Welcome To the World of Wonderment – Havasupai
“Can you even do a twelve-mile hike?” Zen probed when he was first deciding if he wanted to invite me on our first backpacking trip to Havasupai, Arizona.
My eyes narrowed and I corrected my posture. “I have no doubt” I insisted. With my head held high, not letting my front of confidence waiver, I internally started to question what I was getting into.
Zen and I had met a week and a half prior to him asking me this provoking question. I admit, my body was a bit softer back then and my activity level was nothing compared to now, but I have always been a strong female. Throughout any stage in my life I’ve viewed myself as above average when it came to sports and activities. To Zen’s defense, it was a genuine question and he didn’t want to obligate either of us to something I wasn’t capable of. For me, it was an insult. A challenge. This was my chance to prove my abilities to this extremely blunt and handsome man.
Although Havasupai is only 300 miles away from home, the experience felt as foreign and strange as space travel to a different planet. I had just barely met this eccentric, curious man named Zen (I wasn’t even confident that was his real name), and suddenly I was taking a week off work to go on my first backpacking adventure with this stranger and some of his family; specifically, his MOM! I didn’t have any of my own gear, and my best pair of hiking shoes were old Nike tennis shoes. I was destined to fail.
With just over a week and a half to prepare for the trip, I invested my time and money into buying gear. Luckily, with my own personal gear guru, Zen and I picked out the best products. In one day, I went from not having any gear to having enough gear to fill my closet! Shamefully, I had no idea how to use half of my gear, why I needed it nor why the gear was superior to Walmart products. No matter how ignorant I knew I was, I was too prideful to admit it to Zen. And although I knew he thought I was a rookie, I wasn’t willing to confirm it.
The day had come for us to leave on our 10-hour car ride to Havasupai. Up until this moment I had ample opportunity to tap out. But like they say, “If it excites you and scares you at the same time, it probably means you should do it.” Because of this, and my pride, I stuck with it. Since I didn’t really know my fellow travelers and I didn’t want to seem like a mooch on their trip, I offered to drive. I closed the hatch of my little Subaru and we began our journey. Anxiety and anticipation pumped through my veins making the long drive feel like a breeze.
For most, meeting the family of someone you’re dating is a huge deal. There seems to be a lot of pressure upon this moment. Although I had briefly and unexpectedly met Zen’s mother prior to our Havasupai adventure, this was the first real interaction I was going to have with her, and I was going to spend a whole week camping right beside her. I knew their family was extremely close knit and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The most common scenario I had thought of was me standing between a mother grizzly bear and her cub. It also didn’t help to find out that I was taking the place of one of Zen’s brothers on the trip. The Havasupai adventure was supposed to be a family vacation, and here I was, some random girl, ruining their family time! Needless to say, when we all stayed in the same hotel room on the first night, and Zen and I shared a bed, I was mortified.
When I woke the next morning, I was greeted with nothing but kindness from his mom. I wasn’t torn into pieces or ripped apart by grizzly claws, I was graciously accepted and shown great generosity. Zen’s mom unknowingly eased my concerns and reassured me.
Although this initial interaction was quite untraditional, I wouldn’t trade it for the world! My initial impressions and worries were quickly shattered and replaced with an understanding of the love within their family. Even though no one knew of my reservations, I felt supported. We were in this together and I was going to be a part of their experience no matter how I felt.
So there we stood, on the top rim of the Grand Canyon at the Havasupai trailhead. Hiking in was supposed to be easier than coming out and now, I understood why. There was an elevation drop of over 2,000 ft. in the first mile of the hike. My stomach flipped knowing we would have to climb back out at the end of trip.
I shifted my 40 pound pack on my back and looked down at my legs. In that moment, I realized that I would never be able to accomplish great feats just because I wanted to prove myself. I understood that I couldn’t live my life by doing things for others and not having my heart in it. I had to want it. I closed my eyes and analyzed the moment. I wanted to do this. I wanted to conquer this challenge because I wanted to experience the beautiful utopia of Havasupai. I decided to make this trip my own and I no longer wanted to live my life sheltered. I knew my body was strong and I knew that all I needed to succeed was the right mindset. The trek was going to be hard, probably one of the most physically straining experiences and I had to accept even the worst scenario because this was my choice, not anyone else’s.
As I opened my eyes, the world seemed to change. I no longer saw the terrifying journey ahead, I saw the beauty of nature and the excitement of adventure. My old black Nike’s trudged on, one in front of the other with ease. I seemed to gallop and trot through the canyon thrilled by the unique views I was suddenly exposing myself to. My head was held high and I felt immensely lighter, despite a loaded pack on my back. Cleansed of my past and fear, I welcomed the unknown adventure with open arms. As we continued through the canyon, putting more distance between me and the old Emily that was left standing at the rim of the canyon, I began to discover who I really was and who I wanted to be. I was a new person, experiencing extraordinary places with stellar company. I was reborn.
