At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the insular Havasupai tribe still gets its mail delivered the hard way-on the back of a mule. We saddled up to see how almost three tons of groceries and 17 pounds of letters get to their remote destinations.Charlie Chamberlain wants a raise. He makes a strong case for it, too, recalling a day 15 years ago when his job brought him a few feet away from death. He had gotten up before dawn, as he did every day, to lead his mules up the steep eight-mile trail, load them up, then head back down to the village. By the time he reached the dry creek bed at the foot of the trail, in early afternoon, the sky had clouded over. This was not unusual-late summer is monsoon season in Arizona-but when Charlie saw the first raindrops, big fat raindrops the size of silver dollars, he began to worry. Soon dark pools of rain formed on the soaked earth, so Charlie, on horseback, led the mules to higher ground. Up the rocky hillside, the trail had become a wide canal, pinning him against the high canyon walls. His horse shivered and whined, the water rising past its hooves, then its knees. When it splashed against the soles of his boots, Charlie began to pray.A member of the Havasupai tribe stands with a mule named Skid Row.
Strapped to the wet and trembling backs of his animals was the precious cargo that had gotten Charlie into this tight spot-not rifles nor furs nor gold bullion. The mules were carrying a few dozen plastic bins marked "United States Postal Service." For 25 years, Charlie, one of the 34 USPS contractors known as "packers," has delivered mail this way, to the Havasupai tribe here at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Most of the other packers are tribe members who live in a village with no paved roads, no streetlights, and frequent power outages, home to 450 Native Americans living in the most remote human settlement in the lower 48 states. It is a day's journey away from the nearest supermarket, but since 1896, the village, Supai, has had its own post office. And today, just as it was 100 years ago, the most efficient machine for moving cargo down treacherous, boulder-strewn terrain is the mule."We lay our lives on the line every time we pack the mail," says Chamberlain, whose son Brian is also a packer. Flash floods are only one of the job's dangers. When tied together, mules can "jam" and "wreck" like cars. In the summer, when temperatures at the bottom of the canyon reach as high as 120 degrees, tired mules will sometimes lie down, roll over, and die. Or they fall off switchbacks and plunge hundreds of feet to their doom, forcing the packers to climb down, retrieve the mail, and cremate the body. In an age when purchases seem to magically appear on our doorsteps, the trail to Supai is a reminder of the supply chain, where the convenient pleasures of Netflix and Amazon.com are won in a daily contest between man and nature.
The mule train is a symbol of universal service at a reasonable rate. A private company would say, ‘You want me to deliver to the bottom of the Grand Canyon because there's an Indian tent down there? Sure, for $20 a letter.' We do it for 41 cents.-Dennis Palandro, USPS
The postal literature generally presents the Havasupai as a lost tribe of innocent natives trapped by high canyon walls in a perpetually prehistoric Shangri-la. The mule train is their thin thread of life, the tribe's only means of procuring food and interacting with the outside world. The village I observed is much more complicated, as is its relationship to the Postal Service. The mule train has a large economic impact here, giving between 30 and 40 men steady work in a village where only one in four is employed. Supai is neither quaintly premodern, nor utopian, nor completely dependent on the mail. Spread out between stands of corn and grazing horses, the tribal dwellings are contemporary, single-story prefabs. The houses have satellite dishes. The children drink soda like it's water and listen to iPods. In the tribe's very modern community center, people shop for sneakers online and download images of dead rap stars.Several of the USPS delivery mules wait at the trail head. All told, they carry up to three tons of mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
What straddles these two worlds is the USPS, which moves 213 billion pieces of mail each year, from any address to any other address across a 3,000-mile-wide continent. It employs 700,000 workers, more than any U.S. business other than Wal-Mart, and it somehow manages to break even, despite constraints that no private corporation has to face. Unlike FedEx and UPS, it cannot pick the most profitable areas of coverage, and it is obliged, under federal law, to provide daily pickups and deliveries to every community in the nation. "We go to extremes to make that happen," says Postmaster Terry Misenheimer, who routes the Supai mail from the town of Peach Springs.The mules are just one of many unorthodox techniques that the USPS uses to get the mail through. Some rural Alaskans get their mail carried overland by snowmobile or dropped from a seaplane. In the Florida Everglades, the mail arrives on a boat propelled by outboard motor. In Philadelphia and other big cities, much of the mail is sorted by robots, giant claws that seize a tray of mail, scan the barcode, and shuttle it with terrifying speed to any one of 12 bins to await distribution. No peacetime organization in the world deploys such a wide range of technologies to accomplish a single job.
