and here are the gardens bright with sinuous rills where blossoms many an incensebearing tree.

When we mount stiffly again and ride on after registering with Mrs. Guthrie, the wife of the Indian subagent, we pass little cabins of stone and logs, orchards of fig and cherry and peach, hurrying little runnels of bright water, a swinging panorama of redchocolate walls with the tan rimrock sharp and high beyond them. Havasu Canyon is flat-floored, and descends by a series of terraces. We camp below the first of these, within fifty feet of where Havasu Creek pours over a fifty-foot ledge into a pool fringed with cress and ferns.

The terrace above our camp site is full of what I take at first to be the twisted roots of dead fig trees, but what turn out to be rootlike lime deposits left by the stream, which used to fall over the ledge here. Probably they were originally grasses and water plants on which the mineral deposit formed a sheath; now they writhe through the terrace, fantastically interwound, some of them six inches in diameter. In the center of each is a round hole, as if a worm had lived there. In these holes and in the rooty crevices is lizard heaven. Geckos and long-tailed Uta lizards flash and dart underfoot by hundreds, as harmless as butterflies.

The same kinds of deposits are being formed under the pouring water of the falls; the whole cliff drips with them. And all down the creek the water has formed semicircular terraces like those at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. Each terrace forms a natural weir, and behind each weir the water backs up deep and blue, making clear swimming pools eight to ten feet deep and many yards across. No creek was ever so perfectly formed for the pleasure of tourists. We swim twice before we even eat.

When we crawl into our sleeping bags at dusk, the bats and swallows fill the air above us, flying higher than I have ever seen bats and swallows fly before. It is a moment before I realize that they are flying at the level of the inner canyon walls, catching insects at what seems from the valley floor to be substratospheric heights. For a while we wonder how bats fly so efficiently and dart and shift so sharply without any adequate rudder, but that speculation dwindles off into sleep. Above us the sky is clouded, and in the night, when my face is peppered by a spatter of rain, I awake to see the moon blurry above the rim. For a moment I think a real storm is coming on, until I realize that the noise I hear is Havasu Creek pouring over Navajo Falls and rushing on down through its curving terraces. It is for some reason a wonderful thought that here in paradise the water even after dark is blue.

3

BELOW our camp a quarter of a mile, past a field half overgrown with apparently wild squash vines and the dark green datura, the Western Jimson weed, with its great white trumpet-flowers, Havasu Creek takes a second fall. Apart from its name, Bridal Veil, it is more than satisfactory, for it spreads wide along the ledge and falls in four or five streamers down a hundred-foot cliff clothed in exotic hanging plants and curtains of travertine. The cliff is green and gray and orange, the pool below pure cobalt, and below the pool the creek gathers itself in terraces bordered with green cress.

A little below the fall a teetery suspension footbridge hangs over a deep green pool, dammed by a terrace so smooth that the water pours over it in a shining sheet like milky blue glass. And down another half mile, after a succession of pools each of which leaves us more incredulous, the stream leaps in an arching curve over Mooney Falls, the highest of the three. At its foot are the same tall cottonwoods with dusty red bark, the same emerald basin, the same terraced pools flowing away, and below the pools is another suspension footbridge on which we sit to eat lunch and converse with a friendly tree toad.

It is a long way to the mouth of the canyon, where Havasu Creek falls into the Colorado in the lower end of Grand Canyon. We stop at the abandoned lead and copper mine below Mooney Falls, where we ponder the strength of the compulsion that would drive men to bring heavy machinery piecemeal down into this pocket on the backs of horses, set it up under incredible difficulties, construct an elaborate water system and a cluster of houses and sheds, bore into the solid cliffs for ore, and then tote the ore back out miles to some road where trucks could get it. The very thought gives us packhorse feet, and we make our way back to camp, yielding to temptation at every pool on the creek until we have a feeling that our skins are beginning to harden with a thin sheath of lime. After a day, we are beginning to realize how truly paradisiac the home of the Havasupai is.

There are in the West canyons as colorful and as beautiful as Havasu, with walls as steep and as high, with floors as verdantly fertile. There are canyons more spectacularly narrow and more spectacularly carved. But I know of none, except possibly Oak Creek Canyon south of Flagstaff, which has such bewitching water. In this country the mere presence of water, even water impregnated with red mud, is much. But water in such lavish shining clear streams, water so extravagantly colorful, water which forms such terraces and pools, water which all along its course nourishes plants that give off that mysterious wonderful smell like witch hazel, water which obliges by forming three falls, each more beautiful than the last, is more than one has a right to expect.

