Downtown consists of a food shop, a diner serving gut-searing green-chili stew and a tiny but incredibly industrious post office.
You know that grandiose slogan the U.S. Postal Service engraves on its flagship buildings, about how neither snow nor rain nor heat nor plantar fasciitis can prevent the noble courier from delivering that avocado slicer you don’t remember buying online? Well, Terry Misenhimer — Peach Springs’ bald and officious postmaster — has his own de facto slogan, which he shares with me as he heaves a box of Bush’s Baked Beans out of a truck and slaps it with postage.
“If I can’t get it on a mule,” says Misenhimer, “I can’t accept it.”
Misenhimer — a former California kid who seems perpetually surprised that he ended up here doing this — is the overseer of one of the most unique mail routes in the world.
He is the postmaster for the Peach Springs ZIP code of 86434. But he also is responsible for getting all mail to ZIP code 86435, which happens to be at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. That’s where about 450 members of the Havasupai tribe live in the idyllic, waterfall-laden village of Supai. It’s a steep, eight-mile hiking trail from the rest of the world.
The tribe members need, you know, stuff: food, medicine, electronics — and yes, even avocado slicers. And because large private mail-delivery companies do not serve the area, the tribe depends on the Postal Service — “snail mail,” as it’s unfairly derided — which is congressionally mandated to provide mail service to all Americans no matter how far-flung. As a result, 46 cents can buy a letter some pretty wild adventures. In Alaska, mail couriers ride sled dogs and snowmobiles. On the Magnolia River in Alabama, packages come by speedboat.
In the Grand Canyon? Mules.
It’s 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, which is when Misenhimer stamps food bound for Supai’s lone market. He’s bouncing between his scale and a truck from the relatively cosmopolitan Kingman, Ariz., stamping boxes of the contents of a modern American larder: Velveeta cheese, Hungry-Man dinners, Duncan Hines cookie mix, chili con carne in a can. The shipment headed to Supai’s senior center consists of the stuff grandmas are made of: strawberries, fortified water, Cream of Wheat, canned fruit and frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
After its stamping, the shipment is loaded into the bed of a red pickup truck driven by a gruffly, jovial fellow named Andy. In my wheezing rental sedan, I trail Andy on one of the more rugged commutes in this country. We drive more than an hour through the desert — braking only for lollygagging cattle and skittish wild horses — and find a mailbox, seemingly plunked into random brush. Andy quickly deposits a letter. We continue. At about 10 a.m., we arrive at the lip of our destination.
Seeing the Grand Canyon immediately after spending a few days in Las Vegas, as I did, is a strange phenomenon. In Vegas, the one objective is to beat the house. Even at the hedonistic all-you-can-eat buffets, you try to stuff your cheeks so thoroughly that the house regrets letting you anywhere near the shrimp pot stickers.
But then you stand at the edge of that unbelievably massive chasm, as expansive and unchangeable by man as a red-rock ocean,
and the house beats you. The $320 in blackjack losses you donated to the ever-burgeoning Strip Beautification Fund suddenly doesn’t hurt as much. (Though I will get my revenge, Harrah’s!)
A U.S. Postal Service contractor named Charlie, in a cowboy hat and chaps, is waiting at the canyon with a team of incredibly grizzled mules. These dudes are 1970s Clint Eastwoods on four legs, craggy and unblinking, relieving themselves with great abandon, on break during a day spent shuttling up and down one of the world’s wonders.
I’ve hiked to Supai before, flitting between shadows in the blistering heat for the reward of the secret paradise below. This time, I stand at the edge and wave like an idiot as the mules descend. I’m letting the Postal Service make the trek for me.
A week or so later, I’m back home when I get the postcard bearing a picture of the MGM Grand and a fresh “Return to Sender” stamp. I had slipped it, addressed to Samuel L. Jackson at a random address in Supai, into Peach Springs’ outgoing mail.
I take a big whiff of the card. I’m pretty sure I can smell mule.