You’ve Got Mail!
Sam Schwartz hitches a ride on a government mule to traverse the United States Postal Service's most dangerous route.
At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the insular Havasupai tribe still gets its mail delivered the hard way-on the back of a mule. We saddled up to see how almost three tons of groceries and 17 pounds of letters get to their remote destinations.Charlie Chamberlain wants a raise. He makes a strong case for it, too, recalling a day 15 years ago when his job brought him a few feet away from death. He had gotten up before dawn, as he did every day, to lead his mules up the steep eight-mile trail, load them up, then head back down to the village. By the time he reached the dry creek bed at the foot of the trail, in early afternoon, the sky had clouded over. This was not unusual-late summer is monsoon season in Arizona-but when Charlie saw the first raindrops, big fat raindrops the size of silver dollars, he began to worry. Soon dark pools of rain formed on the soaked earth, so Charlie, on horseback, led the mules to higher ground. Up the rocky hillside, the trail had become a wide canal, pinning him against the high canyon walls. His horse shivered and whined, the water rising past its hooves, then its knees. When it splashed against the soles of his boots, Charlie began to pray.A member of the Havasupai tribe stands with a mule named Skid Row. Strapped to the wet and trembling backs of his animals was the precious cargo that had gotten Charlie into this tight spot-not rifles nor furs nor gold bullion. The mules were carrying a few dozen plastic bins marked "United States Postal Service." For 25 years, Charlie, one of the 34 USPS contractors known as "packers," has delivered mail this way, to the Havasupai tribe here at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Most of the other packers are tribe members who live in a village with no paved roads, no streetlights, and frequent power outages, home to 450 Native Americans living in the most remote human settlement in the lower 48 states. It is a day's journey away from the nearest supermarket, but since 1896, the village, Supai, has had its own post office. And today, just as it was 100 years ago, the most efficient machine for moving cargo down treacherous, boulder-strewn terrain is the mule."We lay our lives on the line every time we pack the mail," says Chamberlain, whose son Brian is also a packer. Flash floods are only one of the job's dangers. When tied together, mules can "jam" and "wreck" like cars. In the summer, when temperatures at the bottom of the canyon reach as high as 120 degrees, tired mules will sometimes lie down, roll over, and die. Or they fall off switchbacks and plunge hundreds of feet to their doom, forcing the packers to climb down, retrieve the mail, and cremate the body. In an age when purchases seem to magically appear on our doorsteps, the trail to Supai is a reminder of the supply chain, where the convenient pleasures of Netflix and Amazon.com are won in a daily contest between man and nature.\n\n\n
|The mule train is a symbol of universal service at a reasonable rate. A private company would say, ‘You want me to deliver to the bottom of the Grand Canyon because there's an Indian tent down there? Sure, for $20 a letter.' We do it for 41 cents.-Dennis Palandro, USPS|
|No peacetime organization in the world deploys such a wide range of technologies to accomplish a single job.|
|The [Havasupai] people are like a chameleon. We adapt as a survival tactic. But the other things, the CDs, boom boxes, Walkmans, the DVDs? They don't have no place out here.-Lonnie Manakaja, tribesman|