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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Mystic Spring

Scott Thybony

We stand on top of Mount Huethawali, a peak rising from within the Grand Canyon, and scan the terrain below for any sign of Mystic Spring. To locate the elusive water source we have blocked out a couple of days for the search.

Northeast of us stretches a labyrinth of deep canyons and lone buttes with names like Merlin Abyss, Guinevere Castle, and the Holy Grail. This classic Grand Canyon landscape of monumental temples and sky islands gives way farther west to stepped terraces and steep talus. And everywhere cliffs rise from the rubble of cliffs. Early guides called it “The Ruins of Paradise,” and the name fits.

We descend from the summit to the red Esplanade bench and cross an expanse of slickrock. Mystic Spring was plotted wrong on early maps and not shown on recent ones, but we know the general location. Reaching it, I leave my pack and climb down to a lower ledge, joining my friends who take a different route. The three of us begin the hunt, holding copies of an old photograph to match the topography. Picking our way around blocks of sandstone and through thickets of brush, we work past a projecting cliff and come upon the lost spring.

Clumps of maidenhair fern grow from the wall, dry except for a single drop of water suspended from a nubbin of rock. Occurring near the top of the cliff it lacks any real drainage to collect runoff, making it one of the most improbable springs I've seen.

Scott Thybony

The Havasupai Indians kept its location secret. In the 1880s canyon guide William Bass scoured the area after hearing rumors of its existence. Finding nothing, he gave a Havasupai friend half a beef and a sack of flour to divulge the location. The guide used the water for his tourist camp on the rim and as an overnight stop for his clients. Solder-top cans and an old pick head still mark the site. Eventually an earthquake caused the spring to dry up.

Looking around I notice a natural tunnel leading into a nearby cliff. Intrigued, I enter it and find myself inside a chamber at the bottom of a shaft filled with light. To my surprise, a redbud tree has taken root here within the heart of the rock, its branches never reaching the surface twenty-feet above.

As we make camp, another mystery remains. Next morning we hike to the end of the terrace for a sweeping view of the inner gorge, and find nearby an old inscription reading, “Monte Video.” Neatly chiseled into the rock, the block letters stand four-inches high and show signs of spalling and wind scouring. The only early reference to the inscription I’ve been able to find was in John Van Dyke’s book, Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  In 1916 he descended the South Bass Trail and reached the far end of the terrace. “An ancient Canyon-lover,” he wrote, “has named it Montevideo . . .”

Exposed to the elements, it’s unlikely to have been carved by a Spanish conquistador as some believe. The dramatic view must have inspired an early tourist to carve it. But on the return, we come upon another carving that would qualify as ancient. We stop at the foot of Huethawali to inspect a prehistoric roasting pit. The mound of fire-cracked rock shows where people cooked the hearts of wild agave centuries ago. And on the cliff face above I spot a petroglyph. A simple spiral pecked into the rock turns upon itself the way a juniper grows, the way an eddy swirls, and the way our trail back to the rim twists and turns.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.