Chapter Three: The Kaibab Trail


After a wonderful night’s sleep, we were up for breakfast at 6:30. Hikers were fed the first meal so they could get started back up the trail before it got blistering hot. Scrambled eggs never tasted better. Pancakes were light and fluffy, and the bacon was just right. We were told that everyone who worked at Phantom Ranch had to hike down and up. Everything else was carried in on the pack mules and all the garbage—and mail— carried back out by them. The accommodations were especially luxurious considering that fact.

I headed out to the mule corral a little early; I wanted to give Charlie a pep talk. I was already dreading the long ride. We had been slow coming down, what in the world would it be like going back up?

Patrick arrived and saw me gently stroking Charlie’s long ears.

“I am trying to con Charlie into walking faster,” I said somewhat sheepishly.

“I don’t know that conning old Charlie will work. I think you need to use that motivator….”

“Bob can attest to the fact I whacked poor Charlie’s butt plenty on the way down, but it did no good,” I said, sighing. I was tired already.

Patrick sort of smiled and headed back toward the cabin area, spurs clanking. Frosty’s group, with Bob and Jeannie, our new friends, would head out first, and then Patrick’s group would follow. It was around 70 degrees and getting warmer by the minute. It would only get hotter as we went up. The ride would be about five and a half hours and seven miles long.

When we were on our mules, Patrick gave us instructions.

“Be sure to drink your water. There is no water on the way up, but I will carry extra. We will stop frequently for mule rests and you can view the magnificent sights and take pictures. It will be hot. Be sure and keep your mule moving….”

His voice sort of trailed off as he looked straight at me, but I saw the half grin on his face and felt assured he wouldn’t leave me behind.

Off we went, back across the bridge, through the tunnel, and then up the Kaibab Trail to the left, leaving the Bright Angel Trail that we’d taken down.

I looked up ahead, then down at Charlie’s ears. Oh, Charlie, what’s in store for us? But I knew Charlie knew: it was up and up and up. My legs were already exhausted just thinking about it.

Bob said, “I love the Kaibab trail. It has the prettiest scenery of all the trails. The last time I hiked the Canyon, my friends and I took the Kaibab Trail down and back up. Usually hikers come down the Kaibab and go back up Bright Angel because Kaibab it was steeper and harder to hike steeper.”

I saw immediately what he meant. Some of the path was only stone and dirt, with many of the stair steps made from timber to keep the dirt in place. Up and up Charlie had to step, and naturally, we fell more and more behind.

The Kaibab Trail is more open as it follows a ridge line out of the Canyon rather than following a fault line as the Bright Angel Trail does. The views were breathtaking. I could see farther to the sides and down and in a couple places could see the emerald green Colorado River. Patrick stopped the mules for breathers and for us to take pictures. Bob had become rather adept at taking shots as he rode. Only one or two flopped, although a lot seemed to have a view of Charlie’s (and my) rear end.

When Patrick stopped the mules to rest and enjoy the views, the riders were to pull their mules’ heads and turn their bodies toward the drop-off, and hook the reins over the saddle horn—the mule break. On the way to the top, Charlie was always several mule lengths behind, so when Patrick stopped, it gave time for Charlie to catch up, but it didn’t give him much time to stand still, as Patrick soon moved on.

Charlie and Sleepy developed their own method of stopping. Charlie knew that very soon they would be moving again, so why should he turn his body sideways and look out over the side? It took too much effort and several more steps. He just stood still on the path. I left him alone—why bother? Sleepy and Bob saw Charlie standing on the path and did the same thing, which perhaps was a good thing in one instance.

Hikers asked, and were allowed to pass to the rear end of the mules as they stood looking out over the cliffs, hugging the back of the mountain side. Hikers are not usually animal people, I think, and don’t realize what a mule might do. My shoulders tensed as the hikers squeezed by, but Charlie was oblivious.

As the last hiker in the group passed Bob and Sleepy, his walking pole hit Sleepy’s rear—again. By now the mule was sure those guys with poles were not to be trusted, and at this moment he was absolutely positive of it. He jumped forward into Charlie who never flinched, making stones clatter. Patrick looked askance; I can only imagine what he was thinking. I know what I was thinking—I was getting worried for Bob.

