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Chapter Two:  Down We Go


First, however, I had to get up on Charlie. At home I use mounting blocks, which I’ve placed somewhat advantageously around the farm. My knees simply won’t bend well enough, and my five-foot-four-inch frame graced with short legs won’t reach high enough to get on without one. Getting on and off would prove to be the hardest and most ignominious part of the whole trip. I felt like a sack of potatoes being hoisted into the saddle.  That was another reason I was grateful I had kept my extensive riding experiences to myself.

Patrick, our guide and wrangler, led us out of the corral and headed down the Bright Angel trail. The three ladies in our group followed him, and the three men brought up the rear. After we had gone a few hundred feet, which included some gentle switchbacks, I was aware of the most amazing feeling of delight welling up inside me, one that brought tears to my eyes. Here I was on an equine, one of my very first childhood loves, enjoying one of the absolutely most magnificent creations of God and nature—The Grand Canyon. How could I be so blessed?

From then on there were no more thoughts of worry about my capabilities. I only felt extreme appreciation for my sure-footed mule Charlie, and the breathtaking vistas.

Soon after experiencing my flush of pleasure and negotiating a few sharper downhill switchbacks and rough footing, I realized, yes indeed, we were several mule lengths behind Patrick and the other two ladies. There was no way on earth I was going to ask Charlie to hurry up while we were proceeding through this part of the trail. Finally, the path leveled out, relatively speaking, and I tapped my mule smartly on his behind. He responded with a nice little jog trot to catch up. Of course, that meant the ones behind us had to do the same thing, but I didn’t hear any sounds resembling fear. Okay, so far so good.

Pretty soon a gap of several mule lengths again appeared between Charlie and the second lady rider. This time we were going around a switchback, which meant that a rider above could see us below. I heard someone say, “Git up there, Charlie.” It was another wrangler who had been bringing up the rear of our group. Oh great. We were only thirty minutes into our ride and already I was causing a problem. I tapped Charlie again and we were off at a little trot to catch up. The wrangler at the rear said “Adios,” to us, and our little group was now alone with our guide, Patrick.

I talk to my own horses—mind to mind—as well as in words, indicating appreciation for them and berating them when necessary. I was talking to Charlie, too. He was very sure footed, and he did not “walk the edge.” The lady’s mule ahead of me did, and I held my breath for them. She looked around several times, and by the look on her face there was no doubt she wished her mule would not. We had been told some mules walked very close to the edge, and we were not to compensate by leaning in towards the other side. That could make the saddle slip, or worse. She was a good trooper, sitting straight in her saddle, but definitely not looking over the edge at any scenery.

I was beginning to feel a real rapport with Charlie by now. I knew from the start that you did not guide them; you just let the mule go and held onto the reins. A rider definitely had to trust her animal, and I did indeed trust Charlie. I rubbed his neck from time to time with my hand and told him softly that he was a good boy. But again we lagged behind.

Going downhill was interesting to say the least. Some parts were smooth and the walk was easy—except for me and the rest behind me—we were jogging to catch up to the others who had again gained several mule lengths on us. Some parts of the downhill ride consisted of steps, some quite deep from the dirt being flicked out of them by many mule feet. The steps were held in place by wood poles so they were very stable, just steep and sometimes deep. Charlie sort of hopped down the steep ones stiff legged so I got a nice jolt each time. But I was glad to be riding and not hopping down them with my own knees. Each mule had britching straps that went around their rear end to keep the saddle from slipping forward. Coming back home up the trail, they were not used.

The rocks were abundant and naturally “cemented” in the path, requiring the mule to pick and choose its way through. I noticed that each mule seemed to have a preference as to footsteps. Charlie did not always step into the same little spaces that the mule ahead of us had. There were places that didn’t have rocks, and there again, Charlie and I, leading our little group of stragglers, were trotting to catch up. After the first two times of tapping Charlie’s butt, he trotted on his own to catch up as soon as he had a clear path. I thought that highly intelligent of him. He was not worried in the least about losing his forward companions and his trot was slow and controlled. Apparently Charlie hadn’t listened to Marilyn’s admonition about worried mule laggers.

