Arizona: Incident at Mooney Falls

Four days of soul-searching in Arizona’s Havasu Canyon offers the author a lesson in survival and love. In the wake of her father’s death, the canyon’s waterfalls and blue-green pools helped heal old wounds. 

by Donna Peck

Havasupai Falls-68 I was squished inside a van on an empty Arizona highway barreling toward a remote corner of the Grand Canyon famed for its waterfalls. On impulse, I had signed up for five days in Havasu Canyon, hoping a camping trip would cure my troubled heart. I had a kinship with nature. Ever since that day in the woods—how old was I? Maybe six—I stood in a pool of sunlight thinking fairies had led me there. The high desert landscape outside the window looked shriveled, waiting for winter rain. I knew the feeling. Since my father passed away, I felt dried up inside. I took a gulp of water from my bottle and closed my eyes.Havasupai Falls-22

On Havasupai Lands

Five hours later, our van pulled into the parking lot at Hualapai Hilltop. I sat on a rock to eat a turkey sandwich while cowboys from the reservation strapped camping gear, coolers and mail sacks onto a half dozen mules. Dry wind scoured the plateau with a force that could strip a dead horse to the bone. Gary, the guide, called out above the wind, “Carry warm jackets in your day packs.”

Anxiety seeped into my thoughts. My father’s death shouldn’t have been a surprise. In the past six years he had gone from the front seat of his Winnebago to a cane, a walker, a wheelchair, then a bed at the Canterbury nursing home refusing to get up. A few weeks later, he passed away in the night. I promised myself on this trip I would let my emotions off the leash. This scared me more than the freezing temperatures predicted tonight in the canyon.

With two guides, eight campers and one backward glance, I followed the mules’ dusty cloud into the canyon below.

The Legend of the Black Bear

The switchbacks dropped us onto a broad treeless plain. Powered red clay streaked my legs as I shuffled along the dry wash, shielding my eyes from the harsh light and its numbing brightness.

As we marched so did the canyon walls, drawing ever closer, tapering to a high-walled slot. At the entrance we halted beside a dark boulder that is the subject of a Havasupai legend. Josh the guide, said the rock imprisons a hungry black bear. Havasupai jpgs-27
The bear threatened to seal the canyon unless the Havasupai fed him. When supplies ran out, the beast boomed: Then feed me your children. The shaman instructed the villagers to brace the rock walls with timber to keep it open. Then they waited. When the bear sprang, two brave young men struck him with an enchanted club. But the blow ensnared them, too, turning all three to stone.

I entered the chilly passageway behind the others imagining it led to a sliver of time I didn’t want to remember. The dank air smelled of crumbling stone. A cold shadow pricked my skin. At the funeral parlor, my father had lain in a casket as pale and placid as marble. Not at all as he was in life.

He had a temper, and it often got the best of him with seven children underfoot wreaking havoc. His rages terrified me: the spitting curses, the oatmeal bowl hurdled at the kitchen wall, his leather strap, my brothers’ screams, my mother and me outside the bathroom door shouting. Afterward, my father would charge out, stomp down the stairs and out the front door. My brothers limped out and we all retreated to our bedrooms to grieve, whimper, our world caving in. I shoved down the memories and hurried along the passage back into sunlight.


An hour later, we entered Supai. Josh pointed to two stone pillars—the young men from the Black Bear legend—perched on a canyon rim. “If they topple,” he said, “the Havasupai believe their village will come to an end.” How sad, I thought, looking up at the stone guardians. I hated my father for beating my brothers, but I also believed our family would come to an end if he left us. He was our guardian after all.

A helicopter whirled over the canyon rim and landed on the rodeo grounds. The villagers unloaded the weekly supplies onto ATVs. At the general store, I scanned the postcard rack and bought two of waterfalls with blue-green pools. On one I wrote: “Dear Mom, you’d hardly recognize me. I’m caked in red dirt and will likely stay that way. It’s too cold to go swimming.” On the other, addressed to myself, I wrote, “Were the waterfalls as beautiful as I imagined?

Havasu Falls Campground

We reassembled in the fading light and sped off on the final two miles. Havasu Falls thundered in the darkness as I descended the stone staircase to the campground. Havasupai jpgs-31The temperature was also plummeting. Under the beam of floodlights, we unpacked gear and set up tents.

The nylon tarp snapped and aluminum poles twanged in my hands as I struggled in the icy wind with my tent-mate Tanya. Josh and Gary made dinner in a makeshift kitchen. Huddled together at the picnic table, we nibbled at the cold chicken pasta. I switched hands to keep one warm in my jacket pocket

The hours passed slowly in the frosty tent. Tanya turned over in her sleeping bag. Shivering and awake, I rode the sound of the waterfall to the evening my mother called with news of my father’s death. I had been on my way to a new art exhibit titled “Cutting Away.” I drove there on auto-pilot. Havasupai jpgs-26At the gallery I stood a long time before a white oak, held upright in steel brackets, its bark stripped, its core hollowed out, the remaining trunk cut into light-filled spirals. Tears exploded from my eyes. I escaped to the sidewalk, the loss of my father overtaking me. The memory left hot tears on my cheeks. I huddled into the sound of the waterfall and let it drag me under.

