Havasupai: The Post Office At The Bottom Of The Grand Canyon
Sure, everyone is emailing now and Amazon is mostly running the shipping game, but people in the United States still need the USPS to live their day-to-day lives. That includes Supai Village, the community located within Havasu Canyon that houses the Havasupai tribe, but they have unique challenges. The only way that they can get mail, much of their food supply, or anything else they can't get from within the canyon walls is if it's delivered via mule to the bottom of the Canyon. Other shipping services would scoff at the idea of hiring an equine employee, but neither rain nor snow nor unconventional transportation requirements can stop the post office. This remote post office at the bottom of the Grand Canyon looks like a preserved chunk of the Wild West because that's basically what it is.
Everybody needs mail, even if you live in a canyon
Most of the people who live near the bottom of the Grand Canyon rely on a team of mules that spends hours walking down to Supai Village six times a week. It's just like the route your own mail carrier follows, but it's dustier and it takes a little longer. Currently, there's no other mule-led mail route in the country, and according to Daniel Piazza, chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, it may be one of the only mule mail delivery systems in the world.
So why mules? It's just not feasible to use any other means. Helicopters have been known to land in the area, but that's too expensive to do on a daily basis. The only thing that makes sense is to deliver the mail via mule.
Mule mail was much more common in the early 20th century
Humans have been delivering mail by various means since the first letter was written, from birds to balloons to dogsleds. While mules aren't the fastest creatures, they are the best animals for walking letters and packages down the winding paths of the Grand Canyon. They've been making deliveries since at least 1938, when they were first photographed traipsing into the Canyon, and they've been delivering the mail to Supai Village for generations since. The mules also make deliveries and pickups for a local lodge called Phantom Ranch, a tourist hotspot on the north side of the Colorado River. Every letter and postcard from the area is stamped with the words "mailed by mule."
The Havasupai people have been relying on mule mail for quite some time
If you've never heard of the Havasupai people, it's most likely because of the space they take up in the American West, which is to say, not much. As the smallest tribe of native people, their village has just over 600 inhabitants. They've been living on the land that we know as the Grand Canyon for more than 1,000 years, but in 1882, the U.S. government cordoned the indigenous people onto a 518-acre reservation. That's a 90% loss of land.
In 1975, the Havasupai received 180,000 acres from the government, but they still rely on tourism as their main source of income. The small post office at the bottom of the Canyon is one of their only ways to reach the outside world without making the five-hour trek up the winding and dangerous road.
It's a dangerous business delivering the mail
The small office at the bottom of the Canyon is in the perfect place to service the small population that makes up the Havasupai people's village, but post offices have to get their mail from other post offices, and reaching it is an onerous journey. A caravan of people and animals ferrying packages from surrounding offices has to travel down a series of switchbacks that drop more than 1,000 feet within the first mile of the dusty and rocky terrain. Once the steep descent is completed, the trail snakes along the bottom of the canyon to the Supai post office. A normal day involves two mules traveling down the steep trail followed by a wrangler on horseback.
The mail runs six days a week
Mule mail may have distinct advantages and disadvantages from the main arm of the USPS, but packages delivered by mule come just about as regularly as the ones from those white little trucks. Six days out of the week, mules take the Havasupai route, a three-hour trek down that takes another five to ride back up. Don't worry, the mules aren't being run ragged; riders and mules stay overnight in the village to prevent the four-legged friends from burning out.
Rather than simply delivering your basic snail mail, mules mostly travel with food for people in the village. With no grocery stores in the area, it’s not like the Havasupai people can just pop over to the Grand Canyon Trader Joe's when they want some cookie butter. The same goes for medicine and small appliances. Without this unique form of mail, the village would have no real way to sustain itself.
This Wild West delivery service is a family business
The United States Postal Service doesn't run their own mule brigade. Instead, they hire an independent contractor to manage deliveries to the areas at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Hank Delaney oversees the operation that takes mail received from the Peach Springs, Arizona post office to the Havasupai people. Peach Springs isn't just notable for its four-legged contractors; it's also the only post office in America with a walk-in freezer to ensure that food items can survive the final leg of their journey.
Delaney has been picking up mail from Peach Springs and making the hour-long drive to the top of the Canyon for more than 25 years, and it's believed that his son will take over the contract once he retires. Whoever handles the deliveries, it's certain that the mules will continue walking packages to this remote spot at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
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