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the road to supai

Peach Springs is one of those names on the map that appeal to me, somehow evoking images of eternal summer evenings in a pretty bucolic town – all green fields and orchards. Darkness falls as I approach the town and I make a fairly dismal camp alongside the highway behind an embankment; mostly out of sight of the passing traffic but in direct line, it transpires, with the railway line across the dry, desolate prairie half a mile away. Throughout the night my tent is harshly illuminated by the beams of light as the trains approach before cornering to continue parallel to the road. I have been amazed since meeting the train-line at Goffs, in the Mojave Desert, at how many trains pass to and fro, travelling east and west, a constant stream of containers snaking across the desert, transferring goods this way and that.

A constant stream of shipping containers cross the continent.

A constant stream of shipping containers cross the continent in both directions.

In the morning, I contemplate my options. I am heading for the Grand Canyon. The maps I have at my disposal are from a cheap road atlas I bought in Baker from which I pulled out the pages that covered my route south and threw away the rest. The secondary roads are marked on these maps, but only very vaguely. I can see a paved road, of about sixty miles, heading north from just east of Peach Springs toward a place called Supai on the western end of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. An unpaved road, of about fifty miles, links this road to the highway to the main tourist destinations on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I have no information about Supai and I know nothing of the terrain but I am already keen to abandon well-travelled tarmac again in favour of more remote regions.

I ride into Peach Springs, which, despite the pretty name, turns out to be an impoverished reservation town, in search of more information. Boarded up and burnt out buildings line the highway and run-down houses are surrounded by rusting car bodies. The sky is grey and the air cold. Nobody is on the streets; there is no reason to be as there are no shops and nowhere at all to go.

A reservation building somewhere on the highway before Peach Springs.

A reservation building on the highway west of Peach Springs.

The only sign of life is at the Hualapai Lodge – a tourist facility that seems virtually deserted by patrons but reasonably well staffed. When I express an interest in the road to Supai, people are bemused.

“But there is nothing there,” they exclaim.

“It’s going to snow,” another person warns.

The maps available at the tourist information desk add nothing to my existing knowledge but I am undeterred. I ride off armed with all but useless maps to investigate whatever ‘nothing’ there is to see on the road to Supai.

I realise on the way out of town that I have forgotten to fill my water bags and, reluctant to return two miles downhill to the Hualapai Lodge, I ask a women leaving her house if there is anywhere I can get water. After a moments, hesitation she allows me into her house to fill my bag at the kitchen sink and then I am on my way.

Once I turn off Route 66, the drivers of every car on the road slow and stare at me. One women passes me and then takes the trouble to make a U-turn to return to ask me if I am lost. I assure her that I am not. She drives off and then clearly unconvinced I know what I am doing stops again, reverses and asks where I am going. I tell her, that even though I might not know what I will find when I get there, that Supai is my destination and that I am intending to ride from there to the highway. She shakes her head and warns me that the unmade road is very rough and then drives away.

The road is lined with memorial markers and, unlike the ones on Route 66, these appear to signify the actual sites of fatal accidents and I am struck by their frequency. These roadside memorials are ubiquitous on highways, all over the world, but their density here, on what appears to be a lightly trafficked, largely straight, tarmac road, is troubling.

The monuments are elaborate and well-cared for – ornate crosses sporting colourful bouquets of plastic flowers, balloons, toys – dedicated to un-named individuals simply referred to as ‘Sister’, ‘Brother’, ‘Mother’, ‘Daughter’, ‘Son’. This is truly a highway of tears and I think of the book I have just finished, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian in which the protagonist, Arnold Spirit, explains that the difference between growing up as an Indian and growing up as a White is the number of funerals you have to attend – that death is everywhere on the reservation and 90% of it is related to alcohol.

I pass a group of women getting out of a pick-up on the road. They greet me and I enquire if I am lost. I ask them what they are doing. “Looking for pinons,” the senior member of the group informs me. I follow them into the trees by the road to learn what pinon nuts look like.

A pinon nut - traditional food for the Hualapai.

A pinon nut - traditional food for the Hualapai.

Collecting pinons.

Collecting pinons.

Pinon.

Pinon.

I continue through the grey afternoon. The last five miles of road descends steeply and then ends abruptly in a carpark overlooking a place that leaves me utterly speechless.

Supai, it turns out, is a Native American settlement in the canyon that is only accessible by foot, mule, or helicopter: home to the Havasupai people, who have fought a long hard battle to get access to their traditional lands in the canyon and on the surrounding plateau. The carpark is full of the unseen Supai’s residents’ vehicles.

Supai.

Hualapai Hilltop - looking into the Havasu Canyon.

Supai.

Hualapai Hilltop - looking into the Havasu Canyon.

Supai.

Havasu Canyon.

Woefully uniformed and unprepared, I don’t have my food or my equipment sufficiently well organised to be able to walk down into the canyon and camp overnight but this is a place that I would very much like to return to. Feeling a little thwarted I cycle, in the dark, back up the hill to where the barely visible, inadequately signposted, unpaved road will lead me across the plateau to Highway 64 and the well-trodden South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Babs | December 8, 2009 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    Glad you were able to pick up a Sherman Alexie book. I think it has to be a Native to tell Native stories.
    Stay warm!!

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