Special Delivery: Mail By Mule

The U.S. Postal Service is always telling us about its commitment to delivering the mail no matter what. Bill Geist got a close-up look at just how deep that commitment really is, going to a place where UPS and FedEx fear to tread, in a story first broadcast on Jan. 23, 2000.

The Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and it also happens to be Charlie Chamberlain's mail route.

At the dawn of this new ballyhooed high-tech millennium, with faxes and e-mail and all the rest, Charlie Chamberlain is still delivering mail by mule train, three hours one-way, every day, to a small Indian reservation 3,000 feet down on the floor of the canyon.

"This is the most reliable way to get the mail and these supplies down there.
And we can do it for less money," Chamberlain told Geist. "And also, we can go in all types of weather."

"A helicopter can't always fly on these rims. This wind gets to blowing out here sometime. You can't fly in them high, high winds," he added.

At sunrise, this outlandishly remote mail delivery begins even farther away in tiny Peach Springs, Ariz. According to postmaster Leroy Hearst, they deliver "about a foot of letters" to the bottom of the canyon.

But most of the mule train mail is food, and this post office is equipped for it: "In the continental states, we're the only ones with a walk-in freezer," Hearst explained. "Anything that they need down there in the village that you would go to the store or a department store or a food market, anything you get there, we can pack it and get it down."

On the daily 70-mile drive to the canyon rim, you don't see nor hear another car or person. At the trail head, Charlie waits with about 50 horses and mules that will go down eight miles to the village of Supai.

The mule train will take almost anything you can stick a stamp on. "We got milk, we got eggs, we got all kinds of frozen food, plus the first class mail," Chamberlain explained.

Express mail? "We just tie it on the mule and turn him loose and he runs all the way down," Chamberlain said.

For 21 years, Charlie has been going where UPS and FedEx fear to tread. They send their stuff with Charlie. Now is it really true about the Postal Service even in this route, you get all types of weather, rain, sleet, snow?

"That is absolutely the truth right here. I don't know about anywhere else," Chamberlain said.

Instead of staying behind and watching the car, Chamberlain insisted that Geist accompany him on the route. He was given a horse named "Greased Lightning," a special animal they had prepared for him.

Charlie gives pointers to city slickers, the kind who wear boat shoes to ride horses - uneasy riders, who may be a little squeamish about mounting a horse and riding off a cliff.

The beginning of the trip is breathtaking, they say, for those brave enough to look down. Geist held a fixed stare on the back of his horse's neck.

And frankly, Geist's horse didn't seem too crazy about making this trip, either.

After a long ride down, Havasu Creek, a crystal-clear, turquoise stream signaled their approach to the village of Supai, an oasis in the desert. "Havasupai" means people of the blue-green waters.

Charlie Chamberlain's arrival is always anxiously awaited. For the Havasupai Indians, the mule train is a lifeline; the nearest supermarket is 120 miles from the top of the canyon.

Insulated by its own remoteness and towering red cliffs, this village of a few hundred people is a step back in time: no paved streets, no cars, no streetlights.

Charlie's wife, Agnes, has lived here her whole life. "I know when I go to town, it's really noisy. You hear the trains, you hear the sirens, you hear traffic. Down here, you don't. And it's really quiet," she told Geist. "I like that. I think it's really neat."

"It's our job, to take care of the canyon, the Grand Canyon, and the water and the salt and the pain that we live through, you know, through with the land. That's us. It has to be us. You know, we're the guardians of the Grand Canyon. That's what we have to live up to," said Matthew Putesoy, who is on the tribal council.

These rocks have been here for billions of years, the Havasupai for nearly 1,000, the Postal Service for more than a century, Charlie for decades.

"How many of these trips have you made up and down the mountain? You ever count them up?" Geist asked.

"No, but I figured one time over the 21-plus years I've been doing this, I've been around the world two times on horseback," Chamberlain replied. "I love it."

"It really is a way of life for me. It's not just a job. It's a way of life," he added.
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