After a few looks over his shoulder at our little trotting periods, I sensed that Patrick wasn’t quite as pleased as I was. I also suspected the fellows behind Charlie were not enjoying their trot as much as I did.

One of the rock formations at the beginning of the ride down Bright Angel Trail looked like an Indian gazing out towards the canyon. Patrick told us the native Indians considered it to be a spirit that looked after the canyon and its inhabitants. We passed under a rock with ancient Indian drawings upon it that indicated the long history of the trail, maybe as long ago as 10,000 years.

The trail lies along Bright Angel Fault that creates a natural break in the cliffs and gives access to Garden Creek 3,500 feet below the rim. This is where we were headed for our box lunch, and where the day riders would turn around and go back up the same trail.

As we rode lower and traveled through several climate zones, it got hotter and hotter and soon was 90 degrees. The heat was unusual for the time of year, but the whole spring had been strange. Patrick told us that in April, a snow storm closed the upper part of the trail at a switchback with two feet of snow. Problem was, there were day riders at the bottom that needed to come home. He and several others had to go down on mules and shovel the snow off the trail. The other trips down were cancelled.

As we rode the mules down the trail, the trees changed. A thousand feet below the rim we found the slow growing pinyon pines (which reminded me of the feathery white pine trees in my own Indiana back yard), and the denser, scrubbier and shorter junipers. Another thousand feet brought us to the Tonto Platform and desert scrub like blackbrush. Later as we enjoyed the last part of our ride to the river and Phantom Ranch, we would see more desert-like conditions and plants such as brittle brush, honey mesquite and cat claw acacia. The heat and the change in rainfall made the difference.

Bob said it could be snowing or raining at the rim and when the moisture reached a certain depth in the canyon, it just stopped—evaporated. He had wanted to come at this time of year because we should see wildflowers and cactus in bloom.

“Oh, Bob, look!” I pointed with my motivator to a spot about fifty feet high on the canyon wall. “See that one lone magenta cactus growing out of solid rock?” It was a stunning sight and unnoticed by the group ahead, but if you were riding a pokey mule like Charlie, you might as well enjoy the sights….

As we got closer to Indian Garden, the tiny green oasis I’d seen from the top of the rims, the trail leveled out. True to form, Charlie and I had dropped behind again. The path was level, but still rocky; I didn’t want to make him hurry up through bad footing so the distance got to be about seventy feet between us before there was a nice place trot to catch up. I gave just a little squeeze and he trotted pleasantly off. A mule trotting on the trail makes quite a lot more noise than just walking. As Charlie trotted on, so did the three mules behind us. Problem was, however, they weren’t through the rocky place. Apparently that didn’t deter the sure-footed animals, but I heard several exclamations from the riders as their mules hurried to stay attached to Charlie’s tail.

Of course, four mules trotting along make even more noise than one, and Patrick quickly turned in his saddle to see what the clatter was about. I was truly embarrassed this time. I had committed the cardinal sin of canyon mule riding. Fortunately, it was on level ground, but I don’t think the guys behind were very happy with Charlie and me. Patrick seemed more surprised than anything, but I was glad I couldn’t read his mind.

After traveling a little over two hours down the 3,500 foot decline into Indian Garden, we stopped for lunch. The day group had proceeded on to Plateau Point, where there was a sheer drop to the Colorado River and a splendid view, and then they would return to the top.

The first group of the two-day-riders was already eating, their mules tied to the hitch area. Their guide’s name was Frosty. He had been wrangling the canyon mules for sixteen years, and had decided this would be his last year. He looked every bit the cowboy, which he always had been. A tooth missing, deeply tanned, with glinty eyes, he wore spurs with what looked like three-inch rowels. Tall and slender, he walked with spurs clanking just like cowboys in the old west movies. Frosty rolled his own cigarettes while riding his mule. My one and only conversation with him didn’t go quite as I had hoped.

