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The Ride Of Their Life - The Grand Canyon Mule Experience
As sunrise begins to unveil the magnificence of the Grand Canyon every morning, every day of the year, a group of forty to fifty Canyon visitors gathers around the mule ride check-in desk in the lobby of the historic Bright Angel Lodge. The old lobby is the picture of comfort and security with its rustic beam construction and fire roaring in the huge rock fireplace. But the smiles and cheerful banter of this group mask the anxieties, which lie beneath. They are about to embark on an adventure that only a fortunate few people in the world will ever experience.
They are checked in now, and have been issued their rain slicker (Canyon weather is fickle) and their bota bag for water (a souvenir of the trip), and have made their way a quarter mile along the Canyon rim to the round, rock corral next to the trailhead. While the anticipation remains as high as ever, for most, the anxiety level drops slightly when they get their first look at Ron Clayton and his wranglers. Even though they resemble a picture out of the old Wild West, they are for real. One look at Casey, Dave, Jack, Sean, or any of the seven or eight others (including several equally competent lady wranglers) will rightfully calm their nerves. These are some of the best cowboys in the world. They love what they do, they do it well, and they instill trust at first sight.
As Ron gathers the riders around for instructions, a crowd of other tourists gathers also, out of curiosity. Unexpectedly, both the riders and the spectators are treated to a first class monologue with twenty minutes of instructions and education woven into a humorous presentation that further calms a few jitters. He stresses safety and reassures them that if they simply obey their wrangler, all will be well. He also assures them that if they don't obey their wrangler, they will quickly become hikers. Every single soul standing in that crowd believes him.
The riders are now ready to go.
A sharper trail boss doesn't exist than Ron Clayton. With an eye gained only from a lifetime of experience, he looks the riders over as they walk toward him into the center of the corral, one at a time. As they approach him, he calls out the name of one of the sixty mules tied up around the corral perimeter, a mule that will inevitably turn out to be a perfect fit for that rider. Ron is that good. After each group of eight to ten riders has mounted and been given last minute reminders by their wrangler, they follow the wrangler through the corral gate. Fifteen feet farther and they are at the Bright Angel Trailhead and over the edge they go.
It is rumored, and it is true, that the first quarter mile of the descent is the scariest. Anxiety is at its peak now, as many of the riders have never been in a saddle in their life. The trail is narrow, and the vertical drop-off along the edge of the trail is frightening to say the least. The first turn in the trail is almost a u-turn and, forgetting that a mule's head is some distance in front of its front legs, they may feel like their mule is going to go straight over. Never fear. In spite of their apparent nonchalance, these mules don't miss anything, and the very last thing they want to do is go over the edge. The turn will be successful, an audible exhale can sometimes be heard, and a tiny bit more anxiety will subside.
Lets take a short rest now.
A short fifteen minutes down the trail they will come to a wide spot which, by now, looks as safe as the plains of Kansas. The wrangler will stop and all the other mules will automatically line up beside him, facing the Canyon. He will remind everyone to put on their "parking brake" and then he will dismount and begin a rider to rider equipment check, tightening cinches, checking stirrups, etc. All the while, he will once again be stressing the most important rule of safety - keep your animal up close to the one in front of you! The mules make this trip every day and they are so comfortable on the trail that they will sometimes lose focus and lag behind. If not reminded by the rider's use of a "motivator" to stay close, at some point the mule will realize his sin on his own, and will run to catch up. While it is somewhat humorous to watch a wide-eyed rookie rider bouncing up and down on the back of a mule cantering down the narrow and rocky trail, hanging on for dear life, this is how accidents happen. So the riders are reminded once again that repeat offenses of this nature will surely turn them into a hiker.
It is here also that any rider who has already become totally convinced that death is just around the next corner, can dismount, leave their mule where it stands, keep their bota bag, and hike the short distance back out of the Canyon to enjoy a longer life. Only pure terror can be the basis for this decision, however, and it rarely happens. The trail below looks much less ominous and most of them will already be visibly more relaxed. The adventure that they have dreamed about has just been vividly previewed and the lure to continue is almost undeniable. The wrangler mounts up and the ride of their life resumes.
It is impossible to describe the sensations that they will experience for the next two hours as the trail drops some three thousand feet in altitude, and no attempt to do so will be made by this writer. This aspect of the "once in a lifetime experience" is different for every rider. Some will later recall the breathtaking vistas as the trail winds around the Canyon walls and occasionally yields glimpses of the vast valley below. Others will recall "interesting" parts of the trail itself. Perhaps Jacob's Ladder, the seemingly endless series of switchbacks which scale what appears to be a thousand foot vertical rock wall. Entering the Indian Garden oasis with its hundred year old cottonwood trees shading the quaint atmosphere will also be a memorable occurrence for some, not just for its serene beauty, but also because they are more than ready to get out of the saddle for a rest.
Camaraderie will develop among the riders even though they are from different parts of the world and just met one another in the mule corral. Without fail, they will be party to humorous incidents along the trail. They will all laugh more today than they ever thought possible. Some will quickly develop a bond with the animal they are riding - talking to it and calling it by name. In fact, the most lasting memory for some will be the animal they rode. They will always remember its name.