No peacetime organization in the world deploys such a wide range of technologies to accomplish a single job.
But, like any organization of great size and venerable age, the postal system is resistant to change. Critics have long predicted its demise as society becomes increasingly paperless. The post office has responded with numerous congressional hearings and special presidential commissions. There have also been half-baked innovations like E-COM (a post-office based flyer-printing service) and specially USPS-certified electronic mail. Meanwhile, fax machines, FedEx, and email have steadily chipped away at the post office's more profitable business-First Class mail. Volume has fallen 6 percent since 2001. Standard mail, used mostly by direct marketers, has risen 14 percent, leading many recipients to toss away the better half of their mail unopened.These changes pose little threat to the old Supai mule train. In fact, they may help ensure that the post office will keep the route around, a memento of the days when mail was a necessity. Hank Delaney, the route's lead contractor, has taken calls from a marketing agency that wants the mules to join curbside R2-D2s and Forever stamps. "The mule train is a symbol of universal service at a reasonable rate," said Dennis Palandro, the foreman who proudly showed me Philadelphia's robotic arms. "A private company would say, ‘You want me to deliver to the bottom of the Grand Canyon because there's an Indian tent down there? Sure, for $20 a letter.' We do it for 41 cents. And if they move to New York, the mail follows them all the way there. For nothing! Who else is going to do that?"The route begins in Peach Springs, a town of 600 nestled between two low hills on the barren floodplains of Arizona. The post office, a one-story structure the color of pinkish earth, looks to be the very prototype of dull and reliable rural service. But this morning, just after seven, it is bustling with activity. A driver from Shamrock Foods wheels crates of perishables down a ramp from his truck to a loading area where four young men in baseball caps bind them together with packing tape. Terry Misenheimer, a laconic, red-haired man, weighs each parcel on a blue floor scale, meters out Standard Mail postage, and slaps it on the boxes. With the application of a small white sticker, the food is transformed into mail. Seventy-two cans of 7Up and root beer: $16.30. Fifty pounds of kitchen salt: $15.47. Fifteen dozen eggs: $12.97. "What are you writing down?" he barks at me. The USPS office absorbs a considerable loss on the Supai mail route; Terry is shy about numbers. "Just the mail," I tell him. There are cases of bottled water, Sunny Delight, frozen hamburger patties, jugs of frying oil, and prewashed pinto beans. Almost all of the mail in today's 6,500-pound load is edible.As I prep for my ride down the trail, Larry Moore, the tall and beefy contractor who drives the mail from Peach Springs to the edge of the canyon, teases me about the flash floods. "I hope you brought your swimming trunks," he says. "We got a big ol' hoss waiting for you. I hear he loves to buck." He tells me the story of one packer, Sun Eagle, who rode through a flash flood last week. "He said the water was up to his stirrups!" says Larry pantomiming the rising water. "His mules were huffing and shaking! Somehow he kept them all in line." Did the mail make it intact? "Of course," says Larry. He seems slightly offended that I'd even ask. "The mail always goes through."It is all on Larry's trailer now, almost three tons of food and supplies plus 17 pounds of letters. I follow behind, driving 10 minutes up Route 66 and then turning left onto the patchy two-lane road that leads to Hualapai Hilltop. We ascend a high ridge, passing a couple of trailers, a twelve-point elk, the charred shell of an abandoned school. Suddenly, as we cross the top of the hill, the canyon appears on the horizon, a band of taupe sandstone around a ribbon of empty space. Soon we arrive at a parking lot overlooking the canyon. Every few minutes we pass another hiker, dazed from the three-hour ascent. At the far end is the trailhead, where half a dozen packers are waiting for us. They drink Gatorade and chat in their native tongue. Most wear baggy jeans, sneakers, and headphones. Beside them, some 40 mules (and several horses) are tied up to a long hitch of red pipe.Larry lays the mail out on the ground for the packers to load onto their animals, roping the boxes around two "mule trees"-wooden braces that lie along the mules' backs and look like miniature skateboard decks-and piling as much as 150 pounds onto each animal. Claude Watahomigie, a veteran packer, will be guiding me down. Thirty-five years old, he is slightly built and soft-spoken. He wears a silver rodeo buckle studded with pieces of raw turquoise. Larry gives him the paper mail: two light white bags and one Priority parcel. I ask Claude whether he ever gets his own mail early. "No," he chuckles, shaking his head. "Federal offense."The USPS maintains a team of 40 mules which service the eight-mile Havasupai mail route.
