Last week I celebrated my 70th birthday . . . I’ve not looked forward to greeting this decade because it just sounds old to me. The week before my birthday, I had a chance to hitch a helicopter ride down into the Grand Canyon and visit the home of the Havasupai Indians (the People of the Blue-Green Waters). Supai canyon is one of the magical places in the world. It’s a tiny village of less than 800 people who every day are treated to a billboard of changing colors on the canyon walls depending on the time of the day. The turquoise waters in the creek flow over spectacular waterfalls into Colorado River.
Last August, a severe thunderstorm resulted in a surge of water through the canyon that flooded the village and profoundly altered the falls and deep, crystalline pools. Since that flood, the reservation has been closed to visitors; this has shut down the economic life of the community.
The tribe needed to improve the trails and campgrounds if they wanted to open them to the public for this coming season. The tribe had flood-relief monies, but what they needed was manpower. Some volunteers had been coming, mostly Boy Scout troops, but the time was now getting short. The Havasupai Tribal Vice-Chairman asked his close friend, Ken Duncan, who has contacts all over the world, if he might find them some more hands.
Ken is an Apache Indian whom I call my little brother (Shidizeh), and the Director of the internationally touring Yellow Bird Indian Dancers ( HYPERLINK “http://www.yellowbirdindiandancers.com” www.yellowbirdindiandancers.com). He got together with Los Spiritu del Pianetta (The Spirit of the Earth Mother), an Italian eco-tourism company that specializes in connecting ecologically conscious tourists interested in social action volunteerism with needy communities the world over.
Twenty-two Italians (ranging from their 20s to 50s) volunteered at their own expense for a two-week tour of duty to finish the repairs before opening day. I joined a group on the bus from Phoenix; we stopped in Flagstaff to eat and do food shopping (a serious undertaking for the Italians who were cooking for themselves). We arrived at the Hilltop Trailhead and its helipad an hour and a half late, just in time to see the last flight of the day taking off as the sun was setting. My first thought was, Oh my God, the only way down is on foot. I wasn’t prepared to walk down. When I decided to come on this trip it was because it would be so easy to get down. Instead of a five-minute helicopter ride I was looking at an 8-mile hike that took the average hiker 4 1/2 hours.
It was an hour before dark, so most of the hike would be at night. My balance is a little shakier at night nowadays, but the alternative was sleeping in the bus. I took some solace from the fact that there was a full moon, and I was with friends I knew I could lean on. And deep down, I believed that whatever my limitations and fears, in my heart I thought I could do it.
After the first couple of downhill miles, my toes, banging into my boots, began screaming for mercy. But holding a stick in one hand, and an arm in the other, I took one of the most incredible walks of my life.
I’ve walked this trail twice before, but never at night in the full moon. In this magnificent isolation, with no light pollution, the stars descended in twinkling showers of light. Even in the darkest crevices, the sheer walls were illuminated in a silvery fluorescence. When we were quiet, the silence was deafening. Once Ken got up and sang an Apache lullaby. The words echoed off the canyon walls, and in that moment I felt one of those mouth-opening pauses when you know you are in the presence of the Awesome.
I came here thinking it would be an easy, quick recharge and, instead, found it was a hard road to an incredible revelation. If l let my limitations define the path I choose to take, then I’ll only walk the trails I’ve already taken. Somehow “70” sounds less old today; my limitations lie within, and old is when your memories exceed your dreams.
I say this for all my relations, mi takuye oyacin.
P.S. The Italians are leaving on April 24, and we can say thank you by helping them with expenses. If you are so moved, donations can be sent to Yellow Bird Productions, 3827 E. Contessa St., Mesa, AZ 85205.