Only a few times, have I come across a teacher so inspiring that his stories and lessons transcend the subject into everyday life, but my journey begins with him. He was the type of man who always had a gleaming smile and looked into you with sparkling dark blue eyes. He taught Earth Science, of all things, at the Catholic high school I attended. He taught us the mysteries of earth sciences by telling and showing us slides of his solo journey through the western United States and Canada, researching all the classic geological spots for his class. His quest was so pivotal in his life that each year he recounts the story to his Earth Science class and sparks the same sense of adventure and wanderlust and that itch to discover what else is out there. His story continues to leave an imprint on many of his student’s lives and some have been inspired to visit the small towns that he passed through.
I was inspired to journey to Havasu. Havasu, not to be mistaken with the party resort Lake Havasu, is an offshoot canyon of the Grand Canyon and home to the Havasupai Indians; the last town in America where mail is delivered on donkey. There are no roads to Havasu – the only way in is by foot, donkey or helicopter. The trail is an intense 8 miles down an old riverbed, through a canyon. The campground is another 2 miles past town. But once you get down there, you see the tribe’s secret. Havasu means “blue-green water” and the water is just that, brilliant turquoise water that falls through the canyon. I couldn’t resist such a magical place and was determined to travel there alone, in spring break during my senior year in high school.
My mom didn’t like the idea. What parent would? Their baby girl of barely 18 embarking on an expedition alone into the dangerous world and be out of contact, even from cell phones! Finally she agreed, but only if she could talk to my teacher and he said it would be safe. He told her that although he did wish I had someone else for safety, he was sure I was mature enough to do it alone.
She was still worried and convinced that I needed tons of preparation and she needed a detailed daily itinerary with addresses and phone numbers so she would be able to get ahold of me any hour of any day. She and my dad agreed that I should drive no more than six hours per day because I would exhaust myself if I attempted more. This expanded my trip by several days and forced me to stop in horrid places such as Barstow and Bakersfield. For the preparation, every weekend for a month, I walked miles with my backpack filled with soup cans for weight then set up tent on our deck to show how hard it would be after an exhausting hike. Looking back, this preparation seemed trivial compared to the real thing, but at the time, I thought they were trying to discourage and punish me for going.
I hoped that by going alone, I would discover more about myself, especially because it was at such a pivotal point in life. I was 18, just barely coming into adulthood, but still wanting to savor the innocence and lack of responsibility of my childhood. It was also my senior year of high school and I had just gotten my acceptance letter to college. I wanted to spend the time to look within myself and how far I had come, as well as think about what my next four years would be like. I hoped that I could take this time to figure out who I was, what I wanted to change about myself, who I wanted to present myself as in college and perhaps figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life! I could not trust anyone else I knew to take this spiritual journey seriously with me, so I figured the best way to do it was to go alone and give myself the time, without distractions, to think seriously and honestly about my life and my self.
With earnest intentions, I embarked on my road trip to Arizona and stopped in the nearest town, Seligman, Arizona for the night and prepared my backpack for the next day’s hike. On March 31st, 2002, Easter Sunday, I checked out of the hotel and drove to the edge of the canyon. As I neared the end of the road, I saw my first glimpse of the canyon. It was gorgeous with so many different layers of rusty red rock that wound on and on. Despite the long parking lot full of cars and vans, I drove to the very edge and got a parking spot right at the head of the trail. I looked at the people coming up the trail. They were bright red, dripping sweat. I looked down the canyon. The first ¼ mile of trail was a zigzag that went right down the side of the canyon wall. I heard this was the most difficult due to steepness, but feeling confident, I put one foot in front of the other and soon I was marching in the open sunlight down the side of the canyon.