The Indian Garden, Views and Lunch
Upon arriving at Indian Garden, they will welcome the chance to dismount and stretch. Some will now be noticing the first signs of soreness in a place where they are not accustomed to feeling it. Others will just be happy for the opportunity to walk around and straighten their legs. If it is summertime, the wrangler will line all the riders up and hose them down - no exceptions - with cool water piped across the Canyon from Roaring Springs over on the Canyon's north wall, and it turns out to be fun for everyone. Mid-day temperatures in the Canyon can be extremely high and the symptoms of overheating are sometimes difficult to recognize. The wrangler will once again check everyone's tack, and they are off to Plateau Point. By now, a few of them will even fancy themselves real cowboys.
The trail out to Plateau Point is flat and uneventful, giving no hint of the spectacular view they are approaching. Even as they are dismounting at the pipe hitching rail they are still largely unsuspecting. Only when they clamber up on the huge flat rock and make their way out to the pipe rail at the far edge, do they get their first view of the Colorado River peacefully wandering along the Canyon floor. It is still so far below that it resembles a piece of blue string lying on the ground. A brief reverential silence usually occurs, and then the exclamations begin. This will be what some will always recall first. It is breathtaking for sure. One last look, a few thoughts and comments about the beauty and power of mother nature, and they mount up and head back to Indian Garden for lunch. Everyone is always ready for lunch.
They were all given sack lunches when they checked in at the lodge this morning. A light lunch, but tasty. There won't be any complaints as they relax on a short rock wall, munching away, discussing the natural wonder they have become a part of for one memorable day in their life. They will all be feeling some level of physical discomfort by now, and when the wrangler says "OK riders, let's hose off once more and mount up", most of them will be thinking they would rather sit right where they are just a little longer.
Back up or stay
The trip back up the Canyon wall will be quieter and probably uneventful. It has been a long day and they will be tired by now. With their backs to the valley, they will trudge up and out of this mystical world and back to the civilization to which they are accustomed. When the wrangler announces a rest stop for the animals, they will sit quietly and gaze back down into the Canyon. Their comments will be predictable - "It's just gorgeous" or "I'm so glad we made this trip" or "We were all the way down there?" Whatever the comments, the appreciation in their voices is clear.
As they dismount for the final time, back on top in the corral where it all started, their mood will be somber and appreciative. They will be glad to get out of the saddle for the last time, but subdued by the realization that the adventure has ended. They will express their appreciation to their wrangler with uncommon respect and they will remember his name forever. They will return to their homes with memories, which will never be dislodged, and in some cases, never even diminished. They understand full well that they were privileged to experience the ride of their life.
As sunrise begins to unveil the magnificence of the Grand Canyon the next morning
Indian Garden is where the riders who stayed overnight at Phantom Ranch separate from the day riders and embark on their own private adventure. Although they have now come half the distance from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch, a quick look back up at the rim will verify that they have descended two thirds of the total altitude change from the mule corral to the canyon bottom. Most of them will take more than a quick look, however, because from Indian Garden it is difficult to see how that canyon wall could possibly be traveled. But they did it, and they will all feel some degree of pride in their accomplishment. The hard part is over.
The gently sloping trail now follows Garden Creek as it wanders down its narrow channel toward the canyon bottom. It is picture postcard beautiful. The cottonwood and willow trees, the lush riparian vegetation, and the peaceful sound of crystal clear flowing water give them the feeling that a new world has been entered. Considering themselves advanced beyond novice rider status by now, they are secure and comfortable in the saddle and most of them will truly relax and enjoy the ride. Whereas it is common to see bighorn sheep at the top of the trail in the morning, deer are what they are likely to see down here. Being unaccustomed to any threat from humans, the animals in the canyon will simply glance up and then go on about their business. This will be a photo opportunity for those riders who have never before seen a deer in the wild.They will all be looking to the left as Garden Creek separates itself from the trail, tumbling rapidly downward and disappearing quickly into a small rocky gorge. As they pass, their attention will again focus forward and it will be mere seconds before they realize that there is nothing but open air in front of them. Hello Devil's Corkscrew! As they round a sharp bend they will find themselves on the side of a canyon wall, on a narrow ledge, staring down a near vertical drop-off to the valley floor. A valley floor which everyone of them will say is at least a thousand feet below, in a canyon which would be impressive in its own right anywhere but here. A degree of anxiety will return and some will later recall this as the most frightening part of the entire trail. Even Garden Creek had the good sense to detour before it came to this.
At the bottom
At the bottom of Devil's Corkscrew they will find friendlier ground, again following along the creek as it gently slopes toward its final approach to the river. The wrangler will probably verify that the Colorado River is not far ahead and comfort them with the assurance that the trail plans no more devilish surprises. A few general comments will be heard and they will relax again, now the hard part is over.
The Bright Angel Trail breaks through a small gorge and affords its first view of the Colorado River only when they are literally at the river. There it is, right in front of them. Most of the riders will think it is bigger than it looked in the pictures. All of them will be awed at the energy and power it emanates, and this will be the high point in some memories. As they turn to amble along the comfortable River Trail at the water's edge, if they hadn't realized it before, they will now, this is the ride of their life.