On we went again, more up and up and more hikers. I was once more glad I was on a mule. Those people looked absolutely worn out. We said “hello,” and moved on. Bob almost always said, “Hi, have a safe trip.” He knew from experience about the hiking, and I think he was also thinking of himself and Sleepy. I know I was.

Starting up the trail, we had again passed through the Vishnu Schist’s beautiful black rock formations, and then into the sandstone and limestone formations, and another switchback.

Bob said, “Look down there.”

Two pack mule trains, packed with our garbage and the mail, were moving along at a good fast walk. I raised my eyebrows. Hmm. I wonder what’s going to happen when they catch up? They had started out quite awhile behind us, and there was no place to pass that I could see.

Patrick pointed out Little Vista, a view off to both the right and left of us. It was a panorama of rocks and crevices with dark shaded areas and some vegetation here and there.

Bob took more pictures. Around another bend and there was an even larger expanse of visionary delights. We’d come to part of the trail that seemed to be like a bridge between two points. It was down, down, down on both sides. By now the paths and trails, heights and stones in our path didn’t bother me. I knew Charlie would navigate them all safely—but bless his heart, we were falling farther and farther behind again.

There was no power left at all in the motivator. All I got was a half hearted swish of his tail, if that. After Bob’s last experience with Sleepy and the hiker, every time I halfheartedly hit Charlie, Bob said, “Don’t hurry.” I nodded. I wouldn’t want to be in a hurry on a mule that had done some serious skittering around on the paths either. But there was nothing to worry about: Charley was not going to hurry.

It seemed like days, but it had only been four miles and probably three and a half hours when we reached The Hermit Shale that makes up Cedar Ridge. It is quite an expanse of fairly level ground that was 5,200 feet above sea level and 2,000 feet from the rim—and it was hot. I felt hotter going back up than I had coming down—like I was in direct path of a blast furnace—even though the temperatures were likely the same. I think it had something to do with trying to encourage Charlie to walk uphill faster. It was a tired reflex by now. I tapped his sides with my legs as I would do my horses. Of course, nothing happened. I had given up on the whip long ago.

Patrick took everyone’s pictures on our mules with our own cameras and then we dismounted, if you could call it that. As we walked and limped around the site to limber up, the views were absolutely superb. We saw 6,072 foot O’Neil Butte, named for Rough Rider Bucky O’Neil towering above the landscape. It was painted with the same pinks and greens of the canyon.

There was a place to go potty, but I sure didn’t need it. I had been drinking from my canteen every chance I got, but not while we were moving. Our stops were short because of Charlie’s slowness. I had no extra liquid to contribute to the potty.

It doesn’t seem like getting a drink from your canteen would be at all challenging, but it was wrapped by its small rope around the saddle horn a couple of times. You were not to just drop your reins; you were to hook them over the horn. By the time I took off the canteen, hooked the reins and then figured out what to do with the motivator, I had my hands full, and my brief “Charlie stop” was over.

Two little Kaibab squirrels were much in sight, hoping for a handout. Feeding any of the animals was strictly forbidden because they would become dependent upon easy food instead of looking for themselves. I sat in what little shade a pinyon pine tree provided, and watched one of the brownish-grey striped critters come closer and closer.

Smaller than our gray or black Indiana squirrels, this one was even more brazen, and actually climbed up on my leg. He got a peanut from me. I don’t think I was the first or would be the last to feed him. After we had been pushed back up on our mules and were heading out, I pointed out to Bob a squirrel climbing up on a hiker’s pack as she sat totally unaware, under a tree.

“Those little rascals know food is in a backpack and if given enough time, some of them will even undo the zipper and get inside.”

I grinned. “Personal experience again?”

He just chuckled.

Before we reached Cedar Ridge, we caught up with Frosty’s group, no doubt due to Betty, Jeannie’s slow mule. I saw a ray of hope. I remembered that Betty was pokey like Charlie—perhaps we could go in one long, leisurely group and I wouldn’t be to blame. But, no, Patrick stopped for a nice long rest, giving Frosty time to move ahead again.

Just a short while after reaching the next rest spot, the pack mules appeared. The wranglers said “Howdy” to each other as they passed, but the pack mules got no rest-stop. I wondered if this was all planned, like a real train schedule. As they trooped by, I noticed that because they were all tied together, the forward mules were “towing” the following ones. Maybe that is what Charlie wanted—a tow.

