Rainbow Bridge backpacking trip celebrates 31 years
TUBA CITY, Ariz. - This Memorial Day will mark the 31st year of an annual backpacking trip Earl Riggs organizes from Navajo Mountain in Utah to Rainbow Bridge.
Michael Riggs, Earl's son, said that his father never intended the hike to be an annual event.
"The way he puts it, he and a bunch of friends went out and went on a hike 31 years ago and he swore he would never do it again," Riggs said. "And he has been doing it every year since."
The distance from the trailhead at Navajo Mountain to the hike's end point is about 17 miles. Riggs said each day consists of about a seven-mile walk. At the end, boats take the hikers to Rainbow Bridge.
While the hike started as an excursion with a few friends and family members, it has now evolved into a much larger coordinated effort. Riggs said that the hike has gained interest from hikers from Europe, Asia and South Africa, but most participants come from the Navajo and Hopi nations.
This hike has always had a spiritual bent to it, Riggs said. It is about the journey and being in tune with nature and with the Long Walk as a memory.
He said there are stories and ceremonies that the Navajo engaged in to ensure that there was safe passage through the canyons and to maintain and keep the traditions alive, those were the kinds of things that were stripped from the people on the Long Walk. So many people died, Riggs said.
It is also important to Earl that the hike teaches something to younger kids.
"I think a lot of it has to do with what my father and those folks who have been on this hike for a very long time, essentially our elders, impart to the children," Riggs said. "They may or may not have known about the Long Walk but during the hike they learn the importance of it."
Riggs said the hike through the canyon lands functions as a lesson on Navajo history. The hike also provides a sense of community.
"What starts the sharing is as simple as a camp stove. People coming together, eating together and sharing stories," Riggs said. "The sense of camaraderie is fantastic."
It is not just spiritual lessons that Riggs gives to those who participate in the hike, though. The organizers try to provide an opportunity for youth from low socio-economic homes to experience, learn about and enjoy the outdoors. They want to emphasize the importance of lifelong physical activity to the kids and create respect for the environment
and healthy active living.
The logistics of moving 100 people from Navajo Mountain to Rainbow Bridge is complicated, Riggs said.
"Not everyone moves en mass. Some folks arrive at the trailhead early. And some people come up on Saturday and hike faster to catch up to the group," Riggs said. "But we do try to ensure that every inexperienced hiker is paired up with a more seasoned hiker."
And not every seasoned hiker is an adult.
"A lot of them are kids who have come back because they enjoyed it so much," Riggs said. "They are the ones who teach the new ones how it is done, properly."
Over the past 30 years, Earl Riggs has covered any extra cost for the kids going on the trip himself, but Riggs is hoping to move away from that so the hike can become self-sustaining.
While there is a difference of opinion between Riggs and his father about how to become self-sustaining, Riggs wants to build a stronger community by getting sponsorships from businesses patronized by Native Americans - shops and restaurants in the border towns. He also wants to inspire Native Americans to frequent establishments they may not have tried before; businesses that support Native American efforts.
"I am working on a three year plan to get people to buy into that kind of model and from that we can build," Riggs said.
More information about the hike and sponsorship is available from Michael Riggs at (928) 614-8691.