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June 2007

Freefall: Tragedy in the Grand Canyon

Arizona's Havasu Canyon is a hiker's paradise famed for its jaw-dropping waterfalls. But now there's trouble in paradise—serious trouble.

But there’s an immense difference between Hanamure’s two birthday destinations. Phantom Ranch is in Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP), and is backed by the concessions and federal funding that comes with being one of North America’s crown jewels. Supai, meanwhile, is in the heart of a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden sovereign Indian nation in which public health and safety conditions are downright dangerous. This destitution is so politically incorrect to acknowledge, it rarely surfaces in travel literature. Hanamure probably did not recognize the difference until it was too late.

Early on May 8, 2006, Hanamure parked her rental car at the Supai trailhead. Perhaps she noticed how this parking lot—with its burned-out cars, rotting toilets, and mounds of litter—contrasted with the national park’s manicured trailhead lots. Hanamure locked most of her belongings in the car and loaded a backpack with essentials for the hike to the village and a stay at the lodge. Then she began descending steep switchbacks on the well-maintained trail.

Walking down Supai’s main street, past horse corrals and plywood shacks and packs of stray dogs, she arrived midday and stopped at the café for a drink. Tourists milled around the store, café, and the field where the helicopter lands. Stonefaced Havasupai men sat on benches, watching the traffic. Eventually, Hanamure checked into her room, where she loaded her daypack for the 2-mile hike to Havasu Falls. She walked out the iron gate of the lodge grounds, past the Havasupai Bible Church and a Falls Trail sign that was tagged with graffiti. As she continued, homesteads gave way to green thickets of oak and willow that obscured Havasu Creek’s turquoise waters, which crash down toward the falls at nearly 30,000 gallons a minute. It was a beautiful place to be hiking, and getting more scenic with each step. After such a long journey, she probably felt excited and relieved to be so close to the world-famous destination she’d planned to experience as a birthday gift to herself. But Hanamure never made it to Havasu Falls. She disappeared that afternoon, never to be seen alive again.

WHEN DOES THIS TRAGEDY BEGIN? Perhaps in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt designated 832,000 acres of land in the Arizona Territory as Grand Canyon National Monument (it became a national park in 1919). That designation essentially evicted the Havasupai tribe from its vast homeland.

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