I took my time, trying not to get off balance from the 35 lb. of camping gear on my back. I took a break about halfway down the switchbacks, and a lady who noticed I was sitting said, “Honey, You have a LONG way to go, don’t be stopping now!” Little did I know how true this was. I hiked for hours and took long breaks in the shade when I could. Along the way I met two very nice older women from Minnesota who had their supplies carried down on a mule. One woman was short and fat, the other tall and thin. They were both school bus drivers and were very shocked that I was traveling by myself. They took a picture with me and wished me luck. Every 7 minutes a helicopter would fly overhead and mules passed constantly forcing me to see how slow I was moving. The scenery was beautiful, but the big rocky riverbed was tough on my knees. About halfway down, I took an extra long break and wondered how much further.
Around the 6th mile (3/4 of the way), I was running low on water, my back and legs were killing me and I thought I could go no further. I would walk until I could barely walk anymore and then I’d sit for a long time, and walk again until I absolutely had to stop. I rationed my water, only sipping a tiny amount when I needed it. Every time someone passed me, I would try to keep up with them, but soon they would disappear around the next bend and I wouldn’t see them again. I didn’t think I would make it. I told myself with each step that I would NEVER EVER do this again! I kept telling myself, the town is just around the next corner. I dragged myself on and on, and finally, I saw the first horse of the town. I was so happy! But I didn’t know that there was another 5 blocks to get to the visitor center. I was at my limit. I thought with each step that the next would make me collapse. I held onto a tree for what seemed like my life and with my very last resource of energy, I stumbled the last block to the check-in desk. After checking in, I reserved a mule to take my stuff out the day I was scheduled to leave. Then, I took off my backpack, bought a lemonade and sat for an hour, reading. I wanted to be completely rested before going the final 2 miles to the campsite.
While I was resting, I met more friendly hikers. I was surprised how friendly everyone was to me. I am used to a world where people walking down the street do not say hi or wave or stop to talk. Maybe everyone here was so nice because we all shared the challenge of the hike. The people I met were part of a group that hiked down the same day. They didn’t look nearly as worn out as I did. They introduced themselves as Derek-Deodorant and Angie Apples. I knew the game and I said my name with an alliterated twist. They laughed. We talked for a while, then they went on their way and I kept reading.
When I thought I was relaxed enough, I decided to head to the campsite. I met a couple on the way who had been camping for a while and took a day trip to town. I asked how far the campsite was from there. They said, “Oh, it’s really short! Only like 10 minutes.” I was still sore and walked slower than them, but relieved to know I only had 10 minutes. So, I walked and walked. I walked for well over 10 minutes! I caught up with them at a bridge, and said, “Ten Minutes?!?!” They told me that it was very close from the bridge. They promised only 10 more minutes. I told them I didn’t know if I could make it. But, I kept walking and tried to keep pace with them. I watched the ground and tried not to misstep on the steep, uneven red dirt. But suddenly they stopped and said “Wait!” I looked up and my eyes followed their extended arms pointing to the right side of the trail. “Look!” They said, excitedly. I was so worn out and bitter. I didn’t care for the beauty of it anymore, I just wanted to finish the trail and sit down. But, when I looked, my mouth dropped open.
It was the first viewpoint of Havasu Falls. Brilliant blue water storming down the side of intense red rock and into a gorgeous turquoise pool. Around the pool was orange sand and leafy bright green trees. Above was the purest blue sky. I looked back at them, and they laughed knowingly at my astonished look. I was speechless and suddenly void of all dark emotions that I had been feeling about the pain of the hike down. This one sight of the waterfall made the whole torturous day worth it. It was and is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
The couple, reminded me that I still had a few more steps to get to the campsite. I trudged on, mouth still hanging slightly open. It was getting dark, but they helped me find a campsite near theirs and invited me for dinner. They said that someone cooked them dinner their first night and they were so grateful, so they decided to pass on the favor. I set up my tent near a big fallen log next to the stream that ran through the middle of the camp. Then, I changed out of my sweaty clothes and relaxed while they cooked a delicious pasta dinner. When I finally laid down in my sleeping bag, my whole body ached, but I was excited for the next day to explore the waterfalls.