4

“YET even Shangri-la has its imperfections, the snake lives even in Eden. As we are working back from the canyon walls, where we have been inspecting a small cliff dwelling, we hear the barking of dogs. Below us is a field surrounded by fruit trees, and in the middle of the field, staked out in a line, we find four miserable starving mongrels. Each is tied by a length of chain to a post; at the top of each post is a bundle of branches loosely tied on to give a little shade. Around the neck of each dog is a collar of baling wire wrapped with rags, and near each a canful of muddied water is sunk in the sand. Yelps and whines grow frantic as we cross the field, and out of the bushes at the far end comes a staggering skeleton with a drooping tail. In the brush from which she emerged we find four squirming puppies.

The job of these dogs is obviously to serve as scarecrows, and they are obviously completely expendable. Clearly they have not been fed for days, and none of them can live beyond a day or two more.

The usual Indian callousness toward animals is not unknown to us, and we are willing in theory to accept that cultural difference without blaming the Indians. Perhaps this Indian thought it a good idea to get rid of some of his excess dogs, and at the same time protect his fruit. But our passing through the field has stirred the miserable animals into hopefulness. The tottering skeleton of a mother dog, dragging her dry teats, tries to follow us to camp; the others howl and whine and bark until we feel like running.

Our own food is meager, since we underestimated our appetites when we packed the grub bag, and there is nothing to be bought in the canyon. All we have left to serve us for our last two meals is a can of grapefruit juice, two oranges, a can of lamb stew, four slices of bacon, six slices of bread, and a handful of chocolate bars. The oranges and the grapefruit juice will be of no use to the dogs. Chocolate might make their starving stomachs sicker. The bread and bacon and lamb stew are slim pickings for ourselves.

After a half hour of trying not to hear the howling, I go back and clean out all the water cans, refilling them from the irrigation ditch. None of the dogs is interested in the nice clean water. They are all howling louder than ever when Mary and I start a fire and heat the lamb stew, butter half the bread, lay out the oranges and the chocolate bars for dessert. They howl so loud we can’t eat; the stew is gravel in our mouths. We end by spreading two slices of bread with all our remaining butter and taking those and half the stew over to the field. What we bring is a pitiful mouthful apiece, gone so quickly that we wince. Hope has leaped so high in the starving mongrels now that Mary gets three chocolate bars and distributes them. Aware that we are absurd, that our humanitarianism is stupid and perhaps immoral, granting that the dogs have to starve to death day after tomorrow anyway, we carefully divide the meal according to size of dog, and give the skeleton mother a double dose of chocolate.

Then we go home and swim and crawl into our bags, but the dismal howling goes on after dark. It has dwindled off to an occasional sick whimpering by the time we get to sleep, and we have wondered seriously if we should not rather have knocked all nine dogs on the head and paid their owner a suitable fee for the loss of his scarecrows. James Russell Lowell to the contrary notwithstanding, it is a wretched thing either to give or to share when you haven’t enough to do any good.

To heighten our disenchantment, we are both bitten during the night by the bloodsucking beetles known locally as Hualpai Tigers, which leave an oozing inflammation about twenty times as irritating as a flea or chigger bite. Next time we come down here we will come with a supply of roach powder.

Not an absolutely idyllic paradise, despite its seclusion and peace and its shining blue water. We see other things when we mount Hardy’s horses the next morning and start on our way out. Looking with less eager and more critical eyes, we see girls and women and old men lying on couches in the sun outside the little stone and log cabins. Tuberculosis. We notice among the Supai what Dickens noticed among all Americans a hundred years ago —• the habit of spitting all the time and everywhere, even into the creek — and we are glad we dipped our drinking water from a spring. We learn from Mrs. Guthrie that the tribe is less numerous than it used to be, and that it barely holds its own now at about two hundred. A year ago a dysentery epidemic carried off more than half the young children in the village, and measles has been deadly among them.

We learn too that some of the young men, especially those few who served in the armed forces, are restless in the static life of the canyon, and want to get out. We see signs of change in the tractor that the Guthries have had packed in, a piece at a time, and which the Indians can rent for a small fee. We hear speculation about the possibilities of an automobile road into Havasu, and of a guest lodge to be owned by the Indians and run by them and for them, with Indian Service assistance. We hear of the need of increasing the income of the tribe, and of the benefit that increased tourist travel might bring. Out at the fence we hear Hardy Jones, sitting and swinging his big spurs far under the belly of his little mare, singing “Oh, why did I give her that diamond?” which he has laboriously and inaccurately transcribed from the radio onto a piece of cardboard.

The problem of what is best for Havasu — the place and the people — is curiously complex and difficult. If one looks at it purely from the standpoint of conserving natural scenery, the conclusion is inevitable that an automobile road and a guest lodge would spoil a spot that is almost unbelievably beautiful, clutter it with too many people, bring the regulation and regimentation that are necessary when crowds come to any scenic area. Fifty people at one time in Havasu would be all the canyon could stand. The present two hundred visitors a year leave no real mark, but five times that many would. If the conservation of the canyon’s charm is the principal end — and this is the view of the National Park Service, which does have a voice in the matter since the Havasu reservation lies within the Grand Canyon National Park — the canyon should be left primitive, a packhorse paradise.