The pack mules looked none too happy having to march smartly on at a fast walk. Most of the rear ones had their heads up, being pulled along. They were not looking at the ground where they were walking. I was mystified about this, wondering how in the world they could see where to put their feet on the many treacherous spots. When I got home and began to investigate mules, I read that a mule’s eyes are placed farther out on the side of his head, more like the donkey. A horse’s eyes sit forward and their vision is totally different. I was flabbergasted to learn that a mule can see where he is putting all four of his hooves! That certainly explained part of their surefootedness.

Later I read that mule’s eyes are not placed differently, and do not see differently from a horse, but since they are more careful about where they place their feet, they are sure-footed. I don’t know which is true, but for whatever reason, mules, perhaps because of their strong self-preservation attribute, take more care in where they walk.

After our rest, we were hoisted back onto the mules. It took both Bob and Patrick to push me into the saddle this time; I was getting tired and couldn’t help a lot. Part of the problem was the high cantle or rear of the saddle. After I got up I had to swing my stiff right knee and leg over it. My mounting was getting more and more unattractive. I wanted to ask how much longer we had to go, but held my tongue. More switchbacks were in store for us, and it was steep; it would take another hour or so to reach the top.

My feelings for Charlie had undergone yet another change. I was feeling sorry for him; I knew he was tired. He had broken out into a little sweat; Sleepy, on the other hand, was quite sweaty. By now, he looked around to his rear when any of those strange creatures with poles came near. Bringing up the rear was not a comfortable spot for him any longer.

I had thought about trading places with him. I doubted that anything would make Charlie jump forward, but if Sleepy decided to keep up with the rest of the mules, I would be left totally alone. Patrick might have to send back a scout for me.

Bob and I were not the only riders to have some problem with our mules. The rider on Nora just ahead of me had to cope with her wanting to eat everything in sight, even with her muzzle. Whenever we stopped for lookouts, Nora turned her butt away from the steep downside to hunt up some small grass blades growing on the mountain side, exactly the opposite of what we had been instructed. It seemed her rider was quite ineffectual in stopping her.

I wondered how many gray hairs Patrick got during the ride. I also understood why after sixteen years, Frosty thought it was time to do something else. Regardless of that habit, during one of the few times Charlie and I were actually close enough to hear him, Nora’s rider said, “I love this mule. I think I will buy us a couple when we get home.”

Charlie was moving as though he had ten pound weights on each foot. Each step seemed an effort. At one of the turns he stepped up, turned, placed his front feet on the path ahead, and came to a complete standstill with his hind feet planted on the step below.

“Come on, Charlie. Don’t quit on me now,” I said. Sleepy was right at his butt with nowhere to go.

After a momentary pause, Charlie continued climbing. He was not too tired to notice something not quite to his understanding, nonetheless. We saw many hikers coming down from the top of the Kaibab Trail. It was Saturday, and more were taking the trail. A person can trek down to Cedar Ridge and then back up for a short hike if he did not wish to continue down to the Tonto Trail and across to Indian Garden, or on to the Phantom Ranch.

We were approaching a sharp curve in the trail, but fortunately for my nerves, it was not one of those where the mule had to go forward to the edge and then turn. Charlie saw something and pricked up his long ears. I tensed and peered ahead. “Oh, Charlie, what do you see?” I could see absolutely nothing out of place. He did not hesitate, but went on in his slow steady pace. Ears pricked forward on one of my saddle horses at home could mean a spook was on its way, or a quick turnaround at some real or imagined monster. But nothing happened with dependable Charlie.

At one place on the Kaibab Trail, again Patrick was above me on a short switchback. He could see that, yes, there was quite a distance between me and Nora. Looking down, he called, “Come on, Miss Rose.”

Talk about embarrassed. I looked up and waved, giving him a nice big grin—but Charlie would not “come on.” If Charlie could have actually spoken in words, I’m pretty sure I know what he would have said. I heard them in my mind: “Miss Rose, don’t worry none. I’ve been up and down these trails so many times I could do them in my sleep. I’ll get you to the top. There is no hurry. I know what I’m doing.”

I think his plan was to conserve his energy rather than have rest stops. At any rate it worked out the same.

That was not the end of my humiliation, however. At another big bend in the trail, all the rest of the mules and their riders were gone from sight. There were many hikers in this section and they had to wait for the mules, as we had the right of way. Patrick must have told them we were coming behind and to wait for us.