We all were munching on the lunch items, like chips, fruit, and snack bars, things that could be easily carried down on the mules, and Frosty was chatting with a couple from his group. They were right beside me, and I thought I would tell Frosty about gaited mules. These mules were from Tennessee Walking Horses, Paso Finos, Racking Horses, or any mare that did a smooth gait. Bred to a jack (a male donkey), the mare sometimes produced a gaited mule. They are a big hit with trail riders, and I thought he would find it interesting.

I introduced myself as being from northern Indiana where we raised Tennessee Walking Horses. With a look of pure disgust on his face, Frosty said, “Why, I wouldn’t have anything to do with those horses. They are only good for shooting.” Seeing the look of total surprise and dismay on my face, he added, “Well, they might be good in parades.”

My face burned with embarrassment, and I muttered something about hoping he never came to northern Indiana and that was the end of the conversation. Before we mounted back up to continue our ride, it hit me that he was probably thinking of the padded, chained, and sored “big lick” show Tennessee Walking Horse. Of course, he would only have total disdain for those poor creatures. It was too late to explain that I was talking about trail horses, as he had already headed back out on the trail—and I’m not sure I would have braved his ire again, at any rate.

This was where Patrick told us we would be sprayed from the hose to be cooled down. I was more than ready. While being hosed down, I asked Patrick if the mules would be watered. There was a big trough available.

“No,” he answered, “they wouldn’t drink anyway. They will be fine until we get to the bottom.” He further explained that mules rehydrate quickly, so dehydration wasn’t as big a problem with them. We, however, were admonished again to drink, drink, and drink from our little water canteens. Patrick told us he had extra water with him if we needed it.

We were allowed to give our mules the apple cores from our lunch if we desired. I quickly grabbed two that weren’t mine—I had been given an orange—and Bob and I gave Sleepy and Charlie a treat. At least I thought it would be a treat. Both mules took the apple like it was a job they had to do. My own horses almost jump up and down in glee at the thought of an apple. Their eyes widen, ears prick forward, nostrils flare. Not these fellows. They chewed slowly with their ears still flopped off to the side, eyes half closed. I hoped the treat might entice Charlie to walk faster—but no such luck.

The gentleman of one of the married couples in our group asked Patrick if they could ride together instead of the three women in front and the fellows bringing up the rear. That was fine with him, so all of us decided to ride with our own buddy. Someone else asked how he wanted the group to go. He answered, “It doesn’t matter.” The mules were lined up at the hitch line with Bob’s mule Sleepy and Charlie together at the end of the line, and I think that is how we ended up at the rear of the group. Either that or everyone else scrambled to get away from slowpoke Charlie.

The rider who had been right behind Charlie rode a mule named Nora. She was a big fat long-legged black mule. She absolutely loved to eat and rather than have the riders fight with her all the way, she wore a “grazing muzzle.” I use the same type on some of my fat— and getting fatter horses. They can drink, eat several blades of grass at a time, and breathe easily through it. Nora liked to boogie on. She was forever on Charlie’s tail, or with her head a little past it, along his side.

Her rider had complained about this to Patrick at one of our stops. Patrick’s reply was, “That’s fine; just don’t let her pass him.” I think both Nora and her rider had had enough of Charlie’s rear end and seeing their chance, got in line ahead of Charlie. I know that was fine with Charlie too. He was tired of turning his head to the side and giving Nora dirty looks. So off we went, with Bob and me bringing up the rear.

Patrick rode an eye-catching mule named Norman. I had noticed him that first morning being led across the road to the mule corral where we would be given our mules. He was a light brown color, almost creamy. He had a beautiful head, which is what I noticed first, and walked smartly along. I thought the wranglers rode their own special mules—mules that were perhaps smarter, better trained, and even better looking. That turned out to not be the case. Norman was only four years old. I think that alone spoke of his intelligence. Patrick said he was almost ready for a customer to ride. What a lucky person that would be.

