Havasu Creek

An essay from the May 2018 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Amy S. Martin

Havasu Creek

It was early September, so when the storm crested the canyon, it left a haze in its wake. The air was humid. It was hot. I was uncertain whether the water on my skin came from the sky or from the creek or from the way my own body moved into the space — for the third time into Supai, where the people of the blue-green water, the Havasupai, live.

Where it begins, Havasu Creek is a bone. It is snow and rain and runoff until it enters its canyon, meets Havasu Springs and becomes a bolder thing, coursing over travertine falls until it marries the Colorado River. The creek is just one of the dozens of tributaries of that motherly water, she the stream that feeds a watershed and its people until it runs out of steam miles shy of the Gulf of California.

Hiking to the Colorado along Havasu Creek was a promise once, a permit. The words lifted into the air the way a feather does as it falls from a bird. From a tree. From a nest.

It was just a breath, really.

But the words landed hard, the promise harder. More than a year and a universe of circumstances later, though, I found the place where the waters meet.

We started from the top of Mooney Falls at dawn. No one else had yet descended the ladder that morning, so when we did, we stood in silence at the base of the falls and in awe of their roar. The sound filled the canyon like a buzz fills a hive, but we knew that the day would be long.

So we walked — just as we had the day before, when, with 50-pound packs, we marched the 10 miles to our campsite. This journey would be longer, some 17 miles round-trip or more.

There were falls and creek crossings. The cool blue remnants of dreams. Reeds and grass from a fairy tale. Jurassic swaths of jungle-like ferns.

When we came upon three bighorn sheep, my heart raced, and my breath came out in a little oh, and everything was Longfellow and the forest primeval. It is little wonder, I suppose, that something so ancient looking would survive in that canyon, itself a billion-year place of good and light and angles, of the breaking down and rebuilding that water is capable of.

To the Havasupai people, the creek is a place of birth and of life. Sacred and ancestral, it is habitat for birds and fish and myriad creatures of the Earth. The colors alone — the blues and greens and reds — are alive there, too, like a muse.

But if I were to tell you that the hike to the Colorado River was pure beauty and joy, I wouldn’t be writing the truth. In reality, the trail was lovely and violent. It was rocky and wet and hot and sometimes hard to follow. We feared rattlers — thanks in large part to some thoughtful traveler before us who had etched “WARNING, SNAKE AHEAD” into the dirt with a stick.

It was hot, we were tired, and I had a quarter-size hole in my heel, the kiss of an injury from the day before.

I don’t remember all of the words that ran through my head and along the creek and into nothingness that day, but I do remember wishing to be bird-hollow at one point. Just to raise my wings and fly to the river the way a hummingbird might. Or the way the ravens did that day, as they floated ahead of us, then fell behind. Totems. Legends say that the birds are messengers between worlds. To me, they are route finders.

There were few people on the trail, to the point that, if we saw someone in the distance, we thought him a ghost. A spirit. A hallucination. But about a quarter-mile from the confluence, we met a group of river rafters. They splashed in the water and danced their tanned bodies along a natural slide that had been born from the rocks, from the force of the creek.

Suddenly, the water I craved became the thing I feared, and I wouldn’t go in. We stood on a sandstone ledge and watched the turquoise of the creek pour into the sacred, muddy water of the Colorado.

Just minutes, though, then we turned around. I pushed my body into the creek and through the chute. Fast and hard and under, the bone of my hip catching the edge of some rock that hadn’t yet been water-polished, my face submerged in the

And when I climbed out, I was steam, and the water on my skin was blue-green.