Fatigue became too prevailing to ignore around mile ten. My right knee wobbled with every step and there was heavy sweat on my brow from the brutal heat and exhaustion. I pressed on without concern, looking at the ground ahead and focusing on moving my legs. A wave of relief washed over me as my group stopped for a breather. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only one feeling the hike take its toll. Heavy breathing and panting was heard from everyone except Zen. He stood tall and relaxed; unfazed from physical exertion. His calm composure looked as if he were starting mile two instead of eleven. Flabbergasted, I looked upon Zen with admiration. His endurance and capability impressed me to change my lifestyle. I felt the pang of breathing deep in my chest and was flooded with disdain for how I had previously cared for my body. I questioned whether it was my sheltered mind or my incapable body that had previously held me back from experiencing life and traveling the world. Now that my mindset had changed, I also vowed to never again let my physical ability withhold me from new experiences.
Zen’s mom enthusiastically proclaimed she could see the top of the main waterfall. A second wind coursed through my body edging me forward until we perched atop Havasu Falls. I stood, vulnerable and
impressionable to the stunning nature before me. Pictures on the internet were incomparable to the actual site. The tall canyon walls seemed to melt and drip over the edge of the waterfall appearing like cooled molten rock. Gushing water pounded the pure turquoise water below and dark green vegetation erupted from the desert ground. It was an actual oasis in the middle of dry land. Prior to seeing with my own eyes, I was naïve enough to think that places like this only existed in faraway places and fairytales.
Dazed by the realization that I had left an incredible amount of the world undiscovered, I walked the remaining distance to our camp in silence. My eyes stung on the brink of tears and my jaw hung slack with awe. After pulling myself together and rehabilitating my tongue, I gushed words of appreciation to Zen and his family for taking me on the trip and unveiling adventure to me.
Waking with a stiff body and immovable legs the next morning, I desperately attempted to keep up with the fun. After tasting a small dose of exploring, I felt addicted. I craved to discover more beauty and to push my boundaries more and more. “Great things never came from comfort zones.” I was in bliss! I was far beyond my comfort zone reaping rewards I never knew imaginable.
The heavens began to pour and instead of turning back to our tents, we zipped up our Gore-tex raincoats and sought out more waterfalls. It didn’t take long for us to arrive at the tallest waterfall in Havasupai, Mooney Falls. I didn’t know where to look and my eyes kept shifting between the incredulous falls and the daunting descent. The only way down was to descend the chains, ladders and bolts down a 200-ft. tall travertine cliff. We knew the journey would be worth it, so with Zen in the lead, we down climbed the cliff. About half way down, the mist of Mooney falls began to coat the metal rungs of the ladders. We each experienced our feet slip a few times consequently clutching harder to the chains with our hands as our hearts boomed in our chests.
When I once again had my feet planted on solid ground, I flexed and stretched my hands as adrenaline tingled over my skin. I loved the euphoric feeling of new experiences and I never wanted to get used to it. I looked up at where we had started and felt proud.
We couldn’t tell a difference between the rain and the mist of the falls. Our feet splashed through the water as we danced and played. Little wood bridges lay among the path for us to cross over swifter parts of the river. We played follow the leader without a care in the world like Peter Pan and the lost boys. Each turn leading us to another wonderful site. I forgot about the discomfort in my legs, nothing could be wrong and I felt pure joy among the dark red rock canyon and green grape vines entangling the path ahead of us.
Every moment of our vacation was spent adventuring. We stayed up late and woke up early trying to cram in every little memory we could create. Now that my spirit for adventure had been ignited, I took every opportunity I could to refuel it. Between cliff jumping at Fifty Foot Falls, swimming in Beaver Falls and crossing the swift water above New Navajo Falls, I couldn’t get enough! I guzzled down the experiences trying to quench my parched life.
When the sun rose on the last day of our Havasupai adventure, I was filled with sorrow. I wasn’t ready to go home, and I didn’t want to step back into my old self. Fortunately, the journey home wasn’t short and I had plenty of time to figure things out. After packing up our camp, we started back the way we came.
Overnight, Zen had come down with a horrible sore throat and fever. When I looked at his tonsils, I immediately knew he had strep. Although he barely showed his discomfort and struggle in the beginning, I could tell that he was horribly sick. He started calling for breaks and I often thought he was either going to pass out or throw up. His pack was easily twice as heavy as everyone else’s and we were hiking out in ninety-degree weather. My heart throbbed with concern and all I wanted to do was cater to his needs.
My body had been thrashed over the last few days. We had hiked more than fifty miles over the last three days which was more than I had hiked in the last two years combined. We completed the 12-mile hike into the camp in just over three hours and only added around 20 minutes longer to the time it took to hike out, even though Zen was burning up with a fever. We arrived at the bottom of the 2,000-foot-canyon wall of switchbacks and instead of worrying about the stress of my out of shape body, I focused on Zen. I had forced my body farther than I ever thought I could, so what was one more impossible mile? As I slowly walked beside him, helping him as much as I could, I discovered that I actually cared for this man. I really cared for him. He wasn’t a stranger anymore, he was my friend, my companion and my adventure buddy. I cared about his well-being more than my own. His fever was getting worse as we proceeded up the switchbacks and my desire to comfort and care for him grew.
Staggering to the top, we smiled at each other. We stood in the same place as when we arrived, but little did Zen know, a different girl stood beside him at the end.