Chapter One: “His name is Charlie”

It was a gorgeous morning. The grass was lush with spring green that only April can sport. My ride on Sunday Praise, one of my retired Tennessee Walker show mares, had been delightful, but carefully planned. The previous May I had tried to help a horse get up who was stuck down in his stall. When he lurched to his feet, he knocked my right leg, hyper-extending it. I was devastated, not only because of the excruciating pain, but it coincided with the birth of my first grandchild, a little girl. What kind of Grammy was I going to be? I could hardly hobble, let alone carry a new baby.

Over the next year, the knee slowly healed, but bending it to ride a horse was tricky. My stirrups had to be just the correct length and time in the saddle was of short duration, but to someone addicted to sitting on a horse, any time was quality time.

As I was unsaddling my horse, Bob walked into the barn with his dog Hershey.

“Hey Rose, what would you think of taking the mule trip down the Grand Canyon with me?”

I nearly dropped my saddle as I turned to look at him in consternation. I was barely able to ride my horse on flat ground, how could I possibly ride for the hours it would take to do the steep ups and downs of the Grand Canyon?

Bob, who had come to stay with our family while he completed his MBA at a local college, had never left. He was the same age as our oldest daughter, loved the farm and county life, and we all sort of adopted each other. Bob had a special love for the Grand Canyon and had hiked it three times.

Seeing my surprise, he grinned and said, “Well, you should really think about it—before you get any older!”

I was astounded he would be willing to ride a mule. He didn’t ride our horses; I never got the impression he even liked them. He preferred walking the farm trails with the dogs.

“Okay, let me sit down and we will talk about this crazy idea.”

“The thing is, we need to schedule a year in advance. The ride is very popular and has limited openings. If you can’t go when the time arrives, we can cancel.”

That made it a possibility, but what would my husband Hal think of this venture? For thirty plus years he had been extremely tolerant of all my horse activities, such as traveling miles with our daughters to horse shows and breeding and raising horses.  Now that I had retired from both endeavors, I think he was hopeful life might be quieter and he could worry less about my exploits.

As it turned out, Hal just rolled his eyes and smiled, and another phase of my equine life was about to unfold.

We decided on the two-day ride, going down to the bottom and staying at Phantom Ranch for dinner and the night, and then riding back up and out the next day.

During the succeeding year, my knees made great progress, my back stayed together and nothing else happened to make me hobble. I researched all I could find on the Internet about the rides, and read several experiences of other riders. It appeared that I could do it, if only my knees would hold together. It is very stressful on knees going downhill as we would be doing.

Late evening on May 11, 2006, we arrived at the El Tovar hotel on the south rim of the canyon. Between car and air travel we had been on the road thirteen hours and I was exhausted.

Look down there,” Bob said. “There’s the Tonto Platform with Indian Garden within it. That’s where we’re going and will have our lunch.”

I shaded my eyes against the setting sun. It looked so very tiny and far away—down. The Garden Creek area could be spotted by all the green cottonwood trees that were growing along it. It looked like an oasis in the middle of the desert. The Grand Canyon is actually two canyons: the upper one that can be seen from the rim, and the deeper inner canyon that can only be seen as a hiker, river rafter, or mule rider. We would be among a small percentage of Grand Canyon visitors who saw the inner canyon and the Colorado River.

The sun was making spectacular shadows and sunlit areas on the canyon wall. I have seen many pictures of the sun rising or setting over the Grand Canyon, but although the pictures are beautiful, they cannot create the same feeling as seeing it in person. The canyon looked painted in light mossy green horizontal strips mixed in with the red of the rocks. The color was different from the clumped darker green of bushes and trees. I asked Bob what made it look like that. Was it like the famed Painted Desert, the color coming from sand?

“No,” he answered, “it is vegetation.” That was amazing. It looked as if it had been created by an artist’s brush. I would get to see for myself soon enough.

The next morning we were to be at the mule corral by 6:45. After waiting for half an hour, Bob pointed out the mules coming back across the road from their barn and pens. There were several wranglers each leading a group of mules. The mules were tied to each other with about two and a half feet of rope between them. As the mules came across the road, traffic stopped and waited—and waited. It takes awhile for thirty mules to slowly cross a road.

I wondered how they would all fit in the small corral, but the wranglers packed them in with only inches between them. Some mules had a few disagreeable looks for their neighbor, but mostly they stood, ears flopped off the sides with a sleepy look in their eyes. They’d been here before and seen it all. The wranglers poked and pushed mule butts over and squeezed in to tie them up with their rope halters. Each mule had his bridle hanging on the saddle horn.

Next, Marilyn, the petite blond mule boss, started her speech about the rules of the trail.

“Be sure you drink plenty of water from your canteens that you have been given. Dehydration is definitely possible because today is predicted to be in the 90s.” We all hung around the corral and listened raptly, not wanting to miss anything.

“The mules have the right of way,” she continued, “hikers must stand aside and let you pass.” She paused for emphasis and swatted her leg with a riding switch. “The most important rule is that all the mules must be ridden close to each other. A tight compact group is ninety-five percent of the safety of the trip. If your mule lags behind, it will miss its buddies and will run to catch up. Then the ones behind that one will run too.”

I got the picture. Having greenhorn riders on running mules could be a disaster.

Marilyn continued waving her riding crop and said emphatically, “You have all been given a switch. We call it the ‘Motivator.’ You must use it to keep your mule close behind the next mule. No gentle taps will work; you need to mean it.”

That should pose no problem for me; I was, after all, a veteran horseperson.

I will remember that rule to my dying day.

I had already decided to not utter a word of my rather vast experience. I had ridden, trained, and shown horses for thirty years. I had bred mares, standing at stud seven stallions at one time or another, foaled mares, and broke young horses. At different times on our farm I had up to fifty horses for which I was responsible. Nope, I wasn’t saying a word. I thought if I did, they might give me a mule that could need some extra ability and I was on vacation. I didn’t want any kind of challenges.

There were two “day-ride” groups which would only go part way down, have a sack lunch and then return. Each group was called in to the center of the corral separately, lined up in a row, and a mule chosen especially for the individual rider. I don’t know how Marilyn decided who rode which mule, but later I would have reason to want to ask her that question. Next, we overnight riders were given our mules. There were two groups of six with their wranglers. These groups were limited in number because Phantom Ranch at the bottom could only accommodate a certain number of guests at one time.

Bob and I were in the last group of overnighters, and were the last two to be assigned a ride. First Marilyn called Bob out for his mule, and I was wondering which of the remaining mules would be mine. As I stood alone in the middle of the corral, I turned back to look at Bob, who was now seated on Sleepy, his mule. I thought I discerned a fleeting look of “What the heck am I doing up here,” on his face.

Finally, Marilyn led a mule over to me. “His name is Charlie” she said, and I was about to embark upon a splendid adventure.