A Grand Canyon Mule Ride

The Grand Canyon: More than a mile deep. More than two hundred miles long.

Home to a rich river ecosystem, with waterfalls, bubbling springs, lush canyons, it is nevertheless filled with desert-bare stone, rocky areas only slightly more hospitable than the surface of the moon. Permeated with vital living things — birds, rodents, reptiles, scampering mammals — at the same time it holds the fossilized remnants of creatures a billion years dead.

Adventure-seeker that I am, here I am at 8:30 in the morning, half-listening to the speech that precedes the Grand Canyon overnight mule ride.

I’m not the only one here. After moseying up to the dusty corrals in ones and twos, ten of us stand in that subtle haze of cautious half-embarrassment that often kicks in when you step outside your own area of expertise and into that of others.

Dressed in a wide range of mismatched outdoor clothes, some of it so obviously new it’s surprising we don’t all have price tags hanging out — shirts and blouses, jeans and boots, and an array of hats that span the gamut from droopy fishing caps to expensive-looking cowboy chapeaus — without saying a word, we scream “city slicker!”

We shuffle our feet and quietly eye the dozen or so mules tied to nearby hitching rails, their black and sorrel and bay hides gleaming in the early morning sun. Mere dumb beasts they might be, but they’re also confident veterans of today’s activity, and I’m sure some of us wonder if even they will think of us as lame-brained tourists.

Listening to the trail-safety talk

The leathery-skinned mule ride manager stands in the dusty center of the nearby corral and gives us a pretty severe-sounding talk about safety, hitting over and over on the point of keeping the mules close together.

“The main factor in safety on the trail is keeping a compact group — two to five feet between one mule and the next,” he says. Mules are herd beasts, and if one gets left behind he’ll break into a trot to catch up. Not a good idea on narrow cliffside trails.

He sternly vows he will kick us off the ride and ruin our vacations before he will allow us to endanger ourselves, or others. “Safety first, fun second,” he gruffs.

Coming from Texas, and even having past history working with mules along mountain trails, I’m absolutely certain he isn’t talking to me. Hey, I know all this stuff — I even have my own cowboy hat, and an actual lariat at home. But just to be polite, I pretend to listen.

A few minutes later, we’re being boosted into saddles. I’m still limber enough to get a leg up into the near-side stirrup, but dragging myself up to fork the saddle never gets easier. Fortunately, helpers materialize to see that each of us lands safely astride a mount, afterward adjusting stirrups and tying on water bottles and slickers.

Cinches are given a last check for snugness, and we line out along a broad dusty trail for the canyon rim. It feels good to be in the saddle again, and as I look around at my tenderfoot companions, unconsciously comparing myself to them, I feel the faint stirrings of a smug glow of confidence.

But as the ten of us, bracketed by our cowboy guides Harry Hadley and Bob Forsythe, tip over the canyon rim onto the terrifying trail, I mentally rein myself in, frantically trying to remember everything Clayton said.

No turning back

Somewhere in the world is a bright, safe, friendly place, bracketed by velvet ropes, guard rails, protective walls, painted safety lines and flat sturdy sidewalks. Warning signs, danger signals, flashing lights, even vigilant guards stand ready to warn you away from potential hazards. Every effort has been made to make the experience as safe as possible.

This is not that place. The Grand Canyon seethes with deadly danger.

Looking down into the depths at the receding spindly trail, which I can only characterize as a “horizontal moment” between sheer walls on one side and sheer cliffs on the other, I abandon any doubt that you could actually slip over the edge and die here. A foot or two, sometimes mere inches, away from my mule’s hooves, is the mother of all drop-offs, a swooping, vast volume filled with death. If you fell, you could scream your lungs empty two or three times before actually hitting the rocks below. Where your body would splash.

Not an amusement park kiddie ride

On one side of me is a vertical rock wall I’d have a hard time finding a fingerhold on. On the other is a sheer vertical drop that falls 500 feet to jagged stone teeth. In between is a dusty trail barely four feet wide. I kid you not, I am shit-scared.