As Norman and Patrick rode ahead, here and there I could see Patrick’s boot with his spur tapping Norman’s side. Patrick’s spurs were not big as Frosty’s, but they were efficient. The mule responded by moving sprightly on. In my mind I begged Patrick to not use the spurs. Darn, you are already leaving us in the dust. I really don’t think you need the spurMaybe I could borrow them?

The ride from Indian Garden into the inner canyon was breathtaking. It followed the water for some way, so the cottonwood trees were green and provided a little shade from the heat. Many cacti appeared ready to bloom, but we missed seeing those. There were several species of cacti and Indian paintbrush blooming vibrantly with gorgeous orange and red blooms, and brittlebush with bright yellow flowers. One of the strangest of all was the dantura flowers that seemed to grow splendidly out of the granite walls. They looked a little like our morning glories. It seems strange to say, but that was maybe my most favorite spot on the ride. It was shady, the creek bubbled along beside us now and then, the flowers were especially bountiful, and it was green. I know one does not go the Grand Canyon to see green, but I delighted in it. This little green oasis could be seen from the top rim of the canyon.

Again Charlie lagged. It was getting harder and harder to encourage him to trot to catch up. Whack, whack—nothing much happened any more. We had two hours left to get to Phantom Ranch and my feelings for Charlie were turning into a sort of love/hate relationship. I appreciated his carefulness and steadiness, but goodness, couldn’t he possibly walk just a little faster?

Sleepy did fairly well at keeping up with Charlie most of the time. We certainly were going slowly enough. We crossed the little creek several times, and at one of the crossings, Sleepy decided to have a drink. I had turned around to check on them, and told Bob not to let him. Not that it would have hurt the mule, and I did feel like a total heel not letting him drink, but Charlie had fallen quite far behind again, in fact, I couldn’t see anybody ahead at the moment. If we waited for Sleepy to drink in his slow methodical mule-like manner, we would really be behind the rest. Bob pulled his mule’s head up and I told him we had to hurry.

“Is there an easier way to ride this darn trot?” Bob asked. “My rear end hurts.”

“Stand up a little in the stirrups and maybe it won’t be so bad. I am really sorry, but this is going to be a long one.” The path ahead was relatively smooth and flat and somehow I got Charlie into a trot. As we came rattling up behind the group, Patrick didn’t even turn to look. Neither did the others. Everyone knew who it was and who had caused it.

At Indian Garden I had apologized to Patrick for Charlie’s slowness. He said Charlie always did that—slowed down the ride. I told him I was an experienced rider and that although I couldn’t get him to walk faster, I was not afraid of riding him to catch up. That seemed to relieve Patrick’s mind.  He answered, “I won’t worry so much about an experienced rider.”  But that didn’t cover poor Bob who was destined to bounce along behind us.

The green ride was short but sweet and soon we were going down again. The inner canyon is narrower with steeper sides. Instead of vegetation, we saw stunning rock formations of different colors and sizes.  It was on this portion of the trail that Bob had a heart stopping experience with Sleepy. As Marilyn had told us, mules have the right of way. Hikers must hug the wall side of the trail, or step into or onto an out-of-the-way spot. We had traveled past several hikers, including one who was safely positioned into an indented part of the stone wall. We all trooped by, but when Bob and Sleepy at the rear passed by, the hiker stepped out a little too soon and his walking stick hit Sleepy on his rear end.

There had been about twelve feet between Charlie and Sleepy—too far to be correct, but maybe good in this case. Sleepy jumped ahead and closed the gap in a second.

Whoa!” Bob shouted. It would have given me alarm and I am a rider of spooky horses at home. True to form, though, Sleepy did not head for the cliff’s edge, just the comfort of Charlie’s rump.

Bob was busy snapping photos of the plentiful and colorful flowers. As I rode first, I pointed with my motivator to show Bob something I wanted to be sure he spotted. We enjoyed the plants; in fact, if Patrick had heard us talking, he would have been convinced the reason we were so far behind was not Charlie’s fault, but rather our fascination with the flora of the region. But of course, he could not, and again we were quite far behind.

