- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

SUPAI, Ariz. Charlie Chamberlain, clad in a black cowboy hat and fringe-trimmed chaps, slides a rope around boxes and white U.S. mail crates, knotting them snugly to the backs of his mules.

His horse then clippity-clops down the trail with the mules in tow. The red rock walls of the Grand Canyon rise around him. Dust wafts in his wake.

In an age of instant global communication, Mr. Chamberlain, a U.S. Postal Service contractor, might seem out of date. He delivers mail to the village of Supai on the Havasupai Indian Reservation the same way it has been delivered for a century.

For the 600 people who live on the reservation, which covers a branch of the Grand Canyon, and the thousands more who visit each year, Mr. Chamberlain and other wranglers provide a lifeline to the outside world.

They supply mail service and with it, everything imaginable to this village accessible only by foot, horseback or helicopter.

Everything from fresh fruit to candy bars to meat and french fries is mailed here, all at the standard Postal Service rate. A crate of letters and magazines usually gets in the daily load, too.

"It's amazing what people can do when they put their minds to it. They can pack things you never would have thought," said Mr. Chamberlain, who counts a disassembled washing machine among his most unusual deliveries.

The U.S. Postal Service established the mail route in 1896, using a relay of trains, wagons and mules to get the mail delivered.

Now, the food and other household items are delivered to the tan brick post office in Peach Springs, about 70 miles from the Havasupai Reservation trailhead.

There, they are greeted by postmaster LeRoy Hurst and two other workers who simply scribble "cafe," "store" or "lodge" to address the boxes of toilet paper, tubs of laundry detergent and crates of strawberries destined for the bottom of the canyon.

Some of the items, like milk and meat, are put in the post office's walk-in freezer to make sure they are frozen solid for the trek down the trail.

"The chopper takes the ice cream. That's about the only thing we can't take," said Hank DeLaney, the contractor who takes the mail from the post office to the trailhead.

Five days a week, Mr. DeLaney drives his delivery truck to meet the wranglers whose mules are tied at the hitching post, awaiting their next load.

The mules, led by at least one wrangler, climb and trot their way eight miles from the trailhead to Supai, where they make their once-a-day delivery. The trip takes three hours just one way.

The mule-train mail is one of a number of unusual routes used by the Postal Service to deliver mail to some of the nation's remotest spots. Under the agency's charter, it must provide uniform service at a uniform price, said Postal Service spokesman Mark Saunders.

That's why the U.S. Postal Service uses more than its fleet of white trucks to deliver mail: It uses boats to deliver to islands, snowmobiles to deliver to parts of Alaska and skis to deliver to part of Idaho.

"We're the last entity that makes house calls to every address in America," Mr. Saunders said. "We deliver all sorts of crazy things. You wouldn't believe what we mail."

Mr. Chamberlain would. Everything from Christmas trees to eggs has been delivered on his mules.

Most everything gets there in one piece, Mr. Chamberlain said, but occasionally, a load gets thrown from a mule. Once in a great while, he loses a mule altogether.

Earlier this year, one of his mules was bumped off the narrow, steep zigzags of the trail and killed. Mr. Chamberlain was obligated to collect firewood to cremate the mule on the spot.

It's "just part of the way of life here. It's not something you sign up for on the Internet," he said with a chuckle.

"You have to really love it."

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