As a former mule wrangler myself, I respect the sure-footedness and dependable trail sense of these four-legged critters. As a lover of animals, I feel a kinship and even affection for my mount, this patient beast who good-naturedly freights me along the trail.

But sitting up here as just another candy-ass tourist on a store-bought adventure, some part of my brain insists on reminding me that I am on a cliffside over a deadly abyss, and I’ve given total control of the brakes, accelerator and steering to an animal named Cajun — whose IQ can’t even be measured on a human scale.

Spurred by my wish to live a day longer, but reined in by my own herd instinct not to get laughed at, I spend several minutes searching around inside my head for the right excuse to get me off this ride. But I’m not missing any funerals of suddenly-dear grandmothers, there is no sister getting married today in an almost-forgotten wedding, I have completely failed to leave my heart medicine on the bathroom counter of my hotel room.

Besides which, most of the other riders are women. The macho idiot inside every man, even wimps like me, stomps down hard on the part that wants to flee screaming. Deadly danger or not, I am well and truly stuck.

I look around at my company — two experienced cowpokes and nine tenderfoots like myself — and sigh at their relaxed, happy looks. I decide to follow their lead and try not to think about the very real danger.

Traveling through time

Surprisingly, it starts to take effect. I relax enough to begin noticing the striped canyon walls.

The deeper layers are older. As we descend into the canyon, down through a layered parfait of colorful stone, it’s like traveling back in time. We start in the current day, on the very top, but the instant we drop over the edge onto the descending trail, we skip over a huge slice of time and end up 250 million years in the past.

This top layer is gray Kaibab Limestone, deposited in the Permian, the Age of Fishes. The span of modern time during which the thunder lizards and then mammals held sway on the earth has been worn away by time.

A mere three hundred feet takes us down another 5 million years into the Toroweap Formation, then another and another 5 million as we pass through the Coconino Sandstone and the Hermit Shale.

We accelerate pastward as we descend through the multi-layered Supai Group — 285 million years of age. The Redwall Limestone — 335 million. Temple Butte and Muav Limestone — 355 and 515 million years.

Bright Angel Shale — 530 million. The names get progressively weirder and the times further back: Tapeats, Shinumo, Hakatai.

Late today we will reach the venerable Vishnu Schist, at the very base of the canyon and 1.7 billion years in the past — a lonely, alien time to multicellular lifeforms like man and mule.

In light of all this time and the staggering range of games evolution has played with the forms and functions of living creatures during it, there’s a weird compression of the differences between Cajun and I. Descending into the domains of the truly alien, we transform from our broad array of obvious differences into a strangely comforting relatedness. Were a time-traveling evolutionaut to see us together, juxtaposed against the disorienting variety of the ages, he would rule us virtual twins. Cajun the Mule and Hank the Man share close kinship on levels from the molecular to the gross-anatomical.

Four-legged sightseer

As I sit on his back on the twisting trail, Cajun carries me into ever-changing vistas.  We are the axle around which an infinitely detailed Canyon view rotates — pinnacles, mesas, candy-striped rock walls surround and flow by us. Plants parade past: cacti, grasses, manzanita, woody growths that resemble stunted apple trees, and something that reminds me of a mimosa but that I later find out is stickery, grabby, aptly-named cat-claw. These are all desert plants — defensive and hardy, clinging tenaciously to existence in places where few other living things could survive.

Friends on muleback

An hour into the trip, a sense of camaraderie is developing between our guides and our individual dude selves. Harry and Bob are good-naturedly picking at each other — and us — and soon we’re all relaxed enough to poke back. One rider, Bonnie, gets in some real zingers on Harry … but then drops her quirt and suffers merciless ribbing when we have to stop so Harry can retrieve it for her.

And it’s getting hotter. From a comfortably cool morning, we’re now at about 85 degrees. A hiker friend who was here two weeks ago reported temperatures of 115 degrees, but Harry says today will be unseasonably cool — we may only get up to 100 or so.

