By Karen Keninger
I have wanted to take the mule ride down into the Grand Canyon ever since I was a girl, and last November I found that Becky Criswell, a colleague at work, wanted to do the same. So before we could change our minds (come to our senses some might say), we booked the trip for this November. We flew to Phoenix and drove up to Sedona for the first night.
We left Sedona around 11:00 and headed for Grand Canyon National Park. The snow that had fallen overnight made travel a bit dicey, so we went back to the interstate instead of taking the scenic route. All along the way up from Phoenix, my Sendero GPS in my BrailleNote told me about features of the landscape. We passed Maggie Mine, Dead Man Wash, Bloody Gulch, Howard Draw, Dry Beaver Creek, and dozens of tanks, like Little Pig Tank, Government Tank. Two significant things here. First–there wasn’t much else out there to tell me about. Second, water, water, water. OK, it’s a desert–I know. But I couldn’t figure out what a tank was. I learned later that tanks are man-made reservoirs that serve as catchments in the desert for the precious rain that falls. They make watering holes for livestock and wildlife. When I use my GPS in Iowa, instead of tanks, I see lots of cemeteries. Different places have different priorities!!
Three hours or so later we arrived at the park, paid our way in and went to the visitors’ center. They have this fantastic 3-dimensional model of the canyon so I got a good look at that.
We kept watching the weather, trying to figure out if it was going to snow on us, or freeze us to death. I thought about the toasty warm coats I left hanging in the closet at home. Instead of one of those, I had brought a sweatshirt and jacket, on the mistaken notion that the word parka meant the same thing to me as it did to the woman I talked to on the phone before we left. She told me they would issue parkas. To me parka means fur-lined hoods, snuggly-warm lining, down to your knees. Suitable for weather of 20 below. No, I didn’t expect fur-lined hoods, but I really did think it would be something that had rain, wind, and cold, in mind. Wrong. It was the giant yellow plastic slicker she was referring to. Suitable for wind and rain-proofing but no body heat retention. It was cold and windy up on the canyon rim that evening when we arrived, and it was colder and windier the next morning.
Becky and I had been looking forward to riding mules down into the Grand Canyon for an entire year. I made the reservations last November, and we paid our money down. So a combination of excitement and–what in the world have we got ourselves into–got us up before the crack of dawn. We tried on our outfits. Mine consisted of a tank top and biking shorts; long winter running pants and a long-sleeved turtleneck; wind pants and a heavy sweatshirt; a knit hat, sunglasses, and a hooded jacket; boots, gloves, and my Victor Stream tied around my neck–all topped by this giant yellow slicker. Did I mention that it was cold–around 20 degrees–and windy? Becky had her own concoction, topped, as you would expect, by her very own giant yellow slicker and our communal camera.
We arrived with our plastic bags of treasure at the appointed time at the corral and stood in the wind for an hour while we learned what to do and what not to do. What to do: Keep your mule’s nose up the behind of the mule in front of it. Whack the mule with this item which used to be known as a crop but is now known in the park as a mule motivator, when the mule’s nose is not up the behind of the mule in front of it. Turn the mule to face the drop-off whenever we stop. Why? Safety. If the mule is looking over the edge, it will not jump. If it is not looking over the edge–well I missed something there, but I don’t think he said anything about jumping. What not to do: Do not let hikers interrupt the line of mules. Do not forget to drink lots of water so you don’t get dehydrated. (It was a bit hard to imagine getting dehydrated at 20 degrees, and he didn’t seem to have any advice for hypothermia.) And on and on until finally they took our bags, put them into saddle bags on the mules, and started assigning us mules.
Now I have ridden horses, and I’ve been in control of the animal, guiding it, starting, stopping, turning, etc. But I have never ridden along the edge of a cliff or around hairpin turns that brooked no mistakes. So I was a little nervous as to how this was going to work. I hoped Becky would be in front of me and would talk constantly so I’d be able to keep my mule right up close. Becky doesn’t talk constantly, so that might have been a bit of a strain for her. We hadn’t discussed it either and now it was a little late. They were ready for me though. They had a plan–the guide in front of the line would lead my mule. No argument from me!!
My mule had the whimsical name of Snoopy. Snoopy was a medium-sized white mule with a Roman nose according to my guide. Becky’s mule was Biddy, and earned her name throughout the ride. Like the others, Snoopy had his tail cropped in a way that distinguished him as a tourist mule and not a pack mule. Medium-sized meant that the stirrup was nearly shoulder-high. And I could not reach the saddle horn. There were nine of us altogether plus the two guides. Mules included Buckshot, Dirty Bird Berta, Lucy, Delilah, and Lopez. There were two wranglers/guides–Terri and K-Bar. K-Bar rode the lead mule and led my mule. Terri took up the rear and we of the gigantic yellow slickers were in between. Because I was right behind K-Barr, I got a private commentary all the way down. I don’t think anyone else in the line could hear him most of the time. Becky was next in line behind me.
Mounting my mule was truly a graceless affair. I couldn’t reach the stirrup until I got a heave-ho from behind, and then I managed to get the saddle bag caught underneath me. I finally did make it up though with everything intact. Riding it would be another matter.