Havasu Falls, Rock Falls

My eyes popped open to warm sunlight. Havasupai jpgs-35
I dressed quickly and retraced my steps to the staircase. Havasu Falls, a monument of mist and restless water hurdled off a ledge, falling a hundred feet to a pool of blue-green water. The sound traveled up and down my spine.

After breakfast our guides hurried us in the short-lived sunlight to Rock Falls, only thirty-five-feet high. Gary scrambled up the backside and inched along the edge. He steadied himself then rocketed into the air, arms outstretched. I held my breath. You go, Gary. How I wanted to jump, swooping like an eagle.

His airborne body filled me with envy. If I had been someone else’s daughter, would I have the nerve to jump off a waterfall? I shoved down the question as Gary arched into the dive and hit the pool dead center. Seconds later he broke the surface and shot us a huge grin.Havasupai jpgs-28

The Bonfire

Loren, a Havasupai elder, visited our camp and invited us to a bonfire the following evening. He would teach us the round dance and I volunteered to make rattles with him. I spent the next afternoon on my knees sifting dirt for small stones and putting them in plastic bottles. Loren shook my first bottle and grimaced.

Havasupai jpgs-46It sounded like mules clattering across a dry river bed. I emptied the bottle and focused on “small round pebbles, no sharp edges” as Loren instructed. I shook the second bottle and this time I heard autumn leaves rustling. It sounded hypnotic, like a shaman’s tool.

At the bonfire, Loren beat a plastic water drum with a branch from the wood pile, chanting in the Havasupai dialect. Shaking the bottles, we circled the fire, stepping left, falling into a rhythm.

The sparks shot higher and lit up our faces. Dancing and striking the plastic bottle against my palm, I fell into a trance. The heat penetrated, drawing out regret, guilt, pain, anger. The fire light revealed my whole constricted existence. I had flown from California to New Jersey after my father’s stroke. One morning, I opened the car door to help my father out for his physical therapy session. He refused to get out of the car.

He contorted his face and roared at me. I took a step back, petrified. Fear surged beneath my skin. In front of a growing crowd, I dug in my heels and shouted back. I was angry. I dropped everything to fly home and help him. I slammed his door, got back into the car and drove home, seething. The next day when we arrived for the appointment, he got out of the car and into his wheelchair without a murmur. I appreciated his struggle. He picked up on my feeling and caught my eye. “Donna Ann,” he said, in a tone that said please forgive me. I smiled at the memory and was still smiling when Loren stopped drumming and our feet stopped moving. But the flames kept dancing.

Mooney Falls

The next day I hung on a slippery chain paralyzed with fear. I had been inching my way down a trail beside Mooney Falls, the highest in Havasu Canyon at nearly two hundred feet. I emerged from a tunnel cut into the cliff onto a narrow ledge. Mist pricked my face and legs. Havasupai jpgs-14The trail continued down a ladder, which dripped with red clay. I grabbed hold of the chain bolted into the limestone and heaved my body onto the first rung.

I lost my footing halfway down and my body swung out in mid-air, eighty feet above a churning, foaming pit of blue-green water.
My body went limp with fear. The crashing water pounded in my head like a jackhammer. I couldn’t cry out.

The chain, as if covered in Vaseline, slipped in my fingers. If it all ended here I would regret the years wasted in stifling jobs and relationships, in anxiety and anger. My hands slipped another inch. I sucked in a breath and swung my body and on a powerful thrust, caught a rung, heaving myself back onto the ladder. Still shaking, I lowered myself and dropped onto the muddy shores of Mooney Falls.

The Cottonwood

We packed up the next day for the ten-mile return hike. I reveled in the beauty of Havasu Canyon as if granted a new set of eyes. At Black Bear Rock, a cottonwood tree had transformed into foliage so brilliant it painted the air yellow. It thrived like a roadside shine, sustained
by a hidden source of water. I thought of my father but this time I saw his face lighting up as I stepped through the door on my many visits home. Havasupai jpgs-6After his stroke he could no longer get up to greet me, but his face still lit up. When he was himself, I forgot all about his rages and loved him.

A week later after my camping trip, my postcard from the Land of the Blue-Green Water arrived bearing the mule-train stamp. I laughed. How I wished for winter gloves instead of a bikini! Then I remembered standing a long time before a cottonwood tree and the soft breeze that settled on my shoulders. Fear, guilt, anger, love were the tangled realities of my relationship with my father. The cottonwood tree helped me feel loved. And that’s the feeling I’m living with.

—text and photography by Donna Peck

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