Only an hour on the trail, something interesting happens to the perspective. Coming downward from the rim, it was obvious we were dropping into a huge, deep crack in the earth. But partway into it and able to look up at the stone walls above, we’re suddenly no longer in a canyon at all. With a river valley below me and rising rocky steepnesses all around, I am now clearly descending the side of a mountain. The natural “ground floor” of all this is not above me, but somewhere below.

Indian Gardens

At 10:30 a.m., we enter a green vale, and there’s a ranger station here, with a flagpole and windsock. A grove of cottonwoods provides shade, grapevines and heavily-laden blackberry bushes are an added surprise. Thirty or so hikers rest under roofed ramadas as we trail through, and a squirrel chirps at us from a nearby rock wall.

Not one of the visitors is sampling the fruits on the thick, lush stand of blackberry brambles nearby. Many of these people are not that much younger than me. Can they all really not know the tart, sweet taste that awaits them only a few feet off the trail? After 20,000 years on this continent, can the minor lore of edible blackberries have been lost in a single generation? Hmph.

We head to a livestock tie-up area and break for lunch.

It’s called Indian Gardens, but there seems to be little of the Indian about it. There are a half-dozen buildings here, with restrooms, water faucets, groomed trails, and all sorts of other “civilized” overlay.

Talking to one of the other riders, I muse that no doubt some of these hikers believe they are Roughing It. To my eyes, which have seen real wilderness, some parts of the area look as contrived as a theme park. There’s certainly nothing here to call “pristine wilderness” — the chance to interact with true wilds is only slightly greater here than it is back in the city. Our guides carry radios, for instance, that crackle with occasional loud voices and electronic squeals. Fer chrissake, a helicopter landing pad lies nearby — ready rescue if we break so much as a toe.

Candy-ass tourists, every one of us, we follow in the ten million footsteps of all the yahoos and looky-loos who came before.

Yet … I heave a contented sigh as I dismount and loosen Cajun’s cinch. I can’t knock the mule ride experience too much. For we overprotected city folk, this is a grand adventure, with clean air, good company both two-legged and four, and a closening to nature that soothes and relaxes. We need this, need the lessons of it, to approach completeness.

The Outhouse of Doom

Actually, the roughest part of the Indian Gardens experience is the “facilities.” With a firm-sealing door and a glass window in the roof, the greenhouse effect turns the outhouse into a scaled-up Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. It’s insanely hot inside, with temperatures so sweltering, so wilting, it gives me embarrassing visions of heat stroke as I linger at my business:

Discovered collapsed in a trailside crapper, I would be helicoptered out, and then interviewed from my hospital bed. Friends, relatives and strangers the nation over would rush to see my pale face on YouTube, made all the funnier by the lilting comic build-up of a smirking newsreader: “And in the lighter news tonight, it seems a Grand Canyon comfort station was TOO MUCH for one visiting tourist. We’ll go to Bill Darlington for more.”

As I stagger desperately out, sweat bursting from every pore, the hundred-plus degrees of outside air seems cool by comparison.

For those who want it, part of the caretaking at this point in the ride is a bucket of water poured over our heads. That doesn’t sound like anything you’d normally want to happen, but believe me, it’s welcome in this heat.

Whitetails: "Oh, look. More humans. Yawn."

Minutes back in the saddle, a white-tail deer peers at us from a few yards off the trail, interested and unafraid as it munches contentedly at trailside brush. A little after noon we’re down in sight of the Colorado River, the blind sculptor of this whole vast artwork.

This section of the trail is nothing more than a ledge over a 700-foot drop into roiling, foaming river, and my idiot mule — sorry, my good friend, my four-legged brother Cajun — is an avid sightseer who ambles along the edge, peering at everything but the trail, keen to miss nothing of the deadly vista.

I lean away from the drop-off nervously and tell one of my cohorts I’ve found the perfect title for this article: “Ten Thousand Ways To Die.”

An hour later, we’re down at the bottom of the canyon, crossing a beautiful suspension bridge. It’s Cajun’s turn to be spooked: Metal grates covered by rubber mats make up the walking surface of the bridge and they shift and clank underfoot. He snorts and dances across, while I unhappily take note that the bridge guard rails are only about four feet high. Protecting me from a 70-foot death-drop into water is a railing that comes only up to my mule-mounted ankle.