The mules like to walk along the edge of the trail. K-Barr says it’s because then they know exactly where the edge is. Whatever the reason, going around that first corner of the trail and beginning to drop down had some people wondering what in the world they were doing-again. There was snow and ice on the trail for most of the upper half, but the mules seemed very comfortable picking their way across it in their winter shoes.
Riding a mule should be easy. They’re said to be smoother than a horse, more reliable, and more sure-footed. However, my right knee does not approve of sitting astraddle a saddle. It protests the unnatural angle and threatens to be the center of attention the whole trip. Meanwhile, we are reminded to keep our heels down, toes up, legs forward, and to lean back as the mule walks downhill. This is not as easy as it sounds, either. Every step the mule takes translates into the saddle. Wearing my biking shorts was not a bad idea–the extra padding did its job with every bounce. And, every one of those steps on that first day was downhill. That meant bracing my legs to absorb the shock and to counterbalance my weight so I didn’t tumble over the mule’s head. This is relatively easy for the first 100 yards or so. But these are not muscles my legs believe in. So by the time we dismounted half way down, two or two and a half hours into the ride, my legs nearly refused to hold me up. All that being said, I got into the rhythm of the ride pretty easily and truly enjoyed my mule. I didn’t have to guide him or motivate him like everyone else did since he was being led by the guide, so I could just focus on moving with him and appreciate the heart he put into it as he carried me down and down and down, around and around and around, switchback after switchback, through snow, ice, puddles, creeks, and the Devil’s corkscrew right down to the bottom of this mile-deep canyon we call Grand.
Bright Angel Trail wends its way, sometimes gently, sometimes pretty steeply, down the inside of a side canyon. The Bright Angel Fault provides the basis for the trail. The fault line runs down the south face, and on up the north face of the Grand Canyon. Going down in it we had spectacular views of the side canyon but not the panoramic vistas they promised us for the trip up on another trail. The weather was cloudy all day without a hint of sunshine. Happily when we dropped below the canyon rim, the wind was no longer a factor, but it was still cold.
Initially, this was a game trail and an Indian trail. In the 1800s miners started searching for gold and silver and copper in the canyon. They needed mules to pack in their equipment, so the trail was widened by use. This mule ride for tourists has been going on for over 100 years. In the 1930s the Citizen Conservation Corps (CCC) built the existing trail, widening, packing down, putting in some retaining walls, and generally making it safer and more usable for mules and hikers. Today it is pretty tame in terms of clearance, width and safety. Still, in many places, it goes right between a sheer rock wall and a sheer drop-off. With the mule walking along the edge, I could sometimes reach out my hand and touch the rock wall. The trail surface is rocks and dirt and in our case, ice and snow as well. The park service has to clean up rock slides and continually work on maintaining the trail. There aren’t many side trails like there are other places because there’s nowhere to go. The rocks are too unstable to allow independent climbing or hiking, so if you pick the Bright Angel Trail to hike, you have to stay on it. They have rest stations every mile or two for the hikers, but we only stopped once.
As we rode along, I could often hear the rock wall beside me along with the clop of the mules’ hooves. The vast emptiness on the other side wasn’t something I could hear, but I could certainly appreciate. I didn’t hear much wildlife, but it was probably the wrong season for birds. In several places the guide’s voice echoed distinctly off the canyon walls. Occasionally I brushed past a tree branch, but I was much higher up on that mule than most of the vegetation along the path.
Throughout the day we saw lots of hikers coming up the trail, and a few passed us going down. Some were carrying big camping-gear packs, and some just had day packs. (You can hire a duffel service that will carry your gear in and out by mule–note to self for future; money well spent.) These hikers were not all young gods, although some were. Grey-haired women, old geezers, and a family with kids shared the trail with honeymooning couples and a runner who claimed he could do the whole 10 miles up in 70 minutes. We did see that guy twice, once on the way down and once coming back up. I thought he was exaggerating, but then I heard that runners were doing the whole canyon twice that day–north rim to south to north rim twice–around 50 miles total. So maybe he didn’t exaggerate after all? It was an international lot, and we heard languages we could not identify. Some were on guided hikes–National Geographic, Sierra Club, etc. Somebody mentioned an Elder Hostel group coming down. Most were on their own though. We were a bit surprised by the number of hikers and wondered how jam-packed things get in the summer. K-Barr said the majority of hikers come in June and July, when the temps are over 100. That time of year the mood on the trail becomes less convivial as people’s endurance and patience give out in that heat.
Hikers are supposed to stand on the inside and let the mules pass, which they did. Friendly hellos and, seeing our gigantic, bright yellow slickers, they all asked us about the weather up top.
Snoopy is a very sure-footed mule. We took switchbacks with names Jacob’s ladder and the Devil’s Corkscrew. Some of the hairpin turns were so sharp that as the guide’s mule was headed east, my mule, right behind him, was still headed west. With no room to spare at the edge, Snoopy pivoted like a dancer without giving it a thought. This is when you just trust and chatter gaily along about something else.
We hit a plateau about half way down called Indian Gardens. There are camping spaces there, and it’s probably several acres. The Indians grew vegetables there in the past because it has its own stream for water. We ate lunch there and then headed down and down and down into the inner canyon. Finally Snoopy had his head up and we weren’t lurching down one step after another. We were at the bottom!!