According to Havasupai legend, there are two gods. Tochopa is the grandfather of humanity, the bringer of good and harbinger of life. Hokomata is the bringer of discord and war, and Tochopa’s twin brother. Tochopa is their creator god, and Hokomata is their devil. In a time long past, the brothers clashed in a fight that would tattoo the Earth forever. With venom in his voice and fire in his eyes, Hokomata resolved to flood the entire Earth in his rage. And so he did. He drew oceans inward in a torrent of rivulets, brooks, streams, tributaries, rivers. It was unleashed upon the land. The water rose, drowning mountains. Before the flood came, Tochopa, through his sorrow, began hollowing out the trunk of a pinyon tree. For Tochopa had a daughter. His greatest hope was that Pukeheh would be the start of the great human lineage for which the Earth was created. All of humanity would begin with Pukeheh, but only if she could survive the inevitable flood borne of Hokomata’s wrath.
“You know, I met Hokomata once.”
Around the crackling campfire, my five little cousins’ eyes went wide — except for Brady, who was burning two marshmallows. Our fire was near a river on our grandparents’ property in the Michigan woods. Attention has never been my favorite place to center myself, but something about the atmosphere of an evening campfire pulls songs and stories out of me. It’s compulsory, it’s instinctual. The fulfilling of a generations-old tradition. Before reading by lightbulbs there was listening to bards and orators by firelight. The auburn glow of fire’s lackadaisical wavelengths siphon fear from the chest and supplant it with warmth and ease. Maybe that’s why it’s such a hotspot for ghost stories. Fire can hold your hand through the fantastical stress.
The fire appears as a flickering orange shadow across the collection of faces around its source.
“OK guys, get ready for a story of beauty, excitement, petrification, dangerous journeying and triumph. It’s a little less dramatic than it sounds, but what is a storyteller without their ample use of —” I whip a flashlight under my chin and wiggle the fingers of my free hand, “embellishments! Ooh, spooky!”
“Hey, what’s a em-belly-shment?”
I tousle my cousin’s blond hair. “Don’t worry kiddo, it’s not important to the story.”
“The year is 2019, just before everyone stayed inside for a while. Your cousin, aunt and I are about to embark on the most eventful trip of our lives …”
Looking down into the Grand Canyon is all well and good, but seeing the tourist view for 10 minutes is about all I need for the rest of my life. The bottom of the canyon, however, is a bonafide paradise. My mom found Havasu Falls through one of the many “van life” Instagram accounts she follows. Once my mom gets her mind set on something, it would take an act of god to get her to back down. She passed this quality down to me, but it’s not always a phenotype of mine. I pick and choose my time for stubbornness, but self-determination is my mother’s default form. When she decided to submit our family in the lottery for permits to grant us travel to the Havasupai tribe’s canyon bottom oasis, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. And my senior year of high school, our “when” landed smack dab on the fourth Thursday of November. So we bought some dehydrated turkey.
The hiking trails and campsite of Havasu Falls are located on the land of the Havasupai Native American tribe. The entire trip from the tip of your toes on the canyon’s edge to dipping your feet in the river is 10 miles, or around six hours of walking through sheer, monolithic rock. This doesn’t include the couple extra miles it takes to get to the largest of the waterfalls.
I would call the bottom of the grand canyon a pocket planet within a planet. Think Arrakis architecture in “Dune,” or the rocky areas of Jakku in “Star Wars.” Sunsets lit the cliffs on fire. The layers of the canyon walls ranged from black coals to yellow sun rays to the red-orange heart of a flame. The Grand Canyon is an open book, each layer a rich, autobiographical novella of its time on the surface of the earth. It’s a humbling feeling being faced with grand words of the fabric of a land that I don’t know how to read.
This first descent wasn’t the easiest. Nothing we couldn’t handle, though. Finally, after all that trekking and a pitstop in the Havasupai village, we made it to the hiker’s campsite.
The sound of water reached us before the view did. It was a drumroll, crescendoing with every step we took. My shoulders and pelvis had been sore the past few miles from carrying everything in my backpack, but mounting anticipation made my bones forget their ache. Rumbling, rumbling. I round a corner and suddenly I’m looking up at the water-like kinetic motion of oxidized copper. It was liquid turquoise, melted and poured out of god’s pitcher and spilling all over the cliff. What struck me the most was the presence of such lush, lemon-lime greenery around the river. We continued walking along its shore among a hubbub of other campers both arriving with us and heading out of the pocket planet and back to Earth.
The sites by the river were an absolute dream. My family landed on a site on the far side of the river, a few bridge crossings away from the trails. Our source of drinking water for the trip was a spigot jutting perfectly perpendicular out of the cliff. By the time evening came around, we were all settled with our sleeping pads, tea mugs and now rehydrated Thanksgiving turkey. No campfire, though. No one was allowed to build a fire because of the risk of the dry Arizona land setting ablaze.
“… and let me tell you, that canyon spigot water was the best I’ve ever tasted.”
“Dani, this story is boring.”
“What! I only just started, how can you have an opinion already?”
My cousins were starting to get restless. Campfires have a calming effect, but for a bunch of kids, this can only go so far. Charlie, who just interjected, had her arms crossed and was staring me dead in the eye. Tough crowd.
“OK, OK, don’t get your s’mores in a bunch. I promise it’s about to get good.”