"These mules have built-in shock absorbers," says Anthony, another packer, showing off his animals' legs. "They can take eggs, ripe peaches, anything." Because of the rocky terrain, Anthony says, the mules get new shoes every three or four weeks. This makes plenty of work for the village farriers, one of whom happens to be a few feet away, loading tools into the back of his pickup. Before I can ask a question he approaches me and asks me for written permission from the tribal council to be on the reservation. I have permission, I tell him, but no letter. He goes on a brief rant about a group of archaeologists who appeared one day in the village without authorization. "You're just like them," he says, "digging stuff up, looking for information. You're why I live out in the woods. Nobody around, no noise, no bother. No people like you, making me curious." He abruptly turns his back.I walk back to Claude. He has finished loading his mules and tying them, nose-to-tail, into a string 10 beasts long. He sets me atop a white male. "His name is Hidelgo, the Survivor." The name gives me little comfort as Hidelgo lurches down the narrow trail, his hooves slipping on the loosely packed gravel and broken rocks. As we twist around each switchback, his nose sticks out over the abyss like the lead car on a rollercoaster. My life is in this animal's hands, and only now do I realize that I weigh 15 pounds more than his maximum mail load. "Don't worry," Claude reassures me. "He's handling himself just fine."The trail reaches the bottom of the canyon and flattens out, weaving between hills dotted with sagebrush. Claude talks to his mules with a fluttering, bird-like whistle and a few clucks of the tongue. He explains: "I'm just letting them know I'm here, that everything's okay." I ask him how long he's lived in Supai. "My whole life," he says. Does he ever think of leaving? "Never. Who would take care of my animals?" A red seam opens up between two hills and we enter it. The earth cracks and the trail descends, forming two high walls of red stone. As we go down, Claude tells me each part of the trail's name: Bear Chases Man, then Halfway, then the Gambler's Place, where, as tribal legend has it, a giant rock crushed a group of dice-players. As we descend further, I see pools of water from last week's rain, now home to swarms of black tadpoles. The only sign of trouble is the leg of a drowned horse. It sticks up from the ground like a crooked branch. "You see the purple down there?" Claude asks, pointing miles ahead to a shady bend in the canyon, where the shadows darken to lavender. "That's where we're going."A train of USPS delivery mules en route to the Havasupai post office at the bottom of the grand canyon.
As the canyon trail descends it meets the waters of the Havasu Creek, from which the tribe takes its name. Dry semidesert becomes lush with willow, yucca, and cottonwood trees. The trail then turns and abruptly opens up into the village, where modern bungalows line 518 acres of nameless dirt roads and green fields surrounded by the towering sandstone walls of the canyon.At least twice a week (and several times a day during the tourist season), a helicopter flies from the hilltop to the town square. The trip takes eight minutes and costs $25 for Havasupai, $85 for tourists. Many tribe members fly out on the weekends, drive to Kingman or Phoenix, and fly back in with a couple of bags of groceries. For larger loads, tribe members can have a 900-pound sling of cargo flown in for around $100."Ah, the flying horse," says Benji Jones, laughing, as the helicopter lands and another pair of tourists disembarks. Jones is thirty-something, a broad man with shoulder-length black hair. He is sitting with a friend who has flown in via helicopter to peddle reggae CDs. The mule train is his tribe's "main artery," Jones says, recalling how he used to order reggae music through the mail, inspiration for his old band, Tribal War.