The river itself is muddy brown, and agitated. Familiar as I am with broad waterways that roll past in unconcerned placidity, or creeks that rush and splash but that you could step across, the Colorado hits me as an uncomfortable blend of both, both broad and dangerously swift. The surface churns ominously, as if giant aquatic carnivores roam the river bed, jostling each other irritably and staring upward at the juicy humans. Thinking hungry thoughts, they wait for any misstep.

The Phantom Ranch

After a hot half-day’s ride, coming into the Phantom Ranch is like coming home. If, that is, home included groves of aspens and birch trees and the buzzing of grasshoppers, but also huge prickly pear cactus heavy with purple fruits, and an ancient Anasazi dwelling (wow!). Hikers bathe in side streams nearby, and tents like colorful balloons are tethered in the campground. At the center of it all are a number of low cabins made of native stone.

Happy campers at the Phantom Ranch

We dismount stiffly, and Harry and Bob do rapid cowpoke things with saddles and mules while the rest of us head for cabins and showers and afternoon naps. On this carefully controlled adventure, the next demand on us is dinner at 5 p.m. There’s time to explore.

Cabins, check. Restaurant/snack bar, check. Bathhouse and information kiosk, check. But … it’s all somehow unreal. My head is tuned to wild cliffs and brain-numbing vistas. To the staggering, humbling expanse of time on display. Civilization seems almost imaginary.

A dozen huge yellow rafts are pulled up on the bank a quarter mile away. Still more candy-ass tourists pretending to live on the edge. But maybe their heads are getting retuned too? I find myself unable to ask — Grand Canyon rafters occupy a different social capsule from Grand Canyon mule riders, and we have little to say to each other. Still, the bright rafts are interesting, and spark thoughts of future adventures.

The Anasazi ruin is another lesson in provincial human viewpoint. In a canyon that parades a billion-plus years of time before you, this 850-year-old stone cabin is practically postmodern. On the geologic scale, people who lived here in 1150 A.D. seem like neighbors who have only stepped out for a moment.

I regret not catching them at home. But in the eyeblink of their absence, roofs have decayed, wall stones have tumbled and sunk inward. Probably better if I’m not hanging around when they get back. It might look like I had something to do with it.

After a near-royal dinner of mixed veggies, corn on the cob, a 12-ounce steak, cornbread, baked potatoes, chocolate cake and iced tea, I return in the fading light of evening to the Anasazi dwelling. The place feels a lot more ancient, and somehow sad. Generations of humans lived whole lives here. They simply left one day, trekking off into an ever-receding past, taking their stories with them.

A sky untouched by city lights

The feeling of mystery hangs with me as I stroll aimlessly. The sky is a mandala of pinpoint spotlights as I turn back, and the canyon walls overhead are looming black curtains on a billion-year-old theatre — a playhouse built to stage dramas written by gods.

The path is black before me and the hot night leaches the memory of my home era out of my head. I feel small and alone, and … scared. A scrabble of noise, maybe the whisper of stalking predatory paws, echoes from a nearby spray of boulders. It runs cold little fingers through my neck hair, hurrying my steps beyond the necessities of self-respect.

Only behind the closed door of my bright-lit cabin do I feel safe again.

The cabin is air-conditioned. It contains a shower, sink, toilet, mirror, four bunk beds, writing desk, art on the walls, curtained windows, heater, electric lamps and glowing digital alarm clock. Decorative plaques tell me more than I want to know about Bright Angel Creek, the Phantom Ranch, and especially about Major John Wesley Powell, leader of the first human expedition to travel the full length of the Colorado River.

I’m less interested in Powell the flashy white tourist than I am in the people who lived here as part of it all. Yet I sack out on a firm modern bed, safe and clean and well-fed. Images of buckskin-clad ghosts dance briefly in my head, juxtaposing the hardship of their lives against my cocoon of modern wealth. I drift off to sleep feeling deliciously pampered between my clean sheets.