When I woke up, I was still very sore, but I made some hot cocoa for myself and read my book and tried to relax in the shadow of the red canyon walls. Around 11am, I decided to go see some of the waterfalls. Passing a cactus garden and an ancient Indian cemetery, I made my way down to the base of the waterfall. Again I saw the two bus drivers from Minnesota. They offered to watch my camera while I hesitantly dipped my toes in the frigid water. They told me about a cascade waterfall nearby, secluded behind a canopy of trees. I hiked across a very slippery log and found the beautiful cascade waterfall. I tried to wade out into the shelf to get an unobstructed picture of the falls, but I almost fell into the pool a couple of times, so I took my camera and went back, without a picture. I was the only one at this more secret waterfall, so I enjoyed it alone, with the immense pleasure. I pretended if just for a second that I was the only one who had ever seen this waterfall, discovering it for the first time, maybe 500 years ago. How could the Native Americans not settle down in such a paradise?
I walked back to my campsite and decided to read in the sun. It was then that the two bus drivers walked by again, and stopped to tell me how wonderful the final, third waterfall was. They told me that I couldn’t leave without seeing it and they made me promise to go see it while the sun was still out. I explained to them that I was out of film and they gave me a roll to use. I consider them to be my fairy godmothers now because if I hadn’t run into them, I would’ve forgotten all about the other waterfall and missed it completely. I followed their directions past the outhouse, to a ledge. I looked over the edge and saw a two hundred foot drop of gorgeous white water storming down a cliff into a pool of aqua water. Since it was late in the day, shade covered most of the pool making it a dark turquoise color. Only a tiny part gleamed like a jewel in the sun. Further down the canyon, the water flowed into a lush green valley. I hiked down steps cut into the cliff and took pictures at every turn. I finally saw what my teacher showed his class in the pictures. Closer to the bottom, the path narrowed and dug through caves. There were ladders and finally a rope and chain to pull yourself down the final descend. The rocks were slippery from many travelers, but I jumped the last rise and paused to watch the amazing beauty of it, again.
Before I could sit or even think about touching the water I heard a shout. “Hey!” a girl called to me. I recognized her but forgot where I had met her on the trail. Another person recognized me and came over. It was Angie Apples and Derek Deoderant! Angie asked me if I wanted to go explore further down the canyon. I asked how much futher. She said, “Oh, not long, only about a mile.” I staggered. My legs and feet were still sore. The thought of another mile was just too much, but surprising myself the word “yes” escaped my lips and I set off hiking with a group of about twenty strangers. Angie shouted to the big group, “Hey, everyone! We picked up a new person!” Everyone shouted back a hi and I waved and scanned the crowd. In the group, I saw mostly guys in their early twenties, a couple of girls, and a couple of older people. Then bingo! I saw a yellow hat. I was smitten, determined to get a closer look. We paused once on a big rock and looked back at the falls, with fresh green trees in the foreground. I snapped my last picture and turned to introduce myself to the yellow hat.
We continued on, joking and playing games and talking about where we were from. It turned out that Mr. Yellow hat grew up in the same town as me, so we compared notes on old hangouts and restaurants. On the way back to the campsites, he invited me to dinner with the group and in my most lighthearted voice I said, “Umm, sure,” while my insides jumped up and down. We relaxed at their campsite and I helped make dinner. During dinner we joked and talked and played games after dinner and laughed late into the night. Pretty soon, everyone was going to bed, except Mr. Yellow Hat and I and a few others. I was scheduled to leave the next morning, but they begged me to stay an extra day with them. I knew I couldn’t because my mom would be worried if I didn’t phone to check in the next day, so with disappointment, I said it was time to get some sleep. Then Mr. Yellow Hat asked if he could walk me back to my tent, and I said yes. It was a short walk, but we sat on a log by my tent and started talking about everything. Everything just seemed so right and perfect. I wished on falling stars for time to stand still and sit in his arms forever, but I knew this was not possible. As if he knew what I was thinking, he looked up at a constellation and we made a promise to each other to never forget this night and that whenever we see that constellation, it will remind us. Even if we didn’t keep in touch outside of the canyon, we both knew that looking up at the stars would never be the same again.
