The Call of the Canyon

An essay from the January 2017 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Kerrick James

The Call of the Canyon

Sometime in 1966 or ’67, my father went with his father — on horseback — to the village of Supai. The details are a little muddied by time and memory and the feeling of things, but this much we know: My grandfather (we call him Opa) was a surgeon for the U.S. Public Health Service. His attending physician sent him to the village to perform routine procedures, but he said he wouldn’t go without his eldest son. It was the exploring season, after all. Summer. 

So they went. And it was, Dad says, the genesis of his acrophobia. 

Those switchbacks, I suppose — the long, slow descent along canyon wall and cliff lip — did it.  

“I remember being very aware of the edge of the trail,” he says. “I thought it was a long way down, and the trail was narrow, and the horse could have lost its footing.”

But the fear of heights is never the fear of the height itself — it’s the fear of what might happen if gravity wins. Fear of height is really a fear of ground.

On the ground, in the village, people were lined up to see the doctor from the big city. There were coughs and aches and pains and fevers. But there would be no surgery that trip, only the routine administering of antibiotics and salves. 

“There were 50 or 60 men and women,” Opa remembers. He’s 82 now. “Some had pneumonia. The tribe’s medicine man ran everything. He would walk the patients into this little stall that was maybe 5 feet high, and smoke was coming from it. He would treat the spirits that caused the sickness, and I would give the people a shot of penicillin on their way out.” 

At the end of the day, they made their way to camp. The rocks radiated heat. My dad remembers seeing one of the waterfalls, but he doesn’t remember which, and the next day, they made the long pack back, retracing hoofprints through the canyon, up the switchbacks and out onto the Hualapai Hilltop. 

Neither man has been back to Supai since.  

Nearly 50 years later, I carried the family name down in search of a medicine woman. The falls my father saw in the 1960s were a different shape — the 2008 flood had altered the landscape, but not its color. That water was still turquoise, painted by travertine and the reflection of sky. 

Dad became a surgeon, but I went the way of words and writing, choosing them over anatomy and insurance. 

I was on assignment for this magazine, sent to profile Dianna Baby Sue White Dove Uqualla. It was November, and the cottonwoods along the creek had turned, glinting gold-green in the wind. 

The man in the tourism office sent me to Baby Sue’s home, which she shared with several other women, tribal elders, too. When she greeted me at the gate, her face was painted in the traditional way — an ochre stripe below her mouth, flashes of color on her cheeks. 

She carried an eagle feather, walked me to a ceremonial circle and spoke a blessing in her native language. Sage smoke and the slow dance of the feather. A warrior’s cry.

It was good medicine. 

After, we spoke for a while about what it meant to be Havasupai, a person “of the blue-green water.” It’s possible — likely, even — that Uqualla’s grandfather was the medicine man when my grandfather and father visited. 

That night, the moon filled the canyon, and I awoke to what I thought was morning. Instead, stars. The rush of the creek. A ringtail scuttling up a tree. 

The story, published months later, remains one of my favorites. 

I made one return trip after that, walking my mom, my sister and a friend to the bottom of the canyon, along the creek and into the village. We explored the falls and made camp amid cool rocks, Mom sleeping early, the rest of us waiting for stars.  

The next day, my sister panicked on the descent to Mooney Falls — the fear of heights hard-wired in her. She cried out for my mom, but made it, climbing the route hours later and hugging me at the top, gravity conquered.

Before dinner, I went with our friend to fetch water from the spring. I talked to a man who was familiar with the magazine. We shared an acquaintance. He seemed like someone I’d met before, somewhere, in some faraway time. 

As we left the village the next day, a hug and another blessing from the medicine woman. A promise to return. 

Years later, the man from the spring and I planned to visit Supai together. We’d spend several days, visiting all of the falls, making the long walk to the Colorado River and back. We’d go in November, more than 1,000 days after my first visit to that sacred space. 

But it didn’t happen, and we hit ground not long after. 

I don’t know if I’ll make good on my promise to the medicine woman — to return, to find myself back beside the blue-green water again. That sad last plan seems hollow now, and bitter, too. 

No matter. 

My children will walk to the village someday. One, I think, will race down that slick-rock wall to the base of Mooney to dance in the mist, wild like the water itself. The other, however, won’t. Instead, he’ll approach the edge with care to sip the falls’ medicine from a distance. Awed, but anchored by gravity.

To read more about the Grand Canyon, pick up a copy of the January 2017 issue of Arizona Highways.