As I approached a lady with a big grin on her face, she asked, “Is this Pokey?”

At this point it was rather funny. I laughed and said, “Yes, we are the last mules.”

As we continued up the trail, Sleepy had one more electrifying moment for Bob. There was no one behind them and nothing happening that Bob could attribute Sleepy’s actions to. There was a scramble, the sound of loose stones or shale and Sleepy took several quick steps toward the side of the mountain. By now I think Bob wanted to get off and hike the rest of the way. Earlier, we had informed Patrick about Sleepy’s escapades, and he said one of the wranglers would ride him next time and get him over that. Obviously those actions were not the ones for a Grand Canyon mule. Slowpoke Charlie was looking better and better.

We stopped again, for what would turn out to be our last look at the Canyon. I sat and drank in the reds, golds, and mochas of the creation, and felt so small and unimportant in this awesome universe of beauty

Patrick was talking to someone on his two way radio. I heard him say something like, “Ten minutes.” I wondered and hoped that meant we would soon be up to the Rim. Sure enough, he told us our ride was nearly finished. Then he looked back at me and Charlie, grinned ear to ear, and said, “Watch Charlie now, as soon as he gets to the top he will take off at a gallop for the mule corral!” It was nice to see that Patrick had maintained his sense of humor.

That was, however, far from the truth. Charlie, Sleepy, Bob and I moseyed in about twelve mule lengths behind, amid some good natured ribbing from the rest of the group.

My first thoughts were that I had done it, but I would never do it again. It would be one of those totally memorable experiences in life to always look back upon in wonder and happiness. Now I was hot, tired, hungry and thirsty, and ready to be done with mules, dirt, sun, and beautiful vistas. This time it was harder to be dragged from Charlie’s back and harder to stand. With a final pat on his rump, I said “Good-bye, Charlie,” and we were off to the bus, which would take up back to the start of our ride. Bright Angel Trail and the Kaibab Trail do not join. The mules would be hauled in a trailer. Charlie would be ready for his own ride.

After a lunch with lots of cool refreshing water, a shower and a nap, and dinner with our new friends, Bob and Jeannie, it was off to bed.

The next morning I wanted to visit the mule corral and talk to Marilyn about mules in general, and Charlie in particular. We got a late start and I thought they might be gone already, but Bob went to check and told me they were still there. I got there in time to hear Marilyn’s talk about using your motivator and sitting straight in the saddle. They were late also.

As I stood around the pipe corral looking for Sleepy and Charlie, I spotted Patrick. I asked him jokingly if he was going to ride Sleepy today.

He chuckled and replied, “Sleepy is at the barn.”

I could see why he wouldn’t want to use Sleepy today. There were many more riders on Sunday than had been on Friday when we left. Sleepy’s antics wouldn’t be at all helpful. Trusty Norman was standing, ready to go.

Then I asked him who got Charlie today. This time I swear he looked a trifle sheepish as he said, “He’s at the barn too.”

I was happy for Charlie—and for the person who would not be riding him that day. I questioned Patrick why they didn’t put all the slow mules together.

“I really don’t know,” he answered, “it seems that could be a great idea.”

I’m sure much more goes into picking mules for a ride than their speed, but it is a dilemma even with our Tennessee Walking Horses. They do not all gait at the same speed and I learned that to enjoy your ride, you must pick not only congenial people, but similarly gaited horses.

Just a few feet away, Bob had been talking to a hiker who had come up from Phantom Ranch. He said many people were talking about the frightened girl and the mule who had turned completely around on the narrow trail. Oh my, I could just envision it.

What would the guide do with his mule while he threaded his way back to the poor girl? How far back was she? Then I thought it was probably Nora or one like her who turned around for a blade of green to eat. Apparently mules aren’t perfect, but I would forget that significant fact as I later looked for mules of my own.

Patrick was already drumming up business for another day by asking us if we were going to do the ride again. I wasn’t at all sure, but Bob said, “Well, perhaps yes, we might just do that.” What was he thinking?

I looked at Patrick and said, “Well, maybe, but not on Charlie.”

This time Patrick actually chuckled a little. “No, we wouldn’t do that to you again.”

We came home and I promptly began investigating mules. Bob began checking out another trip into our nation’s beautiful wilderness.  My mule adventures were just beginning!