I leaned in, chin tilted down in the way that adds more of a sparkle in your eye, hands up as if about to cast a spell.
“Now close your eyes, and picture this.”
I was tucked in a sleeping bag under a thin rainfly in our tent, trying to catch at least a few winks before a day filled with hiking and sightseeing. But this endeavor became much harder than I anticipated.
There was torrential downpour like lions on this night. They were restless, and they were bounding, clawing down the cliff face with no way to escape them. They hunted in the air, and joined forces with the snake that already lived next to our dwelling, forever carving out the canyon with its slithering path. I tried to force my consciousness to drift away into the realm of dreams. I squeezed my eyes tight and wished the weather away. But the overwhelming roar of a primordial force of nature had other ideas. It grabbed me by the brain and pinned my mind awake. I remember my heart pounding,
I didn’t think the rain could get any louder. Then the floodgates opened, the maws of the lions agape to release earthly roars in a chorus of thunder.
I didn’t get much sleep that first night, and the morning didn’t provide any reprieve. The air was thick with the kind of tense silence that comes when a predator is nearby. Mom was up, half of our camp was already packed and the previously turquoise river looked like pure chocolate milk.
We were lucky that our tent was on higher ground, but not so lucky that we had crossed the river to get there. The first course of action after getting all our gear on our backs again was to get back to the other side of the river. That’s where the village was, the freshwater spring and every other possible trail. Unfortunately, all the log bridges had been completely washed away by the flooding.
All our gear was on our backs again, and my body had barely recovered from yesterday’s 10-mile hike. Gloomy, cloudy mist hung low in the air. The top of the waterfall looked like it was ready to burst, and the sheer amount of additional rapids split the falling stream in two: Muddy, goopy, something straight out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. We couldn’t think of anything to do but start walking along the river and look for any way across.
Eventually, we ran into another small group of people on our side of the river. One of the men led us to a spot where people had already attempted to get some big logs back in place. Now all we had to do to get to safety was a two-log balancing act across a stretch of river that was 30 feet wide.
“That was when I learned my hiking boots were waterproof.”
“Why the heck didn’t you know that before?”
“Hey now, Elly, can you tell me if the shoes you’re wearing right now are waterproof?”
Elly looked down at her feet sprawled out in front of her.
“Mhm. That’s what I thought.”
News trickled in slowly but surely throughout the rest of the day.
There was a major snowstorm on higher ground.
Some people woke up in four inches of water.
By the time the snowfall reached us, it transformed into rain.
We’ve been doing this trip around Thanksgiving many years in a row, and the weather has never been like this before.
There’s a campfire going toward the entrance where people are drying their socks and shoes.
The snow made the roads unsafe for driving.
There were campers that had their gear completely washed away.
No one was allowed to leave.
Here’s a list of things I didn’t have on my bingo card for this vacation: a major snowstorm in Arizona, a panicked evacuation, a vaguely rebellious campfire and a slew of strangers singing my family’s German campfire song. Our relocated campsite was close to where the “secret” campfire started. It was there, in a circle with 15 or so people hanging wet socks from sticks, that things took a turn for the better. Yeah, campfires weren’t allowed, but with the area completely soaked and a realization that no one could really kick us out, we kept one going several nights.
There was the feeling I knew so well growing up. Gentle radiating heat, the shadowy orange glow flickering over the smiles of unfamiliar faces that laughed alongside me. We traded stories with people from California, Illinois, Spain and many more places. My mom, ever the extrovert, felt compelled to start leading our ragtag group in song. Now bear with me because I don’t actually know how to spell this: “Ich von guten doctor” is a tune I’ve sung with my family on every camping trip for as long as I can remember. It’s a call and response song with a few German lines that I know have been passed down a few generations. My mom got our whole campfire in on it.
It’s times like these that, flame by flame, restore the warmth I feel for humanity.
Tochopa created a safe capsule with provisions for Pukeheh to eat and a window for her to see the outside world. The water rising, the Grandfather of humanity, the great creator, said a heartfelt farewell to his beloved daughter, whispering in her ear that everything would be OK. Pukeheh drifted
until mountains finally came up for air. In the same way water stampeded over the known world, it all at once receded. The rush of the water as it found its path to the ocean took a spade to the rocks of the desert, sculpting and carving the Chic-a-mi-mi, the Grand Canyon. Pukeheh saw through her window in the pinyon tree that she was no longer floating. The flood had passed.
After the first 24 hours, our stay at the bottom of the Grand Canyon mellowed out significantly. The rivers and waterfalls took the better part of a day to clear their muddied waters and return to fairytale gemstone form. Our campfire remained un-scolded, and it didn’t rain (snow) for the rest of the trip. Thankfully, people were allowed to start leaving again by the time my family was planning on journeying home.
The last image I left the canyon with was that of red-orange sheets of mineral wearing a snowy hat. The farther up we climbed, the colder the air felt, and we started to see an abrupt line where the snow no longer could remain snow. It was like a visual oxymoron. It was the last thing I ever expected from a trip to Arizona, but it’s still one of my favorite memories to recount.
“That’s the end of the story, guys.”
“Does that mean we have to go to sleep now?”
“I have a story about some cheese I ate last night. It was cheddar. That’s the story.”
I laughed. Our little fire had died down to brilliantly outlined embers. It’s close to bedtime, but not quite yet.
“Do you guys want to learn a campfire song?”
Statement Columnist Dani Canan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.