After descending another thousand feet or so, Bob said, “Just wait, soon you will see the Colorado.” Sure enough, after going around another bend in the trail, there it was. We were nearly at its banks, but still above the big river a little. From a distance we could see a big rubber raft coming toward us. That was another way to see the spectacular canyon and river, but not for me. I’d stick to the mules. Ahead in the distance we saw a bridge spanning the river.

We knew we were going to cross on one, but Patrick yelled back that this one was not ours. We would cross farther on. It was disappointing. All of us were ready to cross the river and be at Phantom Ranch. We were hot, tired, had sore bottoms, and I was becoming worn out from trying to coax Charlie to move faster—which simply wasn’t happening. Patrick knew we were all weary and tried to keep us encouraged. “Just a little farther and soon you will have ice tea or lemonade.”

I shifted my weight from one very numb buttock cheek to the other. Oh goody.

The trail now followed the river, but it went up and down along the side of a mountain. As I looked down from the narrow path, the swirling green water of the Colorado made me feel dizzy and disorientated. Some of our group waved to the big raft as it got closer, but I kept my eyes on the trail ahead except for a quick glance now and then. It was along this path that Charlie noticed a hiker backed into a cleft of the mountain. He had passed what seemed like hundreds of them before and never even turned his eyes. For some reason this particular man was noteworthy. Charlie hesitated a step, and pricked his long ears forward. My heart skipped a beat, but the rest of me was too tired to feel any anxiety. Then just as quickly, he decided the man posed no threat and walked on.

After I reached home with my mule fascination in high gear, I read that mules take more after their sires, the donkey. A donkey does not have the extreme “flight” response to situations that a horse does. He will stand and look the situation over, deciding if he should run, fight, or just remain still. That was wonderful—a thinking equine. Charlie showed that he was thinking several places on the ride.

Finally we saw our bridge. I think we all almost broke out into song—or tears. Glory be! We were almost there.

When I got home I also researched this bridge. It is an architectural marvel, in a way. Everything to build it had to be brought down the trail by foot or mule. Before the bridge, everything had to swim the river or use a boat to get to the other side. Also before this bridge, enterprising men with their trusty mules had built a slow and treacherous cable-way completed in 1907.  In 1921 a swinging bridge was constructed allowing mules and men to cross. However, wind sometimes turned the bridge upside down, so although it was better than the cable car, it was not ideal either. In 1928 a rigid suspension bridge was built. The cables were 550 feet long, weighed 2,300 pounds, and couldn’t be carried by mules. Forty two Havasupai Indians were hired to lift them on their shoulders around the curves.

We saw the bridge quite a ways ahead before we would cross. First, were more rocky ups and downs. The path followed the river but not in a straight line. Bob mentioned that as hikers, he and his friends were quite disheartened to realize they had

more climbing to do after reaching the bottom and the river before they could cross to the other side.

We entered a tunnel that was not long, but had a bend in the middle of it, which made the center dark as night. Charlie did not falter as he traipsed after his fellow mules. Thankfully, somehow he actually was on the tail of the one ahead. Almost as soon as we exited the tunnel, I saw the bridge.

It was quite a sight, not only because it signaled the end of the journey, but it was an engineering marvel. Suspended high above the frothing water, it looked like two fourteen-inch planks in the center for the mules to walk on with just inches to spare on the sides. The substantial sides were made from steel with a wire fabric attached to it. Relating the impending crossing to one of my horses, I knew I would never make it across, but on Charlie’s back I didn’t feel at all frightened, but neither did I look down. Charlie hesitated just for half a breath before stepping on the boards, checking it over to be sure it hadn’t moved since the last time he had been there.

The end was finally in sight. It had been quite an adventure; however, I would be glad to dismount from my trusty, but slow, mule. Charlie put his head down a little and looked at the end of the bridge too, just for half a second. My Charlie was careful.

