I’m in my sleeping bag on a warm September night, gazing at stars moving against a backdrop of 1,000-foot-high cliffs surrounding a secluded, peaceful oasis situated deep in the Havasupai Reservation, in Havasu Canyon, Ariz. The sound of gentle rapids from Havasu Creek and an occasional whisper of warm breeze drifts through the cottonwood trees. My mind juxtaposes this with a scene 19 years earlier, when I was looking at the ceiling of a rehab hospital room learning to deal with T10 paralysis. The idea that I would ever be able to revel in a family vacation in such a remote and magnificent wilderness seemed impossible. Yet thanks to some cool technical advances, a stubborn streak and some adventurous in-laws, here I am. And it feels great.
Havasu Canyon, a side branch of the Grand Canyon, is the heart and soul of the 185,000-acre Havasupai Reservation. The Havasupai tribe, 650 members strong, is the smallest Indian nation in America. They have inhabited Havasu Canyon for the past 800 years. The area is famous for its beauty — lush green oases, stunning waterfalls and emerald blue swimming holes. “Havasupai” means “people of the blue-green waters.” My wife Joanna used to go there as a kid with her family, so when they planned a reunion, I was invited. Since my in-laws thrive on adventure and outdoors, and are strong enough and willing to lift me, I decided to join them.
To get to the Havasu campground, you must negotiate a 10-mile trail with descending switchbacks hewn into the side of a rocky 3,500-foot cliff that funnels into a hot, rocky, dusty narrow canyon. To get to the campground, you can backpack, rent a horse, or buy a seat on the helicopter service that flies on alternate days. I figured 10 miles downhill on horseback would present too much of a pressure sore risk. Because I clung t