5

WHAT of the people, the two hundred Havasupai? Those who work with them and see the need for medical care and education and guidance know how difficult it is to bring the tribe even these minimal things under present conditions. Communication is by packhorse and telephone; the mail comes in twice a week, and supplies the same way, on the backs of horses. Though there is a school, Mrs. Guthrie is teaching everyone in it, both primary and advanced pupils, because it is impossible to get another teacher. It is equally impossible to find and keep a doctor and a nurse; when the dysentery swept the canyon there was little anyone could do but bury the dead; when the Guthries’ own son fell ill last winter he had to be taken out to a doctor by horse litter.

Though at the bare subsistence level the canyon can be nearly self-sufficient, there are considerable and growing needs induced by contact with civilization. There are clothes — because the Havasupai no longer wear the garments of beautifully dressed white deerskin that they used to wear. They wear boots and levis and shirts and Stetson hats. They like sugar, candy, coffee, radios, dozens of things that take cash; and cash they can now obtain only from two sources: sale of horses or cattle to the outside, or charges at ten dollars a head for packing in tourists. The Guthries are inclined to feel that if the flow of tourists could be increased, and if accommodations could be created for them, the standard of living and health and education of the whole tiny tribe could be raised considerably.

There is no doubt about the truth of that opinion. The canyon could be made a commercial “good thing” with a little promotion, and if the enterprise were carefully watched, the Indians could get the whole benefit. But there is something to be said against this proposal, too. We are morally troubled as we talk about it, for how sure can we be that the loose and indefinable thing called “well-being” will necessarily be promoted by greater prosperity, better education, even better health, when these things may bring with them the dilution or destruction of the safe traditional cultural pattern? Is it better to be well fed, well housed, well educated, and spiritually (which is to say culturally) lost; or is it better to be secure in a pattern of life where decisions and actions are guided by many generations of tradition?

There is a kind of threat that one feels in this paradise. The little tribe with its static life may be at the edge of stagnation, of fatalistic apathy, as some villages of the Hopi are reported to be; it barely holds its own, the dynamics of its life reduced to the simple repetition of a simple routine, its needs few and its speculations uncomplicated. It is easy for that kind of equilibrium to be broken, for that kind of society to be utterly confounded and destroyed by contact with the civilization of white America. It takes intelligence, and patience, and great strength of character, and a long period of time, for any people safely to cross a cultural boundary as these Indians must. Perhaps doubling or trebling the number of tourists in Havasu Canyon each year would not materially increase the danger to the Havasupai. But build a road in, let the gates down on the curious and careless thousands, and the whole tribe would be swept away as the last big flood washed away the orchards of peach trees, introduced by John Doyle Lee when he was hiding from the Federal officers after the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Yesterday I wanted to take a snapshot of an old Supai packer with bushy hair and prickly thin whiskers. His asking price was a dollar and a half. We finally settled for a half dollar, but even at that price that packer was getting dangerously close to the commercialized status of the Indians who with Sioux feathers in their IMojave or 1 mute or ^ umnn hair wander around in populous tourist, spots being picturesque for a fee. 1 here is something to be said for the policy that urges keeping the barrier canyons around this tribe unbridged, for according to the ethnologist Leslie Spier, the Havasupai retain their native culture in purer form than any other American Indians. Other Indians, losing their hold on their native culture, have ceased to exist.

I doubt if there is a clear-cut answer to the problems the Havasupai face. Inevitably there will be more and more intrusion on their isolation, and inevitably they must proceed through the phase of falling between two cultures, of being neither Indian nor white American. If they are lucky, they can make that transition slowly enough so that eventually they can patch up a new order of cultural acceptances taking good things from both the warring cultures of their inheritance. I should say they might learn something from the white man about how to treat animals; they would do ill to lose their own native gentleness in dealing with children. They can borrow the white man’s medicine and keep their own simple unspeculative friendliness with the earth. If they are lucky they can do this. If they are not lucky, their paradise might in fifty or a hundred years be like the retreat of old Yosemite, beaten dusty by the feet of tourists, and no trace of the Havasupai except squash vines gone wild in the red earth by a spring, or an occasional goat-wild horse on the talus slopes.

I should not like to be God in this paradise, and make the decisions that will decide its future. But I can hope, looking at Hardy Jones lolling in the saddle, singing, “Oh, why did I give her that diamond?” that on the difficult cultural trail he is traveling no one will crowd him too hard. The trail between his simple civilization and the inconceivably complex world beyond the rims is difficult even for those who can go at their own pace. Hardy has gone part way without apparent demoralization; he listens to his radio and will go to Flagstaff and perhaps win a roping prize. But the smoke-colored colt lying with his neck broken below Topacoba Hilltop is warning of what can happen to the too young and the too inexperienced on that path.