I turned in my saddle and plaintively asked Bob, “How much farther?”

“Just a little more. Hang in there.”

People were fishing in the Colorado with campsites along the river’s banks. Even a tent looked good at this point. We passed by Hopi Indian ruins, the remains of five families’ dwellings. The stone sides were visible with the fire pit close by.  And then around another bend was the level path into Phantom Ranch. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. We had arrived.

I saw a building ahead, and all of a sudden our mule string came to a sudden, complete stop. It was like a traffic jam. After Charlie caught up, I craned my head around to see what had happened and saw Patrick encouraging Norman with his spurs to keep going. What in the world was that about?

We started up again, and Charlie and I came to the spot where Norman had wondered about continuing. Two big black plastic garbage bags sat close to the path. We have those monsters in Indiana too, and our horses are not likely to go past without some questions, but I was surprised about the mule. I figured they were used to anything. But those big black things had not been there last time. Charlie cocked his ears and turned his head, but didn’t miss a step. Good old Charlie.

Finally, we stopped. Although eager to get out of the saddle, I wasn’t sure I could straighten and move my legs. After we were pried and hauled off our mules, we endeavored to walk out of the little corral. Everyone except Patrick and the mules appeared to be lame.

Phantom Ranch was like an oasis with a bigger stream flowing beside it and several little ones running through and around the cabin area. Our guides led us to some benches where we sat with water softly misting over us. Talk about simple pleasures: a seat that didn’t move and cooling water. Heaven!

“I know you are all tired and hot,” Patrick admonished, “but don’t do the thing I know you all desperately want to do—lie down. If you do, you will become very stiff. Walk around a bit and limber up and get the circulation moving in your legs.”

Bob and I limped off to our delightful rustic stone air conditioned cabin and immediately took a nap. So much for following directions.

We awoke starving (and not stiff) and ready for our home cooked meal. Our supper was scheduled for 6 p.m. They served two meals, and seating was assigned. One would not want to miss supper.

Bob told me that the added air-conditioning was new; the last time he had hiked down only “swamp coolers” were used. We had arrived around 2 p.m. and the cabin was pretty warm with the sun beating down on the uninsulated metal roof, but by 5, the sun was starting to slide behind the tall mountain, and it began cooling down.

A clean shower area was provided with nice fluffy towels, all the more impressive when I remembered that all the items had been carried by trusty pack mules for our pleasures. Refreshed and clean, I wandered toward the canteen to find Bob. My stomach growled.

Time for supper didn’t arrive any too soon. What a supper it was—thick tasty steaks, big baked potatoes, salad, a vegetable and chocolate cake. Golly, I have been hungry before, but food never tasted this good.

My dinner companion to the left was a gentleman from Bakersfield, California. We started talking about the ride. He and his wife Jeannie had been in the first group with Frosty. He related that his wife had a horse and rode at home, so she was in better shape than he was. My ears pricked up. A fellow horse person. Someone to talk with about the mules!

The four of us lingered after dinner and had a delightful conversation. Jeannie and I had much in common with our mules. Hers was named Betty, and Betty was a slowpoke like Charlie. I had seen Frosty’s group now and then as they wove their way ahead of us on switchbacks. Frosty was ahead of his group many mule lengths, next a black mule followed, and then the rest of the pack. They were strung out too. I tried to tell myself that I was not the only one with a laggard mule, but it hadn’t helped much. It was a blow to my self-worth as an experienced horse person that I couldn’t encourage Charlie to keep up with the others.

Jeannie said that Frosty’s mule had refused to go by the black garbage bags and he had to get off. Her mule Betty then decided to “head for the hills” off to the right side of the path. Fortunately, we were on the bottom of the canyon and there was space to go. With a little effort, Jeannie got Betty stopped and headed back to the path and into the ranch.

Chalk another up for Charlie, the trusty slowpoke; he had walked right by. Thank goodness there were no black garbage monsters along Bright Angel Trail.






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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.




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