Pushing the EnvelopesLike all intrepid mail carriers, Hank Delaney endures rain, snow, sleet and hail. But unlike all the rest, he also treks 8 miles and 2,000 feet in elevation to deliver ice cream, cattle feed, tools, paper towels, toothpaste and, of course, letters to the village of Supai, which is located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Reservation.
By Martin Cizmar
Hank Delaney felt sick as he picked up the phone. He'd just flipped his dad's truck — the linchpin of his family's business — on an empty highway. He was 17 years old, and he'd hit the brakes on a patch of ice.
Delaney's father, Bud, was not the type of man you'd want to disappoint. "He reminded me of John Wayne — he kind of looked like him, and he had his same mannerisms," Delaney says. "So I was scared to death."
The truck was carrying U.S. mail, which the Delaneys delivered to the Havasupai Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. A teenage cowboy, Bud Delaney served in Vietnam before landing the contract to deliver mail to the remote village of Supai. His days began before dawn, when he pulled into the post office on Historic Route 66 in Peach Springs. Staying ahead of the sun was important — mules carry the mail down a dusty trail. This is now the nation's last Pony Express, bound for an Indian village surrounded by otherworldly spires of red rock and cascading blue-green water.
As it turned out, Bud was just relieved his son wasn't hurt in the accident.
"That's the hardest call I ever made," Hank says. "He said, 'Are you all right?' and I said, 'I'm fine,' and that was the end of it." They got another truck and delivered the mail that day.
He's 40 now, but Hank still takes it easy around sharp curves as he drives down Indian Route 18 toward the Hualapai Hilltop. Especially on a December day when the ground is dusted with snow and his 4-year-old son, Ryder, is riding shotgun, wearing his daddy's black cowboy hat. This has been Hank's routine since the day his father was killed in an automobile accident on the job. Hank took over the next day, and he doesn't plan to stop until the post office stops service. That could be soon. Pushed to slash its budget, the U.S. Postal Service has put this old route on the list of possible cuts.
"It's a great job, and I'd like to do it until the day I die; but I'm not stupid, I can look around and see what's going on in the world," Delaney says. "It's part of the fat they can cut, but it's also living history."
Supai is one of the nation's most isolated towns. Eight miles and 2,000 feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon, it's usually about 20 degrees warmer than the Hualapai Hilltop above. It's a four-hour walk and a world away from the bleak dirt parking lot and helipad where Delaney parks his F-250 beside the corrals where mail-carrying mules are loaded with 220-pound packs.
From the desolate rim, it's hard to imagine the outlandish beauty crammed into a nook in the canyon below, including five giant waterfalls where jewel-colored waters fall down 100 feet of blazing red rock. The idyllic village of improvised one-story shanties, mesquite trees and bright-green grass is home to about 200 members of a tribe that used to migrate seasonally between the top and middle of the canyon before the government told them to pick a place and stay put.
The tribe chose splendid isolation for a town with a lodge, a general store, a school, a church and no cars. The 86435 ZIP code, which Delaney services along with mule-drivers he hires from the tribe, covers nearly 500 square miles and has fewer than 500 residents. Sitting within a few miles of some of the world's most spectacular waterfalls creates a small-scale tourism operation that supports the tribe's modest lifestyle.
Delaney, a stout and soft-spoken man with a graying goatee and sturdy boots, lives with his wife and four children 75 miles away in Truxton, an old stop on the Mother Road that's increasingly ghostly since the interstate bypassed it.
Though his father delivered mail there since the family moved up from Glendale in the 1970s, Hank had never been to Supai until he was an adult. His wife and most of his children still haven't, though he plans to take them for a weekend at the lodge.
"Everybody ought to see Supai at least once. It's like Mayberry from the old Andy Griffith Show," he says. "It's lost in time."
The mail he carries is made up of far more than the postcards hikers send home from the general store. Ice cream, cattle feed, tools, paper towels, toothpaste and soda also find their way down the trail thanks to complex loopholes in postage rates. A private helicopter now carries some of the town's cargo along with tourists not up to the trek — business is now back to where it had been when he took over, down from a bubble that required hiring on 23 other helpers to handle quadruple the volume. He's never sure when the pendulum will swing back. "The choppers come and go," Delaney says. "The mail is dependable."
Though he's a private contractor and not a civil servant, Delaney has taken the mail carrier's creed to heart. There are only two days when the mail didn't get down to Supai. On one occasion, the Department of Public Safety wouldn't let Hank brave a blizzard. The other was the day Bud Delaney died.
In 1999, Bud was killed in a collision with a semitrailer. Hank was working for a chemical company when he got the call. "I was the only one who knew how to do it, so they called me and asked me if I could do it," he says. "I was in shock for a few months, but I did it. I think my dad would be proud."