The [Havasupai] people are like a chameleon. We adapt as a survival tactic. But the other things, the CDs, boom boxes, Walkmans, the DVDs? They don't have no place out here.-Lonnie Manakaja, tribesman
Lonnie Manakaja compares the mail to bridles, rope, shovels, and horses-useful novelties that the tribe has woven into its culture. "The people are like a chameleon. We adapt as a survival tactic. But the other things," he adds, "the CDs, boom boxes, Walkmans, the DVDs? They don't have no place out here."One former packer told me that the helicopter flights in particular had "spoiled" the tribe. "Packing is proud and traditional," he said. "I miss the good old days. Nobody rides horses no more." Well, not quite nobody. Several times during my visit I see two young boys riding barefoot and bareback down Supai's main street at a full gallop. They are cousins, Stallone and Rushawn Watahomigie, and they say they can't wait until they're old enough to be packers. "Riding horses is fun!" Rushawn exclaims, catching his breath from the ride. "They go fast!"When Claude and I arrive at the town square there are five tribal workers with hand trucks waiting for us. It is approaching noon. Beneath the shady eaves of the town cafe, a few elders are chatting and a line of tourists waits for the helicopter to carry them back to their cars. Claude ties his string of mules to a weathered wooden post. "Okay, nice and tight," he says. After our breathtaking transit down the canyon, the delivery itself is anticlimactic. The edible portion of the mail is split up and wheeled to five destinations: the senior program, the Head Start program, the school, the cafe, and the general store, where prices are high due to the cost of shipping. A large box of Special K goes for $10.67. A Sharpie is priced at $14.77. A case of overripe strawberries didn't survive the trip down, so the store lays them out on a bench for all comers.Mules sometimes fall off the trail and plunge to their death, forcing postal employees to climb down and retrieve the mail.
The next morning I walk over to the tribal office to introduce myself to the tribe's vice-chairman, who invited me. It turns out he is away and the chairman, Thomas Siyuja, has no idea I was coming. "If I see you talking to anyone about anything other than the mail, you're out of here," he warns. His wariness is understandable. Last year, the Havasupai were under intense scrutiny following the robbery and brutal murder of a Japanese tourist by a 18-year-old tribe member. One writer for an outdoors magazine described the village as a ghetto, rife with gangs and meth. Since then, the tribe has been extremely suspicious of outsiders. The 25,000 tourists who visit each year are tolerated for the revenue they bring in, but the tribe lives on a separate social plane. "I'd rather not be bothered" is the response I get from the more gracious of Supai's postal customers when I try to ask some questions. Others simply refuse to engage, staring over my shoulder until I go away.Shirley Manakaja (no relation), a 47-year-old mother of eight, is Supai's postmaster. She has long black hair and dresses for work in a navy-blue T-shirt. She has lived most of her life in Supai and has worked in the post office since 1990. She says she enjoys dealing with the tourists and philatelic pilgrims who come seeking her office's commemorative postmark, but to her, having food packed on mule back seems routine."It's ordinary to me," she says. "Every city has a post office.""Why mules?" I ask, looking for an elaboration on Terry's "best way to get the mail from Point A to Point B." "I dunno," she shrugs, covering her mouth with her hand and looking away, embarrassed and slightly amused. The only unusual thing, she says, is the occasional bottle of liquor that breaks on its way into the dry village. The would-be bootleggers arrive to pick up their contraband, only to find Bureau of Indian Affairs officers waiting for them.Shirley does not want me to see the inside of the post office. "It's messy. We lost power for all of yesterday afternoon, and I haven't had time to clean up yet." Eventually she relents. Her office is a small, cluttered room adjoining the general store. Nearly every surface is covered with office supplies, old zipcode books, and mail. Besides a small plaque and an old tricolor mailbox, there is little to suggest the place it holds in United States postal lore. As the afternoon goes by, I watch Shirley sort mail and chat with her customers. The village has no ATM, and many Havasupai use Shirley's counter as a source of pocket cash, buying a stamp and charging $20 or $30 to their debit cards. After three in the afternoon, as Shirley finishes her daily sorting, the town square fills up with tribal members come to check their mail and exchange news. An elder tells me she's looking for her Social Security check; younger folks are picking up catalogue purchases and sending utility bills to nearby Valentine, Arizona.I begin to sense that the tribe is not so different from millions of other postal customers-that they take the system for granted. Then I see an old man in a flannel shirt and cowboy hat. Shirley hands him a box, the very same craft-wrapped Priority box that I watched Claude carry down. He is beaming. He hobbles through the general store, speaking excitedly in Havasupai to anyone who will listen. What's in the box? I ask. "A blanket!" he says. "Fancy Indian blanket, from a friend." The gift has given him a surge of energy. He doesn't need any help carrying it home.