Suddenly, exclamations will be heard from the riders in front as the trail rounds a knoll. The Silver Bridge across the river can be seen in the distance, stretching from canyon wall to canyon wall. It is a long, high suspension bridge, and some will probably wonder how they could ever build it in such a remote location. They know this isn't their route, but they can't help but say something when they first see it. As they approach the bridge, it is even longer and taller than it first looked, and the large steel mesh floor allows the river torrent to be seen clearly beneath one's feet. Woof ! A long ways beneath one's feet! As they file by the end of the bridge, most will be glad they are not crossing the river here, but now the more forward thinking riders will be wondering what the next bridge has to offer, and may even ask their wrangler as much.
As they continue to follow the River Trail to the bridge on the Kaibab Trail, they will begin to realize that they are climbing back up, and that once again the trail has become a narrow ledge on the side of a solid rock canyon wall with a vertical drop that is difficult to ignore. While it may be only a few hundred feet to the bottom this time, the sights and sounds of the powerful Colorado River directly below them add yet another sensation to be remembered.
As they approach the dark entrance to the tunnel, it more resembles a cave than a passage through the rock. Like a giant tube, it curves around just enough to obscure visible light from the other end. Somebody will probably make scary noises in the dim tunnel. The other end of the tunnel is a vertical rock wall with the Kaibab Bridge connected directly to it. One step on the solid rock tunnel floor, the next step on the suspended bridge, with the river directly below them, a long way below them. Is there no end to this adventure? At least this bridge has solid matting on the floor, which comforts mules and riders alike.
Now the hard part really is over. Historic and rustic Phantom Ranch awaits them just up the trail in yet another cozy, cottonwood-shaded oasis. After dismounting, the cantina will be the first place the riders hobble to. The cantina is comfortable and inviting and, after they check in, they will sip on cold drinks and begin to share their impressive recollections. These will be private exchanges and they will be quite certain that no outsider could fully appreciate their descriptions. But no matter the beauty they have seen or the magnitude of their adventure, they will be happy to get out of the saddle. Some will probably already be concerned about the probability of discomfort in the morning, on the long ride out of the canyon. It won't be as bad as they may fear.
One final effort
Phantom Ranch is nestled in a small draw on the North side of the Colorado River, where the Bright Angel Creek has decided to join the big river. The people are friendly, the food is excellent, and the beds are conducive to deep sleep. The wake up call will come too early for most, but their excitement will begin to rekindle as they step out into the cool morning air. If they can resist overeating the five star breakfasts provided to them in the cantina, they will be cheerful and ready for whatever comes. The nervous exuberance of yesterday will be absent today as they are old hands now. When they arrive at the mule corral, few of them will realize that the wrangler has been at work since before daylight rounding up, feeding, and saddling the mules. There will be a few comments as their backsides hit the saddle, but their enthusiasm is again high.
Back across the Kaibab Bridge, back through the tunnel, past the River Trail cutoff, and out of the secluded lower canyon river gorge they climb. Riding uphill is different than riding downhill and most of the riders will find it easier. The red clay trail spirals up steeply in the shade of the early morning, as if to escape the perils of the river as soon as possible. Even so, as the riders will now trust their equestrian skills, it will be a quiet ride up this section of the trail to the rest stop on the edge of the first plateau. From here on, however, the Kaibab Trail will offer a completely unique and superior viewing experience. They are entering camera country.
With the trail now traveling along ridge tops most of the way, the views available to the riders will make them feel that they are on top of the world. Every day, even every hour of the day, the hues and tints across the vast canyon can change. The distant earth tones and pastel colors will transform as they climb, always masking the true rugged nature of the canyon. Each time the trail brings them to a higher plateau, the panoramic vistas are almost indescribable. Each time the river comes into view, it will be farther down and once more begin to resemble a painting rather than reality. The magnitude of the canyon will come back into focus and they will marvel aloud that, only a few hours ago, they were a part of that painting.
It is a near certainty that some of the hikers they pass will be physically stressed. The Kaibab Trail is shorter than the Bright Angel Trail and has more elevation gain. Being steeper, having no fresh water sources, and having precious few shaded rest areas usually catches the uneducated by surprise. They have found that the canyon caters to no one. By now, the riders will be taking for granted the strength, endurance, and trustworthiness of the animals they are riding. The sight of struggling hikers may remind them of their good fortune and prompt a few friendly expressions of gratitude to the mule that has become their friend, a friend who will be indelible in their memories.
As they approach the South Rim near Yaki Point, they will again be tired and somewhat subdued. Overall, the ride today has been quieter and more serene than yesterday. Then, one last time, the canyon will remind them of its superiority, just before it releases them. Near the top, the trail will again force them through a series of switchbacks, climbing steeply up the seemingly vertical rock wall. Once again displaying the characteristics of height and distance which make this a recognized wonder of the world and which caused them so much anxiety yesterday. One final reminder to them that this is The Grand Canyon. One final verification, as if they needed it, that they have experienced the ride of their life.
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