After breakfast I discover you can buy and mail postcards from the ranch gift shop. They bear the unique stamp “Mailed by mule from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.” I buy a half-dozen, then discover that I can’t remember the full mailing address of a single person.

Upward bound

Before raw sunlight hits the canyon floor, we’re back on our mules and headed up. The canyon trails are too narrow for one line of mules to pass another, so we take a different trail, the South Kaibab, to the top.

Scenic vistas suffer from the common problem of haze, a gray-blue smudge that softens the distant views so they seem somehow less real. But today the air is so clear it seems to act as a magnifying glass. Even in this depthless canyon, the sounds and sights are vivid and close.

A trail sign offers a friendly reminder of mortality: Down here, people die just from the heat. Corn-fed optimists from the city take strolls down into the canyon and neglect to bring enough water, or to drink it, and the oven-like temperatures simply wilt them. Every year a small number are discovered dead on lesser-traveled trails. Like overheated Yugos abandoned on the roadside, these unlucky few find Destiny in the scrapyard.

A bridge fit to scare both man and animal

The sun sweeps down into the canyon and fries us, but we have hats and canteens, four-legged taxis and friendly guides. The return trip is everything the first day was — fun and scenic and relaxing and tiring — but with a bit less cliff-inspired terror. At a rest stop, an Italian family approaches to take pictures and pet the “moo-lays.”

Cajun has become a friend. I know I won’t have time to get to know him well, and I have no idea what he thinks of me. But from my direction, there is bonding that contains respect, gratitude, and no small measure of affection. After loosening his girth at the tie-bar, I scratch the stiff fur on his upper lip and he nuzzles into my hand.

Back on the trail on our hard-working mounts, we human tourists see deer, we kid around with each other, we gaze contentedly at scenery so complex it eventually leaves us in appreciation-overload, and we spend much of the trip simply smiling witlessly and watching it all slide past.

And then comes something different — the last 200 or so vertical feet of the upward route. The walls of the canyon become absolutely sheer, and there is no possible way a trail can exist on it. I want to rein in and study it, I mean really just stop and gape at the sheer, blank wall overhead, but the others keep going.

I am shocked that the trail continues upward. The damned thing is just plain eerie. Like a narrow ledge on the side of a 70-story building, the trail is stapled precariously to the smooth face of a sheer cliff. Close-spaced iron bars like giant pins project from the pincushion of the granite-gray wall, with crushed rock spread on top of them. Above me, like a running bookshelf seen from a low angle, I can see the bottom of the trail. I can see underneath the trail.

I look down and out, stiff with absolute terror, and my perspective flips upside down yet again, long enough for me to joke weakly with another rider: “The Grand Canyon is the shipping crate the Rocky Mountains came in.” We grip our saddle horns with white knuckles and laugh.

We “rim out,” as Bob calls it, at exactly 12:07 p.m., and I breathe a sigh of relief for being back on solid — and flat — ground. The day is suddenly brighter, and it isn’t the trailside scarlet gilia. If this were a movie, right now I’d be kissing the dirt in gratitude.

The memory of fear

I drive away slowly, and I’m quiet the rest of the day, pensive over something that seems to have come away with me. It’s more than the names of Grand Canyon plants, the touristy labels for the rock formations. More than the pleasure of cowboy guides and two days of mule company. More than the soaring vistas, and the depths of time. More even that the touch of the canyon itself, and the mysterious people who once made it their home.

It takes a while, but I finally pin down the elusive something: I have brought out with me the haunting memory of realio-trulio Fear.

It is instantly repellant, but also strangely magnetic. I realize that some large part of me has worked ceaselessly for all the years of my life to never be afraid. To never feel threatened. To feel consistently safe.

And all too often, all too well, like all too many of my fellows, I have succeeded.

But in two short days, the Grand Canyon has taught me that I have also — all too often, all too well, like all too many of my fellows — failed to Live.

After 60 years on Planet Earth, it’s probably about time I did something about that.

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[Photo note: Because of a mistake on my part, the pictures you see here had to come from a variety of sources. I can't swear the locations are all in perfect order.]

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