“People have stars, but they aren’t the same. For travelers, the stars are guides. For other people, they’re nothing but tiny lights. And for still others, for scholars, they’re problems. For my businessman, they were gold. But all those stars are silent stars. You, though, you’ll have stars like nobody else… When you look up at the sky at night, since I’ll be living on one of them, since I’ll be laughing on one of them, for you, it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!”
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
At about 2am, we watched the moonrise and he kissed my hand goodbye and walked back to his camp. I couldn’t sleep after that. I was excited and nervous about all the new feelings I had. The full moon was bright, so I took a walk by its light and finally fell to sleep around 4am. I woke up two hours later and packed up my tent and hiked to meet the mule that was to carry my stuff. Then I started my way back to town and the 8 miles to my car. The hike up was not as hard as the hike down. Maybe because I could judge how much longer there was, maybe because I didn’t have a heavy backpack, or maybe because I had wonderful thoughts to distract myself. I recounted the whole trip to myself with every detail so as not to forget any small parts.
After I made it to my car and an old Native American asked me if he could get a ride towards town. I said ok and he got in my car. He looked like an old shaman with wrinkled skin and tired callused hands. He told me all about the old Indian paths that lead to the main parts of the Grand Canyon. When I dropped him off near my hotel, he said something in a language I couldn’t understand, but sounded very interesting. I checked in, ate, called my mom and then collapsed into a steaming bath and cried until I could no longer tell my tears from the bathwater. I cried because of how hard it had been and that I’d made it out alive, I cried because of how beautiful it was and because I thought I would never see it, again. But I especially cried because the most wonderful person in the world that I had just met might have only been a dream and I might never get to see him again. That pain only grew deeper and more heart-breaking until I got home and received the much desired E-mail that reciprocated my feelings towards him. And everything changed, everything had already changed. Life was different, somehow better. It’s true what the say that love changes the way you see the world. Colors are more vibrant, the sun feels warmer, and feelings are deeper than ever before.
All I could think about on the drive home was how wonderful and perfect everything had been. Although I hadn’t achieved what I had expected in thinking about my future years, I had gained a new grasp of what life was about and how wonderful things can be. I had learned about love and that it was within me as well as the rest of the world. I accepted that I couldn’t know the future, whether I would ever see him again. I realized that life really was worth all the hardships, whether it be emotional distress before gaining new perspective on life, or physical feats like hiking down to the canyon in order to see the most beautiful place on earth.
We did see each other again. He is still a friend that I keep in contact with, but because we live far away from each other, we decided not to begin a romantic relationship. He will always be my first love, the one that got away and the dream that I can never have, but we will be there for each other and neither of us will forget the magic within the canyon and ourselves.
I made the mistake of explaining this paradise to my family. By the next year, my mom had told all her friends and they had decided to go on the journey, too! I was angry! By going, I thought, they would take away all the made it special for me. I wanted to keep it as my secret heaven. They invited me along to be their guide, and I couldn’t say no. I had vowed never to return because I was convinced it would ruin the magic it kept for me, but I just couldn’t resist the chance and I certainly did not want them to go without me! So, I embarked again, with my parents and 5 of my mom’s friends, back to the Sri Lanka of my dreams.
It was monsoon season, which meant the rain had washed mud into the water, making it a murky grey as opposed to the clear aquamarine. It just wasn’t as beautiful as it had been before. I was disappointed and sad that they wouldn’t be able to see what I had bragged about. Yes, it was still gorgeous, so they were satisfied, but it paled in comparison to the awe I had felt. So, it didn’t lose it’s magic for me. It still held that wonderment that I wanted to keep secret!
I have not spoken of it since, but on the first night back, before the rest of the group had seen it, I went to the big falls. I stood on the edge looking down at the 200 foot drop and listened to the rushing water that glowed in the moonlight. I looked up at the stars, at our constellation, and down to the rock that I first met him on. It was all still there, just as I had remembered. And I was reminded of how wonderful life was. Everything was just the way it